Daniel Mayer



Diadochus: The Law and Empire in Ptolemaic Egypt

SCU Law Supervised Analytical Writing Requirement

Supervisor: David D. Friedman, Legal Systems Very Different From Ours


                  For the Ptolemies, successors of Alexander the Great, law and governance served two, and very nearly only two, purposes: to manufacture legitimacy and extract wealth. To these ends, they left undisturbed much of what they found in Egypt, and placed themselves firmly within the Pharaonic tradition. Thus, they codified and clarified Pharaonic law, which they applied to the native Egyptians, while Greeks (pre- and post-Ptolemaic settlers alike) fell under a form of Greek law, and the cities, which the Ptolemies ruled directly, fell under ‘royal’ law. Through this codification and clarification of Pharaonic law, the Ptolemies exploited and traded on the traditional Pharaonic ‘bargain’ between the king and his people: justice in exchange for revenue.[1] And it was in the area of revenue extraction that the Ptolemies flexed their legislative muscles most powerfully, directing most of their positive law-making energy towards the maximization of royal revenues. Despite this carefully thought-out approach to kingship,[2] the primary sources clearly indicate that, by the end of the Ptolemaic period, the process of centralization and bureaucratization had led to the subordination of Egyptian law to Greek and ‘royal’ law, though the formal distinctions persisted, and there is no evidence that two ever merged meaningfully.

It is with these contentions in mind that I will examine a very wide array of Ptolemaic legal institutions and history, from the pre-Ptolemaic Pharaonic and Persian regimes, up until the late Ptolemaic period, just before the Roman conquest. Two the most major themes of Ptolemaic history (legal and otherwise) are bureaucratization and centralization, and we will largely be viewing Ptolemaic law through these lenses, especially from the perspective of codification of what one might call Egyptian common law. We will also examine the role of the king, and the level of actual control he (or she) exercised over his subjects, as contrasted with the bureaucracy, which, as I mentioned above, overran its mandate in many area.  First, however, we must backtrack slightly, to the days of the Saite kings, the last native Egyptian dynasty to rule the Nile empire, and its legal system, known as Ma’at.



                  In Egyptian legal tradition, Ma’at is the central concept.  Variously translated as ‘order,’ and ‘justice,’ it’s true meaning is closer to ‘harmony,’ which justice perforce hopes to achieve.[3]  Ma’at was a very universal concept, so much so that J.G. Manning, one of the foremost American[4] experts, believes that it eventually became the foundation for a kind of proto-nation (in the ‘imagined community’ vein of Benedict Anderson[5]), binding the Nilotic peoples to a common identity.[6] Whatever one believes about the birth of nationalism, the actual contours of Ma’at, beyond the areas concerning property and equity, are difficult to determine. While written collections of Egyptian law are known to exist, they seem to be relegated to the realm of what we would call persuasive authority.[7] Each king was, therefore, perfectly entitled to rule by decree, though, again, it seems likely that the importance of Ma’at to the Pharaonic state and society prevented most kings from taking too many liberties.[8] Nevertheless, the various sources indicate a relatively high degree of respect accorded to those kings who concerned themselves with establishing laws (several New Kingdom, 1550 BC-1069 BC, kings are referred to as such), as well as their subordinate nomarchs (rulers of a district), and one papyrus cites several laws, including those applying to deserters and jailbreak.[9]

                  Egypt, both under the Pharaohs and the Ptolemies, possessed no independent judiciary; state officials exercised both administrative and legal authority.  And while the ideals of justice were clearly expressed in text, the “tomb biographies” of officials, and in the role of the king as protector of Ma’at, obtaining resolution of private wrongs seems to have been a fairly tricky business in Pharaonic Egypt, requiring the patronage of an official and a lot of patience.[10] Therefore, the people of Egypt turned to what we would call alternative dispute resolution, an informal process involving village elders (a form of adjudication) or even simply representatives of the families involved (settlement conference).[11]  Religious authorities also proved to be critical in the resolution of legal disputes, in the face of a central government too weak to impose royal law and adjudication, and which was concerned mainly with social order than legislating statutes in any case.[12]

                  One of the better attested aspects of Pharaonic law was contract law, with written contracting stretching back as far as the eighteenth dynasty (1550 BC-1292 BC), and with major reforms being enacted during the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth dynasties, otherwise known as the Saite period, immediately preceding Alexander’s conquest.[13]  The two most important aspects of a valid late-Pharaonic contract included an acknowledgement of receipt of the sale price, and a written cession of the item sold and all rights pertaining thereto.[14]  But perhaps the most interesting aspect of such transactions is that the contract itself served as title to the goods sold, making the contract essential to establishment of legal title to the conveyed object or interest (priestly income, for example, was frequently bought and sold).[15]  It is fortunate that this was the case, as it led to the large-scale preservation of such documents, giving us a relative wealth of primary sources on this subject, which, unfortunately, do not bear extended examination here, except to note that the contract law of the Ptolemaic period flowed directly from these practices, below.  The Saite period saw at least one other important legal reform, one that would reverberate throughout the Ptolemaic period and would inform much of its legal development: the establishment of demotic Egyptian as the dominant legal and administrative language, as well as the new demotic contract forms, above.[16] The Saite period, however, was interrupted by the conquest of Egypt by the Persian Achaemenids, in 525 BC, which brings us to the law in Persian Egypt, and especially their first codification of Egyptian law.

