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  • The Oldest Record of an Escaped Slave? November 25, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

    ptolemaic slave

    Consider this record reporting an escaped slave named Hermon or alternatively Nilus.

    About 18 years old, of medium stature, beardless, with good legs, a dimple on the chin, a mole by the left side of the nose, a scar above the left corner of the mouth, tattooed on the right wrist with two barbarian letters. He has taken with him three golden coins, ten pearls, an iron ring on which an oil flask and strigils are represented, and is wearing a cloak and a loincloth. Whoever brings back this slave shall receive 3 weights of copper. If he points him out in a shrine, 2 weights of copper. If he points him out in the household of a substantial and actionable man, 5 weights of copper.

    This record was written not in the southern states in the nineteenth century, but in the second century B.C. in Ptolemaic Egypt: Hermon made a run for it in Alexandria from his master an ambassador. The record survived because the relevant piece of papyrus was buried in the history-friendly sands of Egypt. Hermon was, according to the rest of the text, a Syrian, the barbrian letters may have been Syriac then? The weights of copper are talents. The man who gets three talents for restoring him is straightforward. The shrine is a reference to the Mediterranean custom of slaves taking refuge in temple sanctuaries. The household of a substantial man refers to the fact that Hermon might try and enter another slave household, as escape out of Egypt or Alexandria for that matter would be impractical. Knowing the Ptolemaic courts a little Hermon’s fate would then become an arm wrestle between two Greco-Egyptian magnates. Power not justice would count.

    Hermon had escaped with another (friend, lover, chance companion?):

    Bion, a slave of Callicrates, one of the chief stewards at court, short of stature, broad at the shoulders, stout-legged, bright-eyed, who has gone off with an outer garment and a slave’s wrap and a woman’s dress worth 6 talents 5000 drachmae.

    The physical description is much more effective in the case of Hermon: ‘bright eyed’?! Still there is a novel in this.

    What could Hermon and Bion expect if they were caught? Well, they would probably survive though likely with brands and amputated limbs. As Classicist Robert Garland noted, ‘I sincerely hope Hermon evaded his captors.’ Beach seconds this and wishes Bion luck too.

    Any earlier records of individual escaped slaves (general clauses in law codes are rather different) drbeachcombing At yahoo DOT com