Preferred Citation: MacCoull, Leslie S. B. Dioscorus of Aphrodito: His Work and His World. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1988 1988.

I— Sources and Life

Sources and Life

Dioscorus does not always make sense to us moderns.
C. Bradford Welles

On a July day in 551, a leading citizen of Aphrodito, a city of Middle Egypt, stood in the office of Palladius, the count of the sacred consistory, in Constantinople. With him were three officers of his civic delegation, including a representative acting for one Shenoute, sometimes identified as his brother. Dioscorus, former protocometes or headman of Aphrodito and descendant of its leading family, was following in the footsteps of his father Apollos, who ten years before had come to the capital to defend Aphrodito's right of independent tax collection (autopragia). Conditions at home had since become worse, and it lay with Dioscorus and his fellow syntelestai (contributors) to put them right.

What in fact brought these people, townsmen of a provincial town, to a capital where their countrymen, the Apions, had already spectacularly made their mark? The right of citizens to appeal to the emperor; the awareness that the complexities of culture and faith that preoccupied them were unavoidably bound up with what happened in New Rome; a basic problem of both livelihood and status that needed to be resolved.

Concentrating on an individual, rather than a collectivity or a problem, is perhaps unfashionable; however, the accident of physical survival has preserved for us the personal papers of this individual, Dioscorus of Aphrodito, with a completeness unparalleled in the ancient world. We know the scope of his interests, literary and financial; what he noticed in


his surroundings; the shape of his mind.[1] We can even read his immediate thoughts in the form of the rough drafts of his poetry, written on the backs of legal documents from his office. He is uniquely representative of that Late Antique culture flourishing in Egypt from ca. 400 to 641 and after—a figure in a coherent cultural landscape.[2] The history of that culture is not yet written, but Dioscorus's life provides a door into that world.

The Papyri

In 1901, during the reign of Khedive Abbas Hilmy and the proconsular administration of Lord Cromer, some villagers in Kom Ishgaw were digging a well. Their Upper Egyptian village lay on the left (west) bank of the Nile, four hundred miles south of Alexandria, south of the sizable and half-Christian city of Assiut, north of what had been Shenoute's White Monastery at Sohag. As so often happens in Egypt when digging is done, they found not water but antiquities: in this case papyri, masses of them, the bundled tax archives of a city. Someone called the police, but before anyone in authority could arrive, many of the papyri had been burned by villagers anxious not to be caught with the goods.[3] The surviving papyri were dispersed through middlemen and dealers, most to find their way to the British Museum and the University of Heidelberg. The science of papyrology was young then, and no scholar had ever seen anything like these voluminous tax codices written in thin, elegant, almost minuscule hands. Bel1[4] in England and Becker[5] in Germany identified them as the records kept by Greek and Coptic scribes under the eighth-century Arab administration of a town called Aphrodito.[6]

[1] The earlier surveys of Dioscoriana, unsympathetic to say the least, by J. Maspero, "Un dernier poète grec de l'Egypte, Dioscore, fils d'Apollos," REG 24 (1911) 426–482 and H. I. Bell, "An Egyptian village in the age of Justinian," JHS 64 (1944) 21–36, have been superseded. For general treatments, see now J. G. Keenan, "The Aphrodite papyri and village life in Byzantine Egypt," BSAC 26 (1984) 51–63; and L. S. B. MacCoull, "Dioscorus and the dukes: aspects of Coptic Hellenism in the sixth century," BS/EB 14 (1988).

[2] The words are those of A. Grafton, Joseph Scaliger (Oxford 1983) 229.

[3] J. Quibell, "Kom Ishgaw," ASAE (1902) 85–88; Keenan, "The Aphrodite papyri," pp. 51–63. On how the "pipeline" has always worked, cf. J. M. Robinson, "The discovering and marketing of Coptic manuscripts," in The roots of Egyptian Christianity, ed. B. Pearson and J. Goehring (Philadelphia 1986) 2–25.

[4] H. I. Bell, "The Aphrodito papyri," JHS 28 (1908) 97–120.

[5] C. H. Becker, "Arabische Papyri des Aphroditofundes," Z.Assyriol. 20 (1906) 68–104; cf. idem, "Historische Studien über das Londoner Aphroditowerk," Der Islam 2 (1911) 359–371.

[6] The major publications are P.Lond. IV (1910) and P.Schott-Reinhardt (1906).