Codification in Pharaonic and Persian Egypt, and the Foundation of Ptolemaic Law

                  If there is one truly odd feature of Pharaonic Egypt, at least from the legal scholar’s perspective, it must be that, despite being a comparatively extremely advanced society, is that it never produced a public code of laws like Hammurabi’s.[17]  However, the lack of a public code is, perhaps, misleading.  Indeed, as above, it appears that Egyptian histories accord significant respect to those kings who established law, and at least one prominent Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus, who examined the reigns of various Pharaohs, from Menes[18] through Amasis[19] and the Persian Emperor Darius, and whom he called great ‘lawgivers,’ which Manning interprets as meaning ‘codifiers and reformers of the law.’[20]  Still, there is no actual evidence of legislation or codification under the native Egyptian dynasties, until the reign of Horemheb (13th century BC), who handed down a decree, erected in Karnak, which reorganized state institutions in order to reduce bureaucratic abuses of power.[21] The edict specifically provided that any “official or priest” who had been appointed to a judicial function and “commits a crime against justice” within his jurisdiction was subject to capital punishment.[22] Of Diodorus’ lawgivers, the two most relevant are Amasis and Darius. To the former, he attributed the promulgation of rules governing both royal officials and nomarchs (regional administrators), but does not mention the implementation of demotic as the uniform language and the institution of a census.[23]

If Diodorus is to be believed, it seems likely that Amasis achieved particular success regulating the bureaucracy, but his method was hardly an innovation.  Indeed, codes of conduct and rules of procedure for bureaucrats have a very long history in Egypt, and Manning credits them as another form of quasi-codification.[24]  In the general sense, Egyptian traditions were often passed down via ‘instruction literature,’ essentially manuals for proper behavior in different social and professional settings, often written from the point of view of a father educating a son, a trend which almost certainly applied in the bureaucratic context as in others, and continued to endure during the Ptolemaic period.[25]  In particular, one such code of conduct was found inscribed on the tombs of two high judicial officials of the New Kingdom, entitled the “Duties of the Vizier,” which laid out the expectations of similarly-situated officials.[26]

As to Darius, Diodorus attributes no specific reforms, but instead contrasts his rule with that of his predecessor Cambyses, whom Diodorus condemns as ‘lawless,’ but provides no other details except to mention that Darius had studied theology with Egyptian priests.[27]  But Diodorus is not our most important source for legal reforms undertaken by Darius.  There is a particular document, of apparently unknown authorship, called The Demotic Chronicle, dating from the Ptolemaic period, but written in demotic Egyptian, which is essentially a list of proverbs about Egyptian kings.[28]  But the back of the text mentions a letter, sent by the Emperor Darius to his satrap in Egypt, instructing him to assemble the learned men of Egypt (priests, soldiers, and scribes) to, “write down the law of Egypt which had formerly been valid until the [last year of Amasis’ reign].”[29] It is not an overstatement to say that this one sentence determined the course of Egyptian and Ptolemaic legal history from then until the absorption of Egypt into the Roman Republic.  It also informs our understanding of Ma’at, giving a clear indication that Ma’at was much less a statutory law than a law of consensus, norms, and customs, based on the fact that Darius asked for a relative cross-section of the then-extant Egyptian intelligentsia to assemble and recite the law (no doubt with countless competing interpretations and observations; indeed, this process took sixteen years to complete[30]) so that the Persians could be informed of the law in order govern Egypt much as Amasis had (a very canny political move).[31]

It is important to stress that Darius intended no innovation (this intent may be analogized, perhaps, to one of the central concepts of modern British and American common law: Stare decisis et non quieta movere; to stand by decisions and not disturb the undisturbed), and nor did he intend to encode what little statutory law the Pharaohs might have deigned to establish by decree. Rather, he intended a codification (Manning calls it a ‘collection,’ but it seems to me a distinction without a difference) of “prevailing customs and scribal usages derived from” the above-mentioned cross-section.[32]

In the end, this titanic labor bore enormous fruit: a complete law code, divided into three titles, public, “temple,” and private, and which would be adopted virtually wholesale by the Persians’ Ptolemaic successors, and which model would be profitably abused by the Ptolemies when they made a second codification.[33]  Unfortunately, as any scholar of law will understand, the law is practically made of ironies. One of the greatest, at least for the Persians, is the simple fact that this law code appears not to have helped much (indeed, the Persians were fiercely hated by the native Egyptians for most of their reign), though the Ptolemies (who, again, emulated many Persian modes of governance) undoubtedly had more success, holding on to power for almost 300 years while maintaining their distinctiveness from the natives.[34]  For example, in one of the few reported cases still extant, known as the Petition of Petiese, the elderly petitioner, a priest, goes through an enormous, even heroic, and disorganized struggle to assert his rights to a particular investiture in a temple of Amun in Middle Egypt, contrasting with the orderly image of codification.[35] Ultimately, Persian actions form a very clear model which the Ptolemies appeared to cleave to in most respects, especially the attempt to govern Egypt as the Pharaohs had done, as a means of manufacturing legitimacy.[36]



Demotic Egyptian Instruments

The Ptolemies radically altered Egypt’s economic order, mostly with an eye towards maximizing royal revenue.  Consequently, the Ptolemies innovated most in the areas of law bearing on taxation, especially contract, and did so mainly in the area of documentation, over time imposing many new obligations on parties wishing to contract. After all, to tax a transaction, it must be documented.  However, the Ptolemies’ other goal, to remain in power, led them to accept Egyptian contract forms, so as not to unduly disturb commerce.

