Lost in the World: Protachos from Oxyrhynchos

Can a few words capture an entire life? We might perhaps entertain an answer as we contemplate the character and contents of funerary epigrams. Their elegant compositions inscribed on ancient stones have an uncanny power to stimulate our imagination and summon intimate portraits of individuals long gone.

One such epigram introduces us to a certain Protarchos, an otherwise unknown individual buried on the island of Kos sometime in the 2nd century BCE. Adorning a decorated marble tombstone, now in the storeroom of the Department of Antiquities of Kos, the epigram tells a story of travel, hardship, and friendship, and invites us to ponder the power of death:

Simple is the tomb. Who is the dead lord?

Protarchos, and his ancestral land is Oxyrhynchos. 

Did you die having been free or enslaved?

Hades released me from my years(?) of salary

Did you build(?) a lot with stones? Yes, and  –  –  –  – a genuine friend to friends.

Now the dust fattens your body.

And you, traveler, keep well on this beaten path.

λιτός γ᾿ ὁ τύμβος· τίς δ᾿ ὁ δεσπότης

νέκυς; /   Πρώταρχος· αἶα δὲ Ὀξυ‒

ρυγχῖτις πάτρα· /   ἐλεύθερος

δ᾿ ἔθνῃσκες ἢ δοῦλος γεγώς;

5  [Ἅι]δης ἔλυσεν τἀμὰ λατρείας

[˘ ¯ /vac.˘ ]ΙΝΟ δείμας χέρμα‒

[σι ‒ ‒]ΤIΑΝ ὄχλος / ναί, καὶ

[˘ ¯ ˘ γν]ήσιος φίλων φίλος· /

[νῦν ἁ] κόνις σου σῶμα πιαίνοι

10  [πάν]υ. /   σὺ δ᾿ εὐδρομοίης τάνδ᾿, ὁ‒

[δοι]πόρε, τρίβον.

IG XII 4.3 2147

Protarchos’ life is recalled in the form of an anticipatory imagined conversation between the stone itself and the dead man, as a passer-by has stopped at the side of the road to inquire about Protarchos’ life. The stone’s answers are poignant and surprising. We learn that Protarchos originally came from Oxyrchynchos, a town deep in the heart of ancient Egypt 160 km south of present-day Cairo, famous for its papyrological treasure trove. At the same time, the summoned memory of the ancestral land, the πατρίς, betrays a sense of separation and longing typical of ancient Greek epigrams. It also leaves us wondering whether Protarchos had been a Greek man living in Egypt or an Egyptian who took on or was given a Greek name?

As such, the stone’s words are yet another reminder of the interconnectedness of the ancient Mediterranean world. Protarchos was one of the millions of people who, for better or worse, traveled, worked, and lived lives away from their ancestral lands, often taking local names as they navigated the surrounding cultures. And these texts ask us to acknowledge that all those individuals had their own thoughts, aspirations, obstacles, and identity crises, that are all-too-often eclipsed by a skewed scholarly focus on the political and economic priorities of ancient states and empires.

But if Protarchos’ origins beckon interesting questions about ancient mobility, the reasons for his presence in Kos are a much darker matter. As our imaginary enquirer asks whether he died a free or an enslaved man (ἐλεύθερος ἢ δοῦλος), we get the uneasy suspicion that our protagonist had been enslaved at some point in his life. Our suspicion grows with the dead man’s poetic answer that Hades released him from λατρεία, service or servitude. 

We thus get a picture of a man who ended up on the island of Kos after he was sold on one of the many grim slave markets that regularly trafficked myriads of unfortunate souls all over the Mediterranean. Protarchos’ enslavement is also signaled by the first line of the iambic poem where the stone refers to him as the tomb’s δεσπότης, its lord, an odd phrasing that evokes power and domination, and in this case perhaps a defiant, even bitter attitude towards his own condition while alive. 

For Protarchos, then, death is a release from the bonds of a violent life, where his public status was stolen and traded by a system reliant upon inflicting pain over the less powerful and the less fortunate. Through death, the enslaved Protarchos transitions to being but a σῶμα, a body that acts as a reminder of the power of death as the great equalizer. Yet, at the same time, the inscribed epigram also represents Protarchos finally recovering a voice, however stylized, long silenced by the violence of history.

