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Hermione and Kleopatra: Two Princeton Papyri
concerning Women in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt

Adviser: AnneMarie Luijendijk

Isha Marina Di Bartolo


“Make use of all the resources at Princeton—the libraries, study spaces, study breaks, and your friends.”


The sense of relief and accomplishment I felt when I handed in my junior independent work in the spring of 2009 did not last very long. The thesis loomed in the distance and I had friends, many of them chemistry or molecular biology concentrators, who had already begun research. I did not even have a topic.

The summer before senior year, almost serendipitously, Professor AnneMarie Luijendijk in the religion department contacted me via e-mail in order to inform me that she was offering a course in the fall titled “Studies in Greco-Roman Religions: Literary and Documentary Papyrology.” I remember very clearly the first time I met with Professor Luijendijk. I was a freshman and she was teaching REL 251, “The New Testament and Christian Origins.” I was captivated by her historical and document-based approach to the study of religion. Nearing the end of the course, I told her how much I had loved the course, and expressed interest in learning more about document-based historiography. She told me that the best way to become involved in research in this topic would be to take her graduate papyrology seminar, the same one she offered me the summer before my senior year. The catch was that in order to take this seminar, I would need about two years of classical, or “Koine,” Greek.

Almost three years later, in the fall of 2009, I finally had the prerequisites to take her course. In this accelerated class, I was introduced, for the first time, to the exciting world of papyri—how to read and understand these ancient documents, and how to place them in their historical contexts. As a classics major, I had been used to perusing Cambridge and Oxford editions of ancient texts including Homer, Herodotus, Sophocles, and Euripides. But attempting to read a tax receipt from the fourth century required an entirely new set of skills. I learned that the Manuscripts Division of Princeton’s Rare Books and Special Collections included hundreds of papyri that had never before been looked at in depth. There were two documents, both concerning women in Egypt of late antiquity, which particularly caught my attention. I was a little hesitant at first to dive into such a new discipline for my thesis, and I knew a lot could go wrong. It was a risk I was willing to take.

The skills I was learning during the seminar were the skills I was using for my research. I became acquainted with the challenging discipline of paleography—the practice of deciphering, reading, and dating historical manuscripts. The first papyrus I attempted to interpret, which was smaller than a standard-size index card, took weeks to decipher. I would spend afternoons in the Rare Books and Special Collections’ reading room, hunched over my papyri with a magnifying glass, and evenings in the paleography room in Firestone Library trying to make sense of the letters. With time and with the help of Professor Luijendijk’s expertise and constant support, the unintelligible strokes became letters—and the letters became words. It now was my job to figure out what it all meant. Was the document I was dealing with a financial transaction? There was mention of a quantity of currency totaling 16,000 talents. How did this amount compare to the wages of a day laborer? Who was the Hermione, alias Thaibis, who was mentioned in that papyrus? Could she be the same Hermione that was mentioned in an archive from Hermopolis from the late third century CE?

I found myself often overwhelmed by the number of questions I could pose, and the number of leads, dead ends, and false starts I took. My research process was far from linear, and there were many frustrations along the way—days or even weeks of research that led to nothing. But the frustrations were small in comparison to the rich rewards of discovery. From the beginning, I had been intrigued by Hermione’s second name, Thaibis. Why did she have an Egyptian alias? Through research, I was able to learn about this woman’s identity, her racial and cultural background. I was able to use the papyri I selected as “windows” into specific facets of the lives of women in Egypt of late antiquity.

As a freshman, as a sophomore, as a junior, and even as a senior, the idea of completing the thesis often seemed remote, daunting, and almost unachievable. Performing original research, and asking questions whose answers cannot be found in any book on any shelf in Firestone, is intimidating—but immensely gratifying. I was fortunate to have a wonderful adviser, who provided guidance and expert advice whenever necessary. I met with Professor Luijendijk about once a week to talk about how things were going. We discussed the questions I posed and the hypotheses I came up with. She never hesitated to tell me when I was completely off base, and to direct me to relevant journals or manuscripts whenever she could. I would recommend finding a topic you are deeply interested in, and an adviser who will be there for you, as mine was. Make use of all the resources at Princeton—the libraries, study spaces, study breaks, and your friends. Provide each other with encouragement. Don’t worry if there are evenings where all you do is play “Robot Unicorn Attack.” It is all part of the experience—the quintessentially Princeton experience!

Hermione and Kleopatra: Two Princeton Papyri
concerning Women in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt

Isha Marina Di Bartolo

AnneMarie Luijendijk

Assistant Professor of Religion

“Talk to your professor and ask for help. Scholarship should not be an isolating experience.”

In 2009–10, I had the privilege and pleasure to be thesis adviser for Marina Di Bartolo from the Department of Classics. Marina edited two unpublished papyrus fragments from the Manuscripts Division of Princeton’s Rare Books and Special Collections, the first student at Princeton to do so in a senior thesis.

Marina worked on two papyri from different time periods (first century BCE and fourth century CE), each featuring a woman. This focus on papyri and women’s history formed the glue for the thesis. Through her research, Marina discovered that each papyrus belonged to a larger document or archive, which allowed a fuller, richer glimpse into the lives of their subjects than the fragments themselves would have. Her edition and interpretation of these hard-to-read papyri form an original contribution to the field of papyrology and the study of women’s lives in antiquity. The thesis is an excellent piece of ancient detective work.

In a way, Marina’s thesis project began in her first semester at Princeton, fall 2006. As a freshman, Marina took my class REL 251, “The New Testament and Christian Origins.” To show the students early Christian texts written on papyrus, I organized a manuscript show in Firestone Library. Talking about our wonderful collection of Greek papyri at Princeton, I mentioned that there remain many unedited papyri and that I was teaching a graduate seminar, “Studies in Greco-Roman Religions: Literary and Documentary Papyrology,” in the spring semester. Clearly fascinated by the ancient manuscripts, Marina inquired after the precept if she could enroll in that seminar. At that time it was not possible, as she did not have the prerequisite of at least two years of classical Greek language study. But that spring, Marina took Turbo-Greek! In the fall of 2009, I taught the papyrological seminar again. Marina, now a senior in the classics department, enrolled in the seminar and decided she wanted to edit papyri as her senior thesis project. The lesson here is: Follow your passion. If a topic interests you, pursue it.

If you’re excited about your topic, you have the stamina to conduct complicated research. In Marina’s case, deciphering faded texts scribbled in ancient Greek handwriting on a badly preserved piece of writing material was difficult. Her research also involved searching modern papyrological databases, reading old German editions of papyri, analyzing Greek and Egyptian names, and valuing ancient valuta.

By embarking on this project, Marina also took a risk: When you begin to read a previously unedited papyrus, you do not know what the text is about and what you get into. Given the outcome, it was a risk well worth taking. Marina not only opened up two texts that had not been read for almost 2,000 years, but also had found two very interesting ones. So, don’t be afraid to take a risk, as long as you begin early and are prepared to work hard. Such projects often yield the most exciting results.

Talk to your professor and ask for help. Scholarship should not be an isolating experience. As an adviser, I enjoy meeting with my thesis advisees, discussing their progress, and analyzing setbacks. Marina updated me during weekly meetings about her research. At times, we would study an enlarged digital image of one her papyri on my computer screen, trying to figure out what was written, or search a dictionary or papyrological database for a rare word. We professors enjoy this kind of intensive research!

The University has great resources, so if you are looking for a topic, explore them and use them. For instance, Firestone Library houses many unique unstudied or understudied documents and archives. Look on the website, or ask a professor or a librarian about them.

I am proud of Marina’s accomplishments and wish future thesis writers a fruitful and enriching experience.