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Transferts culturels et droits dans le monde grec et hellénistique

Bernard Legras

Interactions juridiques en Orient et en Égypte hellénistiques

Cultural transfer and the evolution of formal aspects of Demotic papyrus contracts in hellenistic Egypt

Mark Depauw

Texte intégral

  • 1 For a general introduction to Demotic, see Depauw 1997 and Hoffmann 2000.

1Demotic is the name for a cursive form of the ancient Egyptian script used between roughly the 7th century BC and the 5th century AD, as well as the corresponding stage of the ancient Egyptian language. The standard writing surface for legal documents was papyrus, especially for important “contracts”, a somewhat ambiguous term for personal declarations, almost always subjectively phrased, from one party to another. It is the purpose of this paper to examine how formal aspects of Demotic papyrus contracts developed, whether or not under the influence of the hellénisation of Egypt in the wake of its conquest by Alexander the Great in 332 BC.1

2This study is part of a broader research project “The formal evolution of Demotic deeds against the social background of the hellenization of Egypt in the Graeco-Roman period. A typological study”, initially sponsored by the Fund for Scientific Research (Flanders) and from 2005 onwards integrated into “Multilingualism and Multiculturalism in Graeco-Roman Egypt” (Cologne), sponsored by a Kovalevskaja Award of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. For this project I created a database of 744 reasonably well-preserved published Demotic papyrus contracts, from the very beginning (644 BC) until the very end (3rd century AD), concentrating on their form.

Formal aspects

  • 2 For a more detailed survey of these elements, see Depauw 2006: 317-319.

3Formal aspects is a quite broad term, covering the shape of the papyrus itself, the layout of the text on the writing surface, as well as elements of the contents such as date, identification of parties, identity of the scribe, and presence of official confirmations or witnesses.2

4The papyrus on which a contract was written was normally a piece cut from a roll which was manufactured for scribal purposes. Since the detached sheet was not rotated before writing, the width of the contract, being the distance between the edges parallel to the writing, was only a fraction of the length of the papyrus roll, whereas the height of the papyrus contract, being the distance between the edges perpendicular to the axis of writing, normally preserved the so-called “width” of the roll. As we will see, both height and width of contracts evolved in the course of the millennium in which Demotic was used for this purpose.

5After the sheet had been cut from the roll, the text was laid out over the available surface. The length and the number of lines were of course largely determined by the dimensions of the papyrus sheet itself, although one could opt for larger or smaller blank “ornamental” margins. With only very few exceptions, great care was taken to have straight edges for the lines, both right and left (“justified margins”).

6One of the crucial elements of all legal texts is the date. Its place at either the beginning of the contract or at its end, and the amount of detail provided by the scribe could vary according to the circumstances and is an important factor for the analysis of scribal practice. The identification of the contracting parties could be accomplished by two types of formulae, and here again the information provided (names, titles, provenance, physical description...) could be quite divergent. The identity of the scribe was another factor of variation: some contracts were written by temple scribes often called “notaries”, others by the declarant himself or his representative. In some cases it was deemed necessary to add an autograph subscription by the first party or other interested parties. Another option – and in some periods even obligation – was to add official confirmations to the contract, such as a registration docket or a small note confirming payment of tax. The legal validity could also be guaranteed or enhanced by witnesses, who added their signature in a list under the contract or on the verso of the document, and in some cases even copied the entire text on the papyrus.

Types of contract

7These individual characteristics were not combined with each other arbitrarily, but clustered to form certain types of contracts. The traditional distinction is that between the so-called notary contracts or sẖ on the one hand and the “contracts in epistolary form” or šc.t on the other. The boundaries between these two categories, however, are often blurred.

8At the one hand of the spectrum there are notary contracts written on impressive sheets of papyrus, sometimes even complete rolls. They had large, ornamental blank spaces so that only 10-15% of the available writing surface was used, the upper margin normally being half the size of the lower one. The text itself starts with the regnal year ḥ3.t-sp, often written calligraphically and mentioning the name of the ruling pharaoh, after 290 BC often also referring to the eponymous priests; the parties are introduced by the archaic ḏd A η B “What A has said to B”; and the text is concluded by the notary’s name. The presence of the witnesses, whose presence is essential for the legal validity, is reflected in autograph signatures on the verso of the document, and occasionally even in full copies of the contract on the same papyrus.

