Police Brutality in Ptolemaic Egypt

Jennifer Cromwell

On 14 September 194 BCE, the chief of police of the Polemon district and several other men raided the workshop of Petermouthis son of Peteësis. Forcibly removing him from his workshop, they dragged him through his village, Oxyrhyncha, physically abusing him and ultimately taking from him money and even the shirt off his back. After receiving the money (4 silver drachmas and 1,300 bronze drachmas, plus an additional 44 silver drachmas placed in the bank in his name), the officers released Petermouthis. Upon his release, the cobbler wrote a petition to the most senior official of his district, the stratêgos Ptolemaios, recounting his mistreatment and requesting succour.

To Ptolemaios, syngenêsand stratêgos, from Petermouthis son of Peteësis, 7-aroura machimosof those under Chomenis, also a crippled cobbler of those from Tebtynis of the Polemon district, but living in Oxyrhyncha of the same district. 

On the first of the intercalary days of Mesore, year 8, Dionysios, police chief (archiphylakitês) of the district, arriving in the village and, entering my workshop with Demetrios, and Apollonios the eisangeleus, and Teos and Nechthenibis and other ephodoi, seized me and led me through the village, with every form of mistreatment and insolence (hybris) and blows, up to the middle street of the city. And they did not release me before shaking me down for 4 silver drachmas and 1,300 bronze drachmas; and they forced Pnepheros son of Horos, another machimos, to place at the bank in my name for him (i.e., Dionysios) a promissory note payable to Areios, epispoudastês of the district, for 44 silver drachmas; and in addition they forced this same Areios to accept the aforementioned 44 silver drachmas from him (i.e., Dionysios), disdaining me because I am helpless and crippled. And they also carried off the clothes I was wearing. 

I ask that you not overlook me, but if it does not seem improper, please send […]. And if this takes place, I shall receive succour from you. Year 8, Mesore intercalary day 1. Farewell.

(Translation slightly modified from: John Bauschatz (2013) Law and Enforcement, p. 151)
  • Eisangeleus: literally “announcers”, a lower-ranked subordinate of court officials.
  • Ephedos (pl. ephedoi): literally “wayfarer”, an official who probably worked alongside roads and had police duties, often acting as bodyguards for police officers.
  • Epispoudastês: a grain transport official.
  • Machimos: a soldier or guard with a land allotment of 5, 7, or 10 arouras, most often of Egyptian origin.
  • Stratêgos: the highest ranked civil official in the Egyptian provinces. 
  • Syngenês: a court title.
P.Coll. Youtie I 16 (c) Cologne, Papyrussammlung (P1448)

Petermouthis’ account is visceral. It presents excessive force being exerted against him – in addition to the chief of police, Dionysius, four other officials are named, together with an uncounted number of ephedoi, a category of official with policing duties, who often acted as bodyguards for police officers. Petermouthis was heavily outnumbered. Why were such measures taken against Petermouthis, a man who in his own words was a ‘crippled cobbler’?

As is often the case with such petitions, we only have Petermouthis’ side of the story, an account that does not name or draw upon witness testimony. There is no counterpart text from the chief of police stating the charges against Petermouthis or why such force may have been considered necessary. Police at this time had broad powers, including the ability to confiscate goods, collect tax arrears, provide crowd control, and arrest and detain offenders. Given the sums of money involved, it is quite possible that Dionysius was there to collect unpaid debt and, expecting resistance from Petermouthis (perhaps based on previous interactions with him), took along multiple officers in support. However, even without any other statements, whether contradictory or corroborating, it does not seem that the end justified the means.

Is this account typical of policing in Ptolemaic Egypt? A number of texts from this period provide further examples of police brutality, including various types of corruption, as well as instances of police inefficiency, including inaction and slow responses. The surviving evidence, together with that for the effective functioning of the police service, is collected by John Bauschatz in his study of law and enforcement of Ptolemaic Egypt (see ‘Technical Details’). Bauschatz concludes that police misbehaviour overall seems to have been minimal at this time, and that the system in general functioned well, especially in light of the difficulties faced (in particular in terms of communication, as well as the broad powers exercised by officers). 

Yet, while the system may have worked well on many occasions, corrupt officers and police violence were still a part of life and very real threat in villages throughout the Egyptian countryside.

**There is considerable literature on violence and corruption in Ptolemaic and later Roman Egypt; for example, see in addition to Bauschatz’s works the following studies:

  • Richard Alston (1994) “Violence and Social Control in Roman Egypt,” in Proceedings of the 20th International Congress of Papyrologists, Copenhagen, 23 August, 1992, edited by Adam Bülow-Jacobsen (Copenhagen), pp. 517–21.
  • Roger Bagnall (1989) “Official and Private Violence in Roman Egypt,” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists26: 201–216.
  • Ari Z. Bryen (2013) Violence in Roman Egypt: A Study in Legal Interpretation(Pennsylvania). 

Technical Details 
Provenance: Fayum, Egypt.
Date: 14 September 109 BCE (note, the year is uncertain).
Language: Greek.
Collection: Cologne Papyrus Collection / Papyrussammlung (P.1448).
Designation: P.Coll.Youtie I 16 (according to the Checklist of Editions)
Bibliography: John Bauschatz (2007), The Strong Arm of the Law? Police Corruption in Ptolemaic Egypt,” The Classical Journal 103/1, pp. 13–39; John Bauschatz (2013), Law and Enforcement in Ptolemaic Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 151–152.

Published by JCROMWELL

Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Manchester Metropolitan University and member of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies.

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