Official Letter


  1. Structure
  2. Format
  3. Layout

An official letter may be defined as a letter originating from an administrative office at any level of the hierarchy, or as a communication to an official which is not a petition, application, or declaration and concerns matters of administration. The letter may be between officials, e.g. [12608 166 CE, Ptolemais Euergetis] from a strategos to a basilikogrammateus; from an official to a non-official, e.g. [43257 181 BCE, Krokodilopolis] a letter to a company of fruit-pickers; or from a non-official to an official, e.g. [19413 118 CE, Hermopolis] a letter from a contractor regarding grain transport. Official letters generally concern matters of administration [8304 III BCE, Arsinoite nome], justice [4308 130 BCE Herakleopolite nome], religion [15632 149 CE, Oxyrhynchos], or military affairs [19453 113-120 CE]. As with [Private Letters], official letters make up a large part of the corpus and come from every period and all areas of Egypt. Studies may be found in [Exler 1923], [White 1986], and most recently [Sarri 2018].


Individual officials communicating with each other may use their full titles in the opening address e.g. [13452 23 CE; 8811 185 CE, both Arsinoite nome; 18168 280-281 CE, Memphis], but more often only names are provided with no official designation, and the only indication that the letter is official is that the business within is administrative, e.g. [78771 73 BCE, Tebtunis; 8880 199 CE, Alexandria; 28402 II-III CE, Oxyrhynchus].


An official may write to an adminstrative body, e.g. [17489 c.306 CE, Oxyrhynchus], where a prefect addresses the council of Oxyrhynchus; or an administrative body may address an individual, e.g. [31242 III CE, Herakleopolis] where the council of Herakleopolis writes to a certain Cornelius, and [22993 269 CE, Hermopolis] a letter from the council of Hermopolis to an agoranomos. One administrative body may address another, e.g. [18516 274 CE, Oxyrhynchus] a letter from the council of Oxyrhynchus to the keepers of the property archives (βιβλιοφύλακες ἐγκτήσεων); the eirenarchs of the Arsinoite nome address their counterparts in the Nilopolite nome [9475 261 CE, Philadelphia]. An official may also send the same letter separately to different recipients: Apollonios writes a letter regarding the export of grain to two different recipients on the same day, [2021; 2022 261 BCE, Philadelphia], and the traces of ink in the top margin of [2022] may indicate that more than one letter was written on the same sheet and afterwards cut. One official can address a number of others in a single letter (see [circular] letter).


The content of official letters can be very simple and straightforward e.g. [8206 249 BCE, Hibeh] a brief order not to trouble someone for money. They can also be very complex and often have other documents embedded: a letter from Agathon forwards another from Menodoros, within which yet another letter is forwarded [5349 243 BCE, Tebtunis]. A letter from a basilikogrammateus to a komogrammateus forwards a letter written to the former by the strategos, which letter itself includes a contract to buy some vineland [8811 185 CE, Arsinoite nome]. An official letter can also forward other types of communication: a letter from the king instructs an official to ensure his orders are followed concerning trials, and attaches another letter he has sent to the chief of police, within which is embedded a [royal ordinance] on the matter [5641 183 BCE]; decrees are more usually found with [circular] letters.


Official letters often carry a reply: a response to a letter could be written on the same sheet as the original, e.g. [41535 232 BCE, Arsinoite nome] where the request to open a sluice is refused on the other side of the sheet. The prefect responds on the other side of the sheet to a complaint in [20062 139 CE, Koptos]. The oikonomos Asklepiades wrote his reply to a request from his subordinate below the original text [8086 230 BCE, Arsinoite nome]. Orders by two officials to proceed according to the contents of the original letter are written below it in [112477 212 BCE, Herakleopolite nome]. On instructions written below an official letter (ὑπογραφαί) see [Sarri 2018 : 145].


