The Center for Tebtunis Papyri logoEthnic Identity in Roman Tebtunis header


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

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Language and Education


wooden writing tabletLanguage can be learned and is not always a reliable index of the geographical origin or ancestry of a people. The choice of language does, nonetheless, have significant implications for social identity.

In the wake of Alexander the Great, a uniform system of Greek education (paideia) spread throughout subject Hellenistic kingdoms and served to preserve Greek identity and mark social status in contrast to the majority "barbarian" populations. But Greek education also provided a significant means by which to blur ethnic boundaries and to move from one category to another. In addition to fortifying and standardizing Greek aesthetic and ethical values, such an education increasingly provided entrance into a common elite language and culture (koinê) for non-Greeks seeking economic and social status. At the same time, temple schools had long trained Egyptian scribes for priestly and administrative service, and Demotic continued to be used in Ptolemaic mid- and lower-level administrative documents. Literacy in both Demotic and Greek thus became an increasingly useful skill and a number of texts from Tebtunis witness the work of bilingual scribes (above P.Tebt. II 386; below UC 2490).

Later, although the use of Latin did not replace Greek as the administrative language of Roman Egypt, the use of Demotic decreased in official spheres, perhaps as a result of Roman policy. These changes did not signal the beginning of the end for the use of Demotic; instead, the available evidence suggests that Demotic literature flourished during precisely this period. Its use persisted in private and religious contexts and an Egyptian language education continued to define the temple elite until the third century CE (P.Tebt. II 291).

Berkeley's Tebtunis papyri offer a fascinating peek at the methods of acquiring Greek and Latin writing skills. A number of school exercises on papyri or wooden tablets, demonstrate the successful (and not so successful) attempts of students to master Greek (P.Tebt. II 278, III 901, 6-21416) and Latin (P.Tebt. II 686); comparable exercises in Demotic have been unearthed in more recent excavations of trash heaps east of the temple enclosure.



Edict concerning the jurisdiction of Greek and Egyptian courts Edict concerning the jurisdiction of Greek and Egyptian courts
28 April 118 BCE

Ptolemy VIII's famous edict suggests that cases tried before the chrêmatistai (Greek judges) orlaokritai (Egyptian judges) should depend on the language in which the disputed contract was drawn up. The edict indicates that Greeks and Egyptians could have made contracts with one another in Greek or Demotic, and, it has been argued, that Greeks had the right to make contracts with Greeks in Demotic and Egyptians with Egyptians in Greek. This text then demonstrates the futility of using language as the definitional basis of ethnicity for individuals known from such contracts, while de factoexhibiting the continued utility of the terms "Greek" and "Egyptian" as recognizable categories.

P.Tebt. I 5


School exercise School exercise
2nd century CE

This writing board records the beginning stages of a student's elementary education. He, or perhaps she, imitated a teacher's model in hexameter verse, "Begin, good hand, beautiful letters, and a straight line"; however, the student also faithfully copied his or her teacher's exhortation, "and imitate it."

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California.
Inv. 6-21416


Two alphabetic acrostics Two alphabetic acrostics
Early 1st century CE

Consisting of catalogues of the gods, place names and occupations, word lists were common features of ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek and Latin literate education. Word lists helped students build vocabulary and practice their signs or letters; additionally, they give us some indication of how peoples ordered their world.

The two columns of this text contain a word list and a possible composition. The column on the left lists occupations and the column on the right narrates the theft of a garment. The initial letters of each column correspond to the order of the Greek alphabet, forming an alphabetic acrostic. The sure hand indicates that the sheet probably belonged to a teacher for use as a model for students.

P.Tebt. II 278


Euripides writing exercise Euripides writing exercise
2nd century BCE?

Learning to read and write is a technical skill, but the process also educates the student in the cultural values of the society in which the language is used. Based on the numbers of surviving texts, Euripides was the second most popular author in Graeco-Roman Egypt after Homer. The text on display illustrates the utility of his verse for teaching purposes. The first half of the first line of Bacchae is here repeated up to five times. A practiced hand provides the model and a second hand copies it with a poorly sharpened pen.

P.Tebt. III 901


Virgil writing exercise Virgil writing exercise
2nd or 3rd century CE

Only about one percent of the papyri surviving from Egypt are in Latin, and these texts are mostly from military and official contexts. The survival of this school exercise, however, indicates someone's active attempt to learn to write Latin at Tebtunis. This text consists of the first two lines of the fourth book of Georgics by the Roman poetpar excellence, Virgil.

P.Tebt. II 686


Tools of the Trade

To write in Greek or Demotic was not only a matter of learning a script, orthography, vocabulary and grammar; the mechanics of writing in either language differed considerably. Demotic was written from right to left with a brush made out of a rush; the carbon-based ink was shaped into a cake and placed on a palette. Scribes would dip their brushes into separate water containers and "paint" a text, a practice similar to that of Chinese or Japanese calligraphy. By contrast, Greek was written left to right with a reed pen; the ink used was metal-based and dissolved in water to form liquid. From the early Ptolemaic period there are many examples of scribes who wrote Greek with their brushes; by the Roman period the opposite phenomenon is common whereby scribes wrote Demotic with a pen.


Scribe's diorite stone palette from town Scribe's diorite stone palette from town
Roman period (1st century BCE - 4th century CE)

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California; photographed by Madeleine Fang.
Inv. 6-20427


Wooden inkpot, reed pens and wooden writing tablet Wooden inkpot, reed pens and wooden writing tablet
Roman period (1st century BCE - 4th century CE)

The status attained from being educated is perhaps reflected in the objects that went with some individuals to their afterlife. At Tebtunis writing boards, inkpots and pens were included among grave goods (all except 6-20512 displayed here) and at least one mummy portrait from the site depicts its subject holding a scroll and pen (6-21377).

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California; photographed by Joan Knudsen.
Inv. 6-21419a, b, 6-21420, 6-20512, 6-20404


Cylindrical wooden pen case Cylindrical wooden pen case
Roman period (1st century BCE - 4th century CE)?

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California; photographed by Elisabeth R. O'Connell.
Inv. 6-21614a, b



Bilingual Scribe X Bilingual Scribe X
Late 2nd or early 1st century BCE

Recent research has revealed the archive of a notary, who has been provisionally named "Scribe X" because his signature has not yet been located. Recognizable by his distinctive hand and his use of a pen to write Demotic, Scribe X exemplifies his bilingual milieu. Up to thirty-six fragments of accounts and contracts have been associated with him. This text includes a Demotic monthly account with a Greek summary.

UC 2490