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Ch. IV § 7
This webpage reproduces part of
The House of Ptolemy

by E. R. Bevan

published by Methuen Publishing, London,

The text is in the public domain.

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Ch. V § 2

 p132  CHAPTER V

The System of Government

§ 1. The Bureaucracy

The episode of Ptolemaic rule in Egypt forms a bridge between Pharaonic Egypt and Egypt as a Province of the Roman Empire. In so far as Egypt is governed by foreigners of Hellenistic culture, Ptolemaic rule is the first chapter of a new epoch, an epoch in which the old Egyptian people has finally lost its freedom — if freedom means that men are governed despotically by rulers of their own race; in so far, on the other hand, as Egypt is governed by rulers who reside in the country — in so far as the kingdom of Egypt is free, in the sense that it is independent of any outside power — Ptolemaic rule is the last chapter of the history of Egypt as a sovereign state.

The general system of government which the papyri show as functioning in Egypt under the Ptolemies was no doubt already established, in its main ordinances, by the death of the second Ptolemy. To some extent it linked on to the old system of the Pharaohs, though when Ptolemy I took over the country, only ruins of that system were left, after generations of Persian rule and chaotic periods of struggle and rebellion. Egypt was no longer what it had been in its great days. "Its agriculture suffered from years and years of irregular work on the banks and canals — a question of life and death for Egypt; its commerce was almost entirely in the hands of foreigners, both Greeks and Phoenicians; its industry was to a great extent monopolized by the temples and by the clergy, dominant in the political, social, and economic life of the country."1

Under the Ptolemies Greek brains were brought to bear on the problem how to make the whole land of the Nile a  p133 profitably administered state. And the system, as they framed it by degrees, was so success­ful that it was not only taken over, in its general lines, by Rome, but some remains of it lasted on, through the later Roman Empire, into the Mohammedan period. The fact that Greek papyri of the first half-century of Greek rule are exceedingly rare possibly indicates that the bureaucratic system was elaborated under Ptolemy II; Ptolemy I, Alexander's old marshal, was perhaps more occupied in world-politics than in framing a system of administration for Egypt as a possession in which his house was to be domiciled for generations to come.

The Ptolemaic king has to be thought of as a landowner and farmer on a huge scale, one whose estate was the whole land of Egypt. All the officials were his personal servants, the army an instrument of his will, raised from the men who held plots of land assigned them out of his territory on the condition of rendering him military service, or recruited as mercenaries, from Greece or the Balkans or Asia, and attached to him personally as their employer. Under the early Ptolemies "there was no sharp distinction between the military and the civil career, and the staff of the king bore an almost purely military character."2

Since the supreme end of the Ptolemaic system was to make the king's estate as lucrative as possible, one understands that the financial side of it should be prominent. The man who, under the king, was at the head of the whole government — who had, that is to say, somewhat the same position as that of a vizir in a Mohammedan monarchy — was the man whose title denoted him the manager of the economic affairs of the kingdom. He was called dioiketes — the same Greek word which was used for the manager of a private estate.