Four years later, in 1905, matters repeated themselves, again by sheer chance. During house-building operations in Kom Ishgaw, the mudbrick wall of an old house collapsed, revealing deep foundations that had covered over yet another massed find of papyri. The local grapevine alerted Gustave Lefebvre, the inspector of antiquities, who hurried to the spot.[7] A few acts of destruction similar to the earlier burning had taken place, but this time most of the papyri were dispersed to dealers, and thence worldwide from Imperial Russia to the American Midwest,[8] to libraries eager to participate in the new rebirth of Greek literature made possible by papyri. Among the papyri there was indeed a text of Menander;[9] but the body of the find consisted of the private and public papers of the sixth-century owner of that text, the lawyer and poet who would become known as Dioscorus of Aphrodito.[10]

The papyri that Lefebvre managed to keep from middlemen and traffickers he brought to the Museum at Cairo (then at Boulaq). He went back to Kom Ishgaw twice more, in 1906 and 1907, and succeeded in finding more sixth-century papyri on the site of the original find. A few had been bought by a M. Beaugé, of the railway inspectorate at Assiut. These documents also were brought safely to Cairo, and the whole lot was assigned to the editorship of Jean Maspero, a young classical scholar and son of the head of the Antiquities Service, Gaston Maspero. Before his death in battle in 1915, Jean Maspero managed to produce the three pioneering volumes of Papyrus grecs d'époque byzantine, of which the first was published in 1911. Together with Bell's 1917 edition of the sixth-century Aphrodito

[7] J. Maspero, "Etudes sur les papyrus d'Aphrodité," BIFAO 6 (1908) 75–120, 7 (1909) 47–102, 8 (1910) 97–152; cf. his preface to P.Cair.Masp. I (1911). Because the eighth-century papyri were the first from the site to become known, the form found in those later documents, "Aphrodito, " with a Greek omega, first found its way into the scholarly literature. As the sixth-century documents from the second find began to be read, the form "Aphrodites[*] kome[*] " from the earlier period came to be known. But although the form Aphrodito is, strictly speaking, a retro-usage from the Arab period, it is more common in writings about the site, and Dioscorus is universally known as "Dioscorus of Aphrodito." In one way it would be more accurate always to refer to the sixth-century city as Aphrodite, as some scholars do at present. But in this work I have kept the old familiar form.

[8] See G. Malz, Papyri of Dioscorus: publications and emendations," Studi Calderini-Paribeni 2 (Milan 1957) 345–356; add Hamburg, Vienna, the Vatican, and Ann Arbor to her list.

[9] Photoreproduction, L. Koenen et al., The Cairo codex of Menander (London 1978).

[10] The find made earlier (in 1902) thus contained material of later date (eighth century, as above, n. 7); the later find (in 1905, 1906, and 1907) contained material of earlier date (sixth century), namely, the Dioscorus papers. It is the material from the second Aphrodito find with which this book deals. No oldest inhabitant of Kom Ishgaw in the 1980s remembers from childhood anything his parents or grandparents might have related about the original findspots of the papyri; I was unable to trace either one.


papyri that had been acquired by the British Museum (P.Lond. V), and Vitelli's 1915 edition of those bought by the University of Florence (P.Flor. III), these texts constitute the bulk of what we know as the Dioscorus archive of sixth-century Aphrodito, the city that lay under Kom Ishgaw.

Our evidence for the life, work, and world of Dioscorus thus comes from one find (over time) from one place, in preservation widely dispersed, yet in intention forming a unity. The papers kept during a single human lifetime that spanned much of the sixth century reveal the background, activities, and interests of the person who chose to keep them. Numerous discoveries of Byzantine Egyptian remains at sites all along the Nile Valley, from the Fayum to Syene (Aswan), provide a perspective on the period broader than could be obtained from the archives of just one individual in one city. Most of these discoveries were made in the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, when the political climate still allowed exploration in the field of what was once Christian Egypt. Dioscorus can thus be placed in the wider context of his land and his times, on the basis of evidence that, though for the most part long known,[11] remains underutilized. Because we meet him firsthand in his own words, the single figure of Dioscorus of Aphrodito as seen in and through his archive remains the most accessible introduction to the moeurs and the mentalités of sixth-century Egypt.

The paperwork surviving from Byzantine Aphrodito falls into numerous categories, both public and private. Of the public documents we have petitions, depositions before officials, proclamations and edicts (

), and records of proceedings; land cadasters and orders for their remaking; fiscal receipts, orders for payment, accounts, and documents of surety. From the private sphere there are accounts, inventories, sales, cessions, donations, heritable leases; leases of land, buildings, and movable goods; pledges, loans, acknowledgments of debt, and sales on delivery; receipts; marriages, divorces, wills, settlements, dispositions of estates; and letters, both public and private. (This classification is taken from Jean Gascou's ongoing project for a guide to the Aphrodito archives.) Such a totality and richness of material is unknown to historians of other provinces of the later Roman Empire, where climate has not preserved these witnesses to the day-to-day workings of society. Thanks to the papyri, the society of Aphrodito and the life of its leading citizen can be

[11] Papyri from clandestine native diggings at Kom Ishgaw in the late 1930s are just beginning to be known: see L. S. B. MacCoull, "Missing pieces of the Dioscorus archive," Eleventh BSC Abstracts (Toronto 1985) 30.


observed directly and in illuminating detail. At intervals over a period of six years, the present writer has worked at first hand with all of the Dioscorus papyri in Cairo.[12] After struggling with the difficult conditions, bad state of preservation, and frustrating logistics of this depot, one sees the realities of Dioscorus's world in an even sharper light.