Indeed, one particular contract, from the late fourth century BC (the very beginning of Ptolemaic rule), for the sale of a house in Thebes, is essentially a fully developed Ptolemaic demotic Egyptian (as opposed to Greek, which I will discuss below with polylegal systems) contract, if slightly archaic in some of its forms, meaning that Ptolemaic demotic contracting must have been a virtually uninterrupted continuum from the Persian and Pharaonic periods.[37]  Which is simply to say that, for all the centralizing tendencies of the Saite Pharaohs, the Persian Empire, and the Ptolemies themselves, local traditions (including traditions of contract) remained the dominant force, as contractual forms continued to vary greatly, and many, possibly most, Ptolemaic instruments contain ancient boilerplate clauses.[38]

All of this is reflective of one overarching fact: that the kings of Egypt, be they native, Persian, or Greek, were in no position to vigorously legislate private law.[39]  Indeed, according to the great (and unfortunately largely untranslated) scholar of ancient law, Hans Julius Wolff, this sphere “remained mostly outside of the orbit of [statutory] law to the end of the Ptolemaic period and beyond.”[40] What little capacity the Ptolemies did possess, then, was directed towards ensuring that such transactions were taxable, and, as time went on, required greater levels of specificity and description of the parties. Before 186 BC, dates were only specified out to the month, but after that year, the day of the month was also required, and some later demotic instruments also featured detailed descriptions of the parties involved, which is more a Greek tradition than an Egyptian.[41] Demotic contracts also used a more complicated version of the traditional dating protocol (year, month, and day of the current king) in that the drafter was also required to append the names of certain sitting religious officials, perhaps a reflection of the fact that Ptolemaic kings were foreigners and, as we will see, that most Egyptian disputes were adjudicated by Egyptian priests, at least in the early period.[42] Ultimately, these changes probably have their source in the reign of one of the greater Ptolemies, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who overhauled many of the kingdom’s institutions, specifically, those concerning the use of tax receipts and registration.[43]

As to the actual form of contracts, one of the more interesting features of demotic instruments is that they were effectively bifurcated. The first document is a document of sale, acknowledging the receipt of the agreed-upon (or otherwise satisfactory) price.[44] The second document is a quitclaim conveying all rights in the contracted-for property to the buyer.[45]  It is theorized that the split instrument arose as a result of reforms to property law during the Saite period, when property rights became more secure and definite, requiring additional flexibility in disposition.[46]  One of the most dramatic changes in Ptolemaic demotic contracting, however, revolved around witnessing and notarizing requirements. The early Ptolemaic contract required no fewer that sixteen witnesses, and often required that some or all of witnesses transcribe a verbatim copy of the contract, order to verify the terms, which almost certainly related, again, to the revenue-focused nature of Ptolemaic governance.[47] That is, the better witnessed a contract was, and the better attested its terms, the easier it was to tax. By contrast, earlier Egyptian contracts had required between four and eight witnesses.[48]

It seems, however, that everyone involved quickly tired of these rather excessive measures, and, after about a hundred years, in 200 BC, these requirements were relaxed, and the witness copy procedure abandoned entirely, due to the rise of the Ptolemaic notaries.[49] The state began to require that contracts be notarized, presumably on the theory that a bureaucrat is all the witness the state needs,[50] in effect becoming a third party to the contract (hardly an exaggeration, given the thoroughness of Ptolemaic taxation).[51]

Contracting and the State: Recordation, Registration, and Agoranomoi

In addition to the change just surveyed, which will be elaborated upon below, another major state intrusion into Ptolemaic contracting was the registration requirement and recordation of agreements, both done to facilitate taxation. Recordation of contracts had a fairly long history in Egypt, stretching back to Pharaonic times, when viziers oversaw the deposit of copies of important documents into state archives.[52] We do not know as much as we might like to about early Ptolemaic practices in this area, due to a lack of sources, but it seems at least more probable than not that, by the end of the third century BC, private contracts and other instruments were being recorded in state archives.[53] We are sure, however, that by the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the great reformer, that most private instruments were being recorded, due to the large-scale addition of Greek subscripts to demotic contracts from across Egypt that the text had been “deposited in the box.”[54]  Even apart from such subscription, we have at least one demotic register evincing a fairly advanced recording system, having daily entries that list the documents deposited, their effect (leases, devises, so forth), and a brief description of the parties.[55]  The evidence is not conclusive, but the registration and recordation of private agreements does not appear to have followed any uniform bureaucratic protocol; a number of different methods are evidenced in the sources.[56] On certain Greek contracts and other instruments, for example, red stamps were used to acknowledge receipt for recordation.[57]

The increased state involvement via notaries greatly impacted both contracting traditions (demotic, which has already been discussed, and Greek, which probably followed imported traditions).  Notaries, agoranomoi in Greek, are first attested to in third century, and seem to have become commonplace by the middle of the second century, due evidence supplied by  a fairly famous series of documents issuing from the nomarchy (regional government) of Pathyris and its colorfully named capital, Krokodilopolis (Arsinoe in Greek), and one of its branch offices.[58] As mentioned above, introduction and proliferation of notaries made obsolete most witnessing requirements for demotic contracting, as well as the six-witness requirements in Greek contracting.[59]  There is also some evidence pointing to notaries being involved in the enforcement of loans, as extant records occasionally state not just that notarized loans were taken out, but also repaid.[60]  The increase in state scribal/notary practice is also significant in that there is substantial evidence that the state scribal institutions recruited private Egyptian scribes, whereupon they took Greek names and learned to write Greek (or possibly vice versa, that Egyptian scribes learned Greek and took Greek names in order to be hired), and ended up writing demotic contracts in Greek.[61]  Interestingly, this trend supports another of my main contentions, that despite royal intention, Greek law came to supplant traditional Egyptian law.  As we will see below, the determining factor in choice of law during the late-Ptolemaic era (remember, the proliferation of state notary scribes is only completed around 150 BC, more than halfway through the Ptolemies’ reign) was the language of the document(s) in dispute.  Thus, even if these contracts were written according to demotic traditions, they would still be adjudicated according to imported Greek law, thereby contributing to the general decline of traditional Egyptian law.  Even more, the inclusion of private Egyptian scribes in the Greek/royal public system, by itself, powerfully evidences the rise of the bureaucracy due to the simple fact that, through such inclusion, the state established itself as the dominant force in a once-private system.[62]

