Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1089

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The meeting of the prefect Flaccus with Isidorus and Dionysius

Original Location/Place: 
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
The Bodleian Library, Oxford
Physical Characteristics: 
The recto of this papyrus contains the badly damaged remains of a land survey. On the verso, we find the remains of three columns, although there are many lacunae, and the papyrus is badly discoloured and torn. The scribal style resembles that of other literary texts of the early-third century CE, and is written in a narrow, upright hand (Herbert Musurillo, Acts of the Pagan Martyrs, p. 93).
3d CE
25 x 14.1 cm
P.Oxy. VIII 1089

This papyrus is classified among the Acts of the Alexandrian (or Pagan) Martyrs, a collection of texts which narrate (largely fictional) confrontations between the Roman imperial government and various Alexandrian representatives. Contrary to what the name might suggest (bringing to mind the Acts of the Christian Martyrs), the trials that are narrated in these papyri, spanning a time period of one-hundred and fifty years (the earliest associated with the emperor Caligula, who reigned between 37 and 41 CE, and the latest thought to be associated with Commodus, who reigned between 180 and 192 CE), are not centred around the religious convictions of the Alexandrians in question. Religion is nonetheless a major theme in the Acts, however, as the collection is extremely anti-Jewish. However, scholars disagree as to just how central the role of this feature is; some argue that it is of paramount importance, while others believe it to be more of a tool in a wider aim to criticise the Roman emperors whose perceived affable relationships with the Jews were despised by the Alexandrian authors of the texts. The text on the present papyrus, however, does not explicitly engage in anti-Jewish rhetoric (see further discussion below).

Aulus Avillius Flaccus, the Roman protagonist in this text, was prefect of Egypt between 32 and 38 CE, and our main source for him, Philo of Alexandria’s treatise Against Flaccus, focuses particularly on his apparent mistreatment of the Alexandrian Jewish community, before narrating Flaccus’s arrest, exile, and eventual execution under the emperor Gaius. We also read about Flaccus on two Egyptian inscriptions (OGIS 661 and CIG 4716), respectively a dedication and an edict from Tiberius Julius Alexander, which claims that Flaccus was lenient regarding certain taxation matters (for the texts and French translations, see André Bernand, La prose sur Pierre, vol. 1, p. 126-136 and vol. 2, p. 141-155). There is also an ostracon discovered in Thebes, from 34 CE—a deed of sale mentioning Flaccus as governor in that year (for a survey of the evidence for Flaccus, see van der Horst, Philo’s Flaccus, p. 34-38 and André Pelletier, In Flaccum, p. 21-23).

In the present papyrus, Flaccus is presented as attending a meeting in the Serapeum with Isidorus and Dionysius, who were two of the leaders of the “Alexandrian Jew-haters,” also mentioned by Philo (Against Flaccus IV; XVII, where Isidorus is accused of slander, instigated by his anger at the prefect for the latter’s loss of favour for him; and XX; see also the Acts of Isidorus, which narrates the trial of the Alexandrian before the Roman emperor Claudius) (see Pieter van der Horst, Philo’s Flaccus, p. 36). In a similar fashion to many of the other texts from the corpus of Acts, the text reads more like a novel than a historical document, and we should be extremely wary of drawing any historical conclusions about Flaccus from this particular source. We simply cannot be sure, due to the fragmentary nature of the papyrus and the uncertainty of the business that is described, whether the events depicted have anything to do with the roles of the protagonists in the Alexandrian riots of 38 CE. Robert Smith claims that as in numerous of the other Acts, the implication is that the Romans are overly biased towards the Jews, with the Alexandrian Greeks feeling somewhat side-lined (i.e. Flaccus is attempting to sever former ties with the Alexandrians which had been built around mistreatment of Jews; for a clear anti-Jewish perspective in relation to the trial of Isidorus, see the Acts of Isidorus). However, this claim cannot be substantiated based on the evidence from the text (see The Art of Rhetoric, p. 56 n. 53). What the papyrus is useful for, however, is offering us an alternative perspective than Philo’s (himself a Jew) on the Roman prefect and his character, with the Alexandrian author’s portrayal of Flaccus giving yet another example of the ways in which the Acts of the Alexandrian Martyrs sought to critique the representatives of Roman power.