The personality of one conspicuous holder of the office under the second Ptolemy has been partially recovered from the "Zeno papyri." His name was Apollonius, and he was, of course, a Greek, or possibly a Hellenized Carian, like his agent Zeno. He was appointed to his high office about the year 268‑267 B.C., and held it to the end of the reign. There are indications that he was abruptly dismissed and deprived of his fortune on the accession of Ptolemy III.​3 The papyri show Apollonius keeping an almost royal state  p134 with a small court or "house" (οἰκία) attached to him like the king's in miniature. He has his own general manager (oikonomos), who stands to him in somewhat the same relation as he himself does to the king, his treasurer and manager of the household (ὁ ἐπὶ τῆς οἰκίας), his secretary and stolarches (commander of the fleet), his edeatros (master of the table), and a great multitude of slaves. He travels about the country with his oikonomos, Zeno, to supervise the working of the new administrative system. But the odd thing is that Apollonius combines a double rôle. While he is the king's chief agent for his estate of Egypt, he is also himself, on his own account, a trader, cornº-grower, live-stock farmer, industrialist on a large scale. His commercial business ramifies over Palestine and Transjordania, and the coasts of Asia Minor. He had his own merchant-fleets for the Nile and for the sea. His agents are busy in Ake (Ptolemais), Tyre, Sidon, Joppa, Gaza, the Lebanon, Rabtammana (Rabbath-Ammon, mod. Amman), Caunus, Miletus, Halicarnassus. He traffics among other things in cloth and Syrian oil and slaves. And it seems that no sharp line could be drawn between his private business activities and his activities as manager of the king's estate. In some ways his private interests came into collision with the king's. In importing Syrian oil and slaves, which were contraband in Egypt, he seems to have defrauded the royal treasury, and his agents regarded as their chief enemies the custom-house officials, who were his subordinates in his capacity of royal dioiketes. Rostovtzeff supposes that king Ptolemy acquiesced in this anomalous confusion, because on the whole he himself drew greater profit with less trouble from his estate if it was managed by a Greek of commercial ability and enterprise, even if his manager made a certain amount of illicit profit for himself in doing so.

But, besides his foreign trade, Apollonius had large areas of land in Egypt assigned to him by the king "in gift (ἐν δωρεᾷ) a phrase to which we shall presently return. One area was a tract of 10,000 aruras in the Fayûm, to which was attached the new village of Philadelphia with its territory; the other was an estate in the neighbourhood of Memphis. Rostovtzeff thinks that Memphis itself was assigned to Apollonius "in gift," though this is hard to believe. The development and management of these "gifts" were in themselves a huge business, entailing a host of agents of different kinds. In the year 256 B.C. Zeno the Carian seems to have exchanged  p135 his office of oikonomos, general manager of Apollonius's business, foreign and domestic, for that of manager of the estate at Philadelphia, and to have remained fixed in the Fayûm for the rest of his days. On these estates of Apollonius his agents grew corn or cultivated vineyards and market gardens or reared live stock — there were apparently large herds on the Memphite estate — or supervised different kinds of industry. In the city of Memphis there was an important wool factory, in which girl slaves, "brought probably from Syria or Asia Minor" (Large Estate, p116), worked for Apollonius. In Philadelphia we hear of the pottery works. And, of course, with the vineyards and olive-yards was connected the manufacture of wine and oil.

The dioiketes had almost unlimited competence in issuing from his office in Alexandria the orders required to make the immense bureaucratic machine function all over Egypt. Innumerable sheets and rolls of papyrus were always coming every day into the office with petitions, questions, reports from every part of the realm, and innumerable quantities of papyrus always going out with orders, instructions, reprimands. The official language was, of course, Greek — all the higher posts in the administration being held by Greeks; but there must have been a certain staff of clerks knowing both Greek and Egyptian, probably Hellenized natives, for the purpose of controlling the affairs of the native population. The huge business of the office of the dioiketes must always have been distributed into different departments, and there must have been departmental chiefs under the chief of the whole system.​4 We hear of officials with the title hypodioiketes (sub-manager)​5 — and Bouché-Leclercq conjectures that the business was divided territorially — that each hypodioiketes dealt with a particular group of nomes, having his office in some provincial centre.​6 Associated with the supreme dioiketes was an official called eklogistēs (Accountant), his immediate subordinate, whose business was to check statistics and accounts, and who had under him local Accountants throughout the country.

