Death Declarations: The Bureaucracy of Death in Roman Egypt

In year 7 of the reign of Emperor Claudius, a widow Tapapeis daughter of Pasis submitted a declaration of the death of her husband Abeis son of Horos. In accordance with Roman law, she acts with a male guardian, her relative Adrastos.

“To the royal secretary Hermaios from Tapapeis, daughter of Pasis, acting with her relative Adrastos, son of Diogenes, as her guardian. My husband Abeis, son of Horos, paying the poll tax at the village of Philadelphia, died in the month Epeiph of the current seventh year of Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus Imperator. I therefore request that his name be entered among those who have died. 

Tapapeis, about 45 years old, with a scar on the right foot.

Adrastos, about 50 years old, with a scar on the 3rd finger of the right hand.

I, the aforesaid Tapapeis, acting with the aforesaid Adrastos as my guardian, swear by Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus Imperator that … everything said above is true. If I swear truly, may it be well with me; if I swear falsely, the reverse…” (Translation from the University of Michigan APIS website with minor modifications)

This translation is actually a composite of two papyri: the original version of the declaration, which was sent to the royal secretary Hermaios (=SB XIV 11586) and the copy of the declaration that was probably sent to the village secretary at Philadelphia (=SB XIV 11587). The reason for this is because neither the original nor the copy survives in full: the original preserves only the beginning, while the copy has the bulk of the text, missing only the very beginning and very end.

Death Declarations – Michigan.jpg
Death Declaration. Left: the original (Michigan inv. 795). Right: the copy (Michigan inv. 853) (c) University of Michigan Library

But, why did Tapapeis need to report her husband’s death in the first place, let alone have the declaration written in two copies? The key to understanding why lies in the reference to Abeis as a taxpayer. During the period of Roman ruler in Egypt, a census declaration took place every 14 years, and the names of all taxpayers were subsequently collected into a separate tax list. To keep these records up to date, and to make sure that families didn’t remain liable for the taxes of the deceased, declarations such as these were issued to the state authorities. Part of this bureaucratic process meant that duplicates of the originals were also entered into local offices – hence the two copies of this declaration. And copying wasn’t confined to declarations, the census returns themselves were copied multiple times and sent to different offices. Also as part of this administrative process, Tapapeis and Adrastos are described – their ages are given and identifying features are noted, in this case small scars that each bear, to make sure that they are who they claim to be.

As a widow, Tapapeis’ quality of life became dependent on the rest of her family. But, the indications are that if she survived to the age of 55 (and so an old woman in Roman terms), her life would not have been easy. Nine years after this declaration, in 56 CE, Abeis’ son Horos appears in a list of delinquent taxpayers (P.Corn. 24) and the year later is named in a list of missing persons, of tax fugitives (P.Ryl.IV 595). While we don’t know anything else about this family and their daily life, the paperwork produced and stored by Roman bureaucrats provides brief snapshots of some of their experiences, especially regarding two of the constants in life: death and taxes.

Technical Details

Provenance: Philadelphia (Fayyum), Egypt

Date: 28 June(?) 47 CE

Language: Greek

Collection: University of Michigan, P.Mich.inv. 795 and P.Mich.inv. 853

Designation: SB XIV 11586 and 11587 (according to the Checklist of Editions)

Bibliography: Herbert C. Youtie, “P. Mich. Inv. 795 and 853: Notification of Death,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 22 (1976), pp. 56–59; Jane Rowlandson (ed.), Women and Society in Greek and Roman Egypt: A Sourcebook (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 342–343 (#269).

Further Reading

Walter Scheidel, “The Death Declarations of Roman Egypt: A Re-appraisal,” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 36 (1999), pp. 53–70


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