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The Family Letters of Paniskos

By J.G. Winter

The following letters came from Gerzah, the ancient Philadelphia, in the Fayyum, and were purchased by the University of Michigan in 1923. They belong to the latter part of the third century or the beginning of the fourth and form part of a family archive representing the correspondence of a certain Paniskos with Ploutogenia, his wife, and Aion, his brother, as well as of Ploutogenia with her mother Heliodora.

The special value of a group of family letters lies in the fact that they reveal more completely and distinctly than unrelated individual letters can ever do the character of both writers and recipients. An interesting illustration of this may be found in the well-known family archives in P. Fay. 110-123 and B.G.U., IV, 1203-1209. A letter from a husband to his wife may be filled with the common concerns which the papyri have made abundantly familiar to us-- the details of petty business, various wants, anxieties, commissions and the like-- and as such it has a value which has been recognized by students of history and philology. When, however, we know not only the husband's letter but also his wife's reaction to it we are aware of an added element of humanity. Both husband and wife then stand forth in a new light because we know the one not only directly through his own utterances but also indirectly though the mood of the other.

The chief memebers of his Greek familty reveal themselves, and are revealed, with unusual distinctness. First, althouh perhaps not foremost in the domestic economy, is Paniskos, the husband of Ploutogenia. All his letters seem to have been written during his stay in Upper Egypt, and at least three of them are in close sequence: 1367, 1365, and 1364.

The first of these, 1367, was written at Koptos, the modern Kuft, an important trading-centre below Thebes on the Nile. This letter I regard as the earliest because in it Paniskos takes particular pains to inform his wife where he is, assumes that she will come to him, as soon as he sends for her-- an assumption which proved fallacious-- and bids her in greated detail than elsewhere to bring with her an assortment of food, weapons, and all his clothing. He even adds the prudent counsel: "bring your gold ornaments when you come but do not wear them on the boat." Then, too, there is no reference here to a previous letter and none of the natural vexation which her conduct inspires in 1364 and 1365. From his references to various pieces of armour which he has left behind and to his colleagues and the prefect "across the river" one would conclude that he is a soldier in Upper Egypt, although it seems strange that hew should have left so much of his fit in the Fayyõm. He may, of course, be a small merchant engaged in the armour-trade. His wife and her mother appear to be settled on small farms in Philadelphia.

We think of him as a man approaching, or in, the middle years, frank in thought and speech, and taught by trial to preserve a fair amount of philosophic calm. When Ploutogenia pays no heed to his parting injunction about going to her home, he feels somewhat helplessly grieved about it, remarking rather grimly that he is familiar with the excuse "mother does this." He wants her to come to him but knows that he cannot compel her, although he makes it sufficiently plain that she might write, if not about the journey then at least about herself. He is solicitous for her repute and safety, and sends her money and wool for her own use.

Of his daughter Heliodora, who seems to be his only child-- certainly the only one specifically mentioned as such-- he seems genuinely fond, not only remembering her constantly in his greetings and sending her money for making anklets but also recommending her explicitly to the care of Ploutogenia and of Aion, his brother. Even the mother-in-law, though she seems to have exercised in fact the role commonly found in fiction, shares his salutations in a manner which bears witness to the fine solidarity of family life in ancient Egypt. Such salutations are, to be sure, largely a formula of the period, but in the case of Paniskos they seem to be grounded in sincerity and goodwill. That he is thoughtful of the members of the family is further shown by his desire that Nonnos should travel in the company of good men whien he journeys to Koptos.

In Ploutogenia we find traits which tend to increase our regard for Paniskos. She has independence, resoluteness, and, on occasion, the gift of silence-- admirable qualities when viewed objectively but somewhat irritating when one is at Koptos and expects compliance, consideration, and, above all, replies to repeated letters. She has the habit of doing as she pleases and justifying her course by an excuse whose novelty no longer impressed Paniskos. She certainly has no intention of joining him at Koptos and does not answer his questions on that subject, and even disregards the unusual plea made by the letter-carrier. From a postscript in 1365, and perhaps from 1365, it appears that she did write in regard to armour. To her mother she writes with singular force and directness. After a stay of eight months in Alexandria, during which the daughter has had no letter, remarks sharply, "so you regard me again not as your daugter but as your enemy" and proceeds at once to give directions about pots and pans. Competent, with a will of her own and some acerbity of temper, she doubtless dominated the family circle.

Ploutogenia's daughter Heliodora, named after her maternal grandmother, seems to be still a child but old enough to tend cattle if 1368.11 refers to her. Paniskos sends her money to be turned into anklets and is solicitous for her welfare. Although she seems to have been the only child the family circle is not small. We meet a sister of Ploutogenia whose marriage is alluded to in 1362.16 and the same letter carries salutations to the elder Heliodora's children. At Koptos Ploutogenia has a sister who has children, as well as brothers, of whom Hermias alone is mentioned by name, doubtless because he is journeying with Paniskos. Paniskos has a brother named Aion to whom he writes 1368. Besides these there are others whose degree of relationship is not mentioned: Ata or Atat, who may be an Egyptian neighbour, Papylion, whose armour is twice requested by Paniskos, Nonnos, who has children and is apparently planning a journey to Koptos, Sarapion, Cornelius, and finally Anilla.

Ploutogenia's letter to her mother, written in Alexandria, is in a fairly large, easily flowing cursive which may have been her own, but it is much more likely to have been that of a well-practised letter-writer to whom she dictated.

Paniskos' letters, too, seem to have been dictated. This would explain the error of Protogenia for Ploutogenia in 1369.1, an unpardonable mistake if the husband were himself the writer, and would account also for the spelling of his daughter's name ÑIliodvra for ÑHliodvra in the same letter.

The style of writing, moreover, varies noticeably in his letters. The use of flourishes and the marked separation of words in 1367 set it apart from the rest palaeographically; 1364 and 1369 show individual characteristics which seperate them from each other as well as from the others in the group, but the person who wrote 1365 may also have written 1366 and 1368.

For a complete list of the Letters of Paniskos, click here.

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