The Place

Aphrodito stands on a hill.[13] Unusual among Egyptian sites, which more often lie below the present ground level, the modern village of Kom Ishgaw perches atop a tell that must conceal remains of the Byzantine and Umayyad city (see Figure 2). Aphrodito has never been scientifically explored.[14] The papyrus finds were made by accident, and Quibell and Lefebvre simply looked around the papyrus findspots to gather what they could in the way of artifacts—only a few carvings of wood and bone; the late period was of little interest at the beginning of this century. We do not know what Dioscorus's house or the Apa Apollos monastery looked like. Until, in some better future, field archaeologists have found the physical remains of the Byzantine/Coptic environment:, we can try to reconstruct the city of Dioscorus from the documents, and view it in its own landscape.

Kom Ishgaw lies amid a network of irrigation canals in the wide cultivated belt west of the Nile's edge (see Figure 3). South of Assiut, the road toward Kom Ishgaw[15] goes by Sidfa with its Uniat school; Tima, largely Christian even today; the Uniat bishopric of Tahta; and Shotep, the ancient Hypselis, where the late sixth-century Coptic exegete Rufus wrote his extensive biblical commentaries.[16] This is a Christian heartland of great antiquity. Some 45 miles to the south is Shenoute's town, Sohag; across the

[12] Only now are some of P.Cair.Masp. becoming accessible to the outside world through photographs made by the International Photographic Archive of Papyri (IPAP). A reedition, projected by Professor J. G. Keenan, would be most desirable. With the other collections one is more fortunate. Firsthand work in London is uncomplicated, and reproductions from nearly all collections are obtainable to facilitate research on Dioscorus papyri beyond the level of the (often early and unsatisfactory) editiones principes.

[13] I am grateful to the pastor of St. George's Coptic Orthodox Church at Kom Ishgaw and the staff of the Lillian Trasher Orphanage at Assiut for help in visiting the site in 1980–1981.

[14] A survey is planned by Professor J. G. Keenan of Loyola University, Chicago (cf. ARCE Newsletter, April 1986).

[15] For an amusing older account, see Bell, "An Egyptian village," p. 21.

[16] The fragments are now being collected and edited by Dr. Mark Sheridan, O.S.B.


river from that lies the Panopolis (Akhmim) that was the target of Shenoute's attacks on paganism and gnosticism.[17] East of these twin cities, up the river's bend, is the Pachomian headquarters of Pbow (near Chenoboskion), where the monastic library once included Homer, the Bible, Menander, and the Vision of Dorotheos;[18] in the same vicinity were deposited the texts that have become famous in our own time as the Nag Hammadi Codices. To the north, some 110 miles by river, lie the chief twin cities of Upper Egypt: Hermopolis on the west bank, and Antinoopolis (Antinoë), seat of the Duke of the Thebaid, directly across the Nile on the east. Around Aphrodito itself are the well-documented monastic sites of Bawit, Der Bala'izah, and Wadi Sarga. Dioscorus, the proud son of an elite family, was at home in a landscape of deeply rooted classical and Christian culture. This is the land of the wandering poets and of the founding fathers of the Coptic church.

Dioscorus was, as well, a citizen of no mean city. If buildings and amenities help to define a city, Aphrodito had its share. Its name in Egyptian, (

, comes apparently from
'to sell' and means Emporium, the area market for the strategically located Antaeopolite nome.[19] Facilities for river traffic that distinguished the town included the wharf where grain for shipment to Constantinople in the embole was loaded, and the jetties for the trans-Nile ferries and ordinary riverboats.[20] In town stood the "house of the old man Psimanobet, the ancestor," which may have been the townhouse of the Psimanobet-Dioscorus family, who, true to pattern, divided their time between their country properties and their old headquarters in the town. There were two potteries, and an olive-oil works on Isis Street. Outside the city were a fortified house with a tower, a solar (
), and storerooms; country houses (
); a castrum; and at least two hospitals (xenodocheia ), including the one of Dioscorus's family monastery, that of Apa Apollos (P.Cair.Masp. I 67096.29). And forming a network round about the city were the lifelines of its food supply, the dikes

[17] Dioscorus's kinsman by marriage, Fl. Phoebammon son of Triadelphus, leased land in the nearby area of Phthla that belonged to Shenoute's monastery (P.Ross.-Georg. III 48; cf. J. G. Keenan, "Aurelius Phoebammon, son of Triadelphus, a Byzantine Egyptian land entrepreneur," BASP 17 [1980] 145–154).

