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‘This little piggy went to market’

Another short note on hogs and whores in the eastern desert praesidia: Philokles’ pigs

Time to end the year with a bang! A couple of weeks ago, I drew your attention to Philokles, merchant of quality vegetables and first rate whores. Here’s a little follow-up on that story today: Philokles’ pigs.

As you may have read, and no doubt by now have already forgotten, most of the letters belonging to the Philokles dossier (to use a fancy French word, because we Belgians are, constitutionally, a trilingual country) deal with Schmaus (it would be rude to ignore our German-tongued compatriots now). Cabbages were something they couldn’t get enough of in the eastern desert, but appels, onions, asparagus, salt, pig meat and rabbit dung were also gladly provided.

The fruit and vegetables were grown locally, probably in Phoinikon or Persou, where there was enough irrigation for this purpose. Raising pigs in the desert was trickier though: the climate is much too warm and dry, and it would require a LOT of water. Some remains of a pigsty have been found, indicating that a limited number was brought to the camps, probably for ritual purposes. In general though, cured meat was imported from the Nile valley (yup, beef jerky goes that far back).

Boar of the piglets

So when the unpublished potsherd K193 (yes, we use code for our texts in papyrology to mislead the enemy) mentions a ‘boar of the piglets’, papyrological eyebrows are raised, and as professor Cuvigny remarks: this passage is actually a metaphor for a pimp and his prostitutes.

References to young girls as ‘piggies’ are actually much older than this. That shin-kicker Aristophanes already uses the term χοῖρος in many of his comedies.

The idea behind this supposedly was that little girls (paedophilia had a different interpretation then than it does now, I’m afraid), and women preferring a full Brazilian wax resembled little, pink, hairless piglets. Now, the ‘hairless’ got me frowning. Everyone knows those creepy spitting Sphinx cats, but pigs, however rosy and for some maybe even cuddly when they’re little, definitely have some hair, right? So I Googled ‘hairless pig’, and luckily, this brought up no results. Skinny pigs, on the other hand, are all the rage now in Guinea pig land.

Philokles’ letters

Anywho, it’s surprising that this piglet metaphor was not explored further in the army camp volumes, since piglets are mentioned in several of Philokles’ letters, as well as in other texts from the camps that do not belong to the dossier.
In some cases, the context is fairly clear: in O. Did. 379, Philokles writes Kapparis that he sent him and one of his girls parts of a piglet and two bunches of asparagus, and in 423 the author writes that a certain …talos offered up a piglet at a feast. Now unless we are dealing with very rare testimonies of ancient psychopaths involved in cannibalism and human sacrifice, they are obviously talking about actual pigs.

O. Did. 415 and 416 mention δελφάκια, another word for piglets, but here the price seems to point to actual livestock again. The author of 415 paid 48 drachmas to Epaphroditos for multiple piglets (no exact amount is given), which is much too low for whores: the average price for a month was 60 drachmas. And in 416 Statilius asks Epaphroditos to select and send two piglets and to send word how much they cost. If these had been whores, a contract would have to be set up in advance, fixing the price and terms of agreement.

Philokles’ pigs: ambiguity

philokles' pigs
© A.Bülow-Jacobsen

Some of the Krokodilô texts described in La route de Myos Hormos seem ambiguous though. In K12, Philokles asks Kapparis and Didyme to take care of his house and pigs while he is away. Yet since raising pigs in the desert was such a hassle, whores are a more obvious interpretation here. Three times, Philokles praises his piglets to Kapparis (K28, K597 and K811). Again, one can easily imagine him recommending his young girls, instead of meat, although the addition of chickens in K811 is problematic (unless, of course, τὰ ὀρνίθια here is also slang). In K175, Montanus writes that he is coming to the Krokodilô camp with his piglets: was he another pimp along the Myos Hormos route? Ischyras, a business partner of Philokles, lets Parabolos know that he will send him his most beautiful piglets (K529), a rather strange choice of words when it comes to meat, and asks Parabolos to sell him one of his own as well. And were it really Fronto’s piglets that fell ill (K10), forcing him to sell one (if a price is mentioned, this could be an indication)? Finally, Cuvigny wonders what is meant by the γλυκὺ κρέας or γλυκυκρέα (‘sweet meat’) received by the author of M406. Κρέας, ‘meat’, is also used as a metaphor by Aristophanes in his Acharnians 795: ‘and the flesh of my piglets will be excellent pierced on the spit’. I personally find it very tempting to interpret the sweet meat mentioned in M406 as referring to a (notorious?) hooker.

Unfortunately, since none of these texts are published yet, there’s no context to check out these piglets. Perhaps there are more references to desert sex work in our texts than we are aware of at the moment. The second volume of Krokodilô texts is scheduled to appear in 2018, so I’m anxiously awaiting this publication. Up till then, every pig I come across in an Egyptian text is a whore to me. And those pork chops will never taste the same again.

Bibliography on Philokles’ Pigs:

A. Bülow-Jacobsen, « Private Letters », in H. Cuvigny (ed.), Didymoi. Une garnison romaine dans le désert Oriental d’Egypte II: les textes (IFAO 51), Cairo, 2012.

H. Cuvigny, ‘La société civile des praesidia’, and ‘Annexe: les protéines animales dans les ostraca’, in H. Cuvigny, La route de Myos Hormos. L’armée dans le désert Oriental d’Égypte. Praesidia du désert de Bérénice I. Volume II (Fouilles de l’Ifao 48/2), Cairo, 2003, 376.

J. Henderson, The Maculate Muse: Obscene Language in Attic Comedy, New Haven (Conn.), 1975.


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