Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.02.07 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.02.07

James G. Keenan, J.G. Manning, Uri Yiftach-Firanko (ed.), Law and Legal Practice in Egypt from Alexander to the Arab Conquest. A Selection of Papyrological Sources in Translation, with Introductions and Commentary.   Cambridge, New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2014.  Pp. xxx, 598.  ISBN 9780521874526.  $160.00.  

Reviewed by Clifford Ando, University of Chicago (


With Law and Legal Practice in Egypt, Keenan, Manning, Yiftach-Firanko and their thirty-odd collaborators seek to make the legal history of Egypt in the Greco-Roman period more generally, and the fruits of juristic papyrology more particularly, accessible to the widest possible audience. They believe that the formalities of papyrological publication and difficulties of language have prevented ancient historians interested in law and legal historians working in other periods from exploiting the extraordinary evidence preserved in the "papyrological millennium," which they define as running from Alexander's conquest to the Islamic one. This is a worthy and difficult goal, involving choices at the level of conceptualization as well as detail, and inevitable compromises, even in a volume of this size.

Overall, the volume is a notable success: careful thought has been given to its overall content; the writing is admirably straightforward; the sign-posting to the wider scholarly landscape is restricted but effective. The editors and contributors deserve our gratitude for their work and the consistency in its presentation. In what follows, I focus on very general considerations. A handbook of 600 dense pages, treating many dozens of discrete topics, cannot be surveyed in detail in a review of this scope. But I can affirm that where I am competent to check, the sections and subsections strike me as reliable, competent and clear.

The editors justify their project and its overall design by reference to the limited prominence of juristic papyrology in the landscapes of scholarship, on the one hand, and the successes and failings of earlier papyrological handbooks, on the other. (The rich engagement of nearly all contributors with the history of their discipline is a consistent source of pleasure.) These are related acts of diagnosis: for while papyrologists, including juristic ones, have produced handbooks, chrestomathies, and Select Papyri from the very emergence of the field, by definition none of these has performed the work that Keenan, Manning and Yiftach-Firanko see as necessary (else, one assumes, they would have done it!). They highlight two reasons for this failure: first, most earlier sourcebooks on legal papyri published texts in Greek (and, occasionally, Latin, Demotic and Coptic), but rarely in translation; and second, the modern language of publication was often German.

As regards scope, the editors seek to promote a more expansive notion of the field, by declining to relegate Demotic to the Egyptologists and by including at least some Coptic texts, even though (as they allow) the heyday of Coptic legal culture postdates the Islamic conquest. As regards design, the editors observe that any number of earlier studies organized material according to the canonical topics of Roman law (treating the law of persons, obligations, things, and actions). Three effects of this choice deserve comment. First, so organizing material gave an inappropriate prominence to Roman law, as though legal life in Roman Egypt had been conducted according to its priorities. At the very least, this is an historical question demanding inquiry, not something to be accepted a priori. Second, this organization occluded features of the legal conduct that were ill-situated vis-à-vis Roman orderings of the law. And third, this raised substantial hurdles to comparatists and historians located in other periods and traditions, for whom additional acts of translation, from modern to Roman to Egyptian, were necessary before their work might begin.

The editors respond to this diagnosis with a volume of translations (published without texts in their original languages1), sorted into chapters under historical-interpretive rubrics: on the form, content and administration of legal documents (chapter 2); "the languages of the law" (chapter 3); the family (chapter 4); capital, embracing loans and security (chapter 5); sale (chapter 6); leases (chapter 7); labor (chapter 8); slavery (chapter 9); and the judicial system in theory and practice (chapter 10). Each chapter is subdivided into sections and subsections. Although subsections are keyed to specific documents—e.g., §6.2.2 = P.Tsenhor 15—the division of chapters into sections does not pursue a single logic. Although not explicit in the titles of its sections, the logic of chapter 6, Sale, is largely chronological. By contrast, chapter 4 contains sections on "Marriage" and "Divorce," each of which contains a chronologically-ordered set of texts, but also a section on "The Romanization of Family Law," which treats a set of topics related to the family without a continuous history, e.g., documents related to the legal rights of women who had born three children (§4.3.3).

On the whole, the editors appear to have been appropriately flexible in such matters. Few will read the volume straight through, trying, say, to extract from the aggregate a developmental history of "The Romanization of Law in Egypt" tout court, and so will not miss parallel sections in each chapter. What is more, the editors explicitly affirm that they did not impose uniform standards on the acts of contextualization and interpretation performed for any given papyrus: they hope that readers will observe with interest the more formal perspective evinced in the work of the continental contributors and the more sociological one on display in the work of the Anglophone scholars (pp. xxii–xxiii). Again, balance in this matter appears to have been appropriately struck: the diversity of national and linguistic traditions of scholarship in ancient history remains a significant and admirable feature of the discipline.

That said, in one chapter, at least, the diversity of approaches produces a set of parts that adds up to no whole. Chapter 3, "The Languages of the Law," contains four sections: §3.1, "Ethnic diversity in a wealthy household," studies the archive of Dryton, a Greek soldier who married an Egyptian woman, whose descendants gradually assimilated to the Egyptian cultural forms (of language, of nomenclature) that dominated their region; here, language is a proxy for the performance and practice of identity. §3.2, "Greek and Demotic in the Roman Fayum," demonstrates how the language of documents in the Ptolemaic period mapped formal qualities of the documents as well as the procedures that generated them, but that language and formal qualities of the documents ceased to co-vary in an exclusive way early in Roman period. §3.3, "Roman Law in Egyptian Documents," is, to a point, about Latin documents, albeit occasionally about documents that were likely once in Latin but which survive only in Greek translation. But as its title suggests, the section uses language as a proxy for detecting the use of Roman positive law in Egypt. §3.4, "Greek and Coptic in the Byzantine Era," by contrast, is a deeply sociolinguistic inquiry into the emergence of Coptic as a written code, with some wonderful historical reflections on its contexts of use, linguistic observations on interferences between Greek and Coptic, and some reflections on possible evidence for the instrumentalization of bilingual speech. The chapter as a whole was a pleasure to read, but no coherent story of "The Languages of the Law" can be told after reading it.

The titles of the sections of Chapter 3 spur consideration of another issue. The terms "Greek," "Roman," and to a point "Egyptian," are used in quite different ways throughout this book: no classicist will need to be told what those ways are. But occasionally one needs to distinguish papyri that are Greek in their language from papyri that are Greek in their form from papyri that arose in contexts where norms of Greek positive law were observed, and so forth. Looseness about vocabulary and concepts makes this more difficult. This is all the more true when a significant effect of power lay upon the meaning of terms and construction of identities: Greeks who had been Greek in Ptolemaic Egypt became Egyptians under Rome.

The issue is not one of mere punctiliousness. Beyond Keenan and Arjava's references to "Romanization," the volume invites reflection on social, cultural, linguistic and legal change. For example, Yiftach-Firanko and Muhs state contemporary orthodoxy when they suppose that changes in the language and form of legal documents in the passage from Ptolemaic to Roman rule resulted from Roman imperial policy (21, 111). But more systematic reflection on the tendenz of political orders or change in positive law is generally not possible in consequence of reading this volume because the editors have more or less systematically excluded normative texts (3–4). P.Matha is not here, nor is its Roman-era Greek translation (P.Oxy. XLVI 3285), nor the Gnomon of the Idios Logos, nor P.Aprokrimata = SB 6.9526, and one could go on. One emerges with too little sense of the widespread practice of citing the edicts of prefects,2 or of the explosive interest in imperial utterances occasioned by the visit of Septimius Severus.3 This omission cannot be justified by the claim that in number, private documents outnumber texts publishing positive law: that would presumably be true of any representative sample of texts from any written legal culture. Nor can it be justified by the incoherent claims that one studies practice and not "doctrine" or that one works from the ground up rather than top down.

In saying this, I do not intend that studies of local legal or political cultures cannot or should not be conducted or cannot be appropriately designed. But such claims about bottom-up practice over against top-down doctrine are often made as though practice were an autonomous domain, in which norms were somehow merely immanent. But the coherence of practice around norms, even of legal petitions around moralizing metanarratives, demand explanations that must refer ultimately to contingent ideological and material aspects of power.4 What were the sources of law in Greco-Roman Egypt? What were the non-statal sources of norms, and in what social fields were they operative? When were these recognized, and in which fora of adjudication? No history of a legal culture can ignore these questions. The focus of the volume on the social power of state archives and thus of state-sanctioned systems of knowledge production (see esp. §2.6) would seem to prejudge the answer to these questions, but no explicit answer is in fact given.5 If the editors' answer is that imperial power had a decisive effect on what counted as legal and social knowledge, it is curious that (on their representation) this occurred largely without the publication and circulation of positive law.

In sum, Law and Legal Practice in Egypt is a sane, careful introduction to, and survey of, the surviving documentary record of the operation of private law in Greco-Roman Egypt. The field owes its editors and contributors a great debt.


1.   The editors rightly observe that Greek and Latin texts for an exceedingly high number of papyri are available from, and rightly lament that no equivalent resources exists for Demotic and Coptic document. A more serious problem results from the near total lack of line numbers in the translations (§2.6.5 and §7.1 are exceptions; the practice of either might have been generalized).
2.   R. Katzoff, "Sources of law in Roman Egypt: the role of the prefect," ANRW 2.13 (1980): 807–844. An up-to-date catalog of prefectual edicts is a major desideratum. On citation practice in Egyptian courts see C. Ando, "Exemplum, analogy and precedent in Roman law," in Michèle Lowrie and Susanne Lüdemann, eds., Between Exemplarity and Singularity: Literature, Philosophy, Law (New York: Routledge, 2015), 111–122
3.   J.-P. Coriat, Le prince législateur: la technique législative des Sévères et les méthodes de création du droit impérial à la fin du principat (Rome: École française de Rome, 1997).
4.   The volume cites the third installment of the publication of P.Euphrates but not the first, but it is there that Feissel and Gascou make the emphatic demonstration of the consonance of the Euphrates papyri with contemporaneous Egyptian documents: D. Feissel and J. Gascou, "Documents d'archives romains inédits du Moyen Euphrate (IIIe s. après J.C.)," Journal des Savants 1995: 65–119.
5.   But cf. Yiftach-Firanko's claim (22), which he has elaborated elsewhere, that the "provincial administration had these practices" [to wit, those of the non-Roman subjects] "documented in a source..." This seems dubious: even in the second century, the citation of local norms in Roman courts, and establishing of their content, seems very often to have performed adversarially, or Roman magistrates might employ a local expert.

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