A “travel blog” of the fourth century AD. The journey of Theophanes through Egypt and Syria.

Cristina Corsi (Università degli Studi di Cassino e del Lazio meridionale)

The sands of Egypt have preserved an astonishing quantity of private documents that represent for us an irreplaceable occasion to peep into the life of people with different social and cultural origins, engaged in daily routine as well as in once-in-a-lifetime enterprises.

This is the case of Theophanes, a high Roman official who lived in the Egyptian town of Hermopolis, in the province of Thebaid. Combining the information extracted from the huge dossier of fragmentary papyri related to Theophanes’ activities, the files of his accountants, the financial and tax records, the household inventories and other memoranda, petitions and personal documents, the many letters addressed to him or sent by his office, we can define Theophanes a scholasticus, i.e. a practicing lawyer (fig. 1). He was undoubtedly a leading citizen of Hermopolis, a wealthy owner who occasionally played a public role.

fig-1
fig. 1 One of the letters address to Theophanes from the papyrological archive. The University of Manchester Library Image collection (http://enriqueta.man.ac.uk/luna/servlet/detail/ManchesterDev~93~3~54036~100847:Letter-from-Hermodorus-to-Theophane)

Around the year AD 320, he was charged by one or more institutions or lobbies to make a case or to support a plead in an office or an administration in Antioch in Syria.

The suggestion to undertake this mission was given in a preserved letter by Philippus, allegedly governor of one of the Egyptian provinces. Theophanes, provided by at least two recommendation letters, signed by Vitalis, the chief financial officer of Egypt, is addressed to the officium (bureau) of Dyscolius, the prefect’s deputy of the Diocese of Oriens.

It is important to notice that in one of the letters written by Vitalis in Latin, it is clearly stated that Theophanes’ mission was not, or at least only partially, subsidised by the authorities (literally, the travel is undertaken “quodammodo sine ratione”), showing that even if he represented some official authority he was not staff of Vitalis’ office. He rather acted “as a spokesman for his city or province, chosen for its prestige and connections to represent his constituents before the imperial authorities” (Matthews 2006, 39), probably performing this enterprise as a public service to the community. As Theophanes lacked an expenses account, it is easily understandable why he scrupulously kept the record of the costs of his journey.

Indeed, the uniqueness of the latter, compared to the thousands of the kind undertaken by men who enjoyed equal esteem and respect, is that the dryness of Egypt kept for more than 1600 years the account books of the expenses incurred by Theophanes and his party in the course of the whole outbound and inbound journey, including the long period of their stay in Antioch. These more than 1500 lines of Greek text, notwithstanding some interpretative cruces, constitute an exceptional document, which discloses many aspects of social history, revealing valuable information on the modalities of travel, living costs and rates, life of small and larger communities, social habits, religion, diet and many other issues.

As anticipated, the most renown part of Theophanes’ papyrological archive is the travel memorandum, which can be divided in four main parts: the preparations for departure, the outward journey from Hermopolis to Antioch, including a complete itinerary from Nikiu in the Nile delta to the Syrian capital, the period of almost three months during which Theophanes and his party stayed at Antioch, and the journey back home, all taken together more than six months of a calendar year.

Before getting into the discussion, we can comment on the nature of some frustules, that were originally connected to the papyri explicitly dealing with the account book of the costs of the journey.

It is a long list of items, which until recently has been thought to be the description of the “travel kit”, a list of clothes, linen and other upholstery (rigs, blankets, towels, pillows, etc.), toiletries and utensils packed before leaving the house premises. This interpretation has been questioned by John Matthews (2006), who contended that philological and practical arguments induce to consider this list as an inventory of households, likely from the same Theophanes proprieties.

It is indeed a long list of diverse items, which brought commentators to argue that Theophanes carried around a real “miniature household” (Casson 1974), and that the wardrobe was so extensive that Theophanes can be regarded as “something of a dandy” (Roberts 1952, 117). Effectively, some duplications appear, really exceeding the reasonable load of a caravan as it was preparing to cross the desert. For instance, it sounds superfluous and wasteful to load both a hanging lamp and a lamp stand, in addition to other pieces of furniture such as the two footstools.

However, in spite of the impracticality and unreasonableness of such a load, analysing the details of the modalities of travel of Theophanes party, it is evident that in several occasions the group “camped” in the desert, therefore making good use of the provisioning of utensils, pots and pans, and materials for the setting up of comfortable couches, not to talk about the wood for the fire and obviously the food and drink supplies. Furthermore, it is likely that in Antioch the group stayed over in a sort of rented house for three months, making it clear why so many household items to furbish and equip it were needed.

The group stayed over in Babylon too, for at least 13 days. Clearly Theophanes had to settle some business there. Alas, there are not details about the type of lodging rented for this stay. As no expenditures are recorded in this period for lodging, likely the group was hosted at friends or partners, even if we cannot exclude a sort of hosting at expenses of the community, as shown in several sources, mentioning praetoria and mansiones managed and staffed pecunia publica. It is also understandable that, as the modalities of travel implied that Theophanes put up with friends or family whenever he could, inevitably there were gifts to squeeze into bags.

The registration of the figures is meticulous and naïve at the same time, poignant when it records the huge difference between the costs incurred for the luxuries of Theophanes and of his guests or the money spent to entertain officials of the governor, and the “discount” products that are bought for feeding the servants. As the minutes were kept by a sort of secretary of Theophanes – but Theophanes was most probably the person that would have made use of this book – the entries of the budget are differentiated between expenditures incurred “for you”, the master, and “for us”, the servants.

Some of Theophanes’s expenses are not directly related with the costs of the transfer or lodging of the group, but rather with treats he conceded himself, such as staying one night longer in Ascalon to be able to go to the theatre and odeion, or buying an expensive hat in Pelusium, and souvenirs like the wine-jar in the form of Silenus bought when homeward bound (fig. 2). In a couple of occasions he allowed himself to the baths, for which an important sum is devoted to buy a special soap (fig. 3). He was also careful in not neglecting his duties towards the gods, and some money was spent on offering.

Fig. 2: Vase with the shape of Silenus, fifth century BC. http://ceramicheitalia.altervista.org/ceramiche-di-lusso/
Fig. 2: Vase with the shape of Silenus, fifth century BC. http://ceramicheitalia.altervista.org/ceramiche-di-lusso/

The first stretch of the trip is likely covered by boat: the first stop is Babylon, where some expenses are recorded to pay meals and wine “on the boat”, the latter a sort of gratuity offered to some sailors, probably the crew of the boat that was sailing back to Hermopolis after bringing him and his party to Babylon.

The rest of the journey is made overland: probably going down the road connecting Nikiu to Antioch at Athribis, the party travelled for 25 days, covering an average distance of 32 miles a day, more than 6 hours on the road, if we accept the distance of 5 miles per hour covered by mount. However, the distance between overnight stops ranges from a minimum of 16 to the respectful distance of 45 miles in a day, once to the strenuous record of 64 miles that Theophanes alone seems to have covered during the last stretch from Laodicea to Antioch, while the rest of the group progressed slower, likely delayed by the load.

The estimation of an average speed of 5 miles/hour is anyway optimistic, as it is clear that in the course of each day the group stopped several times, to take refreshments and possibly to change the animals. Furthermore, if we accept that Theophanes and his staff were provided with the passes that would have awarded them all the right to make use of the animals of the cursus publicus and of the hostels to overnight for free, we have to expect some time wasted in the administrative procedures of the document check, not to talk about the loading and unloading operations, that could have been simplified by the fact that the goods were loaded on the same vehicle(s) attached to fresh animals at each road station.

Which are then the reasons behind this fluctuating pace? There might be several: the weather conditions, the harshness of specific stretches of road, some difficulties encountered in the negotiations with the staff of the way-stations, the need to shop for provisioning of food and drink, some health or tiredness issues.

Theophanes didn’t seem concerned about the progress of the journey though, at least not until the last day, when in Laodicea he was collected by a small patrol of Sarmatian soldiers, who escorted him until his final destination, Antioch, apparently covering the amazing distance of 64 miles in a day, while the rest of his party travelled at a normal daily speed, arriving in Antioch two days later. This occurrence, inferred from the entry in the registry of the payment of the worthy sum of 900 drachmas as gratuity to the six soldiers, would need further investigation.

Fig. 3: Yakto (Daphne, Syria). Segment of the mosaic framing the emblema di Megalopsychia with the scene of the thermal baths of Ardabourios. http://wwwbisanzioit.blogspot.it/2016/04/antiochia-sulloronte.html
Fig. 3: Yakto (Daphne, Syria). Segment of the mosaic framing the emblema di Megalopsychia with the scene of the thermal baths of Ardabourios.
http://wwwbisanzioit.blogspot.it/2016/04/antiochia-sulloronte.html

Indeed, it is not clear why Theophanes would have needed an escort only for this part of the trip, nor why the party had to be split, if not by an urgency popped up in the last minute, the need on the side of Theophanes to attend some meeting in Antioch earlier than expected. Otherwise, it can still be accepted that the plan was that Theophanes would have preceded the rest of his staff, with a minimum load, in Antioch, taking his time to scout for a suitable lodging for the long stay ahead, where the others would have joined him with the equipment. But in that case, it is not clear why he did need this escort, whether the squad of soldiers was sent to pick him up, or this is a privilege accorded to him by virtue of his reputation and role.

As the secretary didn’t record the expenses for lodging nor for renting or foddering the animals (but once, during the return journey, infra), it is likely that Theophanes was awarded the evectio, the right to make free use of the animals and the infrastructures of the cursus publicus, even if the party had to pay for meals. Judging from the distance that the group covered each day, it is in fact clear that they made use of horses and probably carriages. However, if we accept that the initial part of the archive contained a list of items that were packed for the trip, we have to admit that the change of mount made at the way-stations was surprisingly fast and efficient, and the convoy proceeded at a fast pace if pack or draught animals were employed.

Combining several bits of information spread in the papyri, we can assess that the party is composed of a total of 8-10 persons, probably divided in two carriages, or a bigger vehicle and several people mounted on horses or mules. But several questions remain open. As the secretary never accounts for expenditure on lodgings, do we have to infer that the whole group was hosted at public expenses? And what about the long stay in Antioch and Babylon?

As discussed above, the fact that there are no entries recording expenditures for renting the lodging induces to hypothesise that the party was hosted in a private mansion or public hostel. The regular purchase of food and firewood for cooking infers that the servants regularly cooked the meals for the whole group.

The firewood was also occasionally bought during the trip, confirming that in a few occasions, they camped in the desert for the night. This occurrence is confirmed by the fact that larger quantities of supplies are bought before leaving. This could explain also the expenditures for foddering the animals: the party must have been obliged to stop over at way-stations where they could not have been awarded the evectio, and therefore all the services had to be paid for.

Indeed, the return itinerary is different in the stretch between Pelusium and Babylon via Heliopolis. We can only hypothesise that some environmental factors (the flood of the Nile?) had made some stretches of the road trackless. On the other hand, the record of the homebound journey is richer of details, showing us that Theophanes’ budget was now and then used to treat friends or fellow travellers.

Actually, when tackled from the more technical point of view of the modalities of transfer, the travel diary of Theophanes seems to pose more questions than provide answers.

Considering that this document has been used to infer general notions about the functioning of the imperial system supervising transfer of people and goods in the whole of the Empire, we should be more prudent in drawing conclusions and generate factoids which are very difficult to eradicate from literature, once they have been uncritically accepted and endlessly repeated.

One point stays: even if this bunch of papyri cannot be fully compared with a modern travel blog, full of personal impressions, commenting on the perceptions of events, landscapes and circumstances rather than keeping the record of the costs incurred for the trip, it is undeniable that the practicalities of a journey filter through the figures and the entries.

