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The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri

Ethnic Identity in Graeco-Roman Egypt
A virtual display based on CTP exhibition curated by Elisabeth O'Connell

Introduction
Sources of the papyri
Individual and society
Language and education
Religion

What constitutes the "Egyptian," "Greek" or "Roman" implied in "Graeco-Roman Egypt," and where do we look for the limits that distinguish these familiar terms? The answer might seem simple: we know what makes up each ethnic category when we see it. Yet, on closer inspection, the definitional basis of ethnic identity can be more difficult to recognize. Is it possible to perceive shared claims of descent (ethnicity) in common cultural criteria such as appearance, language, religion, customs and material culture—or is ethnic identity constituted by some particular combination of all of these categories?

When Alexander the Great's general, the Macedonian Ptolemy, son of Lagos, installed himself as king of Egypt at the end of the fourth century BCE, Egypt had already been ruled intermittently by foreign powers for centuries. Military and merchant populations from all points of the compass, including Greeks, had long been resident in Egypt, but Ptolemaic policy attracted large numbers of new immigrants. Since almost all of these foreigners qualified for "Greek" status and its attendant modest tax break, the ethnics "Greek" (Hellên) and "Egyptian" (Aigyptios) were not only indicative of ancestry but also of legal and social status. The new arrivals settled throughout Egypt and, especially because they and their descendants frequently intermarried with local populations, it is increasingly difficult to determine who might qualify as Egyptian or as Greek.

Later, after Egypt became a Roman province following the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra in 30 BCE, the Roman administration imposed a new hierarchy that granted privileges to citizens of Rome (Rhômaioi), but also to citizens of Alexandria and the other Greek cities in Egypt (astoi). Everyone else, regardless of descent, was deemed "Egyptian," although this category was itself internally stratified. The ethnic labels employed by the Roman system were thus largely legal and administrative constructs; but such categories had very real benefits or penalties concerning taxes, property and marriage. Two centuries later (211 CE), the extension of Roman citizenship to all members of the empire coincided with the deployment of ethnic language in the service of early Christian self-definition.

Texts from Tebtunis illustrate the fluidity of ethnic labels while testifying to their enduring centrality in the politics of similarity and difference, inclusion and exclusion, assimilation and resistance. The town was located at the edge of Egypt's largest oasis, the Fayum, which was more heavily settled by foreigners than most other parts of Egypt. The duration of continuous occupation at the site and the quality of preservation of the contents of its temple, town and cemeteries provide an excellent opportunity to explore the shaping and presentation of ethnic identities in the region. Tebtunis allows access not only to the lives of those identified or identifying as Egyptian, Greek and Roman, but also to myriad regional affiliations that undermine the ethnic connotations of the traditional tri-partite title, "Graeco-Roman Egypt."

Photograph of mummy portraits excavated at Tebtunis, 1899/1900

Roman and Egyptian funerary traditions collide in what may appear to us to be startling combinations. It has been argued, for example, that the famous painted mummy portraits of Egypt translated the Roman practice of memorializing the deceased with a veristic painting into the entirely Egyptian idiom of mummification. Placed over the faces of the mummies, the portraits probably record the idealized physical appearance of individuals. It is impossible to judge whether or not those persons descended from Egyptians, Greeks or Romans; instead, the paintings mark the subject's place in elite society. The choice of garments, hairstyles and jewelry depicted in the portraits presents each person as an elite Graeco–Roman, whereas the practice of mummification itself demonstrates the same individual's adherence to ancient Egyptian burial customs (and religion).

Eleven mummy portraits in all were removed from Roman period cemeteries at Tebtunis and brought to Berkeley. All were painted using either a tempera (egg–based) or encaustic (wax–based) technique. Dates for each portrait are suggested by comparing the depictions of hairstyles, dress and jewelry in the portraits to dated Roman imperial coins and statues. The two portraits recorded in this excavation photograph and displayed below are now in the Hearst Museum of Anthropology (6–21376 and 6–21377).

Courtesy of Egypt Exploration Society, London.

Mummy portrait of Thau(b)arion painted in encaustic on wood
125 – 140 CE

Perhaps the finest of the Tebtunis mummy portraits excavated by the Berkeley–funded expedition, this panel is inscribed with the name of the deceased. Appearing over the subject's right shoulder, the text reads "Thauarion." This name is otherwise unattested and is perhaps a variant of Thaubarion, a common Egyptian name ("She of Bastet") with a Greek diminutive ending.

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California; photographed by Joan Knudsen.
Inv. 6–21376

Mummy portrait painted in encaustic(?) on wood
110 – 140 CE

The youthful subject is depicted holding a papyrus scroll and reed pen in his right hand.

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California; photographed by Joan Knudsen.
Inv. 6–21377

Black ink sketch on wood with instructions to the artist
140 – 160 CE

This sketch gives us a rare glimpse of the process of producing mummy portraits. The text directs the artist which colors to use where, for example "purple" (porphyra) may refer to the bands (clavi) of the subject's garment. We cannot know whether the artist would self–identify as Egyptian, Greek or any other ethnic; however, the fact that the text is in Greek suggests that the artist or someone in the workshop was expected to know how to read the language.

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California; infra–red reflectography by J. Paul Getty Museum.
Inv. 6–21378a

Mummy portrait in encaustic on wood
140 – 160 CE

Based on the surviving facial features and hairstyle, Susan Walker has recently suggested that this portrait may be the finished product of the sketch above (6–21378a).

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California; photographed by Joan Knudsen.
Inv. 6–21375

Mummy portrait in tempera on wood
120 – 140 CE

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California; photographed by Joan Knudsen.
Inv. 6–21378

Mummy portrait in tempera on wood
160 – 190 CE

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California; photographed by Joan Knudsen.
Inv. 6–21383

Bibliography


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