Sunday, November 2, 2014


John Bauschatz, Law and Enforcement in Ptolemaic Egypt. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xi, 415. ISBN 9781107037137. $99.00.

Reviewed by Sandra L. Lippert, CNRS, UMR 5140 Archéologie des sociétés méditerranéennes, Montpellier-Lattes (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The police system of Ptolemaic Egypt is a neglected subject that definitely merited a monograph. This book is the extended version of Bauschatz's doctoral thesis Policing the Chôra: Law Enforcement in Ptolemaic Egypt (Duke University 2005, directed by J.D. Sosin, Classical Studies).

In his Introduction, Bauschatz explains the differences between modern and ancient conceptions of law enforcement: nowadays we expect police to act on their own to prevent crime, solve cases and apprehend malefactors, while in ancient societies it was usually the victim himself who had to find evidence, witnesses and even detain the culprit, before law enforcement agents intervened. The Ptolemaic police force reveals itself as an exception in that it resembles our modern conceptions, and while this impression might in part be due to the larger amount of documentation available from Ptolemaic Egypt, it remains striking.

Bauschatz begins with a survey of other Classical and pre-Classical Mediterranean and Near Eastern societies, from the neo-Sumerian period (2000–1000 BCE) to imperial Rome. For pre-Hellenistic Egypt, he limits himself almost entirely to evidence from New Kingdom (1550–1070 BCE) Deir el-Medineh; regrettably, the key literature on ancient Egyptian police forces1 is left unmentioned. The following section gives an overview of the available source material (e.g. royal decrees, petitions, letters, court records) and points out some inherent problems of bias. Finally, Bauschatz delimits the frame of his study, which is to be confined to the operational aspect of the police system in Ptolemaic period Egypt, leaving aside preceding and following periods, other Hellenistic states and prosopographical and socioeconomic aspects.

The next two chapters enumerate the various Greek law enforcement titles. In "The Officer Corps I: The Phylakitai", Bauschatz deals with those that are most frequently mentioned, namely village policemen (phylakitai), their immediate superiors (archiphylakitai) and some less well attested functionaries, explaining their tasks and relations between bearers of this and other titles. It appears that phylakitai have mainly Egyptian names, are attested throughout the Egyptian countryside, but not in the Greek cities, and were at least in part salaried through klēroi. They arrested, guarded the transfer of goods or persons (e.g. tax grain or criminals), watched buildings, ships etc., either on request of private citizens or by order of their superiors. The archiphylakitēs was usually the intermediary between higher authorities and the village policemen. One level above stood the epistatēs phylakitōn, a provincial official more concerned with administration and jurisdiction than actual law enforcement. The most striking feature of the system is that there seems to have been no strict delimitation of responsibilities, since even the lowest level of police officers had great autonomy to solve matters without prompting or interference from above.

The chapter "The Officers Corps II: Civil and Military Police" treats those persons whose titles do not contain the word phylakitēs, but are either mentioned as being in communication with the phylakitai and archiphylakitai, such as the village epistatēs and the nome stratēgos, or performing similar tasks. The officials who could mobilize the police were numerous; even fiscal officials (dioiketēs, epimeletēs, oikonomos) intervened when tax payments were concerned. Garrison chiefs (phrourarchai) were responsible for policing the vicinity of their phrouria. The rest of the chapter deals with occupational titles used in the broader context of guarding, and since the ordering principle is linguistic rather than functional, the result is a mixed bag of privately hired guards, temporary and permanent state employees.

The next three chapters provide a closer look at the various steps of police intervention. Although policemen who witnessed a crime could take immediate action, they mostly did so as a consequence of petitions by civilians. Chapter 4 reveals the astonishingly equitable access to justice that the inhabitants of Ptolemaic Egypt enjoyed, since crime victims of all classes could (and regularly did) apply for police help, even if the perpetrator was an official himself. As addressees of such petitions Bauschatz lists village officials (archiphylakites or epistates), nome-level officials (e.g. the strategos), or even the king. Responses seem to have been quick, even though petitions sometimes passed through different hands, as forwarding notices show. Bauschatz presents the typical phrasing and contents: within the formulaic framework of greetings, introductory declaration of injustice suffered and closing request of vindication, they contain detailed reports of the events, giving times, places and witnesses, listing and evaluating damaged or stolen objects, while stressing the complete innocence of the victim and soliciting compassion for material or physical injuries. Petitions sometimes include specific demands as to how the police should intervene, e.g. by searching for a thief, inspecting damage or arresting a known culprit, and these requests seem usually to have been granted.