In the budget of Theophanes’ secretary we see with our own eyes the tangible aspects of this extraordinary journey, the preparations and the inconveniences, the routine (the provisioning of food, the visits to the baths, the different setting of the table for the master and the servants, the business meetings and the entertainment with friends, partners and other notables, the worshipping of the gods, the shopping, etc.) in the unusual framework of long absence from home.

In this type of document, buried under the sand quite soon after the drying of the ink dripping from the stylus of Theophanes’ secretary, we do not get the distorted perspective of the poet who, like Horace, tries to impress his audience and manage to get a smile out of his readers or, like Rutilius Namatianus, aims at inspiring melancholy. We do not know about the ups and downs of a typical journey, the traveller’s tummy, the fatigue and the stress, the amusements and the amazement, the expectations and the disappointments.

The genuineness and the straightness of those notes stay, however, as an unfading memory of that journey, something that the sand dunes of the desert of Egypt have passed down to posterity against the perishability of contemporary blogs, burned out and turned outdated in few hours.

Essential references

Adams C., There and back again. Getting around in Roman Egypt, in C. Adams, R. Laurence (eds.), Travel and geography in the Roman Empire, London, 2001, p. 138-166.

Caldell H., Les archives de Théophane d’Hermoupolis. Documents pour l’histoire, in L. Criscuolo, G. Geraci (eds.), Egitto e storia antica dall’Ellenismo all’Età Araba, Bologna, 1989, p. 315-323.

Casson L., Travel in the ancient world, London, 1974.

Cauderlier P., Des bords du Nil à ceux de l’Oronte: le voyage d’Hermoupolis à Antioche du fonctionnaire Théophanès, vers 320 de notre ère, in La route: mythes et réalités antiques. Actes du colloque organisé par l’ARELAD dans le cadre de la MAFPEN, Dijon, 1991, p. 87-104.

MacMullen R., Imperial bureaucrats in the Roman Provinces, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 68, 1964, p. 305-16.

Matthews J., The Journey of Theophanes: Travel, Business, and Daily Life in the Roman East, New Haven, 2006.

Moscadi A., Le lettere dell’archivio di Teofane, Aegyptus, 50, 1970, p. 88-154.

Rees B.R., Papyri from Hermopolis and Other Documents of the Byzantine Period, London, 1964, p. 2-12, n. 2-6.

Rees B.R., Theophanes of Hermopolis Magna, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library Manchester, 51, 1968, pp. 164-183.

Roberts C.H., Catalogue of the Greek and Latin Papyri in the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester, IV, Manchester 1952, n. 616-651.


Cristina Corsi

– la formation et la transformation de l’espace dans les civilisations anciennes: les dynamiques du peuplement, la formation et la transformation des villes, la continuité et la discontinuité entre les sociétés classiques et les structures de l’espace ancien de l’antiquité tardive et de l’époque médiévale;
– Le processus de romanisation dans différents contextes méditerranéens;
– Les routes, les réseaux de communication et les modalités de voyage dans les périodes romaines, de l’antiquité tardive et médiévales;
– Les méthodologies et les bonnes pratiques dans les diagnostics archéologiques;
-Fouilles et prospections réalisées dans la ville romaine d’Ammaia en Lusitanie.

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Auteur : Cristina Corsi

– la formation et la transformation de l’espace dans les civilisations anciennes: les dynamiques du peuplement, la formation et la transformation des villes, la continuité et la discontinuité entre les sociétés classiques et les structures de l’espace ancien de l’antiquité tardive et de l’époque médiévale;
– Le processus de romanisation dans différents contextes méditerranéens;
– Les routes, les réseaux de communication et les modalités de voyage dans les périodes romaines, de l’antiquité tardive et médiévales;
– Les méthodologies et les bonnes pratiques dans les diagnostics archéologiques;
-Fouilles et prospections réalisées dans la ville romaine d’Ammaia en Lusitanie.

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