9At the other hand of the spectrum there are informal contracts written on small, narrow strips of papyrus without real margins. The text starts with the identification of the parties by means of the more “modern” A p3 nty ḏd η B “A is the one who says to B”, and the date usually follows at the end without mentioning the name of the ruling pharaoh – and without calligraphy. Witnesses can be present, in which case they often sign under the contract on the recto, but their presence is apparently not compulsory.

  • 3 Depauw 2011.
  • 4 Broad and narrow format are already distinguished by Pestman 1994, 1: 26-32.

10Between these two extremes there is a wide spectrum, however, and scholars have often found it difficult to assign contracts with mixed characteristics to one of these two categories. In a recent contribution I have reassessed the problem by having a fresh look at the so-called “epistolary” features of the less formal contracts.3 My conclusion is that if categories or types need to be distinguished, it is best to have three instead of the traditional two. The first is the formal, broad type notary contract with the strikingly large margins; the second is the informal, narrow type, written on less luxurious papyri but generally preserving the structure of the notary contracts;4 and the third type is the agreement in epistolary style, which has formally more in common with letters than with traditional contracts. This last category is exceedingly rare in the early Demotic and early Ptolemaic period, and only becomes more common around 125 BC.

Evolution of formal features

11The individual formal features of Demotic papyrus contracts evolve rather differently for the period between the earliest examples and the middle of the 3rd century BC on the one hand, and that between the middle of the 3rd century BC and the Roman period on the other hand.

12In the early period both the width of the roll – i.e. the height of the papyrus-and the length of the sheet – i.e. the width of the papyrus – increase, while the number of lines remains stable. In the later period, however, exactly the opposite evolution can be observed: the width and length of the roll decrease, and the number of lines increases. While in the early period there was therefore a growing contrast between the broad and narrow format contracts, the distinction became far less marked in later times.

  • 5 Depauw 2002: 85-100.

13I have examined the width of a roll in a earlier study for the late 4th and 3rd centuries BC.5

Graph 1: Heights Demotic Papyri 332-200 BC

14On the basis of my larger database I can now supplement this with figures for the later periods, up to the virtual disappearance of Demotic around the middle of the 1st century AD (Graph 2).

15The basic picture has not changed, and a striking decrease of the width of the papyrus roll from the period 275-250 BC versus 250-225 BC can be observed. This is followed, as we can now ascertain, by a more gradual reduction in the course of the next two centuries. In the 1st century BC it seems to stabilize to around 27 cm, although admittedly the number of contracts on which this assertion is based is rather small due to limited preservation-and perhaps declining frequency – of Demotic contracts from this period.

16A similar picture emerges for the length of the papyrus and the number of lines. Of all contracts in the database, 40% of those before 240 BC are more than a metre long (η = 154) and 27% consisted of eight lines or more (n = 158); after 240, only 16% is longer than a metre (η = 489) and 65% has eight lines or more (n = 514). To a certain extent, this is the result of the increasing frequency of narrow type notary as well epistolary contracts in the later periods, but that there was indeed an evolution is clear from Table 1, which lists the average widths of large format contracts from the early Demotic until the Roman period, and from Table 2, which provides more detail for the late 4th and 3rd century BC.


Average width






































Table 1


Average width




















Table 2

  • 6 See Depauw 1999.

17Also around 240 BC, Demotic witness copies, that cumbersome but visually impressive procedure whereby some witnesses copy the entire text of the agreement, disappear.6

Rationale behind these evolutions

  • 7 Although some of the agoranomic contracts (for which see below), especially those of sales, do rem (...)

18Are all these changes the result of long term evolutions which just happen to coincide in the mid 3rd century BC, or can a more specific cause be identified? If there is one, one could think of Greek influence, since Greek contracts may already be attested from the very beginning of Ptolemaic rule, but become increasingly common in the course of the 3rd century BC. They were normally of more limited size and did not have the large margins and long lines so typical for some of their Demotic counterparts.7

  • 8 For the double document, see Yiftach 2008.

19That Greek contract forms could influence Demotic is clear from the socalled double documents which emerge in the 3rd century, primarily but not exclusively in Demotic surety declarations in which someone stands surety for the financial obligations or the presence of a third party. The double document, with its two copies of the same text, one always visible at the bottom (scriptura exterior), and one, gradually more abbreviated and always sealed at the top (scriptura interior), is a typical Greek format and clearly for Demotic an innovation under foreign influence.8

  • 9 See Pestman 1978; Vierras 2003.