[18] J. M. Robinson, "Reconstructing the first Christian monastic library," Smithsonian Institution Libraries lecture, 15 September 1986.

[20] For the structures and streets of Aphrodito, see A. Calderini, Dizionario dei nomi geografici e topografici dell'Egitto greco-romano I.2 (Madrid 1966) 323–325.


and canals; they seem to have changed little, except for Ottoman-period dilapidation and modern metal waterwheels, since Dioscorus's lifetime. Above all, Aphrodito and its surrounding area boasted over thirty churches and nearly forty monasteries, as well as dozens of farmsteads whose names recall original religious or monastic owners or settlers.[21] None remain standing; but in the sixth century this one Byzantine Egyptian city must have gleamed with white limestone and the columns and arches of basilicas along every vista. Religious building was an index of excellence,[22] and Aphrodito was a city of churches (see Figure 4).

Greater Aphrodito was a sizable settlement. Despite the many difficulties of method that beset attempts to estimate its population, from the indices of personal names recorded in published papyri it might be reasonable to posit, for the sixth century, some three thousand tax-paying male heads of household. This would give a population of about fifteen thousand. Its landholdings in the Antaeopolite managed to balance marginality with fertility. Despite difficulties with the weather and the rapacity (attempted or successful) of officials, we know, for example, that for just one assessment of the first quarter of the sixth century there were nearly four thousand arouras (about eleven million square meters) planted in wheat, seventy-two in barley (for beer), and nine in vineyards (P.Freer 2 III 26). With yields from tenfold to twentyfold (on sowings of one artaba, thirty to forty liters, per aroura), we would be dealing with a global production of sixty thousand artabas, or four artabas (four hundred pounds) of basic grain foodstuff per person per year. (This, of course, is reckoned for after the embole or grain for Constantinople was collected and skimmed

[21] Evidence collected in S. Timm, Das christlich-koptische Ägypten in arabischer Zeit III (Wiesbaden 1985) 1438–1461, s.v. 'Kom Isqaw[*] .'


off.) Over and above this quite adequate subsistence level, supplemented by meat from the herds of sheep and honey from the beekeepers, the landlords and syntelestai (contributors, or members of the landowners' koinon ) dealt in surpluses that enabled them, as local dynatoi, to support the cultural flowering that distinguishes this period of Egypt's history.

The canal system had only a short distance to lift water from the river, which brought luxury goods and human skills. Even the less productive land was put to work as pasture, looked after by often unruly shepherds[23] who were conscripted as field guards. Although Dioscorus on occasion pleaded poverty, for rhetorical effect, his world was a prosperous one. It seems to have suffered hardly any effects from the sixth-century plague.[24] Trades, professions, the civil service, the military, and the church are abundantly represented.[25] Dioscorus's learning—poetic, rhetorical, legal, and biblical—was undergirded by a thriving material culture; his personal landscape was far from being one of deprivation. And the events of his life can be traced through transactions that reflect every aspect of this rich environment.

Dioscorus was a Coptic dynatos,[26] a member of his society's most prominent and privileged group, Alexandria educated,[27] widely traveled, and living halfway between the two districts of the Hermopolite and the Panopolite that were headquarters of classical learning in Egypt. As such, he was far from being the lowbrow Copt too often caricatured by historiography.[28] Rather, he exemplified the kind of local propriétaire who supported and made possible the high creativity of Coptic culture. In Alexandria he became familiar with the best of Monophysite and Aristotelian thought (and the anti-Nestorian and the beginnings of anti-Chalcedonian controversies of the period that sparked such work), and had become

[23] J. G. Keenan, "Village shepherds and social tension in Byzantine Egypt," YCS 28 (1985) 245–259.

[24] Cf. G. Casanova, "La peste nella documentazione greca d'Egitto," Atti XVII congr.intl.papirol. (Naples 1984) 949–956, esp. 954. Dioscorus's reference in P.Cair.Masp. III 67283.9 (of A.D. 547/8) is figurative, not literal.

[25] See L. S. B. MacCoull, "Notes on the social structure of late antique Aphrodito," BSAC 26 (1984) 65–77.

[26] Cf. F. Winckelmann, "Ägypten und Byzanz vor der arabischen Eroberung," Byzantinoslavica 40 (1979) 161–182, and idem, "Die Stellung Ägyptens im oströmischbyzantinischen Reich," in Graeco-Coptica, ed. P. Nagel (Halle 1984) 11–35.

[27] See L. S. B. MacCoull, "Dioscorus of Aphrodito and John Philoponus," Studia Patristica 18 (Kalamazoo 1987) I.163–168.

