On A Document Signed by Cleopatra

On 23 February 33 BCE, the Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra VII, issued a royal ordinance granting financial privileges to a Roman absentee landlord. These privileges include tax exemptions and protection of his workers and other property from various impositions. More than the economic implications of this document, and the role of absentee Roman landlords in late Ptolemaic Egypt, this papyrus document has gained most renown over the past two decades because of a single word at the end of the text, which may have been written in Cleopatra’s own hand.

Unfortunately, the name of the landlord in question is mostly damaged and there is some disagreement regarding his identity. Peter van Minnen reads here the name of a Roman general, Publius Canidius Crassus, a well-known figure connected with Antony. However, Klaus Zimmermann reads the name Quintus Cascellius, an otherwise unattested member of a known family. This issue highlights some of the problems inherent in dealing with papyri: ink traces can be read in different ways, by different scholars, resulting in considerably different interpretations in texts. Here, I follow van Minnen’s reading, but in the understanding that multiple stories can – and have – been told about this document. 

P.Bingen 45 (c) Berlin, Papyrus Collection of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (P.25239)

The document grants Canidius and his heirs (no minor point, this reference to his successors indicates that his involvement with Egypt was intended for the long-term) exemptions from export and import taxes for wheat and wine. Per annum, he can export from Egypt 10,000 artabas of wheat (ca. 300 tonnes) tax-free, and import 5,000 amphorae of wine from Cos. Additionally, he also won’t pay taxes on any of the land he owns in Egypt. 

“We have granted to Publius Canidius (Crassus) and his heirs the annual exportation of 10,000 artabas of wheat and the annual importation of 5,000 Coan amphoras of wine without anyone exacting anything in taxes from him or any other expense whatsoever. We have also granted tax exemption on all the land he owns in Egypt on the understanding that he shall not pay any taxes, either to the state account or to the special account of us and others, in any way in perpetuity.” 

Translation: van Minnen 2000 and 2003 (for slightly different translations, see Jones 2006 and Bagnall and Derow 2004)

The tenants working Canidius’ land were also protected. They were not liable to corvées or additional levies, including expenses directed towards the army. The beasts of burden on his farms, both for ploughing and transportation, could not be commandeered by the army, nor could his boats.

“We have also granted that all his tenants are exempt from personal liabilities (such as the corvée) and from paying taxes without anyone exacting anything from them, that they do not even contribute to the extraordinary assessments in the nomes or pay for expenses of soldiers or officers. We have also granted that the animals used for ploughing and sowing as well as the beasts of burden and the boats used for the transportation (down the Nile) of the wheat are likewise exempt from ‘personal’ liabilities and from taxes and cannot be commandeered (by the army). Let it be written to whom it may concern, so that knowing it they can act accordingly.”

This mention of the army is a reminder of bigger events happening in the Mediterranean world: the escalating conflict between Octavian (the future Augustus) and Mark Antony. And Canadius was no small player in these events. As long as this identification is the correct one, this papyrus is a rare example in which the individuals involved also occur in Roman sources. Our main evidence for Canidius comes from the 1st/2nd century CE biographer Plutarch. In his Life of Antony, Plutarch describes Canidius as “a man of the greatest influence with Antony” (Ant. 42.4). He was in charge of Antony’s land forces and Cleopatra persuaded him to convince Antony that she should accompany him to war, against the advice of Antony’s other confidents (Ant. 56.2–3). 

“Cleopatra … persuaded Canidius by large bribes to plead her clause with Antony, and to say that it was neither just to drive away from the war a woman whose contributions to it were so large, [3] nor was it for the interest of Antony to dispirit the Egyptians, who formed a large part of his naval force; and besides, it was not easy to see how Cleopatra was inferior in intelligence to anyone of the princes who took part in the expedition, she who for a long time had governed so large a kingdom by herself, and by long association with Antony had learned to manage large affairs.”

