Abstract–Writing and the City in Late Roman Egypt. Towards a Social History of the Ancient “Scribe”

As part of a larger project on the practical application of literate education in antiquity, this paper highlights one segment of Roman society that dealt in reams of the written word: literate liturgists and members of the curial class. Municipal and state business was conducted by a body of individuals whose ability to write Greek varied. For some, written communication was a routine, albeit secondary, part of the liturgical duties they performed for their cities. They might sign agreements, pen correspondence, issue receipts, etc., sometimes aided by assistants, but their offices did not depend on a high level of proficiency in writing. Others were professionals chosen to serve local councils and even the prefectural court because of their substantial ability to write effectively. They prepared petitions and memoranda, took shorthand notes, and performed tasks of a more technical nature. The urban administrative structure was thus multi-faceted, and to function, cities required fairly stable access to local educators. Because the documentary record tells us little about higher education and the critical relationship between educators and the municipal elite in Roman Egypt, we have to look at what I call “literacy in action,” the question of who wrote a given text and with what proficiency and purpose. Such an approach is made possible now by greater access to collections of papyri via electronic resources, which permit study of, above all, the materiality of writing (material supports, layout and format of texts, abbreviation conventions, type of handwriting, etc.), something not traditionally reflected in text-centric editions.