Tryphon’s “Baby’s Gotten Good at Goodbye”: The Components of a Good Country Song Available in the First Century

Those who know me know that I am a sucker for sad, old country songs. And, one of my favorite songs is George Strait’s “Baby’s Gotten Good at Goodbye,” which tells the story of a woman fed up with her husband, so she leaves him, never to return. However, the story narrated in this ballad is not something particular to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, for it is as old as the Graeco-Roman world.

For example, take note of the following complaint from the Oxyrhynchus papyri dated c. 30-35 CE, which is a petition from a man named Tryphon concerning his estranged wife, Demetrous.

“To Alexandrus, strategus, from Tryphon, son of Dionysius, of the city of Oxyrhynchus. I married Demetrous, daughter of Heraclides, and I for my part provided for my wife in a manner that exceeded my resources. But she became dissatisfied with our union, and finally left the house carrying off property belonging to me a list of which is added below. I beg, therefore, that she be brought before you in order that she may receive her deserts, and return to me my property. This petition is without prejudice to the other claims which I have or may have against her. The stolen articles are: . . .” (P.Oxy 282; Grenfield and Hunt, p. 272-73). 

Picture of P.Oxy 282. Taken from http://brbl-media.library.yale.edu/papyrimg/S4183834.JPG

A few things are fascinating about this papyrus. First, like a good country song, Tryphon claims that his wife Demetrous made them live above their means (“a manner that exceeded my resources”), that she left him because she was fed up (“she became dissatisfied with our union”), and that she absconded with some of his goods (“[she] left the house carrying off property belonging to me”)! 

Second, this papyrus is evidence that our understanding of the Graeco-Roman world as patriarchal must be nuanced. We cannot force our modern conception of what patriarchy means back onto the ancient world and assume that women were suppressed and had no rights. If we let the evidence of material culture from the Graeco-Roman world talk, we can observe that from this papyrus Demetrous had the right to leave her husband. Moreover, Tryphon could neither MAKE his wife return his goods nor return to their marriage. This explains why he drafted the complaint in the first place. As a result, it seems that not only in the Graeco-Roman world were women businesswomen and thieves  (see a previous post), but also, and specifically in the first century CE, they had the right, at least in Egypt, to leave their husbands and even abscond with some of their goods. In response, all a husband could do was complain, and maybe write what would be considered a great country song. 

Finally, the picture painted by this papyrus also shines light on a comment made by Jesus of Nazareth around the exact same time as our papyrus was written, i.e., 30-35 CE. According to Mark’s Gospel, as Jesus discussed the topic of marriage and divorce with his disciples, he noted that women had the right to divorce their husbands: “He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery‘” (Mark 10.11b-12).

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