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Harlots of the desert

Philokles: introduction

Today we have the pleasure to present you: Philokles! Philokles lived on the outskirts of Egyptian society, in the dull eastern desert between the Nile valley and the Red Sea that was dotted with Roman army camps (praesidia). These camps were situated along the desert tracks from Koptos to Myos Hormos (not far from Urghada) and to Berenike in the south.

© J.-P. Brun

The camps had to protect the caravans and were manned with a handful of soldiers, who often stayed in the desert for months, bored to death, and sometimes threatened by Bedouins. Philokles wasn’t a soldier himself, so why on earth would you want to spend your days there?! Life is short, and was even shorter still 2,000 years ago. But our dear Philokles could smell opportunities hundreds of sandy miles away. For he was a businessman, and if business takes you east, you suit up, strap yourself on that donkey or camel and go with the flow, he said (ok, maybe he didn’t…). He wasn’t one of those Big Shot dealers who hauled in pepper and other spices from India or shipped out fine wines from Syria and even Italy to the Far East though.

No, Philokles found his niche in a more modest market: basic food, such as wheat and wine, was provided by the army, but luxuries such as meat and vegetables had to be bought by the soldiers themselves. Upon hearing this, the drachme signs no doubt started flickering in Philokles’ eyes.

philokles philocles harlots_brun

Philokles is known to us thanks to more than one hundred ostraca, written by and addressed to him and his close associates and which were found in the camps of Krokodilo and Didymoi. He writes in a rather clumsy hand, using his own shortened version of the Greek alphabet with only three vowels instead of six. He probably had living quarters both in Krokodilo and in Phoinikon, together with two women: an older lady called Sknips, whose name quite literally means “flea”, and a, let us hope for Philokles, parasite-free, younger damsel called Hegemonis.

As Willy Clarysse ever so carefully puts it: ‘it is not impossible that Philokles had a menage à trois with the two women, but as our texts usually call spouses “sister” and “brother” we cannot be certain’. I prefer a more bold approach and claim that Philokles had an SM addiction and took in Hegemonis to satisfy his cravings for the occasional dirty talk and spanking (her name means ‘Führer’ after all). Or perhaps he was simply allergic to fleabites, and, well, every poppa needs some sugar once in a while.

Philokles’ business

Many letters deal with provisioning in foods, though it is not always clear if the cabbages, onions, apples, salt, wine, sausages, salted fish or chickens are meant for use within the household or for commerce. Philokles’ most lucrative business, however, consisted in providing the local garrisons with … girls. These girls were sent to the different camps on demand of the soldiers. The average price for a girl was 60 drachmas a month, to which a tax of 12 drachmas was added. As there were about 15 soldiers in a camp, they each paid something like 4 drachmas for a month of “services”, i.e. the wage of four working days. Some girls were more expensive than others, and exceptionally, some individuals, no doubt officers, ordered a girl for their own private use, as happens with “the little girl” (ἡ μίκκα) in O.Did. 382, who Philokles wanted to hire out for three years to a highly placed person.


When the women were brought from Egypt to the desert, 108 drachmas, a large amount of money, had to be paid at the customhouse of Koptos. With the price of 60 dr. a month, a pimp could recover his costs in a few months time though. The “work” done by the women in the camp was indicated by the Greek term κυκλεύειν “to turn around”. At first the editors translated this term with its usual meaning in the papyri as “turning around the water wheel”, being somewhat surprised that hauling up the water from the wells was a job for women (I can hear feminists around the world snorting and fulminating now).

In fact κυκλεύειν is a euphemism for turning around from one man to another. How many turns the women had to make every day is not known, but let’s hope a limit was fixed in their contract. (I find this turn of phrase intriguing: did they perhaps twirl from one tent to the other? Or did those men all sleep together in a single barrack and did the girls just lazily roll off one and onto the next?)

Philokles: relationships

Like Philokles, many of the army pimps had permanent relationships, but business is business, so this didn’t stop them from hiring out their own female companions to soldiers as well, as is clear from the following letter by [- -]neus to Rusticus: ‘I wish you to know about my wife that I have given her over to you in order that you deliver her at the camp of Aphrodites Orous. If anyone should harass her, you will restore her back to me. If anybody abuses her, you will have to do with me. She is not permitted therefore to sleep with anybody except with your permission. If she has a problem there that cannot be solved informally you have to take it on until the centurio arrives. For otherwise, if this happens, I will deal with you! For I have entrusted you with all I own and you will give me back the ward.’ (O.Did. 406).


Like in all good stories, in some cases personal relationships developed between a woman and one of the soldiers and this could lead to problems for all parties involved, especially for the owner. When a certain Antonius falls in love with the prostitute Iulia, the pimp Cornelius asks the whole camp to set her free for some days so that she can see her lover. But when she doesn’t return he threatens to make him pay for the days that Iulia hasn’t worked (O. Did. 333). When the soldier Sosianus falls in love with Aspidous, no doubt one of the twirling/rolling women, he fills at least six ostraca with rambling erotic verses (?), in which he talks about his burning love, and other burning body parts. (Route de Myos Hormos, p.466-467; LDAB 128467-128468). Hope he was speaking metaphorically, otherwise this would be the oldest testimony of gonorrhoea! Can’t stress it enough, kids: don’t be silly, put a condom on your willy! Or according to the Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus you could also try a pessary made of crocodile dung. Whatever gets you going, I suppose.

Bibliography on Philokles:

H. Cuvigny, « Femmes tournantes: remarques sur la prostitution dans les garnisons romaines du désert de Bérénice », ZPE 172, 2010, p. 159-166.
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.

Yanne & Willy

(the saucy bits of this post were provided by W. Clarysse)

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