Evidence of grape theft in Roman Egypt

26th March, 2014 by Rupert Millar

A contract for a security guard on a vineyard in Roman-controlled Egypt over 1,000 years ago has recently been deciphered.

egyptianWritten in Greek on a piece of papyrus from the 4th century AD, the contract has been deciphered by Kyle Hems at the University of Cincinnati and his finding published in The Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists.

According to Live Science, the document is for a man named Flavius to guard a vineyard near the village of Panoouei, “from the present day until vintage and transport, so that there be no negligence, and on the condition that I receive in return for pay for all of the aforementioned time.”

The translation is evidence that the problem of grape theft before harvest is not a modern phenomenon and the guard would also have been employed to chase off animals such as wild pigs, which also like to sample ripe grapes.

Even today stories occasionally circulate of producers sometimes losing whole crops just before harvest either to thieves or marauding fauna.

In his findings, Hems also writes of stone walls and small watchtowers being employed to keep out undesirables as well as one account of another guard being beaten up by “violent and rapacious criminals” as he attempted to stop them stealing his master’s grapes.

The scrap of papyrus was found in the collection of the University of Michigan where it had been lying, forgotten, for around a century.

Well over 1,000 years old, it was written when Egypt was ruled by the Eastern Roman Empire – soon to become the Byzantine Empire as the Western half fell into decline.

Hems explained that it is not clear how much this Flavius would have been paid (as the papyrus fragment is incomplete), who his employer was nor where Panoouei once was.

The Nile has changed its course many times over the years and many ancient towns and villages have been deserted and buried by the shifting sands.

Furthermore, the length of the Nile was once dotted with vineyards so Panoouei might be anywhere between the delta and the old city of Elephantine a few hundred miles away.

Other recent translations in the latest bulletin include an Egyptian soldier serving in a Roman legion in modern Hungary some 1,800 years ago complaining about the weather and some writing from one of the men who helped design the Great Pyramid 4,500 years ago.

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