The voices of ancient women
The lives of women from former times often go unrecognised. But here at the British Library we hold a number of ancient private letters, written in Greek on papyri, that preserve glimpses of everyday life from a world long disappeared. For International Women’s Day, we are taking a closer look at some of these stories, which contain the intimate voices of ancient women who would otherwise be unknown.
A girl serving drinks at a table, from an illustrated copy of the Life of Secundus, the Silent Philosopher: Egypt, 6th century (Papyrus 113 (15c))
One of the earliest British Library papyri to preserve a woman's voice is a petition from 235 BCE. A mother, Haynchis, wrote to an official, asking for assistance in a dispute involving her daughter. Although probably not written by her, but dictated to a professional scribe, the voice resonating from this document is still vivid.
“Demetrios the vine dresser deceived my daughter and took her away and keeps her hidden saying that he is going to live with her without me. She was managing my store and supported me, since I am old. But he has a wife and children so he cannot live with a woman he deceived. Please help me, an old woman, to return my daughter back to me.”
Haynchis’s letter to Zenon to return her daughter to her: Philadelphia, Egypt, 253 BCE (Papyrus 2660)
Possibly the earliest female hand in the collection is preserved in a letter dated 168 BCE. Isias wrote to her husband, who had been away from his family on temple service, and for some reason had failed to return home.
“You have not even thought about coming home, disregarding that I was in need with your child going through hard times and every extremity … I am ill-pleased and so is your mother, so please both for her sake and for ours, return to the city if nothing more pressing holds you back.”
Isias’s letter to her husband Hephaistion: Memphis, Egypt, 168 BCE (Papyrus 42)
At the very end of the letter, which she probably dictated to a professional scribe, Isias added in her own shaky hand: “Farewell”.
Isias’s hand-written “farewell” (ἔρρωσθε) to her husband from her letter to Hephaistion (Papyrus 42)
One mother from around 250 CE was particularly concerned about her daughter breastfeeding her new-born, so she wrote to her son-in-law to express her views.
I hear that you are compelling my daughter to nurse. If she wants, let the infant have a nurse, for I do not permit my daughter to nurse the baby.”
Unfortunately, the beginning of the papyrus is lost, but the mother's strong-willed character still emerges in the surviving lines.
Letter of a woman to her son-in-law: Egypt, second half of 3rd century (Papyrus 951 verso)
Another mother from around 150 CE addressed her henpecked son:
“I know your quick temper but it is your wife who inflames you when she says all the time that I do not give you anything. When you came, I gave you a little money … but this month I could not find anything.” In the margin she added one final reproach: “Nobody can love you, for she shapes you to her own will”.
“No one can love you, for she shapes you at her own will” Mother’s reproach from the margin of her letter to her son Copres: Arsinoe, Egypt, 2nd century CE (Papyrus 1920)
A more formal letter written by a lady called Aureliana (nicknamed Lolliana) in 253 CE preserves a different voice. She wrote to the local authorities to apply for the legal independence granted to women with three children, in accordance with a Roman law issued by Augustus in 18 BCE. Aureliana’s words still touch us today:
“I enjoy the happy honour of being blessed with three children and as I am a literate woman who can write with a high degree of ease so it is with abundant confidence that I appeal to your highness by this application of mine to be enabled to accomplish without any hindrance whatever business I henceforth transact.”
“I am a literate woman who can write with a high degree of ease”, from Aurelia’s application letter for independence: Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, 253 CE (Papyrus 2458)
Aureliana’s application was preserved with the official archive of her city, and now it is held with other papyri at the British Library, alongside other papyri which preserve the voices of ancient women. If you'd like to find out more about our Greek collections, please visit our dedicated website.
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval