Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.02.14

Friedhelm Hoffmann, Ägypten Kultur und Lebenswelt in griechisch-römischer Zeit. Eine Darstellung nach den demotischen Quellen.   Berlin:  Akademie Verlag, 2000.  Pp. 355.  ISBN 3-05-003308-8.  DM 39.  



Reviewed by J.G. Manning, Stanford University
Word count: 1734 words

The study of demotic texts until a few years ago was a recondite subject even though the texts written in that late stage of the ancient Egyptian language have been regarded as an essential part of the history and culture of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt since the pioneeering work by Champollion and Young on the Rosetta decree launched the study of demotic in the 1820's. A change in the personality of the field began to occur about thirty years ago, first with the appearance of the important journal Enchoria in 1971. The first meeting of the International Conference for Demotic Studies took place in Berlin in 1977 and this was almost immediately followed by the publication of the first fascicle of the Demotisches Namenbuch project in 1980. The field has made great strides ever since this foundation was laid. One can readily see that the study of demotic texts has not, until recently, had the support of basic research tools which has made Greek papyrology such an important and accessible discipline within Classics. The final publication of the Chicago Demotic Dictionary Project under the direction of Janet Johnson will give the language its first full-fledged dictionary, although its initial intent was merely to provide corrections and additions of new words to Erichsen's Demotisches Glossar, 1939. That work is now seriously out of date and only provided the user with the editor's hand copies of words. This so-called "Normalschrift" is no reliable guide to the paleography of this difficult script. Ola El-Aguizy's recent A palaeographical study of demotic papyri, Cairo, 1998, has made great advances in that respect, and Mark Depauw's A Companion to demotic studies, Papyrologica Bruxellensia, vol 28, 1997, is a very good introduction and annotated bibliography to the field. Hoffmann's new book is a most welcome and timely addition to this growing list of reference works which make the study of demotic accessible to those whose interests touch upon Egypt in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods.

Demotic, a term first used by Herodotus (2.36), is both a stage of the ancient Egyptian language and the script used to record the language. It is a very rapidly written script which evolved from Hieratic cursive writing and was used initially to record legal agreements, receipts and the like. It has its origins in the Delta and its use was spread by the process of political re-consolidation under the Delta-based Saite dynasty. Demotic reached Thebes by the middle of the sixth century BCE and replaced the local script known, unfortunately, as "Abnormal Hieratic." I say unfortunately because it was in fact the normal cursive writing system in the first millennium before demotic replaced it. This process has been well described by Koen Donker van Heel in Acta Demotica, Pisa, 1994, pp.115-24. Hoffmann's brief introduction begins with an overview of demotic in the context of the Egyptian language, with nice examples of both Ramesside period Hieratic and the later cursive Hieratic of the Theban area. A brief discussion of writing material and the chronology of demotic, and a very nice graph of demotic sources by date are also provided in Section I. New texts have been published since the end point of Hoffmann's data here, but the overall weighting of texts, with peaks of papyri and ostraca coming ca. 125 BCE and another for ostraca in the first half of the first century CE, remains accurate. Demotic legal papyri are far more numerous in the Ptolemaic period before Greek almost completely replaced demotic as a legal language, but the early Roman tax receipts from Upper Egypt written in demotic show that at least some local scribes issued government tax receipts in that language after it was moribund as a documentary language. A history of the field, a list of the basic tools, and a description of the method of transcribing demotic (there is still no uniform standard for this) ends the first section of the book.