Regrettably, some of the damaged text is irretrievably broken, and we cannot learn much more about Protarchos’ life. Lines 6 and 7 have received different interpretations, including my own attempt, with Klaus Kallof suggesting “did you build with stones?” whereas Angelos Chaniotis takes them to mean “so, the multitude of the servants was the builder [of the tomb] with large stones?” (SEG 66 971). Whatever reading we prefer, they hint that Protarchos might have been a stonemason, toiling in a quarry or on construction sites. We know that enslaved individuals in the ancient Greek poliswere burdened with a multitude of tasks, from household upkeep and childrearing to banking and agriculture, among others. The least fortunate among them, though, would have had their bodies worn down and crushed in the mines and quarries, whereas those with specialized skills endured a slightly easier existence. And given the kymation decoration on his tomb, this might have also been the case with Protarchos. He might have learned his skill while back in Egypt, where archaeologists have noted that there used to be a stone quarry north of Oxyrhynchus that was continually exploited into the 19th century (Grenfell and Hunt 1899: 209-10).

These few details encourage us, in turn, to think about who, after all, paid for Protarchos’ burial as well as for the composition of the epigram and its inscription on the expensive marble stone. It is possible that while at Kos he managed to put aside some money from plying his trade; after all, skilled enslaved workers often received some sort of compensation from their masters or from their employers, which might include the state itself for public works. Interestingly, the stone does not offer any hints that it might have been his former master who set up the grave in honor of a reliable servant; not an uncommon practice at the time, if perhaps a performative rather than a genuine one. 

The only hint we have that other people were involved in the burial is offered by Protarchos purportedly describing himself as “a genuine friend to friends.” Perhaps it was his companions in life who sought to celebrate their late friend, reminding us of the virtue of friendship in the face of adversity in a foreign land.

The Merry Cemetery (Cimitirul Vesel) in Săpânţa village, Maramureş County, România. The wooden crosses are handcrafted and brightly painted, depicting the life and occupation of the deceased person. Each cross bears a tragicomic funerary epigram in the voice of the deceased that touch on themes of longing, loss, duty, hardship, or love. It is currently a UNESCO Heritage Site. Photo
courtesy of Dorin Orlandea.

Yet the epigram concludes on a sorrowful note. It does not mention any relatives of Protarchos; no parents, wife, or children. Instead, the stone woefully observes that “now the dust fattens your body.” The imagery of eating dust is as old as literature itself, first appearing in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh more than 4000 years ago. It represents a grim vision of the underworld where its occupants are but shades of their former selves, forever confined to a mindless existence among darkness and dirt. The motif spread throughout the Near East and the rest of the Mediterranean. In the Greek religious context, dry dust also signals the absence of libations that give the dead a drop of life and remembrance. In other words, our Protarchos died alone in a foreign land, separated from his home and kin by a wide and unforgiving sea.

We can imagine his friends visiting Protarchos’ tomb, or the passer-by pouring a libation now that he or she has learned his story. But I prefer to think of us, the modern readers, as the passers-by who have come upon the inscribed epigram either by visiting a museum, an epigraphic collection, or a digital reproduction of the poem. Accordingly, we should also pour libations, of sorts, by continuing to inquire into and respect the memories of even the humblest actors in the long and violent play of history. In doing so, we will help them regain their voices and pierce the silence of violence.

Further Reading:

Forsdyke, S. 2021. Slaves and Slavery in Ancient Greece. Cambridge.

González, M. G. 2019. Funerarry Epigrams of Ancient Greece: Reflections on Literature, Society and Religion. Bloomsbury.

Grenfell, B. P. and Hunt, A. S. 1898. Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Volume I. Egypt Exploration Fund. 

Hunt, P. Ancient Greek and Roman Slavery. Wiley-Blackwell. 

Marinatos, N. and Wyatt, N. “Levantine, Egyptian, and Greek Mythological Conceptions of the Beyond (Pages: 383-410)” in Ken Dowden and Niall Livingstone (eds.) A Companion to Greek Mythology. 383-410. Wiley-Blackwell.

Roberts, E. M. 2020. Underworld Gods in Ancient Greek Religion. Routledge.