Ancient papyri shed light on legal system in Roman Egypt

About 100 years ago, peasants and archeologists rooting about in the remains of ancient settlements in central Egypt happened upon tens of thousands of documents on papyri. They were 2,000 years old.

“Because Egypt is so dry, they had sat there for 2,000 years preserved under sand,” says historian Ben Kelly, a professor in York's Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies. “It is quite fantastic. I was shocked, too, when I heard about them."

This surprising treasure, now housed in museums and libraries in Europe, North America and Egypt, continues to occupy translators and scholars – like Kelly – more than a century later. 

When he tells people that his new book, Petitions, Litigation, and Social Control in Roman Egypt, is based on public records and private letters contained in these ancient records, “they are most interested in the fact that these documents exist at all,” says Kelly.

The University of Oxford houses the most famous collection, the Oxyrhynchus papyri, translated and published in English. Other collections have been translated into German, French and Italian, or simply transcribed into the original Greek. Kelly, who can read these languages, scoured thousands of transcriptions first to produce his doctorate, then to write this book.

Petitions, Litigation, and Social Control in Roman Egypt was published in September as part of the new series, Oxford Studies in Ancient Documents, published by Oxford University Press.

Of value to historians, Kelly’s book sheds light on how a legal system worked in a province of the Roman Empire. Through the analysis of hundreds of petitions, reports of court proceedings and letters, Kelly focuses on how Egyptians in this region in Roman Egypt (30BC-AD284) used the legal system, such as it was, to resolve disputes. “My book shows how the legal system worked at the grassroots level,” says Kelly. As they do today, people were fighting over property and using the legal system to bully others into settling with them or to carry on Hatfield and McCoy-type feuds.

“The Egyptian case provides a model of how the legal system might have worked in the rest of the Roman Empire,” says Kelly. But, he cautions, Egypt may not have been the same as other provinces when it came to the law, because some judicial institutions were taken over from the pre-Roman period.

Kelly became interested in ancient history as a high school student in Australia and continued studying it in university, along with law. Later, on a scholarship to Oxford, he completed a dissertation on the repression of violence in the Roman Empire.

On sabbatical this year, Kelly’s next research project will focus on the Roman system of drafting Egyptians – often comfortably well off – to serve as local community police for a year.

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer