Herbstsemester 2015

‘The Laws of the Egyptians’ and the 2nd century Roman Jurisdiction

Im Herbstsemester 2015 biete ich zusammen mit Prof. Dr. José Luis Alonso (University of the Basque Country) und Prof. Dr. Jakub Urbanik (University of Warsaw) ein Seminar zum Thema


General description of the topic:

Juristic Papyrology is one of the most fascinating branches of legal history. Thousands of documents written on papyrus, preserved in the dry climate of Egypt, offer a lively and vivid insight into the everyday lives of rich and poor, men and women, ranking from the completely ordinary population of the country to the most exalted historical figures - the Ptolemaic kings, up to the celebrated Cleopatra VII, later the Roman Emperors themselves and the elite officials that they employed to administer the country. From a cultural and legal point of view, this world was extraordinarily refined, rich and multicultural: Egypt had been under Macedonian rule since 332 BCE, governed from the newly founded Alexandria, and would become a Roman province in 30 BCE. Documents were therefore written either in ‘original’ Egyptian, the demotic language, or, more and more frequently, in Greek, and later, occasionally, in Latin.

For the study of Roman law, this incomparable wealth of documents, particularly numerous in the second and third centuries CE, is the richest source of information on the actual legal practice of the population in a Roman province. The second century CE is in this respect particularly interesting: under a mostly tolerant Roman rule, the local legal traditions were as strong as they had been under the Ptolemies, and the Roman administration had in the meantime developed a secure grasp on them, in order to impart justice according to the law expected by the parties - or to depart from it when it collided too strongly with the Roman values. A revelatory picture of the idea that the Romans had of their own civilization may be gained by assessing the aspects of the local legal traditions that were respected by the Roman administration and those which came eventually to be deemed intolerable.

For those aspects of the local law that the Roman jurisdiction applied and enforced, the Romans themselves coined the term 'the law of the Egyptians', attested in a handful of papyri, mostly trial records, from the 2nd century CE. In these papyri, the expression seems to encompass institutions both of Greek and Egyptian origin, in striking contrast with the separation that had existed between these two traditions up to the end of the Ptolemaic rule. The same documents attest other phenomena very likely related to this: a) the emergence of the “nomikoi”, experts in those peregrine laws that are consulted by the Roman officials, especially when the law of persons and succession is concerned; b) the accumulation, in the petitions addressed to the Roman jurisdiction, of judicial precedents regarding the application of those local institutions.

This picture, where the dominant element of the legal practice in Egypt is not Roman, but Greek, would eventually be shattered by the startling universal concession of the Roman citizenship by Caracalla in 212 CE (the so-called Constitutio Antoniniana). With Caracalla’s grant, most free peregrines in Egypt became Roman citizens - a phenomenon spectacularly attested in the papyri by the explosion of the names 'Aurelius' and 'Aurelia', that adopted by the new citizens from in honour of the Emperor (Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus Augustus, in the official Imperial titulature). The hurried adaptations devised by the local notaries to this new situation that called theoretically for the universal application of Roman law, offer a fascinating lecture on the tensions and compromises between law and legal practice.

Description of the seminar:

Central to the seminar will be the papyri that attest the use of the expression ‘laws of the Egyptians’ by the Roman administration. The different legal questions that are treated in the documents will be analysed: these are essentially questions of inheritance and family law. More generally, the discussion will consider who these 'Egyptians' were: and, if the category included, as it seems, Greeks and Hellenised members of the elite together with the Egyptian speaking indigenous population, how unified their law could have been in the second century CE.

The seminar will also refer to other peregrine practices followed in Egypt, startlingly foreign to Roman law, such as the extremely peculiar system of real securities, and the boldness with which the Roman administration implemented these radically un-Roman institutions through the property record office. Finally, attention will be also paid to the hurried adaptations introduced in the local legal practice as a result of the Constitutio Antoniniana, such as the well-known stipulatory clause.

The seminar will be held by Prof. Babusiaux in collaboration with Prof. José Luis Alonso from San Sebastián and Prof. Jakub Urbanik from Warsaw, who are both scholars of Roman law and Juristic Papyrology. It is a unique opportunity for law students in Zurich to learn about juristic Papyrology. Interested students are therefore kindly requested to get in touch with Prof. Babusiaux as soon as possible indicating the subject they would like to treat: Email Ulrike Babusiaux Participants will be assisted by the seminar team of Prof. Babusiaux in the translation of the texts and the preparation of the speech. Knowledge of Greek or Latin is welcome but not a requirement as all sources are available in modern translation. However, because of the international composition of the professors involved, the language of the seminar and the written paper will be English.

The seminar will take place on two days in November 2015 (Thursday and Friday) and will be held at the University of Zurich. The exact dates will be published in April.

Further information can be requested from the assistants in charge of the seminar: Email Adrian Häusler , Email Dominique Brugger or directly from Prof. Babusiaux.

A preparatory meeting will take place on 1/4/2015 at 10.00 in Room: KOL-H-322; during this meeting all topics will be assigned to the students present.

For an introduction see: Uri Yiftach-Firanko, Law in Graeco-Roman Egypt: Hellenization, Fusion, Romanization, in: Roger Bagnall (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology, Oxford 2009, 541-560.