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

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Language, Literacy and Education in Roman Tebtunis


papyrus image"Literacy" is difficult to define and measure. Reading and writing require different skills; reading necessitates comprehension whereas writing requires the development of a physical ability. Although reading and writing were theoretically taught in tandem in the Graeco-Roman world, proficiency achieved in either ability depended on access to and length of education, individual initiative and, of course, practice. School exercises and teachers' models on papyri (P.Tebt. II 278 and 6-21416) demonstrate the process of learning to write, but oral education has left no trace.

Nowhere are writers more in evidence than in the documents produced for and housed in state record offices. In papyri from Roman Egypt, "illiterate" (agrammatos) or "one who does not know letters" (mê eidenai grammata) described persons who could not append a Greek signature to a document. Because the signature had developed as a guarantee that contracting parties understood the terms of their agreements, an illiterate or even "one who wrote slowly" (bradeôs graphontos) relied on trusted family, friends, business associates or professionals to write for them. Both public and private records were stored in local and regional offices to ensure their validity; individuals and families, even when illiterate, kept copies of important documents at home as proofs. Thus, literates, probably less than ten percent of the population, served as intermediaries in a complex web that, in theory at least, tethered each individual to the state.

Perhaps as a result of the increasing systematization and centralization of record offices in the Roman period, the use of demotic (a late stage of Egyptian language and its script) declined in official spheres. Nevertheless, a few individuals opted to sign their names to Greek contracts using demotic.


Loan contract written in Greek Loan contract written in Greek Loan contract written in Greek, signed in demotic with its title transliterated into Latin
Year 7 of Tiberius (20/21 CE)

This contract records a loan made by a Roman citizen named Gaius Julius Fuscus to two men named Psenkebkis and Marres. The scribe notes that he writes on behalf of the two debtors "because Psenkebkis can only write Egyptian and Marres does not know letters" (dia to ton men Psenkebkis Aiguptia graphein, ton de allon mê eidenai). Psenkebkis signs on his own behalf in unpracticed demotic (hand 2). Contrary to the conventions of the demotic script, which was written from right to left, he writes his name left to right in accordance with the direction of the Greek script. The scribe who drew up the contract, Marepsemis son of Marepsemis (hand 1), and the official who registered the agreement, Apion the regional scribe (nomographos) of Tebtunis (hand 4), are both known from other texts as working through the record office (grapheion) at Tebtunis (P.Mich. V). On the reverse of this document are two lines: a fragmentary line of Greek may indicate the date or the place where the record office copy of the contract was stored; a second line records the title of the loan transliterated into Latin letters (enegoisis Psengebgis Marheus). Once the loan was repaid, Fuscus wrote an acknowledgment at the bottom (hand 5) and the document was cancelled by drawing an X through the body of the document.

P.Tebt. II 586


property division contract property division contract Literates and illiterates in property division contract
Year 6 of Claudius, the 17th of the Egyptian month Epeiph (= 11 July 46 CE)

In this contract between a brother and his sister (acting with her husband as guardian), the parties agree to divide three very precisely described pieces of property in Tebtunis. Not only are the ages and distinguishing marks of the contracting parties noted, but so are those of the literates who sign on their behalves. The contract is written in four hands. The first probably belonged to Kronion, who wrote the contract and registered it (on the bottom) on behalf of the record office (grapheion). The second belongs to Psoiphis son of Onnophris, who signed on behalf of the brother and his wife, "because they did not know letters" (mê eidoton grammata). The third hand belongs to Marepsemis alias Kaleos, son of Marepsemis, who signs for the sister and her husband Psenkebkis, "because he only writes Egyptian and the other does not know letters" (dia to ton men Psenkêbkin Egypt[ut?]ia graphin [sic] tên te allên mê eidenai grammata). Following in a fourth hand is the signature of Psenkebkis in unpracticed demotic script (P3-sr[-n]-gb). It is difficult to judge how the signatories might be related to the contracting parties; but the variety of skill-levels in writing is readily apparent-compare hands 3 and 4 to the more fluid hands 1 and 2.

P.Tebt. II 383


loan agreement Illiterates represented by relatives
Year 14 of Hadrian, the Egyptian month Pachon (= between 26 April and 25 May 13)

In this loan agreement Isidora, daughter of Athenion, borrows 6200 drachmae from Herakleides for a period of three months. Her relative, Heron (hand 3), writes on her behalf because she is "illiterate."

P.Tebt. II 512


fragmentary document Slow-writers
Year 18 of Hadrian, 4th of the intercalary days (= 27 August 124 CE)

In this fragmentary document "Onnophris son of Pakebkis, priest of the temple of the god Kronos at Tebtunis, aged about 60, having a scar on his left wrist" leases a piece of land to "Taorseus daughter of Kronion, aged about thirty-eight, with no distinguishing mark, with her guardian who is her kinsman, Kollouthos son of Paopis, aged about sixty, having a scar on his right knee." Onnophris's son, Pakebkis, signed the lease for his father (hand 4) because he wrote slowly (bradeôs graphontos); Onnophris's own subscription (hand 3) demonstrates the truth of the statement. The bottom half of the text is too fragmentary to ascertain who might have written for Taorseus and her guardian (hand 4), but it is a quick, fluid hand.

P.Tebt. II 311


The means to write

Writing in either Greek or demotic required more than learning the script, orthography, vocabulary and grammar of either language, because the mechanics of writing differed considerably. Greek was written left to right with a metal-based ink and reed pen; demotic was "painted" right to left with carbon-based ink using a rush brush.


Beer-tax receipts on ostraca Beer-tax receipts on ostraca (pot sherds)
I-II centuries

Sherds from broken pottery were a cheap and handy medium for writing short letters and receipts in antiquity. Most of the thirty ostraca (texts on pot sherds) recovered in Grenfell and Hunt's 1899/1900 excavations were receipts. The one displayed here are for a beer-tax levied on individuals at Tebtunis.

The tenth year, by Pharion, son of Patronos, paid in the month of Phamenoth for the beer tax on individuals an additional sum of eight drachmai, total eight drachmai.

O.Tebt. 1


Diorite stone palette Diorite stone palette
I-III centuries 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 and reed pen Wooden inkpot and reed pen
I-III centuries CE

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California. Photographed by Madeleine Fang.
Inv. 6-21419a, b, 6-21420


letter addressed to Maron the kathêgêtes letter Teachers in the Tebtunis Papyri
II-III century CE

We know the names of (and sometimes more about) numerous teachers and students from Graeco-Roman Tebtunis. Ptolemaic texts among Berkeley's papyri mention teachers (a didaskolosin P.Tebt. IV 1139 and a possible pedagôgos inP.Tebt. I 112) and a Roman period text from Tebtunis now in Michigan (P.Mich. II 123) records the sum paid to a female teacher (deskalos, for didaskolos) named Serapias for her writing services.

The letter on display here is addressed to Maron the kathêgêtes. A kathêgêtes was an itinerant tutor, probably responsible for advanced levels of education in towns removed from major educational centers.

P.Tebt. II 591