The Petition of Marcus Aurelius Sarapion
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The Petition of Marcus Aurelius Sarapion

A bare marble statue of a torso in armour with shoulder flaps and a sash
Torso in a Hellenistic tube-and-yoke cuirass (on display in Palazzo Te, Mantua; photo Sean Manning)

One category of evidence central to this issue [of the abuse of civilians by soldiers] is the large number of petitions directed to officials, where in one sample roughly a third were directed to centurions acting in a local police role (Hobson 1993 = ‘The Impact of Law on Village Life in Roman Egypt,’ in B. Halpern and D. Hobson (eds.), Law, Politics and Society in the Ancient Mediterranean World. Sheffield, pp. 193-219). The sheer number of petitions suggests that abuse was widespread. A still further complication could be that a centurion was petitioned concerning abuse by a soldier. How likely is fairness in this regard? Such was the case for Aurelius Sarapion in a petition to the centurion Aurelius Marcianus:

there is nothing more dreadful or harder to bear than maltreatment. At the time of life I have reached, being over eighty years, I served faithfully as an Arab archer. A sow having escaped from my daughter in the village and being reported to be at the house of the soldier Julius, I went to him to demand his oath about this matter, and he laying hands on me, despite my age, in the village in the middle of the day, as if there were no laws, laboured me with many blows. (P. Graux 4 [248])

He goes on to list witnesses and to seek redress.

From Colin Adams, “War and Society in the Roman Empire” in B. Campbell and L. A. Tritle eds., The Oxford Handbook of Warfare in the Classical World (Oxford University Press: Oxford 2013) p. 267

(I do not have access to that volume of P. Graux, so I cannot give the original text)

Adams uses this papyrus to ask a question about how often Roman centurions (who often acted as judges and police in the countryside) gave justice when a civilian accused a soldier. Today I will ask another question. In this passage an ancient person tells us a great deal about who he was, or who he wanted to be seen to be. So what was Sarapion’s ethnicity? I would encourage my learned readers to really think about this whether or not they click “more” to see my opinion.

Gloss: Marcus Aurelius Sarapion lived in Egypt. He had the tria nomina of a Roman citizen, and his first two names tell us that he almost certainly wrote after 212 CE when Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Caracalla had granted citizenship to all subjects of the Roman empire. Yet he probably wrote in Greek, and his name was a Greek one bearing one of the divine names which had appeared in Egypt after Alexander conquered it. Most Romans would have called Sarapis an Egyptian god whether or not Khufu or Rameses would have recognized him. Sarapion had served in the army in a company of Arab archers, but in the third century CE to be an Arab archer could have all the ethnic significance of being a Highlander in the Canadian army or a Redskin in the NFL.

Was Sarapion Arab? Egyptian? Roman? Greek? Macedonian? In different contexts he would probably have answered in different ways. While he may have had a very clear sense of his own ethnicity, it is hard for us two thousand years later to show which terms he identified with. While it is natural to try to organize the fragmentary evidence for the ancient world by ethnicity (just as by class, gender, region, period, profession, or many other categories), doing so is not easy, and sometimes trying to place individuals into ethnic boxes creates more problems than it solves.

Further Reading: Lexicon of Greek Personal Names: Theophoric Names, and any good history of the later Roman empire s.v. ‘Constitutio Antoninina’ or ‘Edict of Caracalla.’

Edit 2022-12-18: fixed formatting broken when WordPress introduced the block editor

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1 thought on “The Petition of Marcus Aurelius Sarapion

  1. The Stele of G. Damianus – Book and Sword says:

    […] commander with a good army) and if Damianus was buried there, it also suggests that he lived after Caracalla granted citizenship to all Roman subjects in 212 […]

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