Greek takes over

In the study of papyri and ancient history Egypt is usually referred to as Graeco-Roman Egypt for the period going from the third century BC to approximately the third century AD, during which time the country was first under the Ptolemies (III-I BC) and then under the Romans (AD I-III). The phrase Graeco-Roman Egypt, the significance of which has been long debated, simply points to the existence of a multi-cultural society where Egyptian, Greek and, later on, Roman customs and traditions met and intermingled. Various elements of Greek culture found their way into Egypt with the arrival of the Ptolemies; some kept their original form and nature, some others underwent a more or less deep transformation and acquired a somehow hybrid connotation. Religion was of course one of these elements (see post, but not the only one.

The most representative element to mark the encounter between the Greeks and the Egyptians is certainly the language. Greek penetrated into Egypt in the third century BC as the language of the rulers, and for a time was used only by Greek settlers. But this state of things was bound to change soon. With Egypt quickly becoming a multi-cultural society, Greek became increasingly more popular. And not only among the Hellenic strata of the population. Greek also started to be used by many Egyptians in private correspondence and business documents, a phenomenon that seems to have increased in the Roman period. Under the Ptolemies both demotic-Egyptian and Greek were adopted in the administration, but around 146 BC a royal decree was imposed whereby Egyptian contracts (that is contracts written in demotic) required Greek subscriptions in order to be valid. This seeminlgy simple requirement was the beginning of a big social and cultural change in the life of the Egyptians. Towards the end of the first century AD, as a result of a Roman policy, demotic completely disappeared from administration and legal documents, making Greek the official language of Egypt.

Here are two examples of demotic documents dated to the Ptolemaic period (II BC) with Greek subscriptions, from the Tebtunis collection at CTP.

P.Tebt. III 982 P.Tebt. II 571

A festival for Demeter

In Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt a number of religious festivals were celebrated regularly in honor of various deities, both Greek and Egyptian, in the cities as well as in the countryside. Festivals were not simply a time for the gods, but also a special occasion for the whole community to gather together and feast, in the name of a sense of collectivity that characterized especially villages. The festival in honor of Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest, was one of these occasions.

Known in Greece as Thesmophoria, in Egypt this festival also took the name of Demetreia. In the Ptolemaic period it became very popular in the Fayum, and a papyrus from the Berkeley collection, dated somewhere between the late third and the early second century BC, informs us that it was celebrated in Tebtunis too.

That of Demeter was a typical Greek cult, and festivals in honor of this deity took place in Egypt in Greek and Hellenized areas. With the arrival of the Ptolemies (and of the Macedonian settlers), Tebtunis, like other Fayum villages, underwent a process of Hellenization which embraced language, administration, law, and of course religion, as is attested by the very presence of the Demetreia. The Berkeley papyrus in question lists a series of payments for wine, made on the occasion of the festival to Demeter. The exact date is not preserved, but it is possible that the event took place at the same time as the Thesmophoria-Demetreia at Alexandria, that is at the end of November (which is also the time when this festival was celebrated at Athens). The papyrus confirms that the festival for Demeter was also a time for gifts, for both men and women. Wine was received as a gift, and among the beneficiaries we find in our document the Greeks Theodoros and Dorotheos. Another specific characteristic of this festival was the sacrifice of a pig, a typical Greek practice which the Egyptians didn’t seem to have a problem to accept.

Religious festivals and, later, celebrations in honor of the Roman emperors remained a fundamental feature of village life at Tebtunis for the centuries to come, and defined the very identity of that society. Whether it was a Greek deity to be celebrated or an Egyptian one, a strong sense of community and desire to gather for feasting together became the backbone of these village festivals.