As Sandra Gambetti highlights, our papyrus testifies to Flaccus’s uneasy relationship with certain members of the Alexandrian upper class. It is also the only document to mention the tension that existed between Flaccus and Dionysius. Gambetti argues that because the text speaks of the same allies of Flaccus that we read of elsewhere cooperating with him in the summer of 38 CE, it is very tempting to assign a dramatic date for the events described during the time of the Alexandrian riots (or Alexandrian pogrom) against Jews in this year. Philo narrates in his Against Flaccus that the prefect’s part in these riots, specifically encouraging the violence, partly led to his deposition (The Alexandrian Riots, p. 79). The fact that the meeting occurs at the Serapeum tells us that the dispute was likely a financial one, as other documents indicate that the Alexandrians liked to settle such disagreements by fixing interest rates in this location (e.g. P.Cair.Zen. III 59355).

The text begins with Flaccus going to the Temple of Serapis, having given orders that some “business” (χρῆμα, chrēma), the nature of which we are not informed, be arranged secretly. He is met there by two Alexandrian leaders, Isidorus and Dionysius, who are accompanied by a female name Aphrodisia. Her relationship to the two men, and indeed her role, are not clear, even though some have argued that she was brought along to be given to Flaccus as some sort of bribe or promise (Musurillo, Acts of the Pagan Martyrs, p. 94). The Alexandrians venerate the statue of Serapis as one would typically expect, but it is apparent that an “elder” (γεραιός, geraios), who is also present, seems to understand that the two men are there to conduct some other business. This individual pleads specifically with Dionysius, and his prominence in the story is attributed by Musurillo to the fact that he was a Roman citizen, whereas Isidorus was not (Acts of the Pagan Martyrs, p. 94, n. 2). The way in which Flaccus is described as appearing in the temple, having prearranged the meeting secretly, may indicate that he had been in hiding (we know from Philo that he was arrested and exiled), but we cannot be certain of this.

It is to a large degree a matter of conjecture as to just what the Alexandrians are seeking to give to/receive from the prefect. It seems that Dionysius prefers, despite the warning of “the elder,” to deal with Flaccus rather than go to the Alexandrian counsel of elders (γερουσία, gerousia), and also that he has previously refused to meet Flaccus on another occasion (he does not want to “refuse Flaccus again”). The business is therefore represented as scandalous to some degree. It could be that the prefect was charging the Alexandrians for his assisting them in the persecution of the Jewish community, or as is more commonly believed (e.g. Musurillo, Acts of the Pagan Martyrs, p. 95), that he was engaging in extortion (charges of this nature are also levelled at the prefect Maximus in another of the Acts; see Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 0471). Gambetti, however, argues that the fact that an interest rate (τόκος, tokos) is mentioned in line 60 (the extract above ends slightly before this point) makes it doubtful that we are dealing here with bribery (The Alexandrian Riots, p. 79).

In any case, the picture painted of the Roman prefect is one in which he appears corrupt and seemingly dangerous, as the elder is clearly worried that Dionysius will choose to oppose a man who poses him threat. This is unsurprising, as the Acts corpus in general does not take a high view of the Roman authorities, and the Alexandrian authors variously emphasise their disloyalty, corruptness, violence, and abuse of power. In the present text, the prefect Flaccus’s secretive meeting with the Alexandrians is hardly represented as above board, and the begging of the elder for Dionysius to reconsider the arrangement implies that Flaccus is either not to be trusted, and/or a force to fear. As far as the author of this text is concerned, we have here another instance of Roman power being utilised dishonestly. Indeed, the fact that the Alexandrians are specifically mentioned as paying their respects to Serapis (as we would expect), arguably emphasises their piety and legitimacy over that of the Roman prefect, who has pre-organised a secretive, illicit affair.

Bibliographical references: 

In Flaccum

Pelletier, AndrébookIn Flaccum Les Œuvres de Philon d’Alexandrie 31ParisCerf1967
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The meeting of the prefect Flaccus with Isidorus and Dionysius
Author(s) of this publication: Kimberley Fowler
Publishing date: Wed, 02/21/2018 - 13:11
Visited: Mon, 04/15/2024 - 15:12

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