 p136  A large number of the petitions coming into Alexandria were addressed to the king in person, even from quite insignificant people about their petty grievances in far-away nomes,​7 and a large number of the orders which went out were in the form of laws or diagrammata or prostagmata, in which the king himself spoke in his own name. A Ptolemy who attended to public business might have a good part of every day occupied with this mass of correspondence, and we find the office of "letter-writer" (epistolographos), the king's personal secretary, one of the high positions at court. We also hear from the 2nd century B.C. of another royal secretary, called the hypomnematographos, "writer of memoranda," but how his functions were distinguished from those of the epistolographos cannot be made out on our present date. No doubt, for any Ptolemy who desired to lead an easy life, like Ptolemy IV, his duties would be made very light by his trained staff. On any petition laid before him by the chiefs of the bureau concerned, as one to be granted, the king had to do no more than scrawl the single word Ginesthō ("Let it be done"); or to any royal rescript, drawn up for him by his ministers, append the one word of salutation at the end, Errhōsthe,​8 and let the documents be carried off for transmission by the clerks in attendance. Yet Seleucus I is reported to have said, "If people ordinarily knew what weary work it is to write and read so many letters, they would not pick up a diadem from the ground."​9 The letters which passed in and out of the palace at Alexandria can certainly not have been fewer than those with which Seleucus  p137 had to deal at Antioch. In the later days of the Ptolemaic companion the proportion of appeals addressed to the king seems to have diminished as compared with those addressed to the local authorities. Of the seventeen petitions from Tebtunis at the end of the reign of Ptolemy VII (Euergetes II) only one is addressed to the king.

The immense complexity of the bureaucratic machined the Ptolemies and the mode of its working is vividly illustrated by the papyrus which tells us how a young Macedonian under Ptolemy Philometor obtained the appointment he desired to a troop of epigonoi in Memphis.​10 His name was Apollonius, and as the son of a katoikos he had a right to serve in the epigonoi. The first step is for his elder brother, Ptolemy, who is a recluse in the Memphian Serapeum, to draw up a petition to king Ptolemy when he is visiting the Serapeum on October 3, 158 B.C. Apollonius throws in the petition through the audience window. The king writes on the petition, "To be done, but report how much it will come to" (i.e. how much the new epigonos will cost the State). The petition is given back, with the royal seal on it, to Apollonius, and one feature of the Ptolemaic system which may appear odd to us to‑day now becomes prominent. The work of carrying communications from one official to another, where the interests of some one appealing to the government are concerned, is performed by the interested party, not by any official agency. Apollonius himself carries the petition, with the king's order written on it, to Demetrius, the Quartermaster-General of the Ptolemaic army (grammateus tōn dynameōn), in order that the information as to costs, which the king had asked for, may be supplied. (The king being at this moment in Memphis, the supreme heads of the government departments are temporarily in Memphis also.) Demetrius writes on the petition a command addressed to his clerk, Ariston, ordering him to procure the information. Apollonius carries the petition from Demetrius to Ariston. Ariston addresses a question to the local office (eklogistērion) of the Accountant-General (eklogistes), and Apollonius carries the petition to Dioscurides, the clerk (grammateus) who presides over this office. Dioscurides writes the information required, and Apollonius carries back the petition to the office of Demetrius, to a clerk called Chaeremon. It is now a question of transmitting the information to the king, and Apollonius next carries the petition, with the  p138 information attached, to a certain Apollodorus, apparently some one attached to the court, who submits it to the king (January 25, 157 B.C.). Two commands (prostagmata) issued by the king, that Apollonius be enrolled in the troop desired, are given to Apollonius to be carried respectively to Demetrius and to the dioiketes, who is called Dioscurides, and must not be confounded with the other Dioscorides, the clerk. Apollonius delivers the one prostagma to Demetrius on February 7, and Demetrius writes to his subordinate Sostratus, the grammateus (quartermaster) of the troops stationed in Memphis, instructing him to carry out the king's command, and attaching to his communication a statement drawn up by his clerks of the circumstances of the case. One might think that this was the end of a matter so simple in itself. Far from it. On February 12, Demetrius writes a letter to Dioscurides the dioiketes, attaching to it a copy of his communication to Sostratus and of the statement by his clerks. The object of this letter to the dioiketes was apparently to enable Apollonius to get from the office of the dioiketes the written papers of authorization (symbola) which a soldier had to present when he drew his pay, and which were issued by the dioiketes. This letter from Demetrius to Dioscurides, Apollonius conveys on February 17, the same day on which he carries three other letters which Demetrius had written, in regard to his enrolment — one to Posidonius, the strategos of the Memphite nome, one to Ammonius, the paymaster-in‑chief (archypēretes), and one to Callistratus, possibly a clerk in the department of Sostratus. At the office of the dioiketes Apollonius delivers not only the letter from Demetrius, but the prostagma which had been issued to the dioiketes by the king. Just as the king had his secretaries, his epistolographos and his hypomnematographos, so had the dioiketes. The hypomnematographos of Dioscurides was called Ptolemy, and his epistolographos (apparently) Epimenides. The royal prostagma Apollonius delivers to Ptolemy, the letter of Demetrius to Epimenides. The next steps had better be given in the words of Apollonius himself: "They were delivered to be read to the dioiketes, and I received back the prostagma from Ptolemy the hypomnematographos, and the letter from Epimenides. And I conveyed them to Isidorus, the autoteles, and from him I carried them to Philoxenus, and from him to Artemon, and from him to Lycus, and he made a rough draft, and I brought that to Sarapion, in the office of the epistolographos, and  p139 from him to Eubius, and from him to Dorion, and he made a rough draft, and then back again to Sarapion, and they were handed in to be read to the dioiketes, and I received them back from Epimenides, and I carried them to Sarapion, and he wrote to Nicanor, and Nicanor wrote two letters — one to Dorion the epimelētēs, and one to Posidonius, the strategos of the Memphite nome." If it is impossible to do more than conjecture what position all these individuals held in the huge bureaucratic machine under the dioiketes, we can get from the statement an impression of the stupendous amount of writing, of the circulation of papers, of the running of petitioners to and fro, which was always going on in Ptolemaic Egypt. We do not even hear the end of this business of Apollonius. Wilcken guesses that Nicanor was the calligraphist who had to make fair copies of the letters to Dorion and Posidonius, and there is an indication that the fair copies had to be carried back to Sarapion for inspection before they could be given to Apollonius for delivery. What further transactions had to be gone through before Apollonius finally to his place in the troop of epigonoi we cannot tell.

