The Center for Tebtunis Papyri logoEthnic Identity in Roman Tebtunis header


This is an archived exhibit of The Bancroft Library, University California, Berkeley.

Bancroft Library logo

Individual and Society:
The Evidence of Personal Names and Families


papyrus fragmentDocumentary texts provide a perspective different from the literary sources traditionally used to write history. Consisting of everyday petitions, contracts, tax-rolls, letters and receipts, documentary papyri are often difficult to read, understand and interpret; yet they have extraordinary potential to illuminate both identities conferred upon the individual and self-representation by the individual.

The uses of personal names in the texts provide perhaps the most direct evidence for the self-representation of individuals and their families. Here we find that self-presentation might change to meet occasion, audience and circumstance. Willy Clarysse has documented the increase of "irregular filiation" and the use of Hellenized and double names during the Ptolemaic period. Irregular filiation describes the trend whereby parents with Egyptian names gave their children Greek names or parents with Greek names gave their children Egyptian names. Additionally, some parents gave their daughters Egyptian names, but gave their sons Greek names. Hellenized names further complicate our efforts to recognize Egyptian or Greek individuals. Such names might be formed either by transliterating or translating an Egyptian name into Greek. For example, the Egyptian name Peteese ("Gift of Isis") might be transliterated into Greek and given a Greek ending (Peteesis) or translated into Greek (Isidoros). A number of people from Tebtunis bear two names, one Greek and one Egyptian; the use of one or the other seems to have depended on whether one felt he or she was operating in a Greek or Egyptian context.

Although double names alert us to the ability of the individual to manipulate his or her identity, there are also indications that ethnics might be less mutable in some official contexts. For example, among the more than 4000 names in tax lists studied by Willy Clarysse and Dorothy Thompson, there are no double names and it seems that the government recognized only a single identity. In one case, a man with a Greek name receives a modest tax break, while his brother, who bears an Egyptian name, does not (P. Count. 4.138-144). Such instances both illustrate that ethnic labels were not necessarily fixed according to descent and, at the same time, indicate that these distinctions might have had fiscal implications.


Transliterated double name on a wooden mummy label Transliterated double name on a wooden mummy label Transliterated double name on a wooden mummy label
Roman period (1st century BCE - 4th century CE)

Labels such as the one on display here ensured that a mummy could be properly identified. The name of the deceased appears in Demotic script on one side and Greek on the other. Pachoumis is the Greek transliteration of the Egyptian name meaning "The eagle" (P3-chm). The man's patronymic, given in the Greek genitive as Pantbôoutos, is an Egyptian name meaning "He of the avenging gods" (P3j-n3-tb3.w). Unlike the Greek side, the Egyptian also gives a third name, which is apparently that of Pachoumis' grandfather, "He of the ht-daimon" (P3j-ht).

T.Tebt. 1


[NO IMAGE] Translated double names: Marres alias Dikaios and Purros alias Phmersis
ca. 114 BCE; after 116/115 BCE

Double names are hard to track because frequently only one name was used at a time. Marres, who appears in many texts, is an Egyptian name ("Justice of Re"), but in a text displayed here his Greek name is used, Dikaios ("Just-man"), an approximate translation. Likewise the man frequently referred to as Phmersis is probably the same as Purros (i.e. Pyrrhos); both names mean "The red one."

P.Tebt. IV 1136. 20 and 58; P.Tebt. IV 1144. 61 and 145


The case of Menches alias Asklepiades, kômogrammateus of Kerkeosiris The function of double names: The case of Menches alias Asklepiades, kômogrammateus of Kerkeosiris
118/117 BCE

In the later Ptolemaic period Menches used his Egyptian name in his capacity askômogrammateus (village scribe), a traditionally Egyptian office; in a private law suit brought before the chrêmatistai (Greek judges), his double name Menches alias Asklepiades is given. Arthur Verhoogt's reconstruction of Menches's family tree, based on this land sale document, demonstrates that the scribe, his father and grandfather were the descendants of Greek settlers and that each of them had a double name. The phrase translated "Greek born in the country [i.e., Egypt]" (Hellên egchôrios) is the Greek rendering of the common Demotic expression "Ionian born in Egypt" (Wynn ms n Kmt) used to identify "Greeks."