A village of literature

It is generally believed that in the ancient world literature was produced in cities and circulated mainly in major cultural, religious and economic centers. The papyri from Graeco-Roman Egypt, however, have demonstrated that that was not always the case, and that literature could be found in villages too. A special role was played by the villages in the Fayum (ancient Arsinoite district), where the Greek presence was particularly strong (this was the district where, under the early Ptolemies, the Greek soldiers were given land and settled). Of the Fayum villages, Tebtunis stands out as the best documented ‘literary village’. In other words, most of the literary texts which have been preserved from the Graeco-Roman Fayum come from Tebtunis. The Homeric poems were very popular, as one would expect, and the first two books of the Iliad seem to have been largely preferred over the others. Twenty-five Homeric pieces are so far known to have come from Tebtunis, mostly dated to the Roman period, and the great majority are kept at the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri (CTP) here at Berkeley. To these we need to add a few new pieces that were dispersed in several boxes after the 1899/1900 excavation and found only in recent times (read, for example, the post on the Odyssey piece, and the more recent post on the Iliad fragments, whose publication is underway But it was not just Homer. A varied array of literary texts is attested to have circulated in Tebtunis, including the Greek tragic poet Euripides, the lyric poet Pindar and the historian Xenophon. Such a wide circulation of literature in a village is remarkable and should not be taken for granted. It points indeed to the existence of an eliterian readership made up of those Greeks who resided in the village and certainly did not want to give up the privilege of reading ‘best seller’ books. Some literary texts, like Iliad books I and II, were also used as schoolbooks.

In the meantime, new literary texts keep coming up from the boxes of unpublished material kept at CTP, adding new information to our understanding of the nature of Greek literature in the village. Sometimes, however, a papyrus comes to light that preserves a literary text unknown to us. It is the case of P.Tebt. 896, dated to the second century BC, and P.Tebt. 897, dated to the late third century BC.

Both papyri come from mummy cartonnage, a wrapping material that was used to make mummy cases and masks (see The first one includes two columns written in capital letters, the script used for literary texts. Interestingly, a study of the papyrus has not been able to reveal what text we are dealing with, nor do we know the author. All we know is that it is probably a philosophical text. The second papyrus is written in a more cursive hand, and includes lines of what seems to have been a scientific treatise. Again, the author has not yet been identified. Both papyri need further investigation, as it is clear that we are in front of new texts. Papyri like P.Tebt. 896 and 897 are not rare, and many other cases are to be found in the Berkeley collection. A future study of these papyri as a whole has the potential to shed new light on the state of literature and its readership in Tebtunis, both under the Ptolemies and under the Romans.

Ancient Egypt, science and Greek literature

To most, the thread that connects ancient Egypt to science and literature is the Library of Alexandria. Founded in third century BC by Ptolemy I Soter, the first king of the Ptolemaic dynasty that would rule in Egypt for the next three centuries, the library (in Greek bibliotheke) soon became a major cultural center in the ancient world, attracting the most renowned students and thinkers of the time. Although the history and size of the library of Alexandria are now shrouded in some aura of mystery, mostly due to its destruction in later periods, ancient sources confirmed that it contained a remarkably large collection of papyrus scrolls (what we call ‘books’), covering a wide spectrum of fields, from medicine, astronomy and physics to geography and literature, just to mention a few. Philology, that is the study of textual criticism, became one of the main and most developed fields of studies in the Hellenistic period, and the library of Alexandria played a fundamental role in the development and promotion of new philological methodologies. A scholar that well embodied the establishment of this new discipline is Callimachos. A Greek erudite, he was raised in the Greek colony of Cyrene, Libya, and educated in Athens, before moving to Alexandria, where he worked in the library. Among the most famous chief librarians is Eratosthenes, another Greek from Cyrene who received his education in Athens. Eratosthenes is mainly known to have been the first to measure the circumference of the Earth. However, he was not only a mathematician. His interests were broader, ranging from geography to poetry.

In today’s busy society, universities replaced the ancient libraries as large centers of research, while time constraints and the need to be specialized in one specific field have made culture more compartmentalized than ever. Yet, the fascination of the ancient world has not died out. Regardless of what our job is, we cannot help but stand in awe in front of the Athenian Parthenon or be captivated by the immensity of the Egyptian pyramids. And it is not just fascination. The ancient world is an integral part of our heritage and history (although often we seem to forget that), and knowledge of that history never fails to result in innovative ideas and creative empiral interpretations when applied not only in fields like politics, but also in the social settings of everyday life.