The mid-second century BC held yet further upsets for contract law.  In 145, an administrative order was handed down, requiring demotic contracts to be registered in order to be enforceable against the parties.[63] It also required that, for those demotic contracts still written in Egyptian, that Greek summaries (almost certainly written by bureaucrats) be provided alongside the demotic text, and required that separate summaries in both languages be deposited in state archives.[64]  However, there is evidence that this order was not implemented uniformly; in a recently published register of contracts, also originating from the notary offices of the Pathyris nome, contains complete copies of agreements.[65]  Ultimately, due to the state of the evidence, we cannot be certain if this procedure was an entirely novel system, if it was intended to replace a prior registration system, or was simply intended to routinize registration.[66]

In the end, the evidence is conclusive of one fact: that the rise of the Greek-speaking bureaucracy, regardless of actual descent, led to the sharp decline of demotic as a language of contract around the middle of the second century BC.[67]  Indeed, and somewhat humorously, the Ptolemaic empire experienced a severe shortage of Egyptian-writing talent; at some point in the second century (we cannot be sure when exactly), a notice went out to recruit scribes with such skills and to fix prices for scribing such contracts (indicating, of course, that scribes able to write demotic were gouging their customers).[68]  And, more largely speaking, contract law essentially emerges as a microcosm of the Ptolemaic legal system: providing a “framework for the continuity of local norms,” and only modifying the “individual’s encounter with the state” to allow the state greater information about the economic activity within its borders so that that activity could be more efficiently taxed.[69]  The modifications imposed by the Ptolemaic kings were then enforced by the rising bureaucracy.


According to historian John Hicks, the ancient world provides two examples of what he calls ‘classical bureaucracy’: Egypt and China.[70]  These two systems, unlike virtually every other we know of, show similar patterns in maintaining a general state framework regardless of who the king or emperor actually was.[71]  In China, the scholar-bureaucracy endured despite conquest by Mongol and Manchu.  In Egypt, the bureaucracy, though it evolved and ascended to heights not contemplated by the Pharaohs, still existed within the same continuum.[72]  The framework of the Egyptian bureaucracy is well attested-to, thanks to a large number of texts that, above all, emphasize expected behavior and preach maintenance of the status quo.[73]  The Ptolemaic bureaucracy had five levels, essentially.  At the top sat the royal court in Alexandria, and in the middle sat the regional officials and the nomarchies (of which the notary scribes, exhaustively treated above, were a part), and at the bottom sat the district officials (toparchs) and village officials (scribes et al.)[74]

The most striking difference between the Ptolemaic bureaucracy and its predecessors was, of course, its bilingual nature.[75]  Bilingualism (which obviously increased the amount of documentation) and the simple luck of survival has, compared to other Hellenistic systems, misled many scholars into believing that the Ptolemaic bureaucracy was unique.[76] In fact, the truth is far more mundane: more than any other civilization in the ancient Mediterranean, Ptolemaic Egypt was a startlingly over-governed place, even by modern standards.[77]  That is to say, the absolute glut of bureaucratic documents issuing from Ptolemaic (comparatively speaking, of course) indicates, more than anything else, a rise in literacy rates and rapid growth in the size of the bureaucracy, to the point that many scholars today theorize that the Ptolemaic bureaucracy may have comprised as much as ten percent of Egypt’s population.[78]

To be more thorough, there are a huge variety of factors that surely point to a large Ptolemaic bureaucracy and increased literacy: proliferation of contract forms, the employment of a huge scribal infrastructure (not just notary scribes, but also tax accountants and auditors), a new banking sector (with associated paperwork), and an evident emphasis on written rules of bureaucratic procedure and conduct (professional and social).  However, for all the growth the bureaucracy experienced, none of the structure seems to be new.  The Petition of Petiese, mentioned above, dating from the rule of Darius I, details the extremely complex relationships between the myriad bureaucracies (primarily state and religious) that existed more than a century prior to Ptolemaic rule.[79] The Petition also evidences a high level of administrative sophistication and capacity, as well as the precursor of the Ptolemaic ‘writing habit.’[80]

The Ptolemaic bureaucracy, then, was a natural extension of the pre-existing bureaucracy, but larger and with Greek names.  What growth it experienced beyond that proportional to population growth, certainly came due to increased state involvement in the economy, and the military.[81] However, due Ptolemy I Soter’s involvement with the huge civil war that resulted in the breakup of Alexander’s empire, we have little evidence that the Ptolemies affirmatively began to make the bureaucracy their own until the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus.[82] The bureaucracy Ptolemy II built had two essential functions: extract revenue, and resolve legal disputes, both of which we have seen above, and will see again.[83] At its lowest levels, the bureaucracy was a mixed venture, featuring both Egyptians and Greeks (or at least people with Greek names, as above), while at the nome-level and above, the bureaucracy is uniformly Greek-named, as are almost all tax collectors, regardless of level (indicating a strong desire on the part of the royal government for loyalty from its tax collectors, which is understandable given the Ptolemaic focus on revenue).[84]

