Retiring in Red
Unveiling the Story of a Veteran Roman Soldier through Scarlet Letters
Olivier Bonnerot and Leah Mascia
It is November of the year 103 CE in the Fayyum oasis in Middle Egypt. The setting is perhaps the porch of an official building or the portico of a temple in one of the settlements of the region (the precise location of the scene is not mentioned – as is typical of Roman bureaucratic procedures.) An official of the Roman army is checking the documents of a man in his mid-forties. One of these documents, which we can still imagine in this officer’s hands almost two thousand years later, is now kept at the Hamburg State and University Library. The papyrus P.Hamb.graec. 294 is written in an ink with an unexpected colour, but this is just one of the many aspects that make this written artefact so interesting. Why did the scribe select this unusual ink? What was the purpose of this document?
The manuscript P.Hamb.graec. 294, reached the city of Hamburg in the early twentieth century after having been purchased with other papyri in Egypt a few years earlier. Unfortunately, we do not know precisely when or where our document was found. However, its content suggests that it was discovered among the ruins of one of the ancient settlements of the Fayyum oasis in the Western Desert. It measures 17.5 × 15.5 cm, but as we can see by looking at the object, it is only a fragment of what was formerly a much larger written artefact (Fig. 1). Vertical lines on the manuscript’s surface suggest it was originally folded to keep the content confidential. The continuous folding and unfolding of the document might explain the presence of some of the cracks along these lines. On the other hand, the holes visible on the manuscript’s surface have probably been caused by insects in the centuries during which it was abandoned in the desert.
The main text is written in red ink, while a short note scribbled on the other side of the papyrus is written in black ink; this note summarises the content of the official document (Fig. 1, right-hand side). The document certifies the civil status of a middle-aged man, Lucius Cornelius Antas, a former soldier who served in the Augustan Ala, an auxiliary unit of the Roman army stationed in Egypt during the first and early second century CE. This document was part of the epikrisis procedure, a judicial practice introduced by the Romans for male citizens who had reached the age of fourteen. This process was indispensable if one was to become a member of a privileged class freed from various civil duties. For retired soldiers like Lucius, the epikrisis procedure granted him veteran status and the rights associated with it. If the process went well, these former soldiers could settle in the place of their choice together with their families and be exempted from the payment of the poll tax (tributum capitis).
Although the papyrus records a procedure introduced by the Romans, the text is written in Greek since this was the administrative language used in Egypt following the conquest of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE. We know when the document was transcribed thanks to a statement in the first paragraph where the text is declared to have been copied ‘in the year 7 of the divine Trajan’, namely the year 103 CE. This dating system related directly to the years in which a Roman emperor reigned was used in Egypt and all other territories of the empire.
A close examination of the text reveals several elements that help us to understand how this document was produced. The handwriting suggests that whoever wrote the document was a professional scribe working for the Roman administration. Nevertheless, the first section of our text is rather untidy (Fig. 2), a feature which might be explained by the writer’s needing time to find a comfortable position in which to write. Furthermore, the many and varying shades of red found in the text suggest that the scribe repeatedly dipped the calamus – the writing instrument used in Antiquity, generally made of reed – into the inkwell (Fig. 3). The red ink has been identified as red ochre, a red pigment mainly composed of hematite (iron oxide, Fig. 4) and widely used since the Pharaonic period. The black summary note was penned with a pure carbon ink, which was commonly used in ancient times until it was replaced by iron-gall ink in Late Antiquity. The elemental map of iron concentration (Fig. 2, right-hand side) shows the chromatic differences of the red ink – largely due to the production process of this document – very clearly, especially the contrast between line four and the rest of the text. On this line, we see the name Cornelius Proculus, the official who supervised the procedure involved in preparing Lucius Cornelius Antas’ document. As well as offering information about the way in which our scribe wrote the text, these changes in the red colour palette may well indicate that the document was prepared beforehand and the officer’s name added at the end.
The fact that – apart from the summary note – the whole text is penned in red ink is intriguing. Greek documents written with red ink are rare. Normally, red was only used in Roman Egypt to write magical texts and liturgical compositions in the Egyptian language. Administrative documents from Roman Egypt were mostly written in black, in the Fayyum oasis as in the rest of the country. However, today there are some fifty Greek documents written in red. Curiously, most of them come from the region where our papyrus was found and have a similar chronology. The fact that these red-ink documents were predominantly found in the Fayyum, seems to suggest that the procedure was introduced by imperial officers serving in this area. It is possible that this colour was chosen to highlight the official status of specific types of documents, such as personal certificates and contracts.
Our text, despite its short length, reveals part of the procedure followed by Lucius to prove his civil status. According to the document, the former soldier presented a bronze tablet to the Roman authorities, which certified that he had fulfilled his military duties. The passage in our text that describes the official presentation of this metal object is an explicit reference to a practice known throughout the provinces of the Roman Empire. Indeed, the tablet probably featured a military diploma (Fig. 5), which was a document certifying that the holder had been honourably discharged and/or granted Roman citizenship in exchange for his services. Hundreds of such documents have been found in the various provinces of the empire, from Roman Britain to Cappadocia. Textual and archaeological evidence suggests that military diplomas were often deposited in temples. Perhaps Lucius’ tablet was also displayed in a temple since our document mentions that part of the administrative procedure took place in the local sanctuary of Castor and Pollux. The procedure supervised by Cornelius Proculus was finalised when three companions of Lucius – Claudius, Egnatius, and Julius, mentioned at the end of the document – were called on to confirm the identity of our newly retired man. Following this, the Roman officer probably asked one of the scribes to write an official certificate while another prepared the copy in red ink that Lucius could keep in his private archive. This copy is the only document of this procedure that has survived.
P.Hamb.graec. 294 is a rare testimony to the practice of using red ink to write administrative documents in the imperial Roman army. Without the document submitted by Lucius Cornelius Antas, which, like a few others, survived by chance, this scribal practice would have remained unknown to us. Furthermore, the text provides new insights into how various written artefacts, such as metal military diplomas, were used in this ancient administrative procedure. Despite the precious information contained in this papyrus, much of the life of the veteran Lucius, who for decades served with honour in the Roman army, is lost. At the very least, the document suggests that, at the end of his long service, Lucius was able to enjoy his well-deserved retirement and live the rest of his life in this thriving Egyptian oasis.
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Location: Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg
Shelfmark: P.Hamb.graec. 294 (Published as P.Hamb. I 31)
Date: 103 CE
Material: Red ochre and Carbon ink on papyrus
Size: 17.5 × 15.5 cm
Provenance: Fayyum oasis, Middle Egypt
Ink analysis carried out at the laboratory of the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC) by Olivier Bonnerot.
© Hamburg State and University Library (Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg Carl von Ossietzky), Germany.
Olivier Bonnerot, Leah Mascia, Retiring in Red: Unveiling the Story of a Veteran Roman Soldier through Scarlet Letters. In Leah Mascia, Karin Becker (eds): Artefact of the Month No. 28, CSMC, Hamburg.