P.Tebt. I 164 fr. 2


The case of Polemon alias Petesouchos, kômogrammateus of Kerkeosiris The case of Polemon alias Petesouchos,kômogrammateus of Kerkeosiris
110 BCE

Polemon alias Petesouchos, the successor of Menches alias Asklepiades in the office ofkômogrammateus (village scribe) and his probable nephew, likewise only used his Egyptian name (Petesouchos) in his official capacity; however, in a personal lawsuit addressed to the chrêmatistai (Greek judges), he used both names. The texts produced by Menches and Polemon indicate that the name used in a particular instance is likely to be occasioned by the function of the text in which it appears.

P.Tebt. I 29


The case of Polemon, epistatês of Kerkeosiris The case of Polemon, epistatês of Kerkeosiris The case of Polemon, epistatês of Kerkeosiris The case of Polemon, epistatês of Kerkeosiris
114 BCE; 114 BCE; 118 BCE

A contemporary of Menches in the Greek office of epistatês (police chief) used a Greek name, Polemon, exclusively. The following three Greek texts raise the possibility that this same Polemon is actually the brother of Menches alias Asklepiades and the father of Petesouchos alias Polemon. The resulting picture is of one family of elites that controls both the traditionally Greek and Egyptian offices of the village of Kerkeosiris.

P.Tebt. I 16; P.Tebt. I 19; and P.Tebt. I 43


Becoming "Greek"

The range of civic (e.g., Athenian) and regional (e.g., Macedonian) affiliations used to identify foreign settlers in third-century BCE papyri from Tebtunis demonstrates the lack of homogeneity for what we term "Greek." Tax records identify as "Greeks" not only individuals from locales previously considered "Greek" (including Athenians, Samians, Thebans, Cyrenaeans, Boeotians, Cretans), but also persons from unexpected cities or regions (including Alexandrians, Thracians, Macedonians, Persians, Jews, Idumaeans, Arabs), some considered the antithesis of "Greeks" by former generations. A number of texts from Tebtunis demonstrate the impermanence of these ethnics, which allowed people to move from one category to another. Given the diversity of identities encompassed by "Greek," it may have only become a meaningful category when it was opposed to "Egyptian," although these boundaries were themselves permeable.


Defining "Greek" Defining "Greek" Defining "Greek"
223/222 BCE

Extracted from mummy cartonnage, this collection of abstracts probably originated from a local records office and is notable for its very difficult script (masterfully read by P.Tebt. III co-editor J.G. Smyly). It includes summaries of land leases and sales, loans, accounts, dowry and marriage contracts between individuals with a great number of civic and regional affiliations.

P.Tebt. III 815 fr. 2 recto


Shifting status: Macedonian to Cretan Shifting status: Macedonian to Cretan
c. 145 BCE

The mutability of ethnic designations used to identify individuals is well-documented in texts recording the transfer of men from one military unit to another. Cavalry units (hipparchies) were occasionally named after the original regional affiliation of its members. When an individual moved to a new hipparchy, he might adopt the ethnic of his new unit. Such is the case for Theotinus son of Phileas who becomes a "Mysian of the fourth hipparchy" after first appearing as a "Persian of the epigonê" (which was itself a suspect ethnic, see below) (P.Fay. 11 and 12).

In this Greek letter two officials, Sosos and Aigyptos, introduce a new cavalryman, a Macedonian named Asklepiades son of Ptolemaios, who has been appointed to the polity of the Cretans.

P.Tebt. I 32


Shifting status: Egyptian to Macedonian Shifting status: Egyptian to Macedonian Shifting status: Egyptian to Macedonian
118/117 BCE; 112 BCE

Egyptians might also have attained official Greek status through military service. Egyptian names are occasionally found in lists of katoikoi(military settlers), but there seems to have been a preference, as we might expect, for adopting Greek names in what was felt to be a Greek context. Ten texts excavated from Tebtunis witness the gradual replacement of the Egyptian nomenclature of a man who first appears in the texts as Maron (itself a Hellenized form of the Egyptian Marres) alias Nektsaphthis, son of Petosiris. Although he first appears in these documents with a double name in 119/118-118 BCE (P.Tebt. I 62. 110, 84. 115), his father only acquired the Greek name Dionysios over time (P.Tebt. I 61. (a) 40, 64. (a) 107). Within a few years the Egyptian names of both men cease to appear altogether in favor of their Greek names (P.Tebt. I 63. 127, 85. 59, 75. 10, 245). Two of the last documents mentioning Maron concern land granted to him for his military service (P.Tebt. I 106 in 101 BCE and P.Tebt. I 105 in 103 BCE); in each he is called a Macedonian.

