Sunday, January 19, 2020

Chaerammon the Literate Slave

While reading through a work on the documentary papyri, I came across a citation from a contract that dates to 1 March 155 CE (Lewis, 136).

Panechotes also called Panares, ex-cosmetes of Oxyrhynchus, through his friend Gemellus, to Apollonius, writer of shorthand, greeting. I have placed with you my slave Chaerammon to be taught the signs which your son Dionysius knows, for a period of two years dating from the present month Phamenoth of the 18th year of Antoninus Caesar the lord at the salary agreed upon between us, 120 silver drachmae, not including feast-days; of which sum you have received the first instalment amounting to 40 drachmae, and you will receive the second instalment consisting of 40 drachmae when the boy has learnt the whole system, and the third you will receive at the end of the period when the boy writes fluently in every respect and reads faultlessly, viz. the remaining 40 drachmae. If you make him perfect within the period, I will not wait for the aforesaid limit; but it is not lawful for me to take the boy away before the end of the period, and he shall remain with you after the expiration of it for as many days or months as he may have done no work. The 18th year of the Emperor Caesar Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius, Phamenoth 5. (P.Oxy 4.724)

This papyrus tells us that a slave owner, Panechotes, worked out a contract with a local artisan, Apollonius, skilled in writing short hand. The contract agreed to have Panechotes's slave Chaerammon apprenticed to Apollonius for two years for the purpose of learning the skill of writing short hand. There are two stipulations of the contract that each party was responsible for;
1) Apollonius would receive his pay in three installments, at the beginning, when Chaerammon "learned the whole system" (presumably the shorthand system), and when the "boy writes fluently in every respect and reads faultlessly";
2) Panechotes was to leave his slave there for a certain amount of time, even if Chaerammon learned quickly so that he could fulfill an expected level of work for Apollonius.

This papyrus helps us to understand that literacy levels did not follow social classes. Here we have a slave that would potentially be a highly skilled scribal artisan, yet held no social status. This is in stark contrast to Petaus who was a village scribe and held some type of official clerical post yet could barely write his own name! (See P.Petaus 121). In the context of the early Church, I find it intriguing to think that a slave like Chaerammon, if they were Christian, could have been in a position to copy out scriptural books for a local Christian community. 

Grenfell, Bernard P., and Arthur S. Hunt.
The Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Vol. 4. (London: Egypt Exploration Fund, 1904); 204-205

Lewis, Naphtali.
Life in Egypt Under Roman Rule. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999.


  1. There's so much more we need to know about literacy in this period. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks g0thamite, your welcome. I agree, there is still so much that we don't know. Despite this, there seems to be a common tendency for modern readers of the New Testament to think that because apostles and early Christians were more from the middld and lower classes they had low or absent literacy and could neither read or copy out the scriptures.