The lentil-cook and the pumpkin-seller went to market

While preparing a workshop on papyrology for our second-year undergraduate students, I came across a papyrus that made me cry with laughter. It may not have the same effect on you – I think you need to be at the end of a very long day looking at papyri, and indeed at the end of a very long week working on ancient vegetables, to find this as funny as I did. Still, I wanted to share this, as it also mentions pumpkins, which I discussed in a previous post (well colocynth, but again let’s not quibble over cucurbit taxonomy).

The papyrus in question (PSI 402, see here for detail) was found near Philadelphia in Egypt. It dates to the mid-third century BCE, and is part of what papyrologists call ‘the Zenon Archive’ (see here for more information). It is the petition of a lentil-cook, named Harentotes, to a certain Philiscus, apparently a tax farmer. This is happening during the Hellenistic period, when Egypt was under the control of the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty, which explains why the cook has an Egyptian name and the tax collector a Greek one.

Fragments from a Greek illustrated herbal found at Tebtunis (Egypt), second century CE

Fragments from a Greek illustrated herbal found at Tebtunis (Egypt), second century CE. P.Tebtunis 679

Harentotes the lentil-cook (phakepsos) of Philadelphia to Philiscus, greetings. Every month I give the product of 35 artabai [a measure] and sweat all my manly sweat to pay my taxes every month in order that you may have no complaint against me. Now the people in the city are roasting pumpkins. For that reason nobody buys lentils from me at the moment. I ask and beseech you then, if you agree, to be given more time, as it has been done in the city of Crocodilopolis, to pay my taxes to the king. For in the morning they immediately sit down next to my lentils, selling their pumpkins, and give me no chance to sell my lentils.

Poor lentil-cook whose business has been ruined by reckless pumpkin sellers! This document is of course an important one for anyone interested in the collection of taxes in the ancient world. To me, however, it is fascinating for two other reasons. First, it shows how specialised some jobs were in the ancient world. I knew about myrepsoi (perfume-cooks, that is, perfume makers), but had never heard of a lentil-cook. Second, it shows that there were fashions in food eating in the ancient world, and that they did not only affect the upper classes, but also the average vegetable-eater. Clients could stop eating their lentils if a more energetic, early-rising pumpkin-seller convinced them to do so.

Clearly the lentil-seller lacked initiative: he should have convinced the good folk of Philadelphia to go wild and mix their lentils with pumpkins, as in this delicious looking recipe. Now that is an idea!

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One Response to The lentil-cook and the pumpkin-seller went to market

  1. Pingback: History Carnival #128 « khronikos: the blog

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