P.Tebt. I 61 (a) fr. 2 recto; P.Tebt. I 75 fr. 3 recto


Other Ethnics: Syrians, Arabs, Jews and Persians

The papyri from Tebtunis record several sites in the Fayum, which appear to have been founded as ethnic communities in the third century BCE. These include the "Village of the Syrians" (Syrôn kômê), "Village of the Arabs" (Arabôn kômê) and Samareia, which contained a sizable Jewish population and was probably named after the city in Palestine.

Although ethnic designations like Boeotian, Macedonian, Syrian, Arab and Jew probably refer to geographic origin, "Persian" proves problematic. Its precise origin or significance is disputed. In the early Ptolemaic period it seems to describe people with Greek names functioning in a Greek context; although they enjoy a privileged status, they are counted separately from Greeks in tax lists. In late Ptolemaic and Roman contracts, "Persian of the epigonê" refers to the legal status of a debtor who had waived certain personal rights in order to secure the collection of a debt.


Syrôn kômê Syrôn kômê
227 BCE

At Tebtunis, Grenfell and Hunt excavated four of the ninety-two known texts that refer to "Village of the Syrians" (P.Tebt. I 701, 706, 814, 815). A trace of the original population of the village is perhaps evident in the ethnic, "Syro-Egyptian," assigned to Petesouchos, son of Psenithes, in this text.

P.Tebt. III 814 fr. 1 recto


The Syrian quarter at Tebtunis The Syrian quarter at Tebtunis
26 January 166 CE

Several texts excavated by Grenfell and Hunt from Roman period houses in Tebtunis mention parts of the town called the "Syrian quarter" and "Macedonian quarter." Such quarters are attested in other cities, most famously at Memphis where some ethnically affiliated quarters may have been walled. Nine second-century CE papyri excavated by Grenfell and Hunt at Tebtunis refer to the town's Syrian quarter (P.Tebt. II 318, 322, 351, 397, 618, 621, 628, 631, 635); although the ethnic may have characterized the population at an earlier date, the extant Roman period texts do not indicate its occupation by people of specifically Syrian descent.

P.Tebt. II 318


Arabôn kômê Arabôn kômê
20 December 123 BCE

At Tebtunis Grenfell and Hunt excavated seven of the sixty-four texts known to the present mentioning the "Village of the Arabs" (P.Tebt. II 538, 736, III 848, 850, 852, 853, 1029). The ethnic affiliation of at least some of the village's inhabitants is confirmed by the mention of an Arab contingent of guards from Arabôn kômê in the following text. Although the end of each line is missing, making it difficult to translate, the letter concerns the security of the nome's desert approaches guarded by the aforementioned Arabs together with mercenary soldiers and police.

P.Tebt. III 736 verso


Samareia Samareia
17 July 153 or 15 July 142 BCE

Willy Clarysse's analysis of the personal names of Samareia's known residents in the third and second centuries BCE suggests that at least half were of Jewish origin. Six texts excavated by Grenfell and Hunt at Tebtunis mention the village (P.Tebt. III 566, 800, 820, 873, 882, 1027). In the following petition a man with a Jewish name, Sabattaios, who in fact identifies himself as a Jew, petitions the kômogrammateus (village scribe) of Samareia, complaining that his wife had been attacked and injured by a woman with the Jewish name Joanna.

P.Tebt. III 800


Persians Persians
6 June 12 BCE

In this Demotic contract, summarized in Greek at the bottom, Pakemis son of Pakemis, acknowledges the loan of the dowry of his wife Tameische (Greek, Tameischis), daughter of Sokonopis, and promises to repay it. Here "Persian" does not seem to indicate descent, but describes a man with the status of a debtor. In this example, the subject has an Egyptian personal name, but "Persian of the epigonê" is just as frequently used to describe people with Greek names.