One of the most famous extant cases (in many respects resembling an early-modern English plea for equity), a petition from a certain Ptolemy of Saqqara (a necropolis near Cairo), provides a wealth of information regarding the size and functioning of the Ptolemaic bureaucracy.[85]  This Ptolemy, son of soldier, wrote this petition in 185 BC to the Ptolemaic monarchs visiting the necropolis, on behalf of his brother, who wished to join the military (presumably as an officer).[86] Over the next five months, the petition made its ponderous way through two parallel bureaucracies (financial and military), no fewer than twenty-one people, and generated 32 other documents, and ended with an approval.[87]  Within the hierarchical drudgery, we observe complex relationships of check, counter-check, and audit, a wide variety of specialized scribes and their documents, the bloated nature of the bureaucracy, as well as the arbitrary power of the king.[88]  To specify, it seems clear that Ptolemy of Saqqara’s petition made its way fairly rapidly to the personal attention of the then-reigning king, Ptolemy VI Philometor, who (either through his secretaries or perhaps even personally) made a terse note to “Do it, but report [the cost].”[89]

Despite this early (and apparently conclusive) approval, the petition was still required to crawl through the military bureaucracy, eventually ending up at the royal court and requiring the issuance of two more royal orders (presumably to obtain the official documentation the brother needed to actually join), and then all of the correspondence within the military bureaucracy had to be audited by the financial bureaucracy to comply with the king’s other order, to account for the cost.[90] All of which required a rather heroic effort by the petitioner, not to mention the hapless messenger who got stuck with it.[91]

Ultimately, the Ptolemaic attempt to establish a “systemized bureaucracy with clear lines of authority” was hampered by factors that were simply beyond the means of any ancient government to alter.[92]  The fundamentally local nature of the bureaucracy, inherent overlap between religious, financial and administrative duties, and tension between royal authority and hereditary claims to office all hampered the efficient and logical operation of the bureaucracy, and led to much friction and abuses of power by the bureaucrats.[93]  And now we turn to the court s


Establishing the Courts and Polylegalism

                  The Ptolemies shaped the law in their new kingdom to a certain, limited, extent, based largely on the economic changes they instituted (primarily in the area of coinage, banking, and taxation).[94]  However, they still acted well within the traditions of the native Pharaohs, in an effort to secure legitimacy, and much of their legislative power was more private than anything else, which is to say that most of their activities revolved around regulating and directing the bureaucracy, who made the new economy function (given the emphasis on revenue, above).[95]

                  The Ptolemies were heirs to several legal traditions: Ma’at, the Persian codification of Egyptian law, and imported Greek law and its theoretical treatments by the likes of Aristotle and his disciples.[96]  And it was within the context of these traditions that the Ptolemies shaped the law of their kingdom.  As mentioned above, Ptolemy I Soter’s preoccupation with foreign affairs probably prevented him from making any large-scale domestic reforms (again, largely to facilitate revenue gathering), and so, as in several other areas, the first evidence we have of serious reform attempts comes from the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus, though whatever reforms he did institute probably took effect gradually and certainly continued to evolve after implementation.[97] One of the primary forces driving legal reform in the stunning diversity of the Ptolemaic kingdom; between native Egyptians, native and immigrant Jews, Macedonian military settlers and Greek immigrants, all of whom had to compete for scarce resources in the new order.[98]  Thus, Philadelphus became perhaps the only great legislator of the Ptolemaic dynasty (though the sheer volume of surviving primary sources from his reign may tend to mislead us on this point.   This legislation, or diagramma, dealt with both substantive and procedural law, and, in some cases, delved into fairly fine points of law.[99]  The main goal of the Ptolemaic legislation in general and Philadelphus’ legislation specifically was to “preserve the status quo and assert sovereignty throughout Egypt” in the mode of the Pharaohs.[100]  To that end, much of Philadelphus’ legislative project involved the establishment of a functioning court system, with associated procedures, and to ensure that native Egyptian law continued to apply to Egyptians (again for the purpose of manufacturing legitimacy).[101]

                  Philadelphus therefore created three separate bodies of law and associated courts: Greek law, with disputes heard by the dikasteria courts, Egyptian law, with disputes heard by laokritai courts, and royal law, served by the chrematistai, a form of high or appellate court with ad hoc jurisdiction, and which eventually largely swallowed the other two courts.[102] After the imposition of this system, the general rule is that Greek civic law prevailed in the cities, the strongholds of the immigrant nobility and royalty, while traditional Egyptian norms and customs remained in force in the rural areas, though those Greeks living outside the cities still fell under Greek law.[103]  Therefore, Philadelphus’ reforms wrought no great autocratic changes, for the law was not, in fact, a top-down imposition, but rather determined by the character (Greek, Egyptian, or urban) of the community.[104]

                  Philadelphus’ legislative acts also explicitly deferred to ‘equity’[105] where substantive law was silent, a practice lifted directly from the Athenian system.[106] Even more than equity, however, it is clear that, only where the royal government intervened to shape the law, mostly in the area of revenue, local law prevailed.[107]  Manning therefore concludes that, overall, the function of Philadelphus’ legislation was transparency in government: to clarify what would be enforced (substantive law, drawn from tradition), how it would be enforced (via courts), and how the enforcers would behave (procedural law).[108] He therefore analogizes the state’s legal activity to its economic activity (also seen in contract law, above): regulating and reforming institutions, but merely providing a “framework for the continuity of local norms” in the area of private law (at least for Egyptians, for whom the Ptolemies obviously needed to make the greatest effort to appear legitimate, as opposed to Macedonian military settlers and Greek immigrants).[109] 