Translation: Bernadotte Perin, 1920 (available on Perseus)

The ‘large bribes’ that Plutarch mentions are probably not the fiscal favours that are reported in this document, which predates the events in question, and probably were not of sufficient size to convince Canidius to support her. What we see instead in our document is direct evidence, from the Egyptian side, of the effect of Cleopatra’s relationship with Rome, which extended beyond high politics and had a real impact on economic life in Egypt, through landownership and trade. Cleopatra used fiscal incentives to help keep influential Romans on her side. In contrast to later presentations of Cleopatra, sex wasn’t the only thing she had to offer important Roman men.

Beyond the connection with the Roman world, this papyrus has become best known for its last word, Greek ginestho, “Make it happen!” 

Close up of Cleopatra’s subscription.

In several articles since 2000, Peter van Minnen has argumed that this must be Cleopatra’s own note. In its original edition, this identification was not made – and there is no universal agreement that she really did write it (Bagnall and Derow 2004 and Sarri 2018 are unconvinced the word is in a different hand to the rest of the text). It must be stressed, we don’t actually have her signature in terms of her actual name – that would be too easy. Van Minnen’s identification of this directive as in her hand comes from context: after dictating the contents of the edict, only she had the authority to sign the text into law. Her handwriting would have been recognised by officials in the highest levels of the administration, who would be responsible for copying and disseminating this ordinance.

To date, this is the only text that we have that may contain her subscription, and in many respects it’s a stroke of luck that this document has survived at all. Rather than come from an archive of official paperwork, this papyrus was recovered from mummy cartonnage. Wastepaper was regularly reused at this time as a form of papier-mâché to pad out funerary masks. While this ordinance was written in Alexandria, it was found further south in the cemetery at Abusir el-Melek, and the other papyri in this particular cartonnage date to the Augustan period. It is not impossible that other texts bearing her subscription have simply yet to be found and studied. If and when such texts are identified, it may be a double-edged sword. If the writing is the same, we will have a bundle of texts providing evidence for Cleopatra signing off a range of edicts. However, if the writing is different, we may have lost this (already uncertain) connection to the queen herself. Papyri can give great gifts, but also take them away. Our understanding of history and evidence is not static; new discoveries mean being open and willing to modify our own interpretations.

Regardless of what the future may hold, the importance of this subscription and the possibilities that it raises cannot be understated. It shows Cleopatra as a ruler involved in the day-to-day operations of her country, including the mundane realities of governing. This papyrus, today in Berlin, is just one of thousands of texts that she must have dictated and quite possibly signed during the daily running of Egypt. It is also a reminder that the Egyptian evidence reveals Cleopatra as an independent figure in her own right, and not one who existed purely in connection to famous men.

Technical Details 

Provenance: Written in Alexandria; found in Abusir el-Melek.

Date: 23 February 33 BCE (26 Mechir, year 19 of Cleopatra’s reign)

Language: Greek

Collection: Berlin, Papyrus Collection of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (P.25239)

Designation: P.Bingen 45 (according to the Checklist of Editions)

Bibliography: Roger S. Bagnall and Peter Derow (2005), The Hellenistic Period: Historical Sources in Translation (Oxford: Blackwell), pp. 109–110 [#63]; Prudence J. Jones (2006), Cleopatra: A Sourcebook (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press), pp. 202–204; Peter van Minnen (2000), “An Official Act of Cleopatra (With a Subscription in Her Own Hand),” Ancient Society 30: 29–34; Peter van Minnen (2001), “Further Thoughts on the Cleopatra Papyrus,” Archiv für Papyrusforschung 47: 74–80; Peter van Minnen (2001), “De handtekening van Cleopatra,” Handelingen van de Koninklijke Zuid-Nederlandse Maatschappij 55: 147–159; Peter van Minnen (2003), “A Royal Ordinance of Cleopatra and Related Documents,” in Cleopatra Reassessed, ed. Susan Walker and Sally-Ann Ashton (London: British Museum), pp. 35–44; Peter van Minnen (2018), “P.Bingen 45 Revisited,” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 55: 292–293; Antonia Sarri (2018), Material Aspects of Letter Writing in the Graeco-Roman World 500 BC – AD 300 (Berlin), p. 168; Klaus Zimmermann (2002), “P.Bingen 45: eine Steuerbefreiung für Q. Cascellius, adressiert an Kaisarion,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 138: 133–139

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