Official letters are usually written by a scribe and may be signed by the author e.g. [20707 95 CE, Oxyrhynchus; 19597 113-120 CE, Hermopolis] - this may be a method of validation, see [Sarri 2018 : 170ff.]. The personal greeting of Apollonios to the strategos is rather compressed into the space after the main text [19605 II CE, Hermopolis]. The standard of the script in official letters is generally high, e.g. [43258 181 BCE, Arsinoite nome; 12608], but some can be hastily written [41535]. Letters from the offices of higher officials in the administration are often written in a chancery hand [8880; 12603 214 CE, Arsinoite nome; 23140 209 CE, Arsinoite nome; 18168].


Groups of texts have survived as archives of official correspondence, e.g. the archive of letters to and from the basilikogrammateus Paniskos [TM Arch 156], e.g. [4837 52 BCE, Herakleopolite nome]; the strategos Apollonios [TM Arch 19], e.g. [19597]; and the sitologos Adamas [TM Arch 2], e.g. [5354 197/173 BCE, Tebtunis]. The group of official letters to the agoranomoi of Oxyrhynchus [TM Arch 598], concern land issues and the manumission of slaves, e.g. [20707]. Many rolls of papyri make up the archive of official correspondence of the administration in the Boubastite nome [TM Arch 22], e.g. [23397 (col. xi) 224 CE, Boubastos].



There are a variety of opening addresses in an official letter based upon the same formula found in [private letters], [from name <nom.>][to name <dat.>][χαίρειν], with and without official titles, e.g. [8811 (with titles); 5349 (without)]. Expansions to this formula occur with the addition of superlatives after the name of the recipient, e.g. τῶι φιλτάτωι [12608; 17913 290 CE, Oxyrhynchus], or τῷ τιμιωτάτῳ [19413]. An address to the strategos Soteles is more simple: χαίρειν καὶ ἐρρῶσθαι ‘greetings and good health’ [316209 50-19 BCE, Herakleopolite nome]. The financial official Asklepiades, unable to complete his work for the toparch due to eye trouble, asks Herakleides for help - the opening address here appears more personal: τῶι ἀδελφῶι χαίρειν καὶ διὰ παντὸς ὑγιαίνειν καθάπερ εὔχομαι, ‘to my “brother” greetings and I wish you continued health’ [23375 9 BCE, Herakleopolite nome].


Also common in official letters is the formula [to name <dat.>][from name <nom.>][χαίρειν], [12603 214-215, Oxyrhynchus]; this inverted formula perhaps underlines a hierarchical relationship between sender and addressee. By the late III - early IV CE the formula can be expanded by the addition of κυρίῳ μου ‘my lord’ before the addressee [12289 298-300 CE, Philadelphia; 30375 late-III CE, Theadelphia]. A more unusual opening address [χαίροις][name <voc.>] and no sender’s name, strikes a more familiar tone [24963 I CE, Oxyrhynchus]; this use of the optative may betray an attempt at writing more elegant Greek, e.g. [19604 II CE, Hermopolis].


The closing formula is usually [ἔρρωσο/ἔρρωσθε] [4126 222 BCE, Mouchis; 78764 115 BCE, Tebtunis; 13452 23 CE, Tebtunis; 20707 95 CE, Oxyrhynchus], with [ἐρρῶσθαί σε εὔχομαι] more favoured in the Roman period [24963 I CE, Oxyrhynchus; 11211 213 CE, Arsinoite nome].


When superlatives are used in the opening address they may also appear in the closing, e.g. ἐρρῶσθαί σε εὔχομαι, φίλτατε [8811 l.16; 17913; 18516; 9475]. If κυρίῳ μου appears in the opening formula it may also be found in the closing, e.g. [12289] ἐρρῶσθαί σε εὔχο(μαι), κύριέ μου, and [30375] ἐρρῶσθαί σε εὔχομαι, κύριέ μου πάτρων; [19597 II CE, Hermopolis] has a similar closing formula but with a superlative in the opening address.