[28] Still repeated in D. W. Johnson, "Anti-Chalcedonian polemics in Coptic texts, 451–641," in Pearson and Goehring, Egyptian Christianity, 230–233. There is no evidence whatever for a Roman/Byzantine plot to keep the Copts an "underclass."


acquainted with the new Digest and Codex of Justinian in his student days. He had in his youth lived through the forcible replacement of Patriarch Theodosius by Paul of Tabennisi (from the nearby Pachomian headquarters); for most of his lifetime he would live through a period of vacancy of the non-Chalcedonian patriarchal see, until the accession of Damian in 578. The period of his youth (especially from 531 to 538) witnessed the development of the Monophysite church of Egypt; he would have been aware of the death in Egyptian exile, in 538, of Severus of Antioch, already a culture hero, and of Jacob Baradaeus's journeys in support of non-Chalcedonian clergy. In the imperial capital he visited, Justinian's theological activity would have been evident. And Dioscorus's pride in and indebtedness to his fifth-century predecessors in the craft of poetry are apparent.[29] Present to his mind were the language of Homer and Nonnus, and of Shenoute, the Pachomian corpus, the Apophthegmata, and the Bible with its extensions in liturgy and hagiography. In tracing the events of Dioscorus's life, we are not to lose awareness of the wider world within which that life unfolded.

The Career

We can infer, from the dates in the archive, that Dioscorus was born about A.D. 520. His father was the former protocometes (village headman) Apollos, later to become a monk; his grandfather another Dioscorus; his great-grandfather Psimanobet (Coptic for 'the man from the place of geese').[30] From his writings it is obvious that he received the best education in the classics and the law that was available, most probably at Alexandria.[31] True to the Mediterranean paramount value of family, he married and fathered children. And he embarked upon the sort of legal and administrative career only to be expected of the scion of Aphrodito's first family.

[29] As is his combining this craft with the life of a public man of affairs. If the epithalamium in P.Ryl. I 17 dates to the fourth century (Hermopolite), its technique foreshadows that of Dioscorus in his own wedding poems; if the address to the Nile in PSI VII 845 dates to the sixth century (provenance unknown), it would be interesting to know its Sitz im Leben (is the anti-women tone the result of some particular local social problem?). Could the encomium in P.Flor. II (Heitsch 36), with its Heracles figure that was to be so familiar to Dioscorus, be by Pamprepius of Panopolis (see Chapter 3)?

[30] Or "the gooseherd."

[31] Cf. the discussion of his educational background in MacCoull, "Dioscorus of Aphrodito and John Philoponus," pp. 163–168.


The first dated document from Dioscorus's archive, P.Cair.Masp. I 67087 of 28.xii.543, shows him involved in a case at law concerning damage to a field, before one Colluthus, boethos of the court at Antaeopolis, the former nome capital.[32] Dioscorus was successful in getting the defensor to fill out a deposition. His title is already Flavius (the higher rank), as was that of his father (who had formerly been an Aurelius, the lower rank).[33] In the following year Aurelius Apollos, son of Hermauos, sold him wool for one-third solidus, payable on delivery (P.Cair.Masp. II 67127). In 546 he made a loan to two Aphroditan farmers (P.Eg.Mus.inv.S.R. 3733 A6r). In 547 he leased land to a priest and his brother (P.Cair.Masp. I 67108), and cosigned the transfer of land tax in a document in which the priest Jeremiah son of Psates ceded land to him (just under two arouras of sown land, plus reed-growing land and wooded land: P.Cair.Masp. I 67118 of October 547). On 27 August of the same year, as protocometes, he leased one aroura to the deacon Psais, son of Besios and Tasais (P.Cair.Masp. II 67128). Altogether the usual sort of activity for the young squire-jurist.[34]

The year of 547/8, an eleventh indiction (cf. poem H6 in Chapter 3), was a troubled year for Aphrodito. The inhabitants petitioned Justinian (P.Cair.Masp. I 67109v) and Theodora (P.Cair.Masp. III 67283) for protection of their right of autopragia, independent tax collection, against the rapacity of the pagarch of Antaeopolis. Dioscorus's tenant Aur. Psaios was remitted part of the rent he owed (ten artabas of grain) for the coming twelfth indiction (P.Cair.Masp. I 67095, 1.iv.548), while Dioscorus leased one aroura to the weaver Victor for flax planting (P.Cair.Masp. I 67116). Again in 549 (14.viii) he leased three arouras of land to the same deacon Psais (P.Cair. Masp. II 67129), and he lent money (one solidus less three keratia) to the priest Jakubis son of Abraham (P.Cair.Masp. III 67251, 18.x). His landholdings increased in 550, with a cession to him of land by Psates, reader in the principal church of Aphrodito (P.Cair.Masp. I 67108), in conjunction with a dowry dispute.

The following year found Dioscorus in Constantinople, having audience, together with his colleagues, Callinicus son of Victor, Cyrus son of Victor (representing, probably, Dioscorus's brother Senouthios), and Apollos son of John, with Fl. Palladios, count of the sacred consistory (P.Cair.

[32] See the remarks of Keenan, "Village shepherds."