20Another completely new type of contract, the so-called agoranomic deed, was created at the end of the 3rd century BC, probably by the Greek authorities as a counterweight to the temples notaries. These contracts, which especially in the 2nd century gradually gained popularity, were written by agoranomoi, “real” notaries in the sense that witness signatures were unnecessary for their legal validity. Although this new class of scribes wrote in Greek only, they were ethnic Egyptians, as is clear from their reconstructed family relations as well as their occasional grammatical mistakes.9

21A third form of influence may well be the increasing use of contracts in epistolary form at the end of the 2nd century, which is combined with an growing emphasis on autography also in Greek documents.

22An important factor to take into account is the growing preponderance of Greek papyri and hence probably also of Greek language and formats in the course of the Ptolemaic period. It has now become possible to quantify this language shift from Demotic to Greek through the creation of Trismegistos ( This integrating platform, set up from 2005 onwards, brings together in a single system all texts from Egypt between roughly 800 BC and AD 800, in all languages and scripts, on all writing surfaces, and of all genres or types. It currently contains 106113 entries from Egypt, about half of which are papyri. About two thirds of all texts and 80 % of all papyri are written in Greek, and its dominance after about 275 BC is immediately visible in Graph 3.

  • 10 Depauw 2003.

23The chance find of the very large Zenon archive with its almost 2000 documents certainly influences the percentages for the middle of the 3rd century BC, but the figures are not dramatically different for the rest of the Ptolemaic period, at least up to around 75 BC. There is little evidence from the1st century BC to determine whether Demotic was already declining in documents, but at least from the Roman period it was progressively ousted from public life. The relatively few contracts from that time almost all have elaborate Greek subscriptions, in all likelihood mandatory additions introduced through new regulations by the Roman conquerors. These rendered the main contract in Demotic all but superfluous, eventually leading to its disappearance around AD 50.10

Identification in contracts and cultural transfer

24One of the areas where Greek certainly seems to have influenced the conventions of Demotic contracts is the use of identifiers. People can be identified by various names, titles and professions, gender and age, provenance, physical descriptions as well as other characteristics. Which elements are used is often determined by the pragmatic context, with social hierarchy and the formality or informality of communication playing an important role. Another essential factor are the social or sociolinguistic conventions: each culture has its own traditions to identify people by selecting specific elements. Thus middle names, il people have them, are only used in the most official contexts in Belgium, whereas they are a far more common appearance in the Anglo-Saxon world.

  • 11 Depauw 2007.

25One of the anthropologically more exceptional identifiers is the mother’s name. In Demotic documents it is only used in formal “notary” contracts of the type discussed above, but there its presence is almost mandatory: 93% in the identification of the first party (n = 519) and 87% for the second party (n = 506). The question why it is so common is difficult to answer, but its occasional omission is well worth investigating. In a recent study I have shown that especially Greeks and people from the military, itself a stronghold of hellenism, were prone to omit their mothers’names when identified; the 67% for party A (n = 67) and 53% for party B (n = 45) are in stark contrast with the control group (97% for parties A [n = 452] and B [η = 428]).11 Since in the Ptolemaic period mothers’names are almost never attested in identifications in Greek, except for those explicitly stating to have been translated from Egyptian, it seems legitimate to suggest that the omission of mothers’names in formal Demotic agreements was the result of Greek conventions influencing the upper social layer. Since it was highly unconventional to them, “real” Greeks were more prone to omit this onomastic element, even in formal Demotic contracts, hellenized Egyptians following suit.

  • 12 Depauw 2009.

26This extremely rare use of mothers’names in Greek during the Ptolemaic period is all the more striking when compared with the abundance of examples from the Roman period. Even when taking into account that there are significantly more texts from this later period, it is clear that the conventions of personal identification changed dramatically under Roman rule.12

27In the period of transition (ca. 30 BC-AD 50), a large group of matronymica in Greek can be explained by the Egyptian background of the documents, as translations or summaries. Another, even larger group, however, is formed by declarations and lists related to the census instituted by the Roman government. The addition here seems to be more common for men than for women. In the second half of the 1st century matronymics appear in a wider range of genres, including tax receipts, contracts or documents related to privileged classes such as the gymnasion. Another and perhaps more striking difference with the earlier period is the further regular addition of the paternal and maternal grandfathers’ names, avonymic elements which are very rare in Egyptian documents. This rather suggests that in this case Egyptian influence might not be the best option to explain the major changes in identification.