The vocative in the opening formula of [19604] is repeated in the closing formula with an added superlative, ἐρρῶσθαί σε εὔχομαι, Ἀπολλώνιε τιμιώτατε, perhaps again an effort to write more elegant Greek. A letter to the eirenarchs of Oxyrhynchus bears an unusual closing formula, ἐρρῶσθαι ὑμᾶς εἴη, ‘I hope for your health’ [17491 262 CE, Oxyrhynchus] - the letter is from Valerius Titanianus, who particularly enjoyed the protection of the emperor, and the wording of his closing formula emphasizes his importance, see [P.Gen I(2) 1] introduction on this vir egregius.


Letters emanating from high administrative offices such as that of the prefect can sometimes have the closing formula [ἐρρῶσθαί σε βούλομαι], e.g. [17201 119 CE, Oxyrhynchus], a letter to the strategoi regarding the collection of manumission tax. This closing is also used when an edict or decree is being circulated (see circular letters); [Jördens 2001 : 69].


Official letters usually carry a [date@end] after the closing salutation [43258; 23375; 12608]; others are undated [8304; 19598 II CE, Hermopolis].



Official letters fall into the same format pattern as [private] and [business] letters, i.e. there is a general preference for the transversa charta format in the Ptolemaic period, e.g. [2160 258-256 BCE, Philadelphia; 4125 219 BCE, Arsinoite nome]. These could vary in dimensions from a small piece of papyrus [8205 250 BCE, Hibeh] H.9.3 x W.12.4 cm, to those where the the full height of the roll was used e.g. [4323 241 BCE, Oxyrhynchus] H.17.5 x W.35.5 cm. Two letters from the office of the financial official Lysimachos concern the same non-payment of rent, and are written by the same scribe a month apart, one transversa charta [43258], the other similarly oriented and written along horizontal fibres [43257 181 BCE, Arsinoite nome]. Some examples also survive of the Demotic format of long narrow sheets during this period, e.g. [5354 197/173 BCE, Tebtunis] H.31 x W.6.9 cm.


In the Roman period the preference is for pagina format [19413 118 CE, Hermopolis; 20720 288 CE, Oxyrhynchus]. Letters from the office of Hermias to the strategos Apollonios are found in pagina format, the writing along the horizontal fibres, e.g. [19597; 19598 113-120 CE, Hermopolis]; but one is on a sheet horizontally oriented, the text written in two columns along the horizontal fibres [19599 113-120, Hermopolis]. These can be compared with letters from the upper strata of Roman administration presented in a more squarish format, also written along horizontal fibres, e.g. [17491; 23140]. The scribe of [7883 197 BCE, Arsinoite nome] H.23.8 x W.26.6 cm, wrote the first column against the fibres of the protokollon of a roll, the second column is written with the fibres of the first sheet.



Even margins and a neat script are often presented in official letters [43257; 19599]; others can be more cursively written [8304 III BCE, Arsinoite nome]. They can be written as a single block of text with the final salutation indented [2160; 3653 114 BCE, Tebtunis]. There are others which separate χαίρειν from the beginning of the opening formula with a space between the two [19605 II CE, Hermopolis; 15347 271-275 CE, Oxyrhynchus]. The two embedded letters in [8811] are clearly differentiated from each other with the beginning line of each in ekthesis to the rest of the texts, and both these letters are themselves in eisthesis to the letter introducing them. Many letters have the date written separately from the main text, sometimes in a different hand [22162 181 CE, Oxyrhynchus]. A paragraphos can separate the main text from what follows [43257; 43258; 3617 130 BCE, Thebes; 3658 112 BCE, Tebtunis; 20707 95 CE, Oxyrhynchus]. Some letters run to more than one column [681; 7883; 19599]. A rare seal is preserved in [43258].


How to Cite

Ferretti, L., Fogarty, S., Nury, E., Schubert, P. Description of Greek Documentary Papyri: Official Letter. grammateus project. DOI: 10.26037/yareta:j6bmf3pm7rciphcuai3ugfptfi