                  Despite the image of order (something Philadelphus absolutely intended, as maintaining the appearance of order was a huge aspect of legitimacy for the native Pharaohs, and thus for the Ptolemies as well), there appears to have been substantial legal activity occurring totally outside the state structures.[110]  For example, informal dispute resolution among Egyptians continued to occur relatively unabated despite the establishment of the laokritai courts, while the so-called ‘temple oath’ evidences dispute resolution in the context of local religious institutions.[111]

                  Even more, there is substantial evidence that the Ptolemies’ subjects exploited these differing bodies of law for their own benefit.  Initially, the ethnicity of the parties determined the body of law applied.[112] As time went on, however, and as it became apparent that determining ethnicity was simply too much trouble, jurisdictional issues began to be solved merely by looking to the language of the court documents; if in Greek, Greek law applied, and if in demotic, Egyptian law applied.[113] This started out as a de facto system, but became de jure via royal administrative decree, also handed down around the end of the second century BC.[114]  People, self-interested as always, reacted predictably.  Most of the evidence comes from family records of contracts (the contract serving as the deed to the goods conveyed, as detailed above), which are, in many cases, startlingly bilingual, and powerfully attest to what amounts to forum shopping.[115]  If Greek law gave you a better deal, or had better terms for enforcement, scribe the contract in Greek; if Egyptian gave you a stronger position, go to a demotic scribe (assuming you could find one for the right price around this time).

                  Ultimately, though, and as we will see immediately below, separatism between the systems could not last, and the process of bureaucratization led to a practical combination of these systems, under the blanket jurisdiction of the bureaucratic chrematistai courts.[116]  However, the Greek and Egyptian remained formally separate, and even though they both found themselves under bureaucratic control, neither really lost their distinctiveness or separate force.[117]

The Bureaucratic Takeover and Subordination of Egyptian Law

                  This brings us to the intersection of the courts and the bureaucracy, who usurped for themselves many of the judicial functions explicated by Philadelphus, and the second most famous Ptolemaic court case: the case of Herieus of Psinteo, from the year 171 BC. Herieus, a ‘royal farmer,’ or tenant of the king, lived in a small village in an area known as the Fayyum, which was a major site of agricultural reclamation during the Ptolemaic period.[118] As a man of some stature (having a direct impact on royal revenues, after all), Herieus was in a position to petition the local strategos, a local nome official, for redress of his grievances against two men and a woman, one of whom appeared to be a local tough.[119] In his complaint, he tersely claimed that they had ‘violently treated,’ or assaulted, him (whether he had suffered actual damages or had simply legally affronted is not clear).[120] Herieus had, when he was still a boy, inherited a plot of undeveloped land from his father, which had been illegally seized and on which a tower of some description had been built, by the woman, Thareus.[121]  After Thareus’ death, her children, the man and the other woman accused, claimed the property (possibly under some theory of adverse possession, which still exists in Anglo-American common law), and Herieus had petitioned the strategos to determine the ownership of the property.[122]

                  And now for the twist: Herieus, Thareus, and presumably her children as well, were Egyptians, not Greeks, despite their names.[123]  And instead of petitioning the laokritai courts, or engaging in one of the forms of alternate dispute resolution, like a good little Egyptian, he went straight to the royal official for arbitration, shouting citations to the Greek diagramma (which does indeed support his position: “If any person build upon the land of another, let him be deprived of the building.”), asking for an investigation into the matter and, if Thareus’ children be found guilty, for forfeiture of the tower.[124] And the strategos listened; the document bears a note, probably from the strategos or his secretary, to another official asking that he summon the parties.[125]  Unfortunately, the tale ends on an anticlimax, as no other documents from this dispute have survived or been identified.[126]

                  This relatively minor property dispute evidences three trends: first, a subordination of the courts to the bureaucracy, second, involvement of the royal government in minor village disputes, and three (and this will be discussed more fully below) that the diagramma, the Ptolemaic legal code, was widely known of and adhered to.[127]  The first point is the most obvious. This dispute, under the framework outlined above, should have been heard in the laokritai courts, as a dispute between Egyptians.  But, clearly, those courts have fallen out of use, since Herieus’ first resort was a royal bureaucrat, and since he asked for arbitration, not trial (which could conceivably have been heard in the dikasteria or chrematistai courts).[128] This point is further evidenced by, around the time of Herieus trial, the appearance of a bureaucrat called the eisagogeus in Egyptian courts, indicating that Egyptian courts had not merely fallen into relative disuse, but were being actively monitored.[129] The eisagogeus will be dealt with in more detail during our discussion of another famous Ptolemaic case, the Asyut property dispute, below. The second is almost as obvious: the Herieus appeals to the king’s law (not Greek, not Egyptian, also indicating that if the case were to be heard in court, it could have fallen under the chrematistai jurisdiction) to settle a private dispute, indicating deep penetration of local society by the royal power.[130]

                  This case, in turn, brings us to the most famous case of the Ptolemaic period: the Hermias trial. It took place in 117 BC, in the major central Egyptian administrative center of Thebes, and probably represents the pinnacle of Ptolemaic legal sophistication.[131] Hermias, the plaintiff, was a high-ranking military officer and the son of a Greek aristocrat who had been displaced by the great Thebes revolt in 205 BC.[132]  Through his late father, Hermias claimed an ownership interest in a certain housing complex.[133]  The defendants were Egyptian mortuary priests of low stature.[134]