  • 13 Compare Braunert 1962: 78 n. 23: “the political status of the mother had no influence [in the Gree (...)

28Roman regulations at first sight seem unlikely to have played a significant role, since the metronymic was completely absent from everyday Roman onomastics and its system of the tria nomina. Still, mothers were important in Roman law, since to become a Roman citizen both parents had to have civil rights. A similar system of civil rights may have been the rule in the Greek poleis in Egypt, but in the chora matters almost certainly were more flexible. Shortage of Greek women probably did play an important role here, as well as an eagerness of Egyptian upper classes to ally themselves through mixed marriages with the new rulers. It seems likely that Greek status with its fiscal privileges was conveyed to the offspring of a Greek and an Egyptian woman,13 and that in the later Ptolemaic period many of the “Greeks” outside the Greek cities were hellenized Egyptians – or Egyptianized Greeks.

  • 14 See Van Minnen 2002.

29Roman directives thus played an important role in the appearance of the mother’s name in census declarations and lists. The mother’s identity was henceforth considered important enough to explicitly refer to her in all documents related to the counting of Egypt’s population. Further Roman influence probably came in the form of new and tighter regulations to determine who belonged to one of the fiscally privileged groups in the third quarter of the 1st century AD. Proper pedigree in both the paternal and maternal line became imperative.14 Surely this incited those aspiring the higher status to add extra genealogical details, even paternal and maternal grandfathers’names. Although unconventional, mothers’names thus had a very practical use for this category, while for the unprivileged tax payers they may well have been unproblematic since perfectly in line with the Egyptian tradition.

30Whereas the “liberal” Ptolemies had allowed intermarriage and the resulting socio-ethnic mobility, the conservative Romans preferred the compartmentalisation brought about by intramarriage. In the former, mothers’names and other genealogical elements are unnecessary; in the latter, they are an almost natural consequence. Socio-linguistic parallels can be found in the appearances of mothers’names in patriarchical Brahman society in the late Vedic period, or in Spanish onomastics at the end of the 15th and the beginning of the 16th century. In both cases this was a conservative or reactionary reflex to ensure that the pedigree was pure on both sides, either because some members of the highest cast increasingly took second and third wives without the proper status, or because converted Jews, converted muslims and their descendants were banned from a whole series of civil, military, and ecclesiastical offices.


31The above survey has shown how the formal aspects of Demotic papyrus contracts were transformed in the course of the Ptolemaic period. Some, such as the height of the papyrus, the width of broad format contracts, and the addition of witness copies, seem to have changed quite suddenly around 240 BC. This may be the result of regulations, but the trend was continued in the rest of the Ptolemaic period, be it more gradually. It therefore seems more plausible to assume indirect influence from Greek diplomatie conventions. This is what seems to have happened in the case of identifications, where the complete absence of mother’s names in Greek tradition led to its omission in hellenized circles, even in Demotic formal deeds.

32The gradual evolutions in the course of the Ptolemaic period are in contrast with the more sudden changes under Roman rule. The more rigid approach to issues such as civil rights or legal requirements of documents seems to have caused a quite dramatic transformation of Egyptian society: Demotic disappeared from public life in the course of the 1st century AD, and a growing compartmentalisation of privileged and less privileged groups resulted in an increased interest in genealogy, illustrated by the addition of new elements of identification such as the matronymicon.



Braunert 1962: Braunert H., «Griechische und römische Komponenten im Stadtrecht von Antinoopolis», Journal of Juristic Papyrology, 14 (1962), p. 73-88.

Clarysse and Thompson 2006: Clarysse W. and Thompson D., Counting the People in Hellenistic Egypt, 2. Historical Studies, Cambridge, 2006.

Depauw 1997: Depauw Μ., A Companion to Demotic Studies, Bruxelles, 1997 (Papyrologica Bruxellensia, 28).

Depauw 1999: Depauw M., «Demotic Witness-Copy-Contracts», Revue d’égyptologie, 50 (1999), p. 67-105.