[33] Cf. P.Cair.Masp. I 67064.13–14, a letter to Apollos complimenting his son the lawyer. On Apollos's upward social mobility, cf. J. G. Keenan, "Aurelius Apollos and the Aphrodite village elite," Atti XVII congr.intl.papirol. (Naples 1984) 957–963.

[34] On this sort of career, among Dioscorus's contemporaries and connections, cf. Keenan, "Aurelius Phoibammon," pp. 145–154. For Dioscorus's own career, cf. H. Comfort, "Dioscorus of Aphrodito as a lawyer," TAPA 65 (1934) xxxvii.


Masp. I 67032). They obtained an imperial rescript ordering the duke of the Thebaid to undertake an official inquiry into Aphrodito's right of autopragia (P.Cair.Masp. I 67024–67025).[35] (Soon after this, perhaps in July or August 551, Dioscorus wrote his isopsephistic poem on S. Senas, perhaps in thanksgiving for the outcome of his journey.[36] ) Dioscorus also obtained help in the capital with problems concerning his inheritance (P.Cair.Masp. I 67026–67027–67028), which are mentioned later in his encomiastic poetry. The documentation that has survived from this visit gives telling glimpses of the bureaucratic mind at work: the Constantinopolitan officials are eager to settle the matter before it reaches the ears of the emperor.

In connection with Dioscorus's return from the capital,[37] there appear his first efforts at encomiastic poetry (H6 and H8: see Chapter 3), written in hexameters and seasoned with autobiographical allusions. In the same year, 553, he of course continued working: he rented out a wagon (cf. P.Vat.CoptiDoresse 1)[38] for harvest transport to a group of farmers headed by Aur. Menas (P.Cair.Masp. III 67303, 27.iv.553). Still protocometes in this year (P.Cair.Masp. III 67332), he wrote a tax agreement addressed to the pagarchs Julian and Menas (P.Lond. V 1661, 24.vii).[39] In 555 (3.v) he leased pastureland to George son of Psaios, a shepherd from Psinabla in the Panopolite (P.Lond. V 1692), and in 557 he made a loan to the deacon Mousaios son of Callinicus (P.Cair.Masp. II 67130, 25.ii). For the last years of the reign of Justinian, we have no further dated transactions from his archive.[40]

The accession of Justin II in November 565 saw Dioscorus having

[35] Cf. V. Martin, "A letter from Constantinople," JEA 15 (1929) 69–102; R. G. Salomon, "A papyrus from Constantinople," JEA 34 (1948) 98–108. And see G. Geraci, "Dioskoros e l'autopragia di Aphrodito," Actes XV congr.intl.papyrol. 4 (Brussels 1979) 195–205; G. Poethke, "Metrocomiae und Autopragie in Ägypten," in Nagel, Graeco-Coptica, pp. 37–44.

[36] See my commentary in "The isopsephistic poem on St. Senas by Dioscorus of Aphrodito," ZPE 62 (1986) 51–53.

[37] Dated by Maspero ("Un dernier poète grec de l'Egypte, Dioscore, fils d'Apollos," REG 24 [1911] 460–466) to 553. I have refined the chronology somewhat.

[38] See L. Papini, "Annotazioni sul formulario giuridico di documenti copti del VI secolo," Atti XVII congr.intl.papirol. (Naples 1984) 767–776; eadem, "Notes on the formulary of some Coptic documentary papyri from Middle Egypt," BSAC 25 (1983) 83–89. She dates these papyri to either 520–522+ or 535–537+ (the latter seems more likely).

[39] Compare the texts in BIFAO Bulletin du Centenaire (Cairo 1981) 427–435.

[40] However, P.Lond. V 1686 and P.Cair.Masp. II 67170–67171 have been redated to 564/5: R. S. Bagnall and K. A. Worp, "Chronological notes on Byzantine documents, V," BASP 17 (1980) 19–22. The thirteenth indiction in P.Berol. 11349.37 might, however, be 564, as the document describes Dioscorus's problems with a negligent tenant. (But 579 is also possible.)


moved from Aphrodito (cf. P.Cair.Masp. III 67319) to Antinoë, seat of the Duke of the Thebaid, where he sought to reestablish himself as a jurist through exercise of his talent as an occasional poet.[41] (In Byzantine Egyptian society, a well-turned verse could serve as a self-advertisement and a job application.) He wrote a hexameter encomium to the image of the emperor,[42] and an iambic poem addressed to Victor the hegemon (praeses) asking to serve in the city as notarios (see Chapter 3). In this year he sold land to the monastery of Sminos (Zminos) in the Panopolite (P.Lond. V 1686, 7.xi), and wrote a lease of a pomarion or plot of gardenland together with its trees and plants, irrigation machinery, and a mudbrick shed, on behalf of the same house (P.Cair.Masp. II 67170–67171). He also leased land in the north property of Pka(u)met to Aur. Psempnouthios, a mechanarius (P.Cair.Masp. I 67109, 18.vii).

