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Administration, Ptolemaic Egypt

  1. Arthur Verhoogt

Published Online: 26 OCT 2012

DOI: 10.1002/9781444338386.wbeah07002

The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

How to Cite

Verhoogt, A. 2012. Administration, Ptolemaic Egypt. The Encyclopedia of Ancient History. .

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 26 OCT 2012

The administration of Ptolemaic Egypt was an amalgam of Egyptian, Saite, Persian, and Greek administrative practices. Its development was a slow, continuous, and flexible process in which the main actors were the regional and local state representatives rather than the central state itself. This allowed for considerable chronological and local administrative variations, which should be taken into account when studying the administration of Ptolemaic Egypt.

Central to the administration was the assessment and collection of wealth, both in kind and in money, and the process of registering and documenting this. A wide variety of men with official titles and varying functions were active in this administration, all linked in a fairly direct hierarchical system to the royal court in Alexandria, from where the appointments of officials in even the tiniest villages seem to have been made (Verhoogt 1998).

The basic unit of administration was the Nome, as it had been in the Pharaonic and Persian periods. There was a varying number of nomes during the Ptolemaic period, their number hovering in the low forties. Each nome had its administrative center, where nome officials and archives were based. Each nome, in turn, was divided into toparchies and tax districts. The Arsinoite nome (modern Fayyum) formed a special case in that it was divided into three districts (merides), the Polemon meris, Herakleides meris, and Themistos meris. These districts were then divided into toparchies and tax districts as elsewhere (Clarysse and Thompson 2006: 102–3). In all nomes, the smallest unit of administration was the village. The administration of the three so-called “Greek cities,” (Alexandria, Naukratis, and Ptolemais) followed more traditional Greek urban administrative patterns.

Nome officials had a fair amount of autonomy in making administrative decisions, although they were held accountable to the outcome of their decisions by the central administration. To ensure accountability, officials were required to check the work of other officials, while at the same time their own work was being checked. In addition, residents of Egypt could (and did) petition the king directly, or any administrative or police official, in case they perceived that state representatives were wronging them, and the petitioned did take action (with varying degrees of success). All lines of information ended up in the capital, Alexandria, where final decisions would be made which then flowed back to the lower levels. Here resided various officials whose competency stretched out over the whole country. Central among these was the dioiketes, the chief economic official of Egypt, appointed directly by the king (see Dioiketes (Egypt)).

The Ptolemies continued many administrative functions from earlier periods, but also added new functions to the mix. At the nome level, for example, the traditional offices of nomarch (traditionally in charge of agricultural production), Oikonomos (in charge of finances), and basilikos grammateus (in charge of keeping records) were continued, but added to these was the office of strategos (chief commander; see Strategos, Egypt). The organic nature of Ptolemaic administration shows in the development of the relationship between these offices. The strategos, originally a plain military function, soon developed into the main civil office of the nome, and overtook the functions of the nomarch. At the same time, the office of basilikos grammateus grew closer to those of the strategos and oikonomos, eventually replacing the latter, and becoming more defined in relation to the former (Falivene 2009). These developments seem to have happened gradually, without any apparent effort from the state to formally reform the offices, or intentionally abandon the offices of nomarch and oikonomos. At the village level, the traditional offices of komarch and komogrammateus remained important, but the Ptolemies added an epistates (“overseer”) with various functions (such overseers were also added in other areas of interest to the administration such as the Egyptian temples).

Ptolemaic innovations were quite farreaching and had direct consequences for administrative practices. For example, the settlement of soldiers on land by giving them a plot in return for military service resulted in a new administrative line of officials dealing with this category of land, whose relation to the traditional administrators of land (the basilikos grammateus and his assistants, the topogrammateus and komogrammateus) was left to develop over the course of the next three centuries. The introduction of a monetary economy from which revenues flowed to the state also required the institution of new offices, or the adjustment of traditional offices in order to deal with the administration of this new income (with eventually the basilikos grammateus replacing the oikonomos in this respect, see above). In addition, the introduction of Greek as the administrative language required all who wanted to be active in the administration to acquire sufficient language skills to be able to function in the administration. The introduction of tax farming as a means to secure income for the state resulted in a continuous adjustment of relations between the state, its agents, tax farmers, and the producers of crops, as is apparent in the third century bce Revenue Laws.

Literacy was the basis of Ptolemaic administration, more than it had been in earlier periods, and all officials were required to be literate. That this was a fundamental aspect of Ptolemaic administration is clear from the fact that the first Ptolemies employed Egyptians and allowed the administration to be run in Demotic Egyptian, due to the lack of a sufficient number of Greek speakers (Thompson 1996). Active language policies (including tax breaks for teachers and those living on the Greek side of society) established a sufficient number of people fluent in Greek to be able to run the administration in Greek within 150 years of Alexander the Great (although Demotic did not disappear as a written language until the Roman period). The resulting documentary output of those active in the Ptolemaic administration forms the core of surviving documents from Ptolemaic Egypt.

References and Suggested Readings

  1. Top of page
  2. References and Suggested Readings
  • Bingen, J. (2007) Hellenistic Egypt: monarchy, society, economy, culture. Edited and with an Introduction by R. S. Bagnall. Berkeley.
  • Clarysse, W. and Thompson, D. J. (2006) Counting the people in Hellenistic Egypt. Volume 2: historical studies. Cambridge.
  • Falivene, M. R. (2009) Geography and administration in Egypt (332 bce–642 ce). In R. S. Bagnall, ed., The Oxford handbook of papyrology: 52140. Oxford.
  • Manning, J. G. (2003) Land and power in Ptolemaic Egypt: the structure of land tenure. Cambridge.
  • Thompson, D. J. (1996) Literacy and power in Ptolemaic Egypt. In A. K. Bowman and G. Woolf, eds., Literacy and power in the ancient world: 6783. Cambridge.
  • Van't Dack, E. (1988) Ptolemaica Selecta. Études sur l'armée et l'administration lagides. Studia Hellenistica, 29. Leuven.
  • Verhoogt, A. M. F. W. (1998) Menches, Komo-grammateus of Kerkeosiris: the doings and dealings of a village scribe in the Late Ptolemaic period (120–110 B.C.E.). Leiden.