Writing in Egypt under Greek and Roman Rule

by Peter van Minnen
When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC he could not know that the Greek language he introduced into this ancient civilization was to dominate it for more than a thousand years. Until well after the Arab invasion of Egypt in AD 640-642 Greek was used for official documents rather than the indigenous language, Egyptian, which was used for religious texts and private documents written in Hieratic or Demotic script and, from the third century AD onwards, with the aid of the Greek alphabet. The last-mentioned combination of an indigenous language and a foreign script is called Coptic (the Coptic text is a martyrdom and is also available in translation).

The Ptolemaic period lasted from 323 to 30 BC. It is called "Ptolemaic" after the names of the kings of Egypt at the time: Ptolemy I to XIV, usually married to either an Arsinoe, a Berenice or a Cleopatra. The Ptolemies were of Greek-Macedonian descent, just like Alexander the Great. The Roman period, sometimes divided into a Roman and a Byzantine section, lasted from 30 BC to AD 640-642.

During this millenium millions of Greek and Coptic and thousands of Hieratic, Demotic and Latin (to the right) documents were written for public and private use. A small number of these survive today. For example the published number of Greek papyri is only about 50,000. There are at least seven times as many still to be published. A limited number of texts are literary, including Homer, Aristophanes, an ancient novel (Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius), etc. These are written in calligraphic scripts. Most texts are strictly documentary.

Among the documentary papyri we find official documents, like edicts of kings, emperors and governors, administrative documents, like tax rolls, tax receipts, census returns and property returns, private documents, like sales, leases, loans, wills, marriage contracts and contracts of apprenticeship, as well as more personal documents, like letters, memoranda, accounts, horoscopes and amulets. Especially the latter class of documents have an intrinsic human interest because of their individual character.

All these texts somehow serve to reconstruct ancient civilization at large, its social, economic, political, legal, religious, linguistic and even medical history, from a far more authentic angle than is otherwise possible through the written word. Usually we have only the works of biased classical authors to tell us what their life was like. Even inscriptions on stone tend to be written with posterity in mind. Papyri, however, were not written for us but for the use of the ancients themselves. This gives them their unique freshness and directness. Their interest is even greater when they are part of one and the same private archive, because in that case we can follow the ups and downs of a family through several decades, generations or even centuries.

There are about a hundred papyri in the Duke collection that originally belonged to the archive of Ammon, a lawyer from Panopolis in Upper Egypt. While he was on a business trip in Alexandria in AD 348 he wrote a letter to his mother, the longest private letter from the ancient world. The letter is written in impeccable Greek and very carefully executed, no doubt to impress his mother (he was about forty by then). He relates how his brother Horion and a Nubian prince left Alexandria to meet the emperor Constantius. The last column of the text contains greetings to his family and friends back home.

The script the Greeks introduced in Egypt in the fourth century BC was already many centuries old. The earliest papyri in Greek found in Egypt are all written in rather square letters (like a fragment of Euripides, twice enlarged), not unlike the letters found inscribed on stone or the printed capital letters of modern Greek. From the earliest Ptolemaic period until the Arab conquest the Greek script as used for documentary texts underwent significant changes. It became much more cursive and by the first century AD some hands had become almost illegible. The difficulty we encounter in deciphering texts written in this way is enhanced by the fact that the Greeks did not use any word division.

In the later Roman period the scribes developed a cursive Greek script that allowed even more continuous writing. This was initially used in documentary texts only (as in a list of villages), but at the very end of antiquity this script was also introduced in the writing of literary texts. In this way a form of cursive Greek was developed that is still used in printing Greek today, and taught in modern Greek schools.

An important aspect of all documentary papyri is the language in which they were written. The Greek used in Graeco-Roman Egypt was no longer the language used by the classical Greeks, for example Plato and the other companions of Socrates. It was already well on its way to medieval and modern Greek, notably as far as the pronunciation is concerned. The language was also adapted to the new environment, which was largely Egyptian. In this way a sort of colonial Greek came into existence, which was also found in other parts of the Mediterrean world where Greek was used in the context of an entirely different language, be it Italy, Syria or Palestine. The study of the language of the New Testament (starting with Matthew 1:1 in Coptic to the left) can profit considerably from the language of the Greek texts found in Egypt.

Papyrus (derived from an Egyptian expression meaning "from the great house", i.e. the pharaonic administration of yore; our word "paper" is derived from it) was the most important writing material in the ancient world once its superiority to clay tablets was recognized. Because papyrus mainly grows in Egypt, the other civilizations had to import it from there and this also goes for the Graeco-Roman world. Apart from papyrus other materials like parchment (e.g. a fragment of Plato), potsherds (the so-called ostraca like the receipt to the right, twice enlarged) and wood had their use too. Ostraca were available free and the smooth surface permits of writing in ink. Wood was rather scarce in Egypt and had to be imported. Wood was mainly used in schools (e.g. a school tablet), but also for other purposes. We find all kinds of writing on other objects from Graeco-Roman Egypt as well.

More detailed information on the items illustrated in the text is available (in the order of appearance):

Hieratic amulet(?)
Demotic order
Coptic martyrdom
Latin document
Homer, Odyssey
Aristophanes, Peace
An ancient novel
Receipt for barley
Property return
Sale of a donkey
Lease of a vineyard
Private letter
Ammon's letter to his mother
Euripides, Orestes
List of villages
Matthew 1:1
Plato, Parmenides
School tablet

(adapted from: The Beginning of Understanding: Writing in the Ancient World, Ann Arbor 1991: $10 + $3 postage and handling; write to: The Kesley Museum of Archaeology, 434 S. State Street, Ann Arbor MI 48109-1390; (c) The Kelsey Museum of Archaeology 1991, reprinted with permission)

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Last updated by Peter van Minnen on 12/18/95