Chapter 5 describes the steps taken by the local police force in response of petitions. After necessary investigations, phylakitai or archiphylakitai effected arrests and transported the suspects to the nearest prison.2 Unfortunately, when Bauschatz talks about "jailable" offenses (p. 249), this creates a confusion between temporary detention for the purpose of investigation and detention as a punishment in itself, which is a comparatively modern concept; this ambiguity is not resolved until p. 278. According to Bauschatz, criminal trials also fell under the responsibility of town or village police officials or their superiors. The question on what legal basis these officials imposed their sentences is not raised.

The last chapter focuses on the role of police in protecting state interests, e.g. by securing border regions.3 For Bauschatz, this includes potamophylakes who, somewhat incongruously for Egypt, are said to guard "rivers, where they protected fords and bridges" (p. 289). Policemen were also deputized to transport and guard tax grain, but against Bauschatz (pp. 302–303; 306–307), P.Tebt. II 282A cannot be the oath of a genematophylax, since it is not a royal oath and does not contain the obligation of attendance at the genematophylakia mentioned in P.Tebt. III.1 731. Police also recovered tax debts, suppressed smuggling and monopoly infringements and exercised crowd control at public events.

A six-page Conclusion rounds off the main part. As the author already announced his principal results in the Introduction and the concluding paragraphs of each chapter, one gets a strong feeling of déjà vu, but pedagogically speaking, this tactic might not be so bad.

The appendices offer a Glossary explaining Greek, Latin and occasionally New Kingdom Egyptian (but no Demotic) words; there follows a 30-page bibliography. Putting bold page numbers for translations in the Index of Greek and Demotic Sources would have rendered the Index of Documents Translated redundant. The Select Index of Greek Terms helps the reader to find key words in the translated sources, the General Index in the main text.

The book's strength is its vivid and detailed reconstruction of the police system in Ptolemaic Egypt, astonishingly modern in its approach and efficient through its flexibility. Bauschatz's monograph is generously illustrated by Greek original sources cited in full with English translations.

So far, so good. But the book raises the claim to be a comprehensive study of the law enforcement system of Ptolemaic Egypt, and as such, one expects it to make full use of all available sources, Greek and Egyptian alike. And indeed, Bauschatz initially admits "there is some important evidence for the Ptolemaic police system in Demotic as well" (p. 41). Unfortunately, when it comes to actually using this, he is much less assiduous than with his Greek material. Bauschatz hastens to affirm that there are not really that many relevant Egyptian sources ("Perhaps no more than 30", p. 41 n. 144). His list (p. 41–42 n. 145) comprises only 18, and just ten of these will ever be mentioned again in the book: seven just in other footnotes, three summed up in the main text (p. 254 and 259), but not a single one transliterated and translated in full, as Bauschatz has with numerous Greek sources. For him, the smaller number of Demotic sources implies that they cannot contribute anything that is not already and better attested in the vast Greek material. However, not only is his list far from exhaustive (see examples in the endnotes), but even if there are indeed more Greek than Egyptian sources available for almost all aspects of daily life concerning Greeks and Egyptians alike, every historian should know that this is not due to a significantly smaller number of Demotic documents having been written in Antiquity, but simply to a publication backlog caused by a long-standing shortage of Demotists. Moreover, Demotic sources rarely just duplicate the data that can be gleaned from Greek sources, because obviously they are at least in part written by and for a different public: by excluding them, one generally misses certain aspects of a question, notably much that involves the indigenous elites, local administration and priesthood. Indeed, Bauschatz's claim that "a petition in Greek was a necessity for possible satisfaction at law" (p. 189) is proven wrong by the existence of Demotic petitions which add priests, local and nome-level temple officials as addressees of complaints concerning theft, bodily aggression etc.4 In other cases, Bauschatz downplays the significance of Demotic documents by labeling them wrongly: Demotic documents contracting surety with a Greek official as representative of the administration are classed as "letters" (p. 188 fn. 62: P. Bürgsch. 22) or simple "bail agreements" (p. 258–9: P.LilleDem. I 4), which allows him to pretend that contracts with the state were always recorded in Greek (p. 330).

