College of LAS « Illinois


Across Cultures and Centuries

Ancient records reveal how traditions persevere as cultures mingle.

Maryline Parca

From looking at the past, one can see into the future.

That's the conviction of Maryline Parca, a professor in the Department of Classics who focuses much of her research on Graeco-Roman Egypt, a period covering three centuries before the Common Era. Following Alexander the Great's invasion of Egypt, the Hellenistic culture blended with that of the indigenous Egyptian society in a way, Parca argues, that is a model of multiculturalism for the modern era.

Today's resistance to globalization exists because "we fear it will make the world alike—but that doesn't seem to have been the case in antiquity," she says. "The Egyptian culture was able to hold on to its traditions alongside the imported elements of Greece and Rome." For instance, Parca explains, some prayers from this era combine worship of traditional Egyptian deities together with Greek gods—and sometimes even the emperor, who was considered divine.

"It is close to what is happening today. The traditions survive. They accommodate the new elements, and the traditions take on a different shape, but they don't die out. I hope that the ancient model will be what happens today."

Parca has generated such conclusions through her practice of what is known in the field as papyrology. She reads and analyzes papyri—economic, legal, or personal documents written by commoners or professional scribes on papyrus, the primary writing material available at the time—to understand everyday life during the Graeco-Roman period.

Maryline Parca believes that Graeco-Roman Egypt is a model of multiculturalism for today.

Papyrology has helped scholars get a sense of the legal, religious, and economic status of women in Graeco-Roman Egypt. The topic of women was one of the fault lines in this newly multicultural society. Egyptian women enjoyed more rights and freedoms than Greek women, Parca says. Many of the papyri—real estate sales, wet nursing and marriage contracts, divorce settlements, and police reports—involve women.

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"This door to the everyday life and the pettiness and nastiness of everyday life that existed is like reading the battery section of the local newspaper," Parca says.

The police complaints expose a culture of violence against women and between women, but not necessarily of a domestic nature. The complaints are of more petty crimes, such as a woman accusing another woman of stealing her garment at a public bath. One report documents an Egyptian woman, who emptied a chamber pot on a Greek man as he walked under her window. She later hit him and grabbed his coat.

Many papyri date from the early days of the Greek occupation of Egypt. As time went on, Parca says, the once rigid barriers between cultures became fluid as the immigrant and indigenous peoples blended together as they forged relationships.

Parca sees in the papyri that a few generations into the Hellenistic presence in Egypt, many of its inhabitants "feel at home in both worlds and are able to deal with either world," she says. "Through intermarriage and through people having bonds across cultures, it seems that the violence subsides cross-culturally," says Parca, who is herself a multicultural microcosm. The daughter of Italo-French parents, she grew up in Belgium but has lived most of her adult life in the United States.

Parca is quick to note that her department is one of the oldest in the University, and believes that it may be more relevant today than ever before.

"The ancients have pondered many issues we are dealing with," says Parca. The place of women in society, the place of the individual in a changing world, and the challenges of empire. The model of antiquity is a useful one."

By Laura Weisskopf Bleill, July 2004