Depauw 2002: Depauw M., «The Royal Format of Early Ptolemaic Demotic Papyri», in K. Ryholt (ed.), Acts of the Seventh International Conference of Demotic Studies, Copenhagen, 23-27 August 1999, Copenhagen, 2002 (CNI Publications, 27. The Carlsberg Papyri, 6), p. 85-100.

Depauw 2003: Depauw M., «Autograph Confirmation in Demotic Private Contracts», Chronique d’Égypte, 78 (2003), p. 66-11 1.

Depauw 2006: Depauw M., The Demotic Letter. A Study of Epistolographic Scribal Traditions against their Intra-and Intercultural Background, Sommerhausen, 2006 (Demotische Studien, 14).

Depauw 2007: Depauw M., «The Use of Mothers’Names in Ptolemaic Documents. A Case of Greek – Egyptian Influence? », Journal of Juristic Papyrology, 37 (2007), p. 21-29.

Depauw 2009: Depauw M., «Do Mothers Matter? The Emergence of Matronymics in Early Roman Egypt», in T. Evans and D. Obbink (ed.), The Language of the Papyri. Proceedings of the Colloquium “Buried Linguistic Treasure: The Potential of Papyri and Related Sources for the Study of Greek and Latin”, Christ Church, Oxford, 30 June-2 July 2006, Oxford, 2009, p. 120-139.

Depauw 2011: Depauw M., «The Evolution and Use of Demotic Contracts in Epistolary Form», paper presented at the first session «The letter» of the international workshop series Legal Documents in Ancient Societies, Rome, 28-29 September 2008 (forthcoming in the series Philippika, Marburger Altertumskündliche Abhandlungen).

Hoffmann 2000: Hoffmann F., Ägypten. Kultur und Lebenswelt in griechisch-römischer Zeit. Eine Darstellung nach den demotischen Quellen, Berlin, 2000 (Studienbücher. Geschichte und Kultur der Alten Welt).

Pestman 1978: Pestman P. W., «L’agoranomie: un avant-poste de l’administration grecque enlevé par les Egyptiens?», in H. Maehler and V. Strocka (ed.), Das ptolemäische Ägypten, Mainz, 1978, p. 203-210.

Pestman 1994: Pestman P. W., Les papyrus démotiques de Tsenhor (P. Tsenhor). Les archives privées d’une femme égyptienne du temps de Darius Ier, 2 vol., Leuven, 1994 (Studia Demotica, 4).

Van Minnen 2002: Van Minnen R, «Aἱ ἀπο γυμνασίου: ‘Greek’ Women and the Greek ‘Elite’ in the Metropoleis of Roman Egypt», in H. Melaerts and L. Mooren (ed.), Le rôle et le statut de la femme en Egypte hellénistique, romaine et byzantine. Actes du colloque international, Bruxelles-Louvain 27-29 novembre 1997, Louvain, 2002 (Studia Hellenistica, 37), p. 348-351.

Vierras 2003: Vierras M., «Everything is Relative. The Relative Clause Constructions of an Egyptian Scribe Writing Greek», in L. Pietilä-Castrén and M. Vesterinen (ed.), Grapta Poikila I, Helsinki, 2003 (Papers and Monographs of the Finnish Institute Athens, 8), p. 13-23.

Yihtach 2008: Yiftach U., «Who Killed the Double Document in Ptolemaic Egypt? Archivfür Papyrusforschung, 54 (2008), p. 203-218.


1 For a general introduction to Demotic, see Depauw 1997 and Hoffmann 2000.

2 For a more detailed survey of these elements, see Depauw 2006: 317-319.

3 Depauw 2011.

4 Broad and narrow format are already distinguished by Pestman 1994, 1: 26-32.

5 Depauw 2002: 85-100.

6 See Depauw 1999.

7 Although some of the agoranomic contracts (for which see below), especially those of sales, do remind of the large format notary contracts. See e.g. P. Lond. 3 1209, depicted in Papyrologica Lugduno-Bataua 23, pl. II.

8 For the double document, see Yiftach 2008.

9 See Pestman 1978; Vierras 2003.

10 Depauw 2003.

11 Depauw 2007.

12 Depauw 2009.

13 Compare Braunert 1962: 78 n. 23: “the political status of the mother had no influence [in the Greek world]” (Pistorius 125). For the privileges, see Clarysse and Thompson 2006: 138-147.

14 See Van Minnen 2002.

Table des illustrations

Légende Graph 1: Heights Demotic Papyri 332-200 BC
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