Dr Garrett Ryan, “A Murder Mystery in Roman Egypt” (Told In Stone, 24 November 2021)
This entertaining little documentary is actually less a whodunnit tale and more an exploration of an aspect of Roman rule over Egypt during the Classical Era. As narrator Dr Ryan drily notes, Egypt was Roman for 600 years yet in many ways this region was distinct from the rest of the Roman Empire due to (as Ryan adds) its isolation from other Roman-ruled areas, its huge wealth and its unique history and cultural legacy at the time. For us moderns, another distinct aspect of Roman Egypt is that, compared to other parts of the Roman Empire, the province bequeathed an enormous wealth of papyrus documents ranging from literary works to taxation receipts thanks in no small part to its physical geography which favours the preservation of papyrus and thus the preservation of archived documents. Not to mention of course, Roman Egyptian citizens’ propensity to safeguard items and documents they considered valuable from the eyes and hands of thieves and robbers!
Many of the preserved documents from Roman Egypt feature court cases dealing with the resolution of crimes. The documents show that theft was the most common crime, and that much theft was opportunistic or the result of ongoing personal or family conflicts between the thief and the victim. In one case, a man attended a funeral and when he later went home, he found his house had been stripped bare of all its belongings. Occasionally organised crimes are mentioned and in some cases of organised crime, the local authorities who would have responsible for investigating crime have been paid off by the defendants. Skirmishes between rival villages – perhaps the ancient equivalent of Mafia-style vendettas – are reported. Interestingly, murders seem to be seldom mentioned – but when they are mentioned, they are quite dramatic, even sensational. Among the murder cases Dr Ryan mentions, a powerful Alexandrian city councillor is brought to trial for the murder of a prostitute despite his efforts to intimidate city authorities with his cronies: he comes face to face with the prostitute’s mother in a confrontation and (presumably in an outburst) gives himself away. The man is later executed for his crime. In another case, in the 2nd century CE a man called Artemidorus was mummified and buried: recent CT scanning shows the back of his head was crushed in a way consistent with being hit repeatedly by a blunt instrument.
The eponymous murder mystery is sourced from the transcript of a trial that took place in 6th-century Byzantine Egypt: the transcript itself was pieced together from fragments of papyri found in a pit in 1905 beneath an Egyptian villager’s house when the man was renovating it. Archaeologists investigating the trove of papyrus documents in the pit discovered it had belonged to a lawyer / landowner called Dioskuros. The documents include part of the transcript of the trial. As the rest of the transcript is lost, we cannot know the details of what exactly transpired but the trial revolved around a conspiracy that included bribery and two savage murders of a priest and a villager in the village of Aphrodito. A soldier and an aristocrat were brought to trial over the murders. The soldier apparently denied any involvement in the death of the priest. What transpired later in the trial remains unknown and Ryan speculates that the priest and villager may have been killed because they knew too much about a scheme, possibly of embezzlement, being hatched by people who may have been the defendants in the trial.
Illustrated with vivid stills and photographs of Roman and Byzantine-era mosaics, statues and portraits – one portrait being that of a Greek diviner called Artemidorus, though likely not the Artemidorus subjected to being bashed – the mini-documentary runs at a brisk pace, gossipy in some ways with quite droll commentary from Ryan. Though the murder mystery is never solved, it is told in a very captivating if perhaps rather speedy (and actually dry) way by the historian. The documentary gives an insight into an aspect of Roman rule and administration in Egypt, and how perhaps Roman institutions and the individual representatives of those institutions came up against and treated (or mistreated) local Egyptian people, and dealt with their conflicts and spats.