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Papyrus Letters and Imperial Government in Greco-Roman Egypt

Sven Tost

In contrast to the situations discussed by the two previous papers (Orality and Literacy in Early Islamic Administrative Practice; Neo-Assyrian Letters and Administration), during the Greek, Roman and Late Roman periods there is no cause to question the reliance of the state and its administration on letters; generally speaking, documentation in writing is a practice that can be taken for granted. This can be demonstrated best – though by no means exclusively – on the basis of the papyrological evidence from Ptolemaic, Roman and Byzantine Egypt: written communications were ubiquitously employed to exercise control and to express legitimacy of rule. Indeed, the logistical advantage of disseminating information systematically and comprehensively in writing was exploited to the full. To do so required the copying and forwarding of nearly every order or decision of the ruler (the Ptolemaic king or Roman emperor), or his local representatives (governors or high-ranking officials), to all the administrative units and subdivisions at the lower levels; conversely, the latter were expected to report their compliance by returning written acknowledgements. This process resulted in a high density of internal correspondence that established the state’s monopoly on the exercise of force, and created considerable cohesion between the center of power and its periphery.

During the Hellenistic period, administrative correspondence became a process with its own dynamics. As can readily be appreciated in the comparative setting of this colloquium, its routine character is clear too from the apparent lack of need for verbatim quotation from earlier missives, such as is indispensable in the Ancient Near Eastern correspondence. The fact that there was no need for seals to provide explicit proof of the authenticity of a missive (as in the practice of the Ancient Near East or in the European Middle Ages) points in the same direction.

The paper considers how the population as a whole became an integral part of this bureaucratic process.  The thread followed is the need of individuals in the general population to address their concerns and requests to the authorities in writing. Examination of the large numbers of papyri containing petitions from victims of crimes, or other persons in distress, addressed to police officials and judicial authorities reveals the formalized structure of these texts and their routine nature – features by no means apparent in the far less frequent Ancient Near Eastern examples of this genre.

The paper reflects in conclusion that, while both the Ancient Near Eastern and the Late Antique administrative systems and their mechanisms of internal communication are grounded in a long established tradition of employing the written word, they nevertheless show considerable differences. Whereas Ancient Near Eastern officials’ correspondence with the king or with their peers appears to have been strongly influenced by the vagaries of personal relationships and circumstances, as well as by the need to maintain personal contacts within the administrative system, the Late Antique administrative correspondence turns out to be of an exclusively systemic and more impersonal character. As a result, regardless of physical proximity or distance, written communication was taken for granted, and perhaps even regarded as indispensable.  The evidence from the early Islamic world, however, exhibits a different picture that results from the grafting of structures grounded in a fundamentally oral culture onto a pre-existing substratum of administrative procedures inherited from Late Antiquity.

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The Power of the Written Word: Cross-Cultural Comparisons

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