Berenike was the main port for trade, for about four or five centuries, between Egypt and Arabia, Sub-Sahara Africa and India. King Ptolemy II Philadelphus founded Berenike in the mid-third century BC due to his need for elephants in the war against the Seleucid army. The selection of Berenike as a harbor was due to it being located some 150 nautical miles further south than Myos Hormos (near present-day Quseir), which up until that time was the main port along the Red Sea. The Red Sea is known for the strong northern winds that blow above 20 degrees latitude. In early Roman times the Red Sea port of Myos Hormos was more often chosen because of the shorter land route, but once it was realized that the trip might actually take longer, due to the fierceness of the winds, Berenike became the most frequented.
During the 1997 excavation season at Berenike, a rich deposit of ostraka was found at the surface (later excavated as Trench 19). This archive can be divided into seven groups, based on names found in the documents. As the seventh group is formed of miscellaneous text they will not be discussed here. The texts can also be organized based on titles given and used. After discussing these two aspects, the economy at Berenike will be introduced, along with the position of ostraka in the customs process and the use of measures.
Groups of ostraka
The Berenike Archive includes orders from Sosibios, orders from Rhobaos, orders to Andouros from others, orders from Herak( ), orders concerning Gaius Ilius Epaphroditos, orders from Sarapion and orders from Claudius Philetos (Bagnall et al., 2000).
Orders from Sosibios are the largest group consisting of 35 ostraka. His writing is small and rather difficult to read. Some of the letters could only be distinguished after cross comparison with known words on other ostraka by Sosibios. The writing is cramped, with noticeably large blank areas on all of the ostraka. The text were short and to the point, neither Sosibios nor his recipients are ever given a title. There is also an absence of a date, place or stated purpose. The orders contain names of beneficiaries but omit their patronymic on most occasions. This implicates that the parties involved were familiar with each other and it also implies a certain informality among the custom agents. The documents show enough regularity to suggest a routine to the entire operation.
The second group of orders are those from Rhobaos. His writing is very different from that of Sosibios: Rhobaos writes with a blunt instrument in large, detached letters. As Sosibios, he never gives himself a title, his recipients on the other hand receive a title but never a name. His orders also seem to state only what is necessary and omit patronymics of the beneficiaries.
The third group, orders to Andouros from others, is not as consistent in formulas and names as the two preceding groups. The majority of the orders are constructed without the names of the sender. What is interesting about this group is that one of the ostraka mentions the name Tiberius Claudius Dorion. The use of this name, with its tria nominia, points to an imperial freedman.
The fourth group, orders from Herak( ), are difficult to understand due to the extensive use of abbreviations used by the author. Also the translation of his name is unclear due to several endings. This group contains several titles.
The fifth group, dealing with a Gaius Iulius Epaphroditos, is different in the formulas used and seem to contain memorandums rather than orders.
Gaius I. Epaphroditos (number 84):
--- of wine for the account of Gaius Iulius Epaphroditos, for outfitting.
This text seems to serve as a reminder to put wine on the ship for Gaius, or something to that effect.
The sixth group only consists of three orders, all addressed by Sarapion to Peisipmois and Andouros. Andouros is also mentioned in the first two groups, but Peisipmois is otherwise unknown. The seventh group, orders from Claudius Philetos, consists of four orders all addressed to 'those in charge of the gate', instead of naming a particular customs agent.
Claudius Philetos (number 90):
Claudius Philetos to those in charge of the customs gate, greetings. Let pass for Tithoes son of Haronnophris, eleven italika of wine, total: 11.
In each case the formula proceeds with the name of the beneficiary and a statement of goods. Claudius Philetos never gives himself a title nor does he provide a signature or a date at the end.
- Lancer: translated as a party to a loan.
- Soldier: used in number 50, translated as:
Soldier (number 50):
Aidouros to Andouios, Quintanensis,...let pass for Heroninos the soldier of Claudius Dorion, for outfitting, four italika, total: 4 ital.
Note that Tiberious Claudius Dorion has not been identified as a Roman military commander. So, it is not known if this Claudius Dorion is the same person as the Claudius mentioned above. There is no mention of a branch of service, a unit or a rank. If Claudius Dorion is an imperial freedman, then the soldier mentioned must be acting on behalf of the imperial household and providing armed support.
- Quad: This word is abbreviated in every instance. It is not associated with a known Greek word, perhaps it is linked with a Latin title.
