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Oxyrhynchus: A City and its Texts, Virtual Exhibition: A Millenium of Documents

Quadrilingual Accounts: 13 BC

This little piece was probably one of Petrie’s 1922 purchases at Oxyrhynchus; it was subsequently presented to the Bodleian Library.

The text is described on the back, in an elegant Latin hand, as ‘Accounts of Gaius Calpurnius Ptolemaeus’, but its more precise function seems to have been as a polyglot shopping list. Below the date in Greek in the top line, the second line (also Greek) translates as ‘Things to be bought’. There follow four lines in a still-unidentified script, with columns of figures to the right. After that, four lines in Greek (seemingly listing silk and ivory), with figures to the right that are at least partly non-Greek. Below that, two lines in Latin (loaves, oil) with, to the right, amounts in asses — Roman currency which did not circulate in Egypt. Above to the right in a second column are several lines of Egyptian demotic, also followed by a column of figures.

The Latin script is one of the oldest examples of the language on papyrus. Although the papyrus may have been found at Oxyrhynchus, it seems unlikely that its content concerns Oxyrhynchus in any way. Its cosmopolitan character — a strange language, exotic commodities, unexpected currency units — might suggest a connection with one of the Red Sea ports and the trade with India which passed through them. Such a port might have had a polyglot market where Gaius Calpurnius Ptolemaeus, a soldier in the Roman army perhaps, had to do his shopping.

Published: Proc. 16th Int. Congress of Papyrology (1981) pp.193-7