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“Anything Illicit:” Censorship and Book-Burning in Roman Egypt

Susan Rahyab

Columbia University

This paper considers the censorship of writing in Roman Egypt from Augustus to the rise of Christianity. The practice of censorship in Rome has received significant scholarly attention (Cramer 1945, Speyer 1981, Rohmann 2013, Howley 2017), but an expansion of this discussion to include Roman Egypt is long overdue. In analyzing this phenomenon in Roman Egypt, this paper examines state-sanctioned violence against writing, the link between writing and power, notions of subversive behavior, and the impact of an imperial government on censorship practices.

The sporadic suppression of writing in Roman Egypt is seen through papyrological, epigraphic, and historical sources. Scriptures (Manichean and Christian), papyrus chits with predictions, sanctuary books with “anything illicit,” alchemical texts, and self-commemorative inscriptions suffered this fate. The relevant papyri to this study are P. Coll. Youtie 130 (an edict that suppressed divination), the Acta Alexandrinorum, and a prophetic text that survived the aforementioned edict. As the latter two were curiously left undisturbed despite their anti-imperial nature, they will be used as negative case studies. This paper will demonstrate that the censorship of writing in Roman Egypt focused on (and in most cases, resulted in the destruction of) texts that promised empire-wide ramifications, but spared anti-imperial sentiments. These conclusions will then be applied to our documentation from Rome, of which the opposite is true. While censorship in Roman Egypt focused on texts that posed a threat to the Empire, Roman authorities at home overwhelmingly focused on insults (real or perceived) directed at the emperor.

It will be argued that these developments and differences were governed by the need to protect the emperor’s office in Rome, issues of social standing, changing notions of subversive behavior, and shifts in the focus of censorship practices. The new political system ushered in by Augustus introduced a novel approach to protecting the state as the new office that now led it was by no means uncontested and wholly secure. But as we move further away from the establishment of the office and threats to its longevity gradually fade, censorship for antiimperial sentiments in Rome disappear. The Egyptian evidence suggests that Roman authorities then began to redirect their gaze outward from the capital and toward texts that posed a threat to the Empire. These conclusions offer a detailed look at the suppression of writing under the Roman Empire and contribute to the study of censorship and book-burning, imperial rule in Egypt, and power over the written word.

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Culture and Society in Greek Roman and Byzantine Egypt

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