Local Courts in Roman Egypt 


FWF-Project - Nr. 26198

Head: B. Palme

Co-worker: A. Dolganov

As soon as the Hellenistic kingdom of Ptolemaic Egypt was incorporated into the Roman Empire in 30 BCE, the courts of Egypt became venues for Roman jurisdiction. Like most Roman governors, the Roman prefect of Egypt (praefectus Aegypti) ruled in an itinerant fashion and took an annual tour of his province, during which he held assizes (in Latin, conventus, in Greek, dialogismos, dikaiodosia) in major cities. At each assize, the governor (along with other imperial officials) conducted administrative business and received petitions and adjudicated civil and criminal cases.

Fortunately, the arid climate of Egypt has preserved many hundreds of documents on papyrus that attest to the Roman assize system and to the activity of imperial and local courts. In addition to hundreds of petitions to officials, the papyrological record has preserved several hundred records of court hearings conducted by imperial officials, local officials, city councillors and army officers who were on a more or less formal basis delegated the task of settling local disputes. These extraordinary testimonia for the legal process in a province of the Roman Empire are the object of the current investigation.

This project is dedicated to jurisdiction at the local level, beyond the immediate framework of imperial assizes, which is a subject that has received much less attention than the jurisdictional activity of Roman imperial officials. In particular, detailed treatment is given to the jurisdictional activity of district officials (strategoi), military officers, and (after 200 CE) city councils. Looking beyond the courts of imperial officials provides important insight into the impact of the Roman assize system, as we observe the aftermath of judicial sentences issued by officials at the conventus. The focus on local jurisdiction also sheds light on the choice of individuals to engage with formal justice, as opposed to arbitration and private settlement. One important aspect of the investigation is to what extent legal procedure appears to have been standardized, or whether procedure at the local level departed in significant ways from the way hearings were conducted by imperial officials. Close attention is paid to the actors involved (judges, legal advisors, forensic orators, witnesses, notaries, armed personnel, etc.) and their interaction in the courtroom. Another focus of the project are the factors determining the delegation of jurisdiction by imperial officials, often to military officers, as well as the involvement of local officials and soldiers in conducting the investigation of cases on the ground.

The first goal of the project is the analysis of all relevant texts from high-quality digital images, checking lacunae and problematic readings in the published editions. The second goal is legal-historical analysis of jurisdictional activity at the local level, addressing key historical questions: 1) the relationship between the imperial assize system and local instances of jurisdiction; 2) legal procedure in imperial vs. local courts; 3) the activity of legal practitioners inside and outside the courtroom; 4) the admission of cases to upper-level courts vs. their delegation to the local level.

This project aims to fill an important gap in the existing research, which tends to focus on the jurisdictional activity of Roman governors and other imperial officials. Accordingly, this study dedicates its attention to the large number of district and local officials in whose courts much of the practical business of jurisdiction took place. The results of this project are anticipated to be an important contribution to our understanding of the administration of justice in the Roman Empire, and of the institutional and cultural impact of Roman imperial rule.

CPR I 18 = SPP XX 4 (Ptolemais Euergetis, 124 CE) . Proceedings before a delegated judge of the Prefect concerning an issue of Egyptian testamentary law, corrected and filed in the central archive of the Arsinoite Nome. Copyright: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Papyrussammlung
SPP XXII 51 (Soknopaiou Nesos, 153 CE)
Proceedings before the High Priest (archiereus) concerning an application for circumcision. Copyright: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Papyrussammlung