These were busy years for Dioscorus, the lawyer and poet. In 566 (28.ix) he was retained by Aur. Athanasia in a case at law to claim an inheritance from her father (P.Cair.Masp. II 67161); and he drew up the division of an inheritance among a widow and her five sons (P.Cair.Masp. III 67314). He paid off a debt owed by his late father Apollos and his brother Senouthes (P.Hamb. III 231, 22.ii; cf. P.Mich. XIII 669). Also from this year or the year or two following come his arbitration of an inheritance for Phoebammon the stippourgos (flax worker), P.Lond. V 1708, and the poem fragment P.Lit.Lond. 101 (cf. P.Cair.Masp. 67055 and 67179), on the verso of P.Lond. V 1710, a piece of an encomium. (For the chronology of Dioscorus's complete poems, see Chapter 3.)

In 568 Dioscorus drew up a contract (28.iv) for Aur. Psois and Aur. Josephis son of Pekysis, carpenters (P.Cair.Masp. II 67158), and executed a loan contract wherein John, deacon of the monastery of S. Victor at Pindaros in the Antinoite, lent Fl. Christopher of Antinoë two solidi without interest for two months (P.Cair.Masp. II 67162, 22.v). He also wrote the document in which Aur. Colluthus, poulterer, paid a debt of two solidi to Aur. Martin of Antinoë, a dependent of the noble house of Duke Athanasius (P.Cair.Masp. II 67166, 15.iv). In 569 he had even more to do: when Fl. John son of Acacius, logisterius of Lycopolis, borrowed fifteen solidi from Aur. Maria, daughter of Cyriac the scholasticus (lawyer) and granddaughter of the late illustris Theodosius (P.Cair.Masp. III 67309, March), it was Dioscorus who drew up the contract. He acted similarly when Fl. Victor,

[41] On some elements of the unrest leading to his move, see Keenan, "Village shepherds," 245–259. Cf. P.Hamb. III 230.

[42] See L. S. B. MacCoull, "The panegyric on Justin II by Dioscorus of Aphrodito," Byzantion 54.2 (1984) 575–585.


son of the late scholasticus Phoebammon[43] and grandson of the late Count Thomas of Antinoë sold one aroura of land to Aur. Melios (P.Cair.Masp. II 67169 and 67169bis, 11.ii). (It would seem that the lawyer class was sticking together to help one another.) Dioscorus also wrote the loan contract in which Aur. Colluthus son of Lilous, vegetable seller at Antinoë, lent nine and one-half keratia to Aur. Colluthus son of George, butcher in the city (P.Cair.Masp. II 67164, 2.x), a transaction involving people of more modest class.

Dioscorus executed two transactions in this year recorded and preserved in Coptic: the land cession, P.Cair.Masp. II 67176r+P. Alex.inv.689 (dated 28.x.569),[44] and the arbitration, P.Cair.Masp. III 67353r. In the first document, we meet the principals, two half-brothers, Julius son of Sarapammon and Anoup son of Apollo, who reappear in the second papyrus. Julius and Anoup were making arrangements for their property before entering the monastic life (see Chapter 2). Also likely to be dated to 569 or shortly thereafter is Dioscorus's other Coptic arbitration, P.Lond. V 1709, which begins with the same formulary phrases as does 67353r. The London document deals with the affairs of another family, that of Phoebammon and Victorine and their half-sister Philadelphia, children of the late deacon John, another dependent of Duke Athanasius's house. These Coptic proceedings afford precious evidence for the conduct of cases and the development of Coptic private law before the Arab conquest.

In 570, Dioscorus, still in Antinoë, drew up the will of Fl. Phoebammon, the chief physician of the city (P.Cair.Masp. II 67151–67152, 15.xi). He also produced a contract of divorce (P.Cair.Masp. III 67311) and drafted a request to the new Duke of the Thebaid, Callinicus, passing on a complaint by one Apollos of Poukhis against the topoteretes (tax warden) of Antaeopolis (P.Cair.Masp. III 67279). From these years come poems addressed to Duke Callinicus himself: while still with the rank of count he had been the recipient of Dioscorus's epithalamium H21, on the occasion of his wedding to Theophile, and his accession to the dukedom is celebrated in the hexameter encomium H5 (see Chapter 3). Most of Dioscorus's occasional poetry

[43] Cf. P.Cair.Masp. III 67312, 31.iii.567, the will of his brother, Fl. Theodore; and P.Cair.Masp. III 67299, a land lease.