Perhaps because of the fact that the dispute occurred across the legal divide between Greek and Egyptian law (examined much more thoroughly below), the case was originally heard by royal officials, convened in the chrematistai court, which had become a fixture of the nomarchy (regional administrative) capitals, and presided over a person who appears to have been the nomarch himself.[135]  The trial bears many noteworthy features, not least of which is the presence of attorneys, who are not attested to prior to this source in the Ptolemaic kingdom, and certainly indicating a greatly increasing sophistication.[136]  The court also cited to both Greek and Egyptian sources, despite being in a royal court, which, at this point, could probably have ignored the Egyptian sources due to the general subordination of Egyptian law in the late-Ptolemaic period.[137] Such sources included royal decrees, demotic Egyptian contract law, and politikoi nomoi, which can be translated as ‘Greek common law;’ even more, the court went out of its way to have translated into Greek Egyptian documents to be used as evidence (since the chrematistai was staffed from a fairly high bureaucratic strata, and whose members would have no knowledge of demotic).[138]

Interestingly, despite having everything that would lead to an automatic favorable verdict in what appears, on its face, to be a fairly biased judiciary, Hermias lost to the mortuary priests.[139]  The court was particularly convinced by two arguments advanced by Denion, the Egyptians’ lawyer, that the priests had possessed the property “unchallenged and in common for thirty-seven years,” and by the fact that the priests had diligently paid their property taxes and had receipts to that effect.[140] According to the cited diagramma, possession equaled ownership.[141]  Just to really hammer the point, the Egyptian priests produced validly executed contracts conveying the property to them, which served as unassailable title to the property in the court’s view.[142] Hermias, for his part, seemed only to have an inheritance claim, let alone documentary or physical evidence of possession.[143]  Indeed, the Greek court appears to have applied Egyptian law with a fair degree of rigor, and which overwhelmingly favored the defendants.[144]

In the light of the above, it is extremely important not to be deceived: the bureaucrats, for all that they may have been power hungry, and usurped responsibilities far outside their ambit, were not oppressors, and seem to have remained true to the overarching objective of the king they served: revenue in exchange for justice.


1.     Write a conclusion

2.     There is one more important case, which is undated, that I have yet to add to the above section, from the Asyut region.  However, in this case, I actually have an English translation of the text, and so have been working from that, but which is quite complex.

3.     I am also aware of another English translation of one of the above cases, which I will be using.

4.     As you have almost certainly noticed, I rely almost entirely on Manning’s book.  This is misleading.  I have many other sources that I plan to use, but which I have not yet been able to integrate.  My goal for this draft was to get 90-95% of the writing done, to give a feel for the final product, and then go back and integrate the sources.  I also rely on Manning’s book because his contains probably the most recent and most complete survey of Ptolemaic law available.

5.     I also plan to add a section on codification under the Ptolemies, but have not yet had the opportunity to do so.  And, to be perfectly honest, the Ptolemies rather shamelessly aped the Persian model detailed above (though, ironically, they spent their whole reign distancing themselves from the Persians to the Egyptians, who reviled the Persians).  Thus, Ptolemaic codification is very similar, if substantially broader and somewhat more interventionist, as the Persian model (who, it should be noted, ruled Egypt as only one part of a massive empire; for the Ptolemies, Egypt was all they had, so naturally they needed to do more than simply compile extant law and follow it, as the Persians attempted).

6.     I also need to make sure all of my citations conform to the Bluebook or whatever standard you deem proper.

7.     I also wonder about the length; I’m shooting for a total of around 30 pages, depending on how long my treatment of the Asyut dispute turns out to be.


[1] Something the Ptolemies’ predecessors, the Persian Achaemenids, also understood as necessary to governing Egypt; indeed, in many respects, Persian governance served as a model for the Ptolemies. Manning, J.G., The Last Pharaohs, Princeton: Princeton University Press: 2010, 164, 175-177.

[2] Absolutely necessary for a foreign dynasty that hopes to rule for any period of time.  Indeed, the Ptolemies never really stopped being foreigners; the only Ptolemaic monarch to learn demotic Egyptian was also the last: Cleopatra VII Philopator, who was, in any case, an omniglot. Bowman, Alan K., Egypt After the Pharaohs, University of California Press, 1986, 25.hj

[3] Manning at 169.

[4] Unfortunately for all concerned with this essay, a very large number of sources are in untranslated French and German.

[5] See generally, Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. Verso, 2006.

[6] Id.

[7] Manning at 169-170

[8] Manning at 170

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Manning at 170, citing Eyre, Christopher. ”How relevant was personal status to the functioning of the rural economy in Pharaonic Egypt?” in Le dependance rurale dans l’Atlantique eygptienne et proche-orientale, ed. Bernadette Menu, 157-186. Cairo: Institut francais d’Archeologie orientale. 2004.

[13] Manning at 171

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Manning at 171, citing Martin, Cary J. “The Saite ‘demoticisation’ of southern Egypt.” In Literacy and the state in the ancient Mediterranean. Eds. Kathryn Lomas, Ruth D. Whitehouse, and John B. Wilkins, 25-38. London: Acordia Research Institute. 2007.

[17] Manning at 172

[18] Who ruled circa 3050 BC, and unified Egypt. Manning at 172.

[19] Who was the final native Egyptian Pharaoh of the Saite period. Manning 172.

[20] Manning at 172, 175.

