A Gift of One Eunuch and Four Slave Boys: P.Cair.Zen. I 59076 and Historical Construction

In: Journal for the Study of Judaism
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  • 1 Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia
  • 2 Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia
  • 3 Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia

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P.Cair.Zen. I 59076 is a letter sent by Toubias, the head of an influential Jewish family in the Transjordan, to Apollonios, an important official of the Ptolemaic king. It concerns the dispatch of a eunuch and four boys to him. The article focuses on the role of the eunuch. It critiques the accepted view that he was the boys’ tutor arguing instead that he was of value in his own right as a personal attendant in an elite household. The role of eunuchs more generally is discussed to bolster the argument. If correct, there must have been a perceived demand for such persons in royal and elite households. This in turn has implications for the possible fate of the four boys, who are all prepubescent. Though the papyrus illustrates the means by which the Tobiad family was able to maintain its powerful position in the Ptolemaic territory of Coele-Syria, the article highlights two responsibilities of modern historiography, both to appreciate the great worth of the Zenon archive and to carefully remember the marginalized of antiquity.

  • 2

    Martin Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism: Studies in their Encounter in Palestine during the Early Hellenistic Period (trans. J. Bowden; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), 43.

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  • 3

    Elias J. Bickerman, The Jews in the Greek Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 86.

  • 8

    Reinhard Scholl, Sklaverei in den Zenon papyri: Eine Untersuchung zu den Sklaventermini, zum Sklavenerwerb und zur Sklavenflucht (Trierer Historische Forschungen 4; Trier: Kliomedia Verlag, 1983), 100-105.

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  • 10

    Scholl, Sklaverei, 100-105. The restoration of µαθητικά and the assumption that the eunuch was the boys’ teacher is also accepted by Joachim Hengstl et al., eds., Griechische Papyri aus Aegypten: als Zeugnisse des öffentlichen und privaten Lebens (Munich: Darmstadt, 1978), 295-98; and more recently by Xavier Durand, Des Grecs en Palestine au IIIe siècle avant Jésus-Christ: le Dossier syrien des archives de Zénon de Caunos (CahRB 38; Paris: Gabalda, 1997), 184-88. It is perhaps telling of the merit of this claim to note that Tcherikover rejects a reading of µαθητικά in favor of οἰκετικά, yet still chooses to designate the eunuch as the boys’ “instructor” (cf. Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum, 125-27). One must wonder how such a conclusion may have been reached, considering the eunuch’s complete lack of description.

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  • 11

    Scholl, Sklaverei, 100-105; Durand, Des Grecs en Palestine, 184-88.

  • 12

    Harper, “Commercial Relations,” 16.

  • 13

    Hengstl, Griechische Papyri, 295-98.

  • 20

    See Stephen R. Llewelyn, “The Government’s Pursuit of Runaway Slaves,” in New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity: A Review of the Greek Inscriptions and Papyri Published in 1984-85 (ed. Stephen R. Llewelyn; vol. 8 of NewDocs, ed. Stephen R. Llewelyn; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 9-25 and Mladen Popović, Reading the Human Body: Physiognomics and Astrology in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Hellenistic-Early Roman Period Judaism(Leiden: Brill, 2007), 249.

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  • 26

    Peter Guyot, Eunuchen als Sklaven und Freigelassene in der griechisch-römischen Antike (Stuttgarter Beiträge zur Geschichte und Politik 14; Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1980), 67-68.

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  • 27

    Reinhard Scholl, “Alexander der Große und die Sklaverei am Hofe,” Klio 69 (1987): 108-21.

  • 28

    Guyot, Eunuchen als Sklaven, 93-94; he notes, however, that the eunuch never reached the same level of power and influence under Alexander as they had in the court of the later Persian kings.

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  • 30

    Ibid., 41. See also Guyot, “Eunuchs,” in Brill’s New Pauly 5:172-74: “keeping slaves always meant prestige for the master; eunuchs who were particularly rare and expensive slaves attested to the particularly high social prestige of the owner. That is why in Athens we first find eunuchs as luxury slaves in the private houses of Callias (Pl. Prt. 314c) while in Rome they are first found at the house of Maecenas (Sen. Ep. 114,6).”

  • 32

    See especially Orlando Paterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), 5: “Not only was the slave denied all claims on, and obligations to, his parents and living blood relations but, by extension, all such claims and obligations on his more remote ancestors and on his descendants. He was truly a genealogical isolate. Formally isolated in his social relations with those who lived, he also was culturally isolated from the social heritage of his ancestors. He had a past, to be sure. But a past is not a heritage. Everything has a history, including sticks and stones. Slaves differed from other human beings in that they were not allowed freely to integrate the experience of their ancestors into their lives, to inform their understanding of social reality with the inherited meanings of their natural forebears, or to anchor the living present in any conscious community of memory. That they reached back for the past, as they reached out for the related living, there can be no doubt. Unlike other persons, doing so meant struggling with and penetrating the iron curtain of the master, his community, his laws, his policemen or patrollers, and his heritage.”

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  • 33

    See ibid., 299-333.

  • 34

    Kathryn M. Ringrose, The Perfect Servant: Eunuchs and the Social Construction of Gender in Byzantium (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 68: “Clearly, castration is the ultimate act of gender construction. Given the ambiguities and negative rhetoric attached to eunuchs, it is fascinating to observe that Byzantine society normalized the castration of children by their parents and the creation of these distinctive individuals. The Byzantine world did not normally practice castration as punishment or as a way of asserting authority over its enemies. Nor did it alter men and boys physically so that they became sex objects—artificial women without women’s liabilities. Instead, it shaped eunuchs into individuals conditioned to function as perfect servants while preserving the asexuality and spirituality of adolescent boys. With rigorous training these eunuchs, freed from the ties of family and sexual desire, could concentrate on performing perfect service.”

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  • 35

    Guyot, Eunuchen als Sklaven, 95-97.

  • 39

    Ibid., 28-36.

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