The Author's Notes:

1 Rostovtzeff, A Large Estate in Egypt, p3. For a sketch of the system of government in Pharaonic Egypt, reference may be made to Sir Flinders Petrie's Social Life in Ancient Egypt.

2 Rostovtzeff, Large Estate, p20.

3 His dorea is shown by Zeno, 61 (5th‑6th year of Ptolemy III), to have been confiscated.

4 For the debated question whether there were local officials in the country with the title of dioiketes, subordinated to the supreme dioiketes, see now Wilcken, U. d. Pt. I p162.

5 Before the 2nd century there is, so far, only one isolated reference to a hypodioiketes (under Ptolemy II), Archiv, VI p394.

6 Bouché-Leclercq, III p387.

7 "Some one has killed the pigs of a kleruch; some provision merchants have made a fraudulent delivery of goods; joint-tenants dispute about the partition of a field; a woman has been scalded in a public bathhouse through the negligence of the attendant; some one has been spat on by a prostitute whose solicitations he had refused; etc. etc." (Bouché-Leclercq, IV p199). Petesis, chief embalmer of the divine bulls, Apis and Mnevis, suffers from various vexations on the part of officials (99 B.C.). He sends a petition to Alexandria asking that the royal epistolographos may send him a rescript, which he may fasten up on his house, ordering the officials to leave him in peace. The rescript is sent Thoth 29 (October 15); copies of it are communicated from one bureau to another; the copy received by the epistates of the Anubieum are dated Phaophi 5 (October 29) (Leiden, Pap. G).

8 One papyrus which we possess to‑day (Leiden, G.6) has apparently the original autograph of Ptolemy IX (Alexander I). If so, this must be the oldest royal autograph in existence (Grundzüge, I p7).

9 Plutarch, An seni ger. 11.

10 Wilcken, U. d. Pt., No. 14.

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