[21] Manning at 172-73.

[22] Breasted, James Henry. Ancient records of Egypt, Historical documents from the earliest times of the Persian conquest, collected, edited, and translated with commentary. 5 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1906-1907, 32.

[23] Manning 175.

[24] Manning at 174-75

[25] Manning at 173-74.

[26] Manning at 174.

[27] Manning at 175.

[28] Id.

[29] Manning at 175-76

[30] Manning at 176

[31] Id.

[32] Manning at 176

[33] Id.

[34] Id.

[35] Manning at 176. For a good overview of Petiese’s struggles, see Ray, John. Reflections of Osiris: Lives from Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. 97-112.

[36] Manning at 176-77

[37] Manning at 188-89

[38] Manning at 189

[39] Id.

[40] Manning at 189, citing Wolff, Hans Julius. “Law in Ptolemaic Egypt.” In Essays in honor of C. Bradford Welles, American Studies in Papyrology 1. New Haven: American Society of Papyrologists, 1966. 67-77.

[41] Manning at 189

[42] Id.

[43] Id.

[44] Id.

[45] Id.

[46] Manning at 189-90

[47] Manning at 190

[48] Id.

[49] Manning at 190-91

[50] Indeed, modern contract law and the law of wills often allow parties to substitute, say, one notary for two lay witnesses.

[51] Manning at 191

[52] Id.

[53] Id.

[54] Manning at 191-192

[55] Manning at 192

[56] Id.

[57] Id.

[58] Id.

[59] Do not be misled, however.  Despite the rise of the bureaucracy, much in Egypt remained largely outside the power of the central government, and so, at least during the third and second centuries BC, private demotic instruments, with the elaborate witnessing requirements, continued to be written. Manning at 192-93, citing Wolff, Hans Julius. Das Recht der greichischen Papyri Agyptens in der Zeit der Ptolemaeer und des Prinzipats, vol. 1: Bedingungen und Treibkraft des Rechtsentwicklung.  Munich: Beck, 571

[60] Manning at 192

[61] Manning at 193

[62] Id.

[63] Id.

[64] Id.

[65] Id.

[66] Id.

[67] Id

[68] Id.

[69] Manning at 145, 167.

[70] Hicks, John. A Theory of Economic History. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1969, 20.

[71] Manning at 145.

[72] Id.

[73] Id.

[74] Manning at 145, Fig. 9

[75] Manning at 146.

[76] Id.

[77] Id.

[78] Likely to be almost entirely Greek or Greek-speaking.  Very few would have been fully literate in demotic.  Also, for reference, the consensus estimate for Egyptian literacy rates around the time of the Greek conquest is about 7%, similar to the rate in China, and providing an upper limit for the size of the bureaucracy. However, it is safe to assume an increase in literacy rates post-conquest, due to immigration of literate Greeks to the great delta cities, including Alexandria, with the Greek population of Egypt swelling to around 10% in the Ptolemaic period. Manning at 138, 146.

[79] Manning at 146-147.

[80] Manning at 147

[81] For the Ptolemies were constantly at war with the other Diadochi, especially the Seleucids, for which a strong military and state revenues were required. Id.

[82] Which evidence is due to what appears to be a certain mania for efficiency in Ptolemaic Egypt: bureaucratic papyrus, was reused to make funerary masks (cartonnage) for Ptolemaic mummies. Id.

[83] Id.

[84] Id.

[85] Manning at 148

[86] Id.

[87] Manning at 148, 149

[88] Manning at 148.

[89] Id.

[90] Manning at 148, 149.

[91] Manning at 148

[92] Manning at 151

[93] Id.

[94] Manning at 127-157, 177

[95] Manning at 177.

[96] Manning at 179

[97] Manning at 180

[98] Manning at 177

[99] Manning at 181

[100] Manning at 179, 181

[101] Manning at 180, citing Wolff, Hans Julius. “Plurality of Laws in Ptolemaic Egypt.” In Revue international des Droits de l’Atlantique 3. 1966, 209-10.

[102] Philadelphus also created a fourth court, more minor, the koinodikion, a court of equity, which disappears from the sources after the third century BC and seems to have heard cases involving Greeks v. Egyptians. Manning at 181.

[103] Manning at 179

[104] Manning at 181

[105] In quotations because Greek equity differs from Anglo-American equity.

[106] Id.

[107] Manning at 179

[108] Manning at 181.

[109] Manning at 167, 181-82.

[110] Manning at 182

[111] Id.

[112] Manning at 181

[113] Id.

[114] Manning at 177-78

[115] Manning at 178

[116] Manning at 198-201

[117] Manning at 177, 183

[118] Manning at 159-60, 167

[119] Manning at 167

[120] Id.

[121] Manning at 167-68

[122] Manning at 168

[123] Manning at 167-168

[124] Manning at 168

[125] Manning at 168, 183.

[126] Id.

[127] Id.

[128] Id.

[129] Manning at 169, 184

[130] Manning at 168, 183

[131] Manning at 197

[132] Id.

[133] Id.

[134] Id.

[135] Once, the chrematistai had been itinerant, and were empowered to hear the cases it liked, thus bearing two major similarities to early English circuit courts, in which a judge, his clerks, and assorted barristers would ‘ride circuit’ along a preset path.  Presumably, as with English courts, the caseload had become too intense by this point that itinerancy was no longer feasible. Manning at 197

[136] Id.

[137] Id.

[138] Manning at 198

[139] Id.

[140] Id.

[141] Id.

[142] Id.

[143] Id.

[144] Id.