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“No One Can Claim the Priestly Land”: P.Tebt. 2.302 and Egyptian Temples under Rome in Context

Andrew Connor

P.Tebt. 2.302 records a petition sent by priests in Tebtunis in 71-2 AD to the prefect detailing their grievances surrounding an amount of temple land. In this document, a group of priests complain that the local komogrammateus has broken the terms of the agreement under which they worked a parcel of land in place of receiving a subvention from the state. When published in 1907 by Grenfell and Hunt, they noted that it “throws considerable light on the treatment of the temples by the State in the first century” (Grenfell and Hunt, Tebtunis Papyri, Vol. 2 [London, 1907], 88). Over the next century, however, the questions to which this papyrus has been applied have become quite broad. Less than twenty years after publication, P.Tebt. 2.302 formed the primary evidence for Milne’s claim that “temple lands were therefore annexed to the imperial domain…though the priests might be allowed to cultivate some part of the former property of their gods in lieu of receiving a stipend” (Milne, History of Egypt  3rd ed. [London, 1924], 11). Based on a close reading, I argue that the papyrus must be reevaluated, focusing primarily on the text itself and not on the network of interpretations built up around it. In particular, the mention of the land having been assigned to the priests ἀντὶ συντάξεως has been taken as proof that the priests were given a choice between renting back their former land or receiving the syntaxis from the state and that this was general throughout Egypt after the time of the prefect Petronius.

In this paper, I will examine the relationship between royal and temple land in the southern Fayum in the late Ptolemaic and early Roman periods. In addition, I will place into their rhetorical context the claims of the priests who composed this document, the biases of which ought not be underestimated.  Recent scholarship (e.g., Dillery, “Cambyses and the Egyptian Chaosbeschreibung Tradition” CQ 55 [2005], pp. 387-406) has highlighted the degree to which priestly narratives of governmental behavior can be colored by their intellectual and cultural milieu. To explore the context of P.Tebt. 2.302, we must take into account the tumultuous 2nd and 1st centuries BC and the serious effects on landholding in the Fayum (e.g., P.Tebt. 1.6.44-46; P.Tebt. 3.781; attempts by temples to seek state protection of their rights) as well as the nature of the petition itself. The document originated from the priests themselves and represents, I argue, priestly attempts to massage rhetorically the decision-making authorities responsible for approving or denying their claim on contested land. Given the uproar of the 2nd and 1st centuries BC (P.Amh. 30, e.g., describes property records being destroyed during a revolt in the Fayum) and the occasional but significant delays in pressing claims (P.Tor.Choach. 12 = P.Survey 12 descr., with nearly a century’s delay), it is probable that early Roman authorities in the Fayum were forced to settle property claims from the late Ptolemaic period and that some of these involved the many temples and shrines. At least one sixth of the land in Kerkeosiris belonged to the temples (Keenan and Shelton, Tebtunis Papyri, Volume IV [London, 1976], 12), and temples were additionally involved with the rental of some crown land, creating a patchwork quilt of landholding and competing property claims. Taken in its context, then, P.Tebt. 2.302 does not appear to support a Roman confiscatory program in the southern Fayum, let alone one on the level of Egypt at large but rather a more interesting, ongoing negotiation of the landscape of the southern Fayum in the 1st century AD.

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Culture and Society in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Egypt

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