The Word Saracen (
) in the Papyri
Prior to the Islamic conquest, the word "Saracen", so prominent from the fourth century on
in western literary sources, was a catchall to designate an Arab nomad (i.e., a bedouin) who
could be found ranging at large within and beyond the eastern frontiers of the empire. To the
settled populations that came into contact with Saracens, they were a bane and a boon, but
mostly a bane. In general, Saracens were either raiders or traders: they raided settlements for
prisoners and plunder; they fought against Roman and Persian forces, and at other times they
served as mercenaries in units of both camps. On the other side of the ledger, Saracens served
as messengers, as guides, as sellers of animals, as suppliers of provisions for travelers and re-
mote settlements, and as providers of transportation for people and commodities.
paradigm for this uncommon polarity, there are two events in connection with the monastery
of St. Antony in Egypt's eastern desert that illustrate the contrasting lifestyles of the Saracens.
In Athanasius' biography of the proto-monk of Egypt, we learn (PG
26.913; 916) that when a
voice told Antony to go to the inner desert, he joined a Saracen caravan that brought him to his
famous retreat, where, for a period of time, Saracens provided him with a supply of bread.
Some years later, Jerome records (PL
27.689-690) that in 357, Saracen marauders raided
Antony's monastery and killed one of his disciples. However, despite some of the more so-
cially acceptable pursuits of the Saracens, rarely did anyone have a good word to say for them.
Cyril of Scythopolis (24, 97 ed. Schwartz) called these pagan nomads "the wolves of Arabia
… barbaric in conduct; intent on doing evil."
Both aspects of the Saracen character are reflected in the papyri, although references to them
are hardly plentiful. The lack of citations is understandable since most documents deal with the
legal and commercial concerns of settled individuals and communities, and with their rela-
tionship with officials representing the imperial government.
Of a total of some 15 Greek documents that cite the Saracens, 9 or 10 are pre-Islamic.
I 4769.3 (byz), is a fragment without a meaningful context. Similarly,
P. Fuad I
29.17-18 (IV?) refers without a context to the "cloaks of the Saracens" (
). The remaining documents reflect the Janus-like aspect of the Saracens' service and
disservice to settled populations.
XVI 1.12284.4-5 (VI/VII) is an order to a
to it that a herd of goats, the property of the
, was to be taken from a Saracen (goatherd?)
who was in Singker
épo!pã!˙ tå aﬁg¤dia
§k toË %arakhnoË toË ˆnto! eﬁ! %igkerÆ).