Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.04.21 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.04.21

Sandra Coussement, ‘Because I am Greek’: Polyonymy as an Expression of Ethnicity in Ptolemaic Egypt. Studia Hellenistica 55.   Leuven; Paris, Bristol, CT:  Peeters, 2016.  Pp. xix, 429.  ISBN 9789042932722.  €98.00.  

Reviewed by Peter Nadig, Mekelle University; Freie Universität Berlin (

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Sandra Coussement’s PhD-dissertation on double names in Ptolemaic sources originated in the project ‘Creating identities in Graeco-Roman Egypt’ at the Catholic University of Leuven (2008-2012).1 Her work is another excellent example of the interdisciplinary approach that this period requires as well as a showcase for how the digital research tools of today can be used to great advantage. The transcripts and metadata of most published papyri, ostraca, and inscriptions can nowadays be found through digital search engines providing a much faster and easier data collection than ever before. For example, the online platform Trismesgistos (TM) has become a widely used tool, especially for prosopographical studies on Egypt between 800 BC and AD 800. (The author, however, abstains from a thorough critical assessment of TM.)

Coussement's study is structured in six main chapters, which are preceded by a preface, a map of the Egyptian nomes, and an outline of the adopted methodology. In the methodology section, the author explains her careful use of TM and related databases. In total she examined 50,000 Greek papyri using the Duke Databank of Documentary Papyri (DDBDP); literary texts were not included.2 She points out that all data retrieved online was double-checked manually against the print publications in order to rule out errors due to incorrect data entry. She concludes the introduction with some remarks about the data analysis in the light of the bias in the sources. There are several reasons for the bias: place, time, type of document, and milieu. For example, certain areas are underrepresented due to climatic conditions, such as the Nile Delta, from were hardly any papyri are extant. The same goes for chronological evolutions as the number of documents differ from century to century. Also, most papyri come from cartonage used for funerary matters. The source for this scrap paper acquired in bulk was often the governmental offices were official documents had been deposited. Sometimes the sources do not provide all details about the professional background of their owners who belonged to the privileged part of their society. Probably, they were only concerned out “keeping (and changing!) their ethnic identity and status” (p. xxiii).

The first main chapter gives a detailed introduction to the study that aims to analyze the social interactions between Greeks and Egyptians in Ptolemaic society, summarizing the topics of identity and ethnicity in Hellenic and Egyptian contexts. A relevant observation is that the use of double names was already known in Egypt and the Near East even before the Ptolemaic period. Chapter two focuses on the roots, spread, and formulae of double naming practices (33-75). It is noteworthy that double naming was not as common in the Ptolemaic as the Roman period, for which over 7000 instances are attested—nearly twelve times as many. As holds for all documentary sources, data distribution varies according to archaeological chance and location. The arguments and conclusions of this chapter are supported and illustrated by several charts and tables.

One subchapter tackles the important question of “Why Use Double Names?” (46-50). According to the author, one major reason is the fact that the Ptolemaic administration regulated the precise wording of contracts and required proper identification of the parties involved—a necessary move in case the document would be used in a legal proceeding. Chapter three looks at polyonymy from the perspective of linguistic origins (for example, two Egyptian names, one Greek-one Egyptian name, two Greek names, Semitic, and unknown names). These name types are presented in charts showing their geographical and chronological distribution and summarized with further tables and pie charts regarding their language combination and the evolution of their linguistic origins. Interestingly, the combination of one Egyptian with one Greek name amounts around 45% of the double names attested; these feature most dominantly in the sources from the second and first century BC (79-84). The people with the polyonymous names are examined in chapter four (97-115), with special attention to their gender, age, social positions and backgrounds. Chapter five covers the history of contacts between Egyptians and Greeks before and after Alexander the Great. Even though these contacts can be traced back to the middle of the third millennium BCE, as well as to the Late Bronze Age, Greek settlers are attested in Egypt not before the reign of Psammetichus I (664-610 BCE), many of which served as mercenaries to the armies of the pharaohs. But even before the Macedonian conquest cultural contacts between these foreigners and native Egyptians took place. These early sources on changing one’s ethnic identity are presented and discussed here.

One key element in the study of polyonymy is the distinction between ethnic origin and ethnic identity. Here the author provides a succinct summary of the scholarly debate, which covers older main interpretations such as Mischkultur, operational level of ethnicity, and fluidity of ethnicity. The author concludes that these solutions “unnecessarily—and wrongly—simplify matters of ethnicity” under the Ptolemies and points out that this discussion only makes sense if a clear distinction between a person’s or group’s ethnic background is being made. The sixth and final chapter, “Different Faces of Ethnicity,” examines the impact of ethnicity on Ptolemaic society where it created as much as helped cross ethnic borders. The second half of this chapter takes a look at the “contextual switching of identities according to the so-called ‘ethnic space’” an individual acted upon (159-207).

A brief summary concludes the study. One major conclusion is the fact that double names were primarily used when the context required it, especially when a precise or complete identification mattered. This was important in funerary texts that affected one’s afterlife and in administrative documents that listed contract partners or petitioners. In less formal texts, however, the use was avoided and even banned (when a tax status was listed). Coussement also cautions that a name is often not a reliable indicator of a person’s ethnic descent. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that polyonymy was not restricted to elites, as its use is also attested for merchants, workmen, and slaves (104-105). The use of double names was therefore more widespread than the uneven distribution of the extant sources indicates.

The largest part of the book is the prosopographical catalogue (215-376) which lists alphabetically 393 polyonymous individuals with the attestations for each in chronological order. The chart consists of six columns: 1. Name (printed in black) with relatives mentioned in the same identification string (printed in grey), 2. Titles, 3. Role of person, 4. Reference (source and TM number), 5. Language(s) of attestation and type of document,3 5. Year. The chart is followed by a list of sources omitted from the catalogue for being ambiguous or uncertain data (377-386). A brief addendum lists some recent publications on double names that were not incorporated in the dissertation version. Two lists of figures and tables as well as an extensive bibliography conclude the book.

Coussement’s book is produced in the good tradition of prosopographical studies on Greco-Roman Egypt for which Leuven University has been known for many years. Her excellent contribution is a study of individuals, albeit a selected group of them. It gives us some valuable insights into the phenomenon of double naming and the everyday life of Ptolemaic society. It also serves as a reference work for all future studies on Ptolemaic prosopography.

The reviewer may add a personal note here. Living in Tigray, Northern Ethiopia, for nearly two years, he has come across modern uses of polyonymy. It is customary to give expats living here also an Ethiopian name in Tigrigna, the language predominantly spoken in this region, or even in Amharic. Also, some expats give themselves traditional English names that are easier to pronounce for Ethiopians. For example, Yao Bao Long from China becomes Walter by his own choice, while he was also given an Amharic name, Addisu (= New One). And the Tigrigna Petros Zadiq may even reflect the meaning of the original Swiss-German family name that refers to a kind and benevolent person.


1.   Another dissertation on double names in Roman Egypt was written around the same time by Yanne Broux, Double Names and Elite Strategy in Roman Egypt, Studia Hellenistica 54, Leuven 2015. Cf. BMCR 2015.09.52.
2.   One exception is Cat. no. 84 : Dionysios (alias Petosarapis); cf. Diodorus Siculus 31.15a.3.
3.   These include texts in Greek and Egyptian (Hieroglyphic, Hieratic, Demotic).

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