The second part is dedicated to a commentary on demotic sources and is a very thorough review of demotic material. The following subjects are treated after the foreword to the section: Education, Administration, Letters, Law, Science, Religion, Ptolemaic Synodal decrees, Prophecy, Literature, Instructions/Invective and Graffiti. Some of these subjects are given short shrift ("Administration"), while others, like Economics, are not treated at all. This is no doubt the result of Hoffmann's classification by type of text. The study of the economic system, of course, would rely heavily on what Hoffmann classifies as "legal" texts and this private material must of course be studied in conjunction with the Greek administrative papyri. In the field of Ptolemaic administration there is much work yet to do, and the demotic material is particularly valuable in providing insights into the structure and extent of local transactions and their relationship to the royal economy as well as to the political structure of the regime, in my opinion still much more regionally-based than has often been recognized. Here correspondence, of which Hoffmann (pp.57-68) provides just a hint, provides insights into the mentality of local officials, their social networks, and the organization of the legal and political institutions of Egypt, which the Ptolemaic and Roman regimes relied heavily upon. Demotic correspondence remained important among priests in the Roman period as well. In neither case, however, has such evidence been fully incorporated into historical analysis, often because the letters cannot be dated to a specific year. Yet such correspondence, such as the text Hoffmann discusses on p.62 (dated year six of a Ptolemy) between a Thebarch and the head priest in Elephantine, shows what must have been the normal tension between state officials and local elite with respect to state revenues. Such tension, nothing new from the point of view of Egyptian history, often stands in marked contrast to the cold efficiency and effectiveness that the Ptolemaic circular letters sometimes suggest. Hoffmann also briefly treats demotic census declarations and evidence of Egyptians who functioned as tax farmers. For Roman taxation, and the extent to which they borrowed from Ptolemaic practice, I would add Dominic Rathbone's important study, "Egypt, Augustus and Roman taxation," in Cahiers du Centre G. Glotz 4, 1993, pp.81-112. One of the old contrasts, again thought particularly true of the Ptolemaic period, has been that the Fayyum was "Greek" and the Nile valley (or Upper Egypt) more "Egyptian." As more evidence is published and studied in context, however, this old truism gives way to a more complicated picture of the relationship between cultures as well as changes over time.

The Egyptian legal system is one of the best documented subjects in the demotic material, and the contribution of demotic to the fields of comparative law and legal history is still, despite decades of excellent scholarship, vastly underestimated by scholars outside of Greek and demotic papyrology. One of the most important observations about the nature of demotic in recent years has been the suggestion by John Ray in Acta Demotica, Pisa, 1994, 251-64, that the conservative nature of the language resulted in the systematic filtering out of Greek loan words (as opposed to Coptic which has fully one-quarter of its vocabulary in Greek) which were probably common in the spoken language already under the Ptolemies. The observation has fundamental importance for our interpretation of legal texts, and the gap between spoken and written language is beautifully illustrated by the important group of early Roman (second century AD) ostraca from Medinet Madi (Narmuthis, southwest Fayyum) discussed by Hoffman (pp.45-47, plate 9) in his treatment of education. The legal papyri are important not only for the study of Egyptian law but also for the dating protocols, which provide valuable information about the eponymous priests, and for the information that these texts give about the structure of local scribal offices.

Other genres which Hoffmann treats, like "literature" and "science," which includes mathematics as well as magic, are huge subjects which touch on the nature of the culture of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt and the interrelationship between Egypt and the wider classical world in fundamental and important ways. I do not have the space to review in detail Hoffmann's excellent treatment. The study of demotic texts here shows both the strong continuity from earlier Egyptian culture (e.g. the as yet unpublished "Book of the Temple" signaled on p.125) as well as the connections between Greek (i.e. the hermetic corpus) and Egyptian literature. Despite the size of the book, Hoffmann does not treat all possible subjects. One large and important missing subject is the study of demotic family archives, which can often shed valuable light not only on the economy and legal culture in the villages but also on such subjects as religious practice, seen for example in the now justly famous Choachyte archives from Thebes and Memphis, and the interaction of Greek soldiers with local populations.

At the end of the book (pp.249-96) Hoffmann provides basic literature for each subject, with basic sigla used in the field as well as a list of the Demotic Congress volumes which have appeared up to the time of publication (a sixth volume from the Copenhagen meetings is in press). A glossary of terms, a chronology, a stemma of the Ptolemaic dynasty and maps conclude the book. The lack of a map of the Fayyum is a curious oversight. (A good map of the sites may be had in Paola Davoli L'archeologia urbana nel Fayyum di età ellenistica e romana. Missione congiunta delle Università di Bologna e di Lecce in Egitto, vol.1. Bologna: Generoso Procaccini, 1998, pp.33 and 346. The new Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, Princeton University Press, 2000, provides even better maps with topography.) But this does not detract from Hoffmann's book, which is an elegant and most welcome survey of demotic texts. His aim of demonstrating the value of demotic texts for the study of Ptolemaic and Roman Egyptian social and cultural history has certainly succeeded. There is much work yet to do on these subjects, and some, such as the study of the economy of these periods, are still in their infancy. Hoffmann's overview will certainly aid in the promulgation of this important material to a much wider audience. All of this is by way of saying that we should expect a very exciting period of synthetic work in the next twenty to thirty years. The study of demotic texts will be a sine qua non for such work.

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