P.Tebt. II 386


Becoming Roman

More so than the use of "Greek" or "Egyptian" in Egypt, "Roman" originally marked a legal status (citizenship), which carried distinct rights (voting, favored tax status) and obligations (military service). When Egypt became a province of the empire, the Roman legal system adapted and recapitulated the class structure in place under the Ptolemies and, to some extent, articulated difference in ethnic terms. After Roman citizens, the "citizens" (astoi) of Alexandria and, to a slightly lesser degree, those of the Greek civic foundations (Ptolemais, Naucratis and, later, Antinoopolis) were granted privileges over and above "Egyptians" (Aigyptioi). Among Egyptians, a sub-class variously termed metropolites (mêtropolitai) or Greeks (Hellênes) formed a privileged group constituted by residents from major towns.

Transgression of class boundaries was penalized according to a collection of civil regulations known as the Gnomon of the Idios Logos (BGU 1210). For example, citizens of the Greek cities were threatened with the lower status if they married Egyptian (including Hellên) women (49), and Egyptians who claimed to possess Roman citizenship faced the confiscation of property (43). How these rules were applied and the extent to which they were enforced is difficult to ascertain; nevertheless, the categories suggest that the Roman administration recognized some measure of difference, which it expected to be able to police.

After 212 CE, however, the Antonine Constitution (P.Giss. 40) extended citizenship to all free men and women in the empire and officially, if not actually, eliminated distinctions between "Romans," "citizens" of Greek foundations and "Egyptians." Individuals marked their new status by adding the imperial family name, Aurelius or Aurelia, to their own.


Aurelius names Aurelius names
c. 266 CE

The family drama played out in the following petition witnesses both the frequency with which residents of Egypt displayed their new Roman status and the endurance of the double name (evidenced by Sarapion alias Alexandros). The papyrus was discovered tied together with eight other texts (P.Tebt. II 285, 319, 335, 378, 404, 406, 424, 588); Arthur Verhoogt has suggested that these formed part of Aurelia Sarapias' family papers, which she bundled together when she returned to her paternal house upon the death of her husband.

P.Tebt. II 326


Becoming Egyptian, Staying Egyptian

Egyptian sources also indicate difference in ethnic terms. The Egyptian wordWynn was used to describe Greeks and probably derived from the ethnic attributed to some of the first Greek-speakers with whom Egyptians had extended contact, the Ionians of the west coast of Asia Minor.

Ethnic or cultural assimilation to Graeco-Roman norms was by no means universal or desirable. Intermarriage certainly provided the surest route to "becoming" Egyptian for foreigners; and reproducing cultural practice regularly provided the means by which to become or stay Egyptian. Whereas a display of Greek identity might have been considered more appropriate for military, and some administrative and legal contexts, an Egyptian persona was more suited for others, notably in the temples. Throughout the Ptolemaic period we find individuals and families whom we might otherwise identify as Greeks (such as former ephebes and members of the gymnasion) participating in Egyptian religious life (UPZ I 1, I.Fayoum III 200). Ptolemaic kings and, later, Roman emperors were regularly depicted as Egyptian pharaohs on temple walls. Dionysios alias Plenis illustrates the dual spheres in which a high status resident of Egypt might operate: he is a "Macedonian" soldier and holds the status of aHellên, he also has the typically Egyptian status of "royal cultivator," holds priestly office in an Egyptian temple and can write in both Greek and Demotic (P.Dion.).

Recent work has challenged previously assumed economic motives for Egyptian desires to assimilate to Graeco-Roman identities in the Roman period. For example, Todd Hickey's work suggests that the Egyptian priestly elite held many of the same privileges accorded the "Greek" metropolites. Taken in tandem with the exclusive and even hostile regulations in the Gnomon of the Idios Logos, such new research reveals the variety of complex strategies for negotiating difference in the Roman period.


Letter reporting the qualifications of two priests Letter reporting the qualifications of two priests
6 February 162 CE

As demonstrated in this Greek letter, qualification for the Egyptian priesthood in the Roman period might include proof of descent from a priestly family and knowledge of Egyptian language and scripts. Although it has been argued that these restrictions might have been imposed to isolate Egyptians socially, it is perhaps more likely that they were adopted to preserve elite Egyptian culture.

P.Tebt. II 291