Flow of Letters in Ptomelaic Egypt: Transportation and Connectivity between Center and Periphery

Fernanda Alvares Freire

Time and Place: Thursday, 01.07., 11:15–11:35, Room 2
Session: Networking Correspondences

Keywords: letter circulation; connectivity; flow of information

An efficient communications infrastructure is essential to any pre-modern empire; its effects range from tax collection to potential coercive power. In Egypt, the connectedness of the many communities settled along the banks of the Nile factored in the unification of the kingdom under a single crown (Partridge 2010). In Ptolemaic Egypt, the principal form of communication throughout the extensive territory was written correspondence. Letters, petitions, memoranda traveled from the center of the kingdom in Alexandria to the south borders of Nubian land. Letters, specifically compose the largest category in the surviving papyrological sources (Bagnall, Cribiore, and Ahtaridis 2006, 5).

Some works focus on the physical infrastructure and logistics of letter circulation. Three research papers have been published on the topic of the Ptolemaic Postal System: Preisigke’s inaugural analysis on the only surviving daybook from a postal office (1907); Llewelyn’s review of his conclusions (1993); and a paper from Remijsen analyzing the registering of the hour as an innovation particular to the postal system (2007). More recently, Hamouda deals with communication in the Eastern Desert of Egypt (2020). All of these accomplished works contribute to studies on corpora of letters and epistolography, however, despite the abundance of such texts, we lack a broader understanding of where and when these letters were circulating.

To complement the findings and what is already known of transportation and mobility in ancient Egypt, this paper analyses the circulation of Greek letters between the 3rd century BCE and the 3rd century CE. The analysis focuses mainly on measures of degree (in and out-degree) and betweenness centrality – as its main goal is to shed light on information flow.

The corpus consists of letters written on papyri in Greek language within the time-frame abovementioned; its composition was based on a complex query executed on the Trismegistos database. The result comprised of 6,411 different texts that fulfilled the search requirements, which were then extracted and compiled into a local database. To analyze the circulation of letters the most relevant data is that about their origin and destination; of the whole corpus only 15% of the texts have that information, and the remainder has most of the time data about the place of origin and the provenance of the finding.

The analysis focus on four aspects of the data: first, the comparison of circulation of letters between Greek and Roman Egypt; second, the circulation by nome; third, the impact of the letters without destination data on the out-degree measures; and fourth, the impact of the Zenon archive on the results.

The initial results showed a concentration of letters belonging to the 3rd century BCE as well as disproportionate high numbers on degree measures for the Arsinoites (Fayum). Contextualized in the 3rd century BCE Fayum, the Zenon archive is the largest papyrological archive with c. 1838 texts, of which about 40% are letters. For that reason, the impact of the Zenon archive must be taken into account in order to understand the relevance of those results in face of the incomplete nature of the corpus.

This paper is part of the author’s PhD research. It proposes an understanding of the structure of information flow in Ptolemaic Egypt based on correspondence circulation. The analysis informs on the degree of connectivity of Egyptian populated areas – a highly relevant quality for the integration of decentralized hubs of power into the Ptolemaic administration.