Athletes were some of the great travellers of the ancient world. In the Roman Empire, when the Greek festival calendar was at its height, there were probably at least 500 regular athletic festivals spread across the Mediterranean world. Ambitious athletes clearly lived a very rootless life when they were on tour, criss-crossing the Roman Empire in search of victories.

An athlete’s will

There’s one great example of that in a papyrus document from the mid second century AD. It’s the will of an athlete from the Egyptian city of Hermopolis. He talks in great detail about the bequest he is making to his son, who was born while he was travelling in the city of Smyrna in Asia Minor.

The text is John Rylands papyri II, 153. It’s mentioned in passing by the great French scholar Louis Robert (Opera Minora 6, 709-19; English version in König (2010) Greek Athletics pp. 117-18). But the translation itself is quite hard to get hold of, and it certainly doesn’t get into any of the standard ancient athletic sourcebooks, so I’ve reproduced a bit of it here.

‘…I designate as heir to all the property which I now possess or may acquire or which may accrue to me in any way soever and in whatsoever form and to all the furniture which I leave and my stores and other property and to the sums which are or shall be due to me, my son Hellanicus by my aforesaid wife Claudia Leontis, who is a minor and whom I have left at Smyrna in Asia in the care of a wet nurse. I appoint as his guardians until he attains the legal age, or until he thinks fit to come to Hermopolis after his attainment of the legal age, the aforesaid persons whom I know to be suitable and worthy of the office, my friend Maximus son of Hermaeus and my cousin Achilles son of Sabourion, upon condition that they shall provide my aforesaid son and heir with food and clothing as they think fit, supplying and giving to the aforesaid persons what I desired to be given to each of them as stated above, until my son attains the legal age or comes to Hermopolis. When he attains the legal age or after attaining it comes to Hermopolis, he himself shall supply to the said persons the said provisions as long as each of them survives as aforesaid. The allowances due to me from the property of Hermopolis on account of my athletic crown, according to the ordinances of our lord Antoninus and his deified father Hadrian, shall be claimed by my aforesaid guardians and heirs and delivered to my son…

…Witnesses : Tithois son of Anubion, aged about 45, of medium height, having a fair complexion, a long face, a straight nose, and a scar near the left eye; Hemiaeus also called Phibion, son of A . . ., aged about 36, of medium height, having a straight nose and a scar on the left side of the neck; Sarapion son of Hermias, aged about 30, of medium height, having a straight nose and a mole above the left eyebrow ; Hermaeus son of Ptolemaeus, aged about 42, of medium height, having a straight nose and a scar above the right cheek ; Herodes son of Eutychides, aged about 22, of medium height, having a straight nose and a scar upon it ; Hermaeus son of Hermaeus, aged about 35, of medium height, having a straight nose and a scar on the right shin.’ Signatures.’

Summary

The reference to the crown (a victory crown) and the income which comes with it from his home city makes it clear that this is a successful athlete. He is presumably travelling in pursuit of further glory. Clearly this wife travels with him. They stop in Smyrna (in what is now western Turkey) while she has the baby—presumably he was there to compete in one of the festivals of Smyrna. And then most remarkably they leave the child there with foster parents and carry on travelling. He explains that the son should choose when he comes of age whether he wants to stay in Smyrna or be a citizen of Hermopolis back in Egypt—so it doesn’t necessarily sound as though they are planning to come back for him. Clearly these were people who lived their life on the move…

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