Sunday, August 9, 2015


Mark Depauw, Sandra Coussement (ed.), Identifiers and Identification Methods in the Ancient World. Orientalia Lovaniensia analecta, 229. Leuven; Paris; Walpole, MA: Peeters, 2014. Pp. vi, 286. ISBN 9789042929838. €84.00.

Reviewed by Arthur Verhoogt, University of Michigan (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Following discussions in the social sciences, identity has also become a "hot topic" in current scholarship of the ancient world.1 This research has clearly shown that there are several identities ranging from the individual (the "I") to various collectives (the "we"), and a person can assume any or all of them depending on the specific context of the moment. The present book questions how these various identities worked on the practical level in the ancient world. It does so by providing surveys of the various ways in which an individual could (or was required to) identify him/herself, as well as a number of more detailed studies.

What follows from the volume is in itself not very surprising: the main identifier in all cultures that are represented in this volume is the name. The name, then as now, marks a person as an individual (in the case of many of the ancient languages also as a gendered individual). The specific name choice (many ancient names did have a meaning) can also mark the individual as part of a collective (family or ethnic group). Other identifiers can further ground an individual genealogically (by the addition of names of family members), geographically (by adding the provenance and/or citizenship), and socially (by adding the title or occupation). Age and physical features do occur as identifiers in the ancient world but only in specific contexts. Among the more important non-verbal identifiers presented in the book are seals (in Mesopotamia and Egypt) and handwriting (in Egypt).

The volume follows a geographic organization moving westward from the ancient near east to Egypt to Greece to Rome. Egypt is best represented (with six papers), but this is not surprising because the variety of identifiers can best be seen in documents (official and private) surviving on papyrus, and less so on writing surfaces that also survive outside of Egypt such as inscriptions.

After an introduction by the volume's editors (3-9), who set the general parameters of the volume and briefly summarize all the papers to follow, the first two papers discuss identity and identification methods in Old Babylonian sources (first half second millennium BCE). Sophie Démare-Lafont ("Identifiers and Identification Methods in Mesopotamia"; 13-31) discusses her sources from the viewpoint of "natural" and "legal" identification. Among the identifiers for natural identification, a person's name was most important. Elements following this name (son of; resident of; slave of) further identified a person and consolidated his or her social status. The most important way to identify a legal person was his seal, but a person's legal identity could also be marked by prints and body markings on the clay tablet. The paper ends somewhat abruptly with a brief discussion of the use of a royal substitute when the king was in danger.

Guido Suurmeijer ("Identifiers and Identification Methods in Legal Documents from Old Babylonian Sippar (±1800-1500 BCE);" 33-54) basically offers an onomastic study of old Babylonian personal names. The author extensively discusses and gives examples of types of names found in Old Babylonian legal documents and their composition and meaning. The paper ends with two appendices, one with a list of Old Babylonian kings and the other with female slave names broken down according to their constituting elements.

The six papers that discuss Egypt follow a chronological order. The first, by Arlette David ("Identification in Ancient Egypt from the Old Kingdom to the End of the New Kingdom (2650-1100 BCE);" 57-74) gives an overview of identifiers and identification methods in Old and New Kingdom legal documents. Again, the name is the most important identifier, with in ancient Egypt the added requirement that the name also remain after the death of the individual. What David adds (this could have been useful for the other overview papers as well) is a small set of fifteen different documents in translation that show the range of ancient Egyptian identification methods in action (61-73).

The second paper in the Egypt section, by Mark Depauw, is also a survey paper ("Elements of Identification in Egypt 800 BC-AD 300;" 75-101). In the late period, too, a person's given name is most important, and the name can in specific contexts be followed by other identifiers, such as geographical indications, and the addition of a title or occupation. When genealogy becomes important to protect the status of privileged groups in the Roman period, identification methods follow by the addition of more genealogical identifiers. After a brief section dealing with non-verbal identifiers, the chapter concludes with a section on the role of the identifiers for legal and official identification. Originally, especially on the Egyptian side, individuals seem to have been under no official obligation to identify themselves in a certain way. Depauw suggests that especially in the Roman period when our sources show more fixed identification practices, there may have been a "concept of full and an official identification"(96).

The contribution by Uri Yiftach-Firanko ("Did BGU XIV 2367 Work?;" 103-118) deals in more detail with the problem of official identification. In particular, he discusses the one Greek papyrus text that suggests that there was some sort of Ptolemaic regulation of parties' identification in legal documents: BGU XIV 2367. This late third century BCE document records an early third century BCE law that distinguishes the required identifiers for four categories of individuals: 1) soldiers; 2) citizens of a Greek city; 3) citizens of a Greek city who are serving in the army; 4) others. Yiftach-Firanko then uses a number of legal documents (double documents in particular) to show the compliance with this law over time, especially for the fourth category. In the author's vision, the question posed in the chapter title can be answered positively: it worked, although I wonder, especially seeing the variation also noted by the author, whether this is too positive an assessment.

The paper by Yanne Broux-Sandra Coussement ("Double Names as Indicators of Social Stratification in Graeco-Roman Egypt;" 119-139) is the most interesting of the volume. The authors give an extensive overview of the form and use of double names in Egypt. Their research is based on the Trismegistos People Project which provided them with sufficient data to do statistical analysis. They clearly show a development of double names over time, from a majority Egyptian-Egyptian double names in the fourth century BCE to majority Greek-Greek double names in the fourth century CE. After a discussion of double names in the Ptolemaic period (using a number of family archives) the authors move to the Roman period where several significant developments are taking place. For one thing, there are more double names, both absolute and relative to the number of texts (129). Also, the mixed Greek-Egyptian double names that were present in Ptolemaic Egypt and allowed people to represent their hybrid ethnic identity, are replaced by double names of the Greek-Greek pattern. These, the authors show, have become a status marker for privileged groups, particularly members of the gymnasial class. The paper ends with one case study of the use of double names in the Archive of Philosarapis.

Katelijn Vandorpe ("Seals and Stamps as Identifiers in Daily Life in Greco-Roman Egypt; 141-151) returns to her earlier research on seals of Greco-Roman Egypt, but now focuses on their role not so much as identifiers but rather as authenticators (official documents) and protectors (private documents or objects). Vandorpe discusses "poor," "excellent," and "solid" identifiers: respectively small seals used for private documents and objects (142-145), large seals in commercial context (145-147), and seals and stamps used by officials (147-148).

With the paper by Alain Delattre ("Éléments de l'identification en Égypte (IVe-VIIIe siècles);" 153-162), we return to the more descriptive type of paper following the standard format also seen in the papers by Démare-Lafont, David and Depauw. The identification patterns (name plus, depending on context, further elements) discerned for earlier periods do continue in late period Egypt, although Delattre notes less detail than in the Roman period (160).

Moving west again three papers discuss identification methods in the Greek world. Michele Faraguna ("Citizens, Non-Citizens, and Slaves: Identification Methods in Classical Greece;" 165-183) provides an overview of identification methods in classical Greece. Standard identification here consists of name, father's name, and demotic in the case of a citizen, or ethnic in the case of a non-citizen. Faraguna notes that there is great variety in how this identification plays out in official documents, both in place and time.

Karen Kristensen ("A Comment on Legal Identification in Ancient Crete;" 185-196) discusses identification in Crete during the seventh to fifth centuries BCE. Her epigraphic source material is limited and fragmentary but shows that the Cretan situation was not much different from mainland Greece: name plus further element, such as tribal relationship, father's name, or both. As in mainland Greece, the main distinction for individuals was legal status, to denote the individual as citizen and free.

The final paper in the Greece section, by Alberto Maffi ("Identificare gli schiavi nei documenti greci;" 197-206), is a very loosely organized paper about the identification (or not) of slaves. In particular the author discusses three letters on lead, one inscription, and one papyrus, all from different periods and different parts of the Greek world, to decide whether the individuals mentioned in those texts are slaves, or not. The main conclusion of all five discussions is that identification of an individual as a slave does not depend on identifier so much as on context.

The final three papers in the volume deal with the Roman world. Eva Jakab ("Methoden der Identifikation in lateinischen Tabulae;" 209-231) discusses identification methods in the various groups of first century CE waxed tablets found near Mount Vesuvius in Italy. In the contracts contained in these, the contracting parties identify themselves with their name (or tria nomina for Roman citizens) with the addition of one or more elements, with quite a lot of variation in which elements are added exactly.

Ido Israelowich ("Identifications of Physicians during the High Empire;" 233-251) deals with one distinctive occupational group: physicians. This paper is more a social study of (Greek) medicine in the Roman empire, and only gets to the theme of the volume during a discussion of a case study (P.Oxy. I 40). According to the author, the case study shows that for physicians "social patterns, cultural practices and the legal system" (249) were important aspects in the identification process.

The final paper, by Philipp Scheibelreiter ("Identifikation von Vertragspartnern in der römischen Literatur;" 253-283) gives an overview how contracting parties are identified in the judicial literary sources. The main identifier here, again, is the name, with the addition of other elements depending on context. What is also clear is that the name used in the actual contract is often replaced by a more general name ("Blankettname"), e.g. Lucius Titius, to make the document anonymous.

Overall this is a helpful book that will provide a quick overview of all possible identifiers in various regions and time periods. Rather than following the geographical organization, the reader should be advised to begin with the survey papers and only then move to more detailed studies. This will help to bring out more clearly the similarities but especially the differences between identification methods in different cultures and time periods.


1.   For identity in the Greek world see, e.g., J.M. Hall, Hellenicity: Between Ethnicity and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002). For the Roman East see, e.g., G. Woolf, "Becoming Roman, Staying Greek: Culture, Identity and the Civilizing Process in the Roman East," Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 40 (1994), 116-143. For identity in Roman Egypt, see K. Vandorpe, "Identity," in C. Riggs (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Roman Egypt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 260-276, with p. 260 for the quotation.

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