[44] I am grateful to Professor K. A. Worp of Amsterdam for accurately reading the dating clause. Text and commentary appear in L. S. B. MacCoull, "A Coptic cession of land by Dioscorus of Aphrodito," II intl.congr.copt.stud. (Rome 1985) 159–166. See L. S. B. MacCoull, "The Coptic archive of Dioscorus of Aphrodito," Cd'E 56 (1981) 185–193; eadem, "Additions to the prosopography of Aphrodito from the Coptic documents," BSAC 25 (1983) 91–94. The antiquated prosopography of V. Girgis, Prosopografia e Aphroditopolis (Berlin 1938), needs to be replaced; a guide to the Aphrodito archives is in progress.


and his variations on his own favorite themes are dated in this Antinoë period.

By 573 Dioscorus had returned to Aphrodito. His work in the ducal capital was done, and pressing business involving his family holdings recalled him—again the classic life pattern of the Mediterranean landed gentry. Acting as agent for the monastery of Apa Apollos, which his father had founded, he drew up the contract in which a monk of the house, Psates, donated a building site and two solidi to found a xenodocheion (P.Cair.Masp. I 67096).[45] Dioscorus appears to have been less active as a lawyer after his return to Aphrodito, but from this period (573–576) comes his most ambitious poetic effort, the pair of encomia on Duke John (H2 and H3; see Chapter 3). In these elaborate productions, blending elements of earlier styles of work, he included elegant, almost baroque self-references to leading themes of present and past years, and even a quick glance at the Tritheist controversy.[46]

The latest datable document from Dioscorus's archive is a leaf from the eight-page account book P.Cair.Masp. III 67325, IVr 5 bearing the date 5.iv.585 (Pharmouthi 3, third regnal year of Maurice, third indiction). The accounts, in Dioscorus's hand, seem to come from a few years earlier—the eighth indiction of Iv 14 must be 574, not 589. His account keeping continues serenely in the expected vein of concern for the local landlord: receipts and disbursements of grain, seed grain, amounts of chickpeas and of mud for bricks; payments for a camel driver and a builder; many ecclesiastical tenants, including "Apa John my in-law." There is even a local field that has come to be known by the name

, 'Dioscorus's Valley.'[47] And so, nearing seventy, he fades from history.

So sketched, outlined from a list of documents, the bare bones of a life seem like the record of days of a Japanese minor court poet or a Chinese official, doing his job and producing polite literary effusions on festive occasions. Too, the culture of Byzantine Egypt was one in which literary cultivation was the sine qua non, the way to office and advancement. But this province was, above all, the place and the time, where all the traditions

[45] Cf. ZPE 26 (1977) 279.


met and cross-fertilized, and this process is what we see at work in Dioscorus's life and productions. His abundant papers embody in every phrase his society's characteristic presuppositions about the world—the total ease in which Christianity and the pagan learning were interwoven without a second thought, the visual opulence, the varying weights of value given to different areas of learning, the uniqueness of what was local and familiar.[48]

The glimpse we get of the values and the morale of Dioscorus's class gives a new and fresh twist to Rostovtzeff's preoccupation with the possibility of attenuating the forms and the matter of a culture. This local aristocracy was deeply rooted in its own heartland, its own landscape; cosmopolitan bearers of Hellenic culture though they may have been, they never forgot the textures and flavors of their home province. Their classicism, like their Christianity, was worn with a local flair.

We might also, parenthetically and for comparison, consider the role of the Apions, the Psimanobets' grander neighbors, people who had held the highest offices and married near-royalty. To what extent were they Egyptians and to what extent Constantinopolitans, if the question can be asked at all? They were Egyptians who had moved out and up; but compare the remarks of Alan Cameron.[49] He draws a picture of their boredom (or that of their spouses) on the obligatory visits to Oxyrhynchus (a phenomenon not unknown among their twentieth-century counterparts). Dioscorus never sat in the imperial cabinet, but he functioned, as decade succeeded decade, as one of the people who held the society together. Though not an office-holder in the capital, he embodied the best qualities of local loyalty and of what a traveled and experienced person could bring to local culture.

In Dioscorus's contracts and poems, the phrases create their own universe. We shall watch this happening in detail in the poetry and the prose. Perhaps, after all, this vision is the real gift of Late Antique Egypt, not just the monastic movement or the other facile suggestions: the ability to take a Homeric tag or an Aristotelian truism learned at school and transmute it into a koan, a counterintuitive paradox, seeming not to make sense, yet that shakes our foundations, making us rethink our assumptions. Dioscorus's world gave birth to its own riddles, and its own solutions.

[48] "A common-sense quest for local solutions to the urgent problem of maintaining a traditional way of life, on the part of an aristocracy whose horizons had always been at least partially local." P. Wormald, review of Western aristocracies and imperial court by J. F. Matthews, JRS 66 (1976) 222.

[49] Alan Cameron, "The house of Anastasius," GRBS 19 (1978) 268–269.


I— Sources and Life

Preferred Citation: MacCoull, Leslie S. B. Dioscorus of Aphrodito: His Work and His World. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1988 1988.