Throughout the book, Bauschatz avoids all mention of Demotic police titles – instead, he simply refers the reader to P.Count II 165–77 (p. 67, n. 42). By not even summing up Clarysse's and Thompson's analysis, he misses the fact that they only mention the basic police titles gl-šr "kalasiris" and rs (n dmy/n pȝ tw) "watchman (of the village/of the desert)", not the higher level titles ṯs-rsy "commander of the watch" and ʿȝ-n-rsy "great one of the watch", which are not attested in P.Count. An in-depth study of the Demotic titles, their etymology, earlier attestations and equivalence to the Greek titles seems irrelevant to Bauschatz, who does not even consider the possibility that the rarely attested dekanos phylakitōn, hēgemōn phylakitōn, prostatēs phylakitōn and ho epi tōn phylakitōn (p. 91–95) might be ad hoc translations of the above- mentioned Demotic titles ṯs-rsy and/or ʿȝ-n-rsy, and unconvincingly proposes to see in them local variations of the system (p. 97–98). Such a study would also have cast serious doubts on Bauschatz's conclusion that the Ptolemaic police system is a Hellenistic innovation without direct antecedents in Pharaonic Egypt, a conclusion he draws from a comparison between the New Kingdom and the Ptolemaic period (p. 17–18; p. 332–333) – which is like postulating that GIs introduced the lawn-mower in England in 1942 because it is not mentioned in the Domesday Book. In fact, the equivalence between gl-šr and phylakitēs established by P.Count points to an emergence of the "Ptolemaic" system during the 26th dynasty, as the title gl-šr, Herodotos' kalasiris (II.164–166), designates persons in police functions, remunerated with a klēros, since the 7th century BCE.5

But Bauschatz prefers to turn a blind eye on everything which might call into question his preconceived notion of Greek cultural supremacy, and does not hesitate to use ridicule, omission of evidence and even counterfactual arguments: Egyptians in general are portrayed as "traditionally litigious" (p. 174) and "materially poor and poorly educated" (p.176); "it seems unlikely that a policeman would have gone out of his way to translate a request scribbled in an undecipherable Demotic on a scrap of papyrus" (p. 331). Bauschatz's allegation that Egyptian settlements had to await the Ptolemies to come by supposedly Greek institutions like courtrooms, prisons, offices and archives (p. 330) – curiously all attested before under Egyptian appellations – heads a series of similarly wrong statements easily rebutted by Egyptian evidence.

Bauschatz's valiant endeavor to master the vast Greek source material is laudable indeed. But his one-sided Hellenocentric approach has caused him to miss the chance to write a truly comprehensive and historiographically sound study of the Ptolemaic law enforcement system.


1.   See the bibliographies in Guillemette Andreu, s.v. Polizei, in: Wolfgang Helck/Eberhard Otto (eds.), Lexikon der Ägyptologie IV (Wiesbaden 1982), col. 1068–1071, and Renate Müller-Wollermann, Vergehen und Strafe. Zur Sanktionierung abweichenden Verhaltens im alten Ägypten. Probleme der Ägyptologie 21 (Leiden 2004), 273–277.
2.   Missing Demotic sources: e.g. P.QasrIbrim Dem 2; P.Leid.Dem. 382. See also Ursula Kaplony-Heckel, "Das Tagebuch der Polizeistation von Karanis (ein Vorbericht)", Enchoria 18 (1991), 191–192.
3.   One misses a reference to the post of eremophylakes excavated at Tebtynis, cf. Gisèle Hadji-Minaglou, "L'habitat à Tebtynis à la lumière des fouilles récentes: Ier siècle av – Ier siècle apr. J.-C.", in: Sandra Lippert/Maren Schentuleit (eds.), Graeco-Roman Fayum – Texts and Archaeology (Wiesbaden 2008), 123; 129 fig. 1.
4.   E.g. P. Ox. Griffith 38–41; P. Siut 10599; pZürich inv. 1894 (Trismegistos no. 51507). See also Mark Depauw, The Demotic Letter. Demotische Studien 14 (Sommerhausen 2006), 323–332.
5.   E.g. P.Rylands 9, XI.12 (on events in 634 BCE); P.Louvre E 7844 (555 BCE); P.Louvre E 7833 (535 BCE).

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