Legal Practice in Greco-Roman Egypt and Papyrology 


With the seizure by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE until the Arab conquest in 641 CE Egypt belonged to the common cultural and political area of classical antiquity. During this period four different cultures and political systems alternated in the former realm of pharaonic Egypt. At the beginning the hellenistic kingdom founded by the dynasty of the Ptolemies, the successors of Alexander the Great in Egypt. After the defeat of its last ruler, the famous queen Cleopatra VII, who fought as an ally of Marcus Antonius in the Roman civil war against Octavian (who later became the first emperor of Rome) Egypt in 30 BCE became a Roman province and thereby part of the Roman empire of the imperial era. In the course of the gradually evolving separation of the western and eastern empire since the end of the 4th century CE and the final collapse of the western Roman empire by the end of the 5th century CE Egypt became a province of the eastern Roman or early Byzantine empire of Contantinople, until the takeover by the Arab muslims in 641 CE.

Besides the literary sources and the inscriptions the documents from Egypt preserved on papyrus and ostraca are of eminent importance for the history of ancient law. During the so called „Greek millenium on the Nile“ Greek was the official and common language in Egypt. Due to the favorable conditions of the country with its arid desert climate thousands of texts written on papyrus (the writing material made from the stalks of the papyrus plant) have been preserved. They contain numerous evidence for the daily life of the population which is mostly lost in other areas of the ancient world (where papyrus was also a common writing material) because of humid climate and soil conditions.

The texts written on papyrus and ostraca range from private and business letters with commonplace messages, short tax receipts and extensive administrative correspondence to edicts and ordinances of ptolemaic kings, Roman emperors and their governors as well as Arab officials and are of great importance for the social, economic and admininistrative history of Egypt. But they are, of course, also an important source for the history of ancient law. This accounts particularly for the numerous testimonies for the various types of legal contracts (sale contracts, agreements for lease and rent, contracts of labor etc.) which reflect the legal relationships of private law.

Building on the successful papyrological work in the past the work group will continue to focus on the edition, commentary and study of papyrological texts. An agreement of cooperation between the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the Austrian National Library which houses one of the biggest papyrus collections in the world enables advantageous working conditions because it provides for accession to unpublished papyri for the scientific staff of the work group. The editions are published in the series „Papyrologica Vindobonensia“ (edited by the work group) and the series „Corpus Papyrorum Raineri“ (edited by the Austrian National Library)