Leonidas Petrakis, who holds a PhD in Chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, and was recently Department Chairman and Senior Scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, is a perfect example of the ways in which literature and science meet. Not only passionate about the ancient world, Leonidas has a deep knowledge of the ancient Greek language and culture. In a fascinating article that he has published a while back in the largest Greek American newspaper, The National Herald, he investigated the relation between ancient Greeks and modern science (a link to his article can be found here:

Recently Leonidas spent some time at the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri (CTP) working on unpublished texts. Thousands of pieces here at CTP are still kept in boxes, waiting to be unfolded, read and analyzed. Leonidas went through the fragments of one of these boxes, and patiently examined each piece. His efforts were soon rewarded when he found three small papyri written in the unmistakably capital hand-writing used for literary works. The three pieces included lines from the Iliad by Homer. This remarkable discovery has the potential to shed further light on the culture and society of the people living in Tebtunis, Egypt, over 2,000 years ago. A confirmation that ancient villages were not mere rural settlements, but could play the more important role of mini-cultural centers, where world-class literature, like Homer, had an independent tradition of dissemination. Leonidas is currently in the process of editing these two fragments for publication, in collaboration with the writer of this blog and with the director of CTP, Professor Todd Hickey. This edition will illuminate important issues, such divulgation and readership of Greek literature in a village of the Roman Empire.

It is not just a mummy…

In the winter of 1899-1900 a team of papyrologists and workers, led by the Oxford scholars Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, conducted an excavation at the ancient site of the village of Tebtunis. Incidentally, the excavation was carried out for the University of California and funded by Mrs. Phoebe Hearst.

The team excavated the necropolis (south and south-west of the site), where a large number of tombs of the Ptolemaic period, human and crocodile mummies were recovered.

I quote here part of the introduction to ‘The Tebtunis Papyri’, vol. 2, which include the papyri (with traslation and comment) found during this excavation.

‘The tombs of the large Ptolemaic necropolis adjoining the town proved in many instances to contain only crocodiles, and on Jan. 16, 1900 – a day which was otherwise memorable for producing twenty-three early Ptolemaic mummies with papyrus cartonnage – one of our workmen, disgusted at finding a row of crocodiles where he expected sarcophagi, broke one of them in pieces and disclosed the surprising fact that the creature was wrapped in sheets of papyrus.’

This type of wrapping material is known as mummy cartonnage, and was commonly used in Egypt to make mummy cases and masks. In certain periods cartonnage was made of sheets of reused papyri, which were considered waste material and were no longer of use. Many of the papyri coming from the crocodile mummies of Tebtunis were not just discarded documents. Subsequent studies have revealed that those texts were part of a large archive dated to the end of the second century BC and known as the ‘archive of Menches’. Menches, a ‘Greek born in Egypt’, was the village scribe of Kerkeosiris, a village not far from Tebtunis (a village scribe was the main official in charge of the local administration). The archive includes administrative documents produced not only during the office of Menches, but also during the offices of later village scribes, and sheds light on the administration and management of village agricultural land under the Ptolemies. Most of the documents are contracts, petitions, registers, accounts.

This is a reproduction of Menches, to be found in the corridor leading to the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri (CTP)

The archive of Menches has been the object of numerous and in-depth studies which have led students of papyrology and ancient history to travel to Berkeley to examine the original texts. But this archive is not the only group of papyri coming from mummy cartonnage that can be found in the vault of CTP.

I am currently going through several boxes which contain the so-called UC papyri (UC for University of California). These texts were brought to Berkeley in 1930’s from England, and subsequently catalogued by Philip Kase. The majority of these papyri come from mummy cartonnage, as can be seen by the quality and colour (quite dark) of the paper. So far I have come across a few accounts and one contract (possibly a lease), all written in Greek and dated to the late Ptolemaic period.

Here are a couple of examples.

