16 November 2021
The archive of Zenon
In the 1910s an exceptional lot of more than 1,800 papyri was unearthed by the ‘sebakhin’ (local diggers searching for decayed mudbricks used as a fertilizer) in the ancient site of Philadelphia in the northeast of the Fayum region, in Egypt. This collection of documents constitutes the richest Greek archive on papyrus hitherto unearthed and dates from the mid-3rd century BC. These papers, collected in ancient times and kept together for more than 2000 years, are today held in different collections around the world. While the vast majority were acquired by the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the rest entered European and American collections, from London and Manchester to Florence and Paris, from Ann Arbor to New York.
These precious survivals have allowed scholars to reconstruct the phases of the career of the owner of these papers: Zenon, son of Agreophon, born around 285 BC and originally from Caunus (modern Dalyan), in ancient Caria (southwest of modern Turkey). Covering a period of some thirty years (261-229 BC), the archive includes private and official letters, accounts, contracts, petitions as well as a few literary texts. Besides dealing with official and business matters, some correspondence from this archive is more personal in tone, providing details on Zenon’s life, family and friends.
The documents reveal that from around 261 BC, Zenon served as a business agent and private secretary of Apollonius, the finance minister (dioiketes) of the country, advisor to King Ptolemy II Philadelphus (reigned 285 BC – 246 BC). In the first phase of his career, Zenon was travelling as a representative of Apollonius to Palestine, which at that time was under the control of Ptolemy.
Apollonius also owned property in Palestine. In a letter from May 257 BC (Papyrus 2661), addressed to the finance minister himself, one of his agents reported that his Palestinian estate was being well cultivated under the management of his local agent, Melas, and the vines amounted to 80,000. The agent even tasted the wine, but could hardly say whether it was Chian wine (one of the most prized wines in classical antiquity) or a local one. He concluded: ‘So your affairs are prospering, and fortune is favouring you in everything’.
In the spring of 258 BC, Zenon returned to Egypt and travelled on a few occasions on inspection tours around the Nile Delta. Following a long and apparently serious illness, from which he recovered sometime in 256 BC, Zenon settled down in Philadelphia and became overseer of Apollonius’ large estate (c. 2750 hectars!). Ptolemy II had gifted the estate to Apollonius in the winter of 259 BC, and Zenon succeeded a certain Panacestor as its manager.
Zenon kept this role until 248 BC, when he was discharged from his duties and focused on managing his own businesses in Philadelphia. Having been engaged in various enterprises over the years, such as money-lending, tax farming and renting of animals, he had now become a wealthy and influential businessman. The number of documents relating to Zenon decreases after 240 BC, and the latest dated text mentioning him is from 229 BC.
With the archive held in various collections worldwide, it is no surprise that even fragments belonging to the same papyrus are now housed at different institutions. However, digitisation and cross-institutional collaboration can help overcome the limits of time and space. For example, a letter from Philinus, a friend of Zenon’s, survives in two fragments, one at the British Library (Papyrus 2351) and one at the papyrus collection of Columbia University's Rare Book & Manuscript Library, in New York (P.Col. IV 114d).
In this letter, Philinus advises Zenon that he has despatched five shields of extraordinary quality: ‘I have sent you the five shields so highly prized by me that not even in Aetolia are there any such.’ The Columbia fragment perfectly joins the British Library portion to the right, containing the ends of the first seven lines of the letter, as shown on the image below.
In another interesting case, a receipt written in duplicate form has ended up in the British Library and in the papyrus collection of the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. Nechthembes, apparently a small contractor employing a group of men for the cultivation of an estate, acknowledges that he received money for twenty workmen for the levelling of a vineyard. The British Library holds the upper receipt (Papyrus 2340), representing the inner text, which was originally rolled up and sealed to serve as the authoritative copy. The seal, in this case not preserved, would usually carry the impression of the man acknowledging receipt of payment. The Michigan fragment (P.Mich.inv. 3151), on the other hand, constitutes the outer text that was left open and visible.
Our Greek papyri cataloguing project, generously sponsored by the American Trust for the British Library, has focused on fragments shared by the British Library and American collections. You can read about two other examples of such joins in our previous blog posts: A letter of recommendation split between two continents and Defying the Emperor. You can also learn more about the Zenon archive on the Trismegistos dedicated page. All the Zenon papyri from the British Library collections have been digitised and catalogued and will be made available on the British Library new IIIF viewer in the coming months.
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