Ethnic Designation in Hellenistic and Early Roman Egypt

FWF-Projekt M 2957-G (Lise Meitner-Programm)
Laufzeit: 2021–2023

Projektleitung: Csaba A. LÁDA (Mitantragsteller: Bernhard PALME)


My research project aims to examine the ethnic terminology used in multilingual documentary evidence – papyri, ostraca and inscriptions – from Hellenistic (332–30 BC) and early Roman Egypt (30 BC – AD 14). In the sources from this period so far published well over three hundred different ethnic terms are found in close to two thousand documents in reference to nearly three thousand specific individuals. The objective of my project is to investigate and elucidate the meaning of ethnic terms and why and how they were employed by the state bureaucracy and private individuals in official and legal contexts. My project will therefore focus chiefly on sources in Greek and Demotic Egyptian, the two most widely used official languages of this period, but it will also consider evidence in other languages and scripts such as Aramaic, Latin and Middle Egyptian in the hieroglyphic script.

Ethnic terminology has been one of the most complex and puzzling problems of the study of Graeco-Roman Egypt and this is not just because of the wide range of different languages and scripts in which the evidence survives. During this period some ethnic terms appear to have lost any real ethnic meaning and to have developed into fictitious ethnic designations, for example, occupational (e.g. military) and status (for instance, tax-status). However, it is often uncertain what precise meanings they assumed and why, when and how this change in their semantics occurred. Another major problem is posed by the literally ethnic designations Perses tes epigones, ‘Persian of the descent’, and Persine, ‘Persian woman’, the semantic evolution of which takes a different course: by the early Roman period these had become a legal fiction assumed by those intending to facilitate loans and leases by which they voluntarily put themselves into a disadvantageous legal position in terms of execution in case of delay or non-compliance with their contractual obligations. Finally, the precise meaning and semantic development of the tes epigones (literally ‘of the descent’) – ms n Kmy (literally ‘born in Egypt’) expression, which was attached to numerous different ethnic designations in Greek and Demotic, are largely unclear.

My project will examine the precise meaning and semantic evolution of ethnic designations, how and why they were used by the government and private individuals in official and legal documents, and what they can tell us about such central problems of the social, legal and cultural history of Hellenistic and early Roman Egypt as governmental approaches to and policies about the multi-ethnic population of the country, whether any ethnic groups received positive or negative discrimination from the government, immigration, ethnicity, ethnic and cultural assimilation, integration and social mobility of different ethnic groups and the structure and nature of society from an ethnic perspective.