Article by Isabelle Marthot-Santaniello, University of Basel (Switzerland)

Language Family and Linguistic Characteristics

Greek was the administrative language of Egypt from its conquest by Alexander the Great at the end of the fourth century BCE, and it retained its status until during the first century of Arabic Muslim rule in the middle of the eighth century; this period is customarily called “the millennium of papyrology”.

The documentary papyri of Egypt constitute the most important source of information on the development of the Greek language during the thousand years which followed the classical period.

The Greek of the papyri is considered as koinē Greek, an Ionicised form of the Attic dialect exported following the Macedonian conquest, which was the language of the administration and of the elite in the Hellenistic kingdoms which arose from the conquests of Alexander, and then of the eastern part of the Roman Empire.

Most of the Greek literature of the Hellenistic and Roman period belongs to this koinē, along with a wide range of other works such as the Histories of Polybius and the New Testament. The Greek of the documentary papyri has traits in common with these works, but differs from them, at times considerably, in a number of aspects: phonology, morphology, syntax, and lexis (see Dickey 2009).

Literary papyri can clarify these features for us through their notes, scholia and errors, which demonstrate aspects which were not understood or which posed problems for Egyptian hellenophones of particular periods.

Documentary texts probably give us access to the contemporary language, although it is important to bear in mind changes which might occur in the transfer from oral to written language. These may be considered as evidence of a lack of education, “writing as one speaks”, but the errors and infelicities of authors, of private letters for example, may also attest their level of familiarity with particular expressions.

The vocabulary of the documentary papyri often differs from that of classical Greek, generally understood as the Attic dialect. In part these differences are a natural consequence of the physical, social and political realities specific to Hellenistic and Roman Egypt. These local features, however, cannot explain all of the lexical changes. Certain classical terms appear to have fallen into disuse, or were replaced by synonyms, sometimes rare, sometimes unknown in the classical language. In other cases, the meanings and usages of words evolved. Many of these evolutions are visible in certain literary works which are not part of the Greek classical canon (such as the New Testament), and often persisted into Modern Greek.

Writing System

The manner of writing Greek on papyrus saw a great evolution during the millennium of papyrology. The most ancient examples attest a form of writing close to contemporary epigraphical texts, the same script used indifferently for literary and documentary texts. From the Hellenistic period, the cursive and semi-cursive forms of writing started to develop, characterised by a speed and economy of strokes which modified the forms of letters and multiplied ligatures. In parallel, a more regular writing, with disconnected, even calligraphic, letters, continued to be used for certain types of texts, in general in literary or official works. This writing generally conserved the original forms of the letters, but it, too, displayed an evolution, into calligraphic forms, among them the biblical majuscule and the Coptic uncial (see Cavallo 2009).

Evolution of the language

An evolution in the vocabulary of agriculture from the fourth century CE has already been observed (Cadell 1974). Our task will be to see if a similar change can also be seen in the lexicon of peace.

Chronological and Geographical Extent

The Greek of the papyri is essentially found from the third century BCE to the eighth century CE, representing the Greek of Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, written on papyri and ostraca. In certain rare cases, Greek papyri are also found outside Egypt; the most important caches are those of the Near East: Dura-Europos, the Middle Euphrates, Nahal Hever, Petra, and Nessana (see Gascou 2009).

Objectives of Research

The purpose of this research is to study the expressions relevant to the lexicon of peace in documentary papyri, paying particular attention to their chronological evolution, but also the context in which they appear, in particular the document type - official orders by administrators, private letters, contracts, and so on.

Once the key terms have been identified, it will be possible to analyse the texts that employ them. To give one example: nearly 650 texts contain a word beginning with eirên-, and are thus formed from the word εἰρήνη (eirênê), “peace”. We can distinguish among these its use as an anthroponym - feminine Eirēnē, male Eirênaios or Eirêniôn - whose popularity we may be able to trace by studying the chronological, social and geographical distribution of attestations; compounds - functionaries, such as the “commander of the peace” - εἰρήναρχος (eirênarchos), the “guardian of the peace” - εἰρηνοφύλαξ (eirênophylax); and in the uses of the term eirênê itself, in particular expressions, in particular document types.

Text Corpus for the Study of Peace

Nearly all published papyri are accessible on The consultation of scholia and notes in literary papyri may supplement the discussion, as will the assistance of other specialists in the Greek language.