Agreement (2 copies)


According to the old notes of previous scholars that accompanied these boxes of papyri, internal connections are to be found between these UC papyri and other groups of texts belonging to the collection, including the papyri that I have discussed in previous posts of this blog. The next step is now crucial, to identify these links and reconstruct the history behind the texts.

The most honored Kronion

After a few weeks’ break, due to the holidays and to a conference, it is now time to publish here the first post of 2015. I have been debating what papyrus and topic would be most suitable for opening the series of blog posts for the new year, and then today I have decided on this one: a business letter from Philotas to the most honored Kronion.

Before giving you the details of this letter, I would like to explain the reason behind this choice, that is my attendance at the annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies in New Orleans, January 8-11, 2015 This is is an unmissable event for all classicists and ancient historians from the US and from all over the world, as it gives scholars and students the chance to meet and exchange views on topics of shared interests, and to foster future work relationships. Of particular interest to me is the American Society of Papyrologists panel, a paper session entirely dedicated to the study of culture and society in Greek, Roman and Byzantine Egypt, organized and chaired by our very own Todd Hickey, director of the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri (CTP) and Associate Professor of Classics at UC Berkeley. This year, among the six papers of the session, there was also mine, entitled ‘Village elites in Roman Egypt: the case of first-century Tebtunis,’ in which I discussed the role and composition of the elites of Tebtunis, and presented some of the findings of the research I am conducting at CTP. As I already mentioned in previous posts, an important part of the village elites was a group of Hellenic and Hellenized families, who owned large plots of land and engaged in money lending activities. Indeed the papyrus I am presenting today is a further example of the involvement of members of these families in the economy of the village.

It is again a letter. The sender is a certain Philotas, who is not otherwise identified, but who was clearly proficient at writing in Greek. Incidentally, a man called Philotas seems to appear as the recipient of another letter, also discussed in this blog The two letters, however, do not seem to be related to each other, and it is very likely that we are dealing with two different people.

The recipient is a man called Kronion, who is given the prestigious title of timiotatos, that is ‘the most honored’. In letters this title was usually conferred to recipients who held a preeminent position. Who was this Kronion it is difficult to say, but I would like to note that one Kronion titled as ‘the most honored’ is attested in another letter from Tebtunis, dated to the second century AD. This letter belongs to the archive of the descendants of Patron, a very wealthy family of Hellenic descent who owned land near Tebtunis and held magistracies in the district capital, Arsinoe, in the first and second centuries AD. Unfortunately no photograph is available of this letter, but I will give here a short summary of its content (the letter is published as P.Mil.Vogl. VI 281, that is in the Papyri of the University of Milan, vol. 6). Geminos, a member of the Patron family, asks Kronion the most honored to go into his (Geminos’) utility room and get the beam to give to the merchants. Then he asks to be sent a donkey, so that he can return (to Tebtunis presumably). Is this Kronion to be identified with the Kronion of our letter? It is not to be excluded. Indeed connections between the archive of the descendants of Patron and unpublished Tebtunis papyri here at CTP have been noted in the past, and a study of these links, which I am currently undertaking, will shed further light on the role of the Hellenic elite in the village.

Our letter is not dated, but the handwriting can be plausibly assigned to both the first and the second century AD. The full content is not entirely clear because the central section is abraded, but a reference to the gilding of an indefinite object seems to confirm that we are dealing with a business letter. The gilding process was probably entrusted to specialized goldsmiths, who in Tebtunis are attested to have formed a professional association. More about the content of this letter will emerge from a detailed analysis of an infrared photograph of the papyrus.

An address can be seen on the back of the papyrus (at the bottom), as was common in letters from Greco-Roman Egypt.

‘To the father, many greetings’

Here it is a third post dedicated to private letters from Tebtunis (for the previous two posts see and It was not my intention to create a mini-series of posts focused on one particular type of document, but this new letter somehow complements the previous two already discussed in this blog.

The letter belongs to that category of documents which shed light on the life and activities of the Greeks or Greco-Egyptians of Tebtunis. Dated to the first or second century AD, it is addressed to a father, whose name ends in -ianus. A possible integration is Titanianus. The tone is both familiar and business-like. I won’t give now the full details of the letter, as a proper edition will be provided in due course, but here is the content at a glance. The addressee, whose name is lost unfortunately, is informing his father about some personal matters (something or someone is giving him good rest), and a few references are made about the running of a property. He then adds that a certain Claudis has brought him something, possibly a letter. A last request is made that something should be given to the ‘one who is delivering the letter’. In all likelihood father and son belonged to the Hellenized landowning elite of the village and were partners in business. Letters concerning the management and administration of private (or even public) estates are well attested in Roman Egypt. They are exchanged not only between business partners, or between managers and supervisors, but also between those relatives who were jointly responsible for the running of their estate, like in the case of our letter to the fater. A similar situation is probably to be found in the letter about a trip to the the city discussed on 12 December, 2014, where the two correspondents are likely to have been two brothers. Interestingly, the three unpublished letters discussed in this blog all seem to exhibits the ‘world’ of the Greeks or Hellenized Egyptians, where an exchange of information about the correspondents’ personal life and health is combined with requests related to work and business of various kind.

Trip to the city

Today, if you live in the Bay Area in California, you commonly refer to San Francisco as ‘the City’. Around two thousand years ago, if you had lived in the Arsinoite nome (modern Fayum), in Egypt, the city would have been either Alexandria or the district capital, Arsinoe, also known as Arsinoiton polis, ‘the city of the Arsinoites‘.

Today’s post is about a trip to the city that a person from Tebtunis took some time in the first or second century AD. The trip is documented by a letter, which survived in two fragments. Like the one discussed in the post on 4 December, 2014, this letter too eventually made its way to Berkeley!

Despite the fragmentary state of the papyrus, much of the text can still be read. The names of both the addressee and the recipient are lost, but the situation is quite clear. Here is a brief summary. The addressee is writing from the ‘city’ (polis in the papyrus) to someone in Tebtunis (where the letter was found). He informs his correspondent that he met a certain Artemidoros, and that he has received a letter from the manager (epitropos), which he will submit to a public official, probably the strategos (the main official in charge of the administration of the district). In the closing of the letter, he then sends his greetings to the father (or mother), brothers, sisters and daughter of his correspondent.

Now, a few questions need to be asked: What city do they refer to? Who are the people involved? What is the addressee doing in the city?

The city mentioned in the letter is most likely Arsinoe. A possible reference to the strategos, who resided in the district capital, would prove it. That from Tebtunis to Arsinoe was not a long journey, and could have been done in less than 10 hours (by donkey).

Here is a google map giving modern walking directions from Tebtunis (modern Umm el Baragat) to Arsinoe (modern Medinet el Fayum).

Although the identities of the two correspondents are not known, there are hints that they were business partners. To confirm this is a reference to a manager, so called epitropos. The epitropos was the person in charge of the administration and management of private estates in Roman Egypt before the third century AD. The one mentioned in our letter was most likely the manager of an estate owned by the addressee. It is also possible that the estate was jointly owned by the two correspondents. The estate itself was located somewhere in the district, either near Tebtunis or somewhere near the capital. The purpose of the trip was business. The addressee needed to submit a document, maybe a petition, to a public official in the city, and it was important that this piece of information was communicated to his business partner in Tebtunis. A meeting with Artemidoros was certainly an another reason for the trip. About the content of the document to be submitted we can only speculate, but given the circumstances it is possible that it had something to do with the estate(s) that the correspondents owned; maybe a case of maladministration?

Besides the real motive of this trip, our letter gives us a good insight into a practice which has become with time an integral part of our modern society, that of traveling for business. The two correspondents belonged to the well-off strata of the population of Tebtunis, most probably to the category of landowners of Hellenic descent, and were familiar with the people and administrative practices of the city. More on the role of people of Hellenic descent from Tebtunis can be read here

Snapshot from a letter

For centuries, letters have been the main means of communication in the private as well as in the public sphere. Letters were used between friends and relatives generally to share information about each other’s life and health, between managers and their colleagues or subordinates to discuss work-related matters, between public officials to give instructions on how to follow specific administrative procedures. The list of reasons for a writing a letter is almost endless.

Letters never fail to reveal something about the sender and the recipient, and in the case of private letters their content provides us with a snapshot of the life of the people involved and often allows us to immerse ourselves in someone else’s thoughts many centuries later. In antiquity private letters became a proper literary genre, the most famous example being Cicero, author of collections of letters to his friends and relatives in the first century BC. Though labelled as private and often exhibiting a colloquial tone, Cicero’s letters still keep their literary verve.

Bust of Cicero, Capitoline Museums, Rome

The same goes for the letters written by Pliny the Younger, the Roman writer who in a letter to the historian Tacitus documented the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Campania, Italy, in AD 79. Despite being addressed to friends and relatives and often discussing everyday life topics, his letters seem to lack a certain spontaneity, as they were essentially written for publication.

Pliny the Younger and his mother at Misenum when Vesuvius erupted (Kauffmann, 1785)

Private letters we find on papyri are different. They were not written for publication, and as a consequence they still preserve a certain feel of genuinity. Even centuries later, reading a letter of a mother to his son inquiring about his health almost feels like invading someone’s privacy. Yet, this kind of letters sheds light on an essential part of the ancient society that otherwise would remain unknown: personal relationships.

Waiting to be read, some 1,900 years later, is a private letter which, through a series of unlikely scenarios, was eventually delivered to the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, Berkeley, despite being addressed to someone in Tebtunis, Egypt!

The original recipient was a person probably named Philotas (the name is partly lost), addressed by the sender as ‘brother’. The two correspondents, however, were not necessarily siblings, as it was common for husband and wife to address each other as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’. Unfortunately the name of the sender is lost so we cannot be sure of the nature of the relationship between the two. There is no doubt though that they knew each other well. After asking for something to be done, the addressee sends his greetings ‘to her’, and asks for the cloak to be given to her. Who was this woman? It could have been their mother or sister, if the two were actually siblings; it could have been their daughter if the two were married instead. But there are other possibilities. The letter ends with the phrase ‘I pray for your health, brother’, commonly used in letters from Graeco-Roman Egypt. The exact context is still not entirely clear, but more can be reconstructed, and the letter has already found in Michael Zellmann-Rohrer, a member of our team, a new recipient, willing to recompose the puzzle.

Most certainly Philotas received this letter and did what he was asked. Then the letter was forgotten, kept maybe in Philotas’ house, for centuries until 1900, when it was found again and brought to Berkeley. Now that the letter has been found again, it won’t be forgotten.

Greek in Tebtunis at CTP

The Center for the Tebtunis papyri (CTP) at UC Berkeley possesses one of the largest collections of papyri in the world. These texts come from the village of Tebtunis in Middle Egypt and range in time from the third century BCE to the third century CE.

Lion statue

Lion statue at the entrance of the village of Tebtunis

Since its foundation (2000), CTP has facilitated and supported research on the Tebtunis papyri, a body of texts that has greatly advanced our knowledge and understanding of village life in Greek and Roman Egypt.

In this blog you will find information and updates about Greek in Tebtunis, a research project currently underway at CTP. The project is being carried out by Dr. Micaela Langellotti, postdoctoral fellow, under the supervision of Prof. Todd Hickey.

Greek in Tebtunis focuses on the decipherment, interpretation and digitization of the Greek papyri of Berkeley’s largely unpublished Tebtunis collection.

The aims of the project are threefold:

  • To investigate how far Greek structures and culture had an impact on this ancient village.
  • To assess the contribution of individuals and families of Hellenic status or descent to the village’s economy and society.
  • To determine what Greek books were read in Tebtunis and what kind of documents were deployed (and the circumstances of their deployment).

Greek in Tebtunis has been made possible by the generous support of the Elios Charitable Foundation and the National Hellenic Society.