The People of Greek and Roman Egypt

The papyri from Greek and Roman Egypt show a truly diverse society, with various ethnic groups (Egyptians, Nubians, Greeks, Romans, Jews, Arabs, and many more) interacting on a daily basis. At the same time, the documents make clear that language is not a good indicator of ethnicity. What language a person decides to use, depends on the context in which the document is written. In this period, Egyptians, when dealing with the state, were required to use the Greek language, either by learning it themselves, or by finding somebody willing to write the text for them. Throughout the Greek and Roman periods the care of the deceased (whether they were Greek or Egyptian), would remain the domain of Egyptian priests; in these circumstances Egyptian remained the language of choice, although sometimes translated into Greek. Greeks, especially women, when they decided that Egyptian law would be more advantageous for them, would go to an Egyptian notary and have legal or business documents drawn up in Demotic Egyptian.

image of a petition to the strategos Petition to the strategos. P. Mich. inv. 1269. Greek/Demotic. – Tebtunis (Umm el-Brigat), Fayum, Egypt. March-April, 37 C.E.

A petition addressed to Asklepiades, the strategos or chief civic official of the district. Nine men who represent priests in the service of the god Kronos at Tebtunis complain of the difficulties they encountered in dealing with former lessees of a granary belonging to the temple. None of the nine priests can write Greek, so they have one person sign for them collectively, in Greek. There follow four signatures in Demotic, showing that some of the priests were not illiterate, but just did not know how to write Greek.

image of document for the sale of a vacant lot Sale of part of a vacant lot. P. Mich. inv. 932 (P. Mich. V 250). Demotic/Greek. – Tebtunis (Umm el-Brigat), Fayum, Egypt. – August 28, 18 C.E.

A contract in which Chaireis, son of Apollonios, and his wife sell one ninth of a vacant lot to Orseus, son of Patynis. The notary wrote the contract in Demotic, putting the agreement in the context of Egyptian law. As usual in these kinds of documents, the contract is followed by contract summaries for the buyer and seller. The latter are written in Greek, supposedly because neither party could find someone literate in Demotic to write the text for them. The buyer, who, as mentioned in the contract, could not write at all, asked someone to write for him (Diodoros, son of Heracles) who apparently only wrote Greek. The seller Chaireis was literate in Greek, and wrote his contract summary on behalf of himself and his wife who, he states explicitly, was illiterate. Interestingly, the notary then added one line of Greek at the top, with the date and type of contract in Greek, presumably for easy reference in his archive. He also jotted physical descriptions of the three contracting parties in the lower left-hand margin.

Image of a mummy label Mummy label. P. Mich. inv. 4534 (4) (P. Coll. Youtie II 113). Greek/Demotic. Panopolis (Achmim), Egypt. – Roman period

This wooden tablet provides the name Sionsis son of Tithoës, in Greek and Demotic and may have been used to identify the mummy of this man (although there is no hole in the wood to attach it with a string to the mummy). The orange color of this tablet is quite unusual, but we do not know its meaning, if any.

image of tax receipts
image of tax receipts
Tax Receipts. P. Mich. inv. 1840 and 1842 (SB XVI 13043 and 13044). Coptic/Greek. Provenance unknown, Egypt. – 8th century C.E.

These two receipts were issued to John (son of) Proou for the payment of poll tax (Greek laographia). The papyri are unusual in combining Coptic and Greek, since this type of tax receipt is more commonly written in either language, but not both. The text begins with the name of the tax and the identification of the taxpayer in Coptic. There follows in Greek the year for which the tax is paid (the year preceding the date), the amount of the tax in Coptic, and a summary and date in Greek.

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