- Quintanensis: a soldier in charge of the market. Quintanenses is defined as two soldiers in charge of the market place, they seem to have been in a position to honor the passes issued for passage of wine through the customs gate.
- 'Those in charge of the gate': there are several ostraka with this title, an example is given above (Claudius Philetos; number 90). Perhaps the phrasing is due to Claudius being unfamiliar with who is in charge of the gate, or is not on a friendly basis with them. Whatever the reason, all texts concerning him are addressed in this way.
- (unknown): probably an official term for a customs collector or customs house.
- Varus: this is not a title but a name, probably a man in charge of ships as another variation encountered is: '...of those of Varus' which may mean 'the ships of Varus'. It can be argued that, at least in some passages, it could be taken as 'the men of Varus'. It is hard to say who Varus was or what became of his career due to the name itself being rather common.
The Ptolemaic government is usually characterized as one of the most rigid but also most efficiently run hierarchical bureaucracies ever devised. The administration was staffed by a host of officials and bureaucrats, recording and regulating all the activities and obligations of all the king's subjects. The ever-present tax collector enforced harsh demands on merchants. Government officials minutely monitored land and other productive industries in every aspect. This is evident by an extraordinarily detailed set of revenue laws promulgated under Ptolemy II Philadelphus. As far as administrators and officials were concerned, the distinction was not easy to maintain in a system where the collection of taxes and the operation of banks were contracted out to private businessmen. There was no regular salary structure for the administrators and officials, magistrates and officials had to be people that could afford to hold office without pay. These positions were passed down through the family and placed considerable power in the hands of he army, they were therefore not available to just anyone (Bowman, 1986).
Place of ostraka in the customs process
Taking into consideration the titles and formulas on the written orders, the custom stations in Berenike seem to have been designed to process the goods that were to be loaded onto ships for passage to ports along the African and Indian coast. Goods coming through the Red Sea ports into Egypt for passage to other points in the Roman Empire my have been taxed twice, both on entering and when leaving. The tax at each point seems to have been approximately 25%. The prevailing opinion about subsection 19 of the Periplus Maris Erythraei is that such a tax was levied on goods from the Far East and Africa when they entered Imperial Rome. The Vero Papyrus also attests the existence of a 25% tax levied on goods entering Egypt. What remains unclear is if the tax percentage was the same for products passing through other Roman emporiums. The ostraka from the custom houses at Berenike support the theory at least some tax must have been imposed here.
There seems to be two types of passes that were issued: those issued by the superintendent of a customs station directed to other officials; and those issued by unspecified officials and probably directed to superintendents of the custom stations. It has been suggested that that bankers issued the second group of orders (Sijpestein, 1987). A third group of passes, issued outside of Berenike, would have allowed merchants to pass through the desert.
Goods and measures
As illustrated above, it seems that most of the orders pertained to wine, both in terms of frequency and quantity, with oil coming in at second followed by miscellaneous products. The orders do not consistently contain what we would consider export quantities, but range from two vessels to as high as 48, the average order being 8 vessels. The vast majority of orders are arranged in even numbers, suggesting the symmetrical loading of vessels onto pack animals. The large huge variation of order size is hard to explain but might imply that some of the product was intended for local consumption. More than likely, individual shippers broke their shipments down into amounts that would be transported by one camel driver or groups of drivers. If this is true, than it would be difficult to say what exactly was a shipment size. The distribution of products may also suggest that certain officials dealt with commodities of a certain type. Sosibios and Andouros seem to deal mainly with wine, whereas the texts of Herak( ) and Sarapion contain a more diverse set of goods.
The material presented here was arranged to exemplify the ways in which official documents were presented to and used by officials, the use of various titles, the economic factors involved, the place of ostraka in the customs process and the arrangements of goods and measures. It certainly does not reflect all material and information found in Berenike, but only serves to provide some insight into how the people at Berenike conducted trade.
Documents from Berenike (volume 1) Greek ostraka from the 1996-1998 seasons; by: Roger S. Bagnall, C. Christina Helms and Arthur M.F.W. Verhoogt. Brussel, Foundation Égyptologique Reine Élisabeth, 2000.
Egypt after the pharaohs; by: Alan K. Bowman. Oxford University Press, 1990.
Custom duties in Graeco-Roman Egypt; by: P.J. Sijpestein. Zutphen, Terra