The recent proliferation of published documents (in both Greek and Demotic) concerning the temples of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt has now made it possible to study the administration and oversight of these institutions in a meaningful and theoretically informed fashion (as Chauffray or Monson). The key administrative role in these periods was that of the lesonis, a position that was held by one priest at a time in the Ptolemaic period, but which was held jointly under the Romans. That control of the temples, their holdings, and interaction with the state devolved into the hands of a single individual or small cadre of ruling priests presented a situation ripe for administrative malfeasance or outright deception. In this paper, I will examine two cases of administrative breakdown from the Ptolemaic period—the activities of the praktor Milon concerning the temple of Edfu in the 3rd c. BCE and those of the lesonis of the temple of Soknopaiou Nesos a century later—and will discuss how these failures impacted the evolution of the bureaucratic organization of temples under the Romans. I argue that fear of crippling priestly debt caused by external circumstances can explain the rise of collegial administration of the temples.
While a priest’s primary duty was the correct execution of daily and periodic ritual, a temple administrator would be forced to consider other, more terrestrial issues. In the Ptolemaic period, an administrator had to negotiate the perilous waters of rebellion and state response (Dietze, 80-84) in addition to the day-to-day running of an economic apparatus that could take in huge amounts of land and goods. This could involve problems with the harvests (P.Tebt. 1.5; P.Bürgsch 13 and 14), with overseeing gifts (P.Amh. 2.40), with book-keeping (P.Tebt. 2.315, from the Roman period), or with one’s desire to steal part of the harvest (P.Amh. 2.35), as well as more cataclysmic economic threats (P.Tebt. 1.93 and Connor). An administrator could also be forced to navigate internal politics (P.Tebt. 2.302 and Glare 92-93, both concerning the Roman period) and relations with other temples (P.Lond. 7.2188 and Monson 133-135). Many of these decisions would have been divisive and the reputation of a particular administrator might vary widely among different interested parties, whether members of a priestly faction, tenants on temple land, or state officials.
I will consider in particular two examples, the praktor Milon (Clarysse 21-23) and the lesonis of Soknopaiou Nesos (P.Amh. 2.35), which stand out as starkly different ways in which an administrator might negatively come to the attention of the state. While the latter provides a better example of actual maladministration, it is likely that the former was of more immediate interest to the state, in that the financial ruin of an entire priestly family represented something more systemic rather than simple fraud. It is this risk of crippling, priesthood-related personal debt (and the resulting difficulties for the government in collecting taxes owed) that would have weighed most heavily on the minds of temple administrators and Ptolemaic bureaucrats and led in turn to changes in administrative policy by the Roman period.
Culture and Society in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Egypt (organized by the American Society of Papyrologists)