1. Structure
  2. Format
  3. Layout

The cheirographon (literally ‘handwritten document’) was a document written in the form of a letter, and was often used for a formal acknowledgement of a transaction, or to establish a contract between two parties; in the latter case some legal clauses could be added to ensure the contract was binding, see [Keenan et al. 2014 : 44]. The contract could be easily produced without the need to employ a notary or enlist witnesses. This ease of production meant that it remained popular from its first attestation in the Ptolemaic period well into the Byzantine period [Yiftach-Firanko 2008a : 325 n.3, 327, 328].


Most examples come from the Arsinoite and Oxyrhynchite nomes, but there are others from the Thebaid [60 136 BCE], Herakleopolite nome [18652 18 BCE], Hermopolis, e.g. [3116 111 BCE; 17025 128 CE; 18722 271 CE], and Oasis Magna [22625 247 CE]. They range from a simple receipt, e.g. [16534 62 CE, Oxyrhynchus], to long, formal contracts, e.g. [16594 154 CE, Oxyrhynchus] and were concerned with common transactions such as loans and sales, see [Yiftach-Firanko 2008a : 327, 329].


The cheirographon has an epistolary origin, clearly displaying the structure, format, and layout of a letter; it is subjectively formulated, and has the same opening address and closing salutation as that of a letter, e.g. [3116 111 BCE; 3746 92/59 BCE, Tebtunis]. As it evolved, the closing salutation was eventually dropped, e.g. [18652 18 BCE; 12147 45 CE, Tebtunis]. Within the document, the contract could be referred to as ἡ χείρ, e.g. [3116 l.24-25; 3746 l.13], or cheirographon, e.g. [11408 l.24, 144/5 CE, Arsinoite nome; 31906 (verso), III-IV CE, Hermopolis].


The feature distinguishing this contract from any other type is that it was ostensibly written in the hand of the initiating party (ἡ χείρ = ‘hand’); as such, it did not necessarily carry a signature, e.g. [12054 119 CE, Karanis; 13698 158 CE, Soknopaiou Nesos; 18240 217 CE, Soknopaiou Nesos]. The fact that it was an autograph document was often stated within the contract, e.g. ἡ ἰδιόγραφός μου χείρ ‘written by my own hand’ [17415 l.9, 186 CE, Oxyrhynchus], or τὸ δὲ χειρόγραφον τοῦτό ἐστιν ἐμὸν ἰδιόγραφον ‘the cheirographon is completely written by me’ [11408 l.24-25]. Theon and his brother Petaus, the barely literate village scribe of Ptolemais Hormou, were parties to a loan agreement where Theon stated: Θέων ἔγραψα καὶ ὑπὲρ τοῦ Πεταῦτος τὰ πλεῖστα ‘I Theon have written most of it and also for Petaus’ [8850 l.13-14, 183-184 CE]; often in cases of illiteracy another named person wrote the whole document on behalf of the issuer, e.g. [60; 9159 276-277, Philadelphia].


Sometimes, however, a scribe wrote the main text and the issuer added a summary in his own hand (ὑπογραφή), e.g. [15361 220 CE, Oxyrhynchus; 16901 289 CE, Antinoopolis]. Some documents were written by a scribe and signed by a third party at the request of the main party [8908 289 CE, Arsinoite nome]. Occasionally witnesses are noted [7332]. The subscription (ὑπογραφή) of a contract for the division of property [10315 297 CE, Karanis] is written on behalf of four of the parties by two named persons, while the fifth party was able to write for himself.


As some of the documents were not written by professional scribes the papyri often display mistakes and corrections [12054; 16447 (verso) 247 CE, Oxyrhynchus], as well as orthographic errors [19956 105 CE]. If a more competent hand wrote the main contract, the summary written by the issuer can display orthographic errors [15534 98 CE, Oxyrhynchus]. Sometimes the hand is clearly that of someone who found it difficult to write, see for example the laboured script of [19956], and the signature of the weaver in [20987]. Some documents are particularly well prepared and beautifully written, e.g. the chancery hand of [8908]. Two versions of a contract for the deposit of grain are written on either side of the same sheet: one is written in a good hand, while the other (later written) copy is in a hastier, more careless hand [16447 247 CE, Oxyrhynchus] (see P. Oxy XLII 3049, introduction).


A number of Roman cheirographa from Oxyrhynchus record the involvement of a bank in the transaction documented in the contract and appear to have been drawn up by professional scribes, e.g. [15644 65 CE; 22521 144 CE], both loan repayments with a [bank diagraphe] recorded at the end of the document. These always carried a subscription (ὑπογραφή) in the hand of one or more of the parties, and may point to professional scribes who, while being privately hired, also worked closely with a bank; on this see [Yiftach-Firanko 2008a].


The subjective formulation and the handwritten nature of these documents meant that they were legally binding even though they were not produced by a notary and did not usually record witnesses; the legality was unaffected when a document was written by third parties because of illiteracy, see [Wolff 1978b : 107-108]. Querying this last point, see [Yiftach-Firanko 2008a : 326-327].


It was not required for a cheirographon to be registered in the public archive, but particularly in the case of loan contracts, public registration (δημοσίωσις) could facilitate the future recovery of the debt should there be a default, see for example these registration documents with the cheirographa embedded [17514 l.8-35, 170 CE; 20418 l.10-29, 193 CE, both Oxyrhynchus]; on the public registration of privately drawn up contracts, see [Wolff 1978b : 111-112] and [Benaissa 2007].



The cheirographon opens with an address from the issuer to the other party which is the same as that for a letter: [from name <nom.>][to name <dat.>][χαίρειν]. Occasionally a very detailed description of the parties can be added, e.g. [31906 l.1-12].


This is followed by a subjective statement beginning with [ὁμολογῶ] where the issuer agrees that a certain transaction has taken place: e.g. [16594] ὁμολογῶ ἔχειν παρὰ σοῦ... ἀργυρίο̣[υ] σεβαστοῦ νομίσματος δραχμὰς ἑακοσίας ‘I agree that I have had from you 600 imperial silver drachmae’.


Some cheirographa display a modified structure and follow the opening address with a subordinate clause beginning with [ἐπεί / ἐπειδή] and the main clause with [ὁμολογῶ] follows later in the text. The purpose of the subordinate clause is to provide information relevant to the new agreement [11408 145 CE, Arsinoite nome], or to refer to a previous agreement [16534 62 CE, Oxyrhynchus]. For a list of documents with this structure see [Hagedorn 1997 : 185].


A smaller group of cheirographa display a variation to the opening address with both parties to the agreement in the nominative, and the addition of ἀλλήλοις: [name <nom.>] καὶ [name <nom.>][ἀλλήλοις χαίρειν], ‘N and N greet one another.’ With this form of address the parties mutually agree to the contents of the document; see [Jördens 2013] for an investigation into such cheirographa. Contracts with this reciprocal address are used for transactions where the parties are placed on an equal footing, and are mostly found in contracts for the division of property [10315 297 CE, Karanis], contracts of exchange [23560 217 CE, Hermopolis], and some liturgical [10564] and partnership agreements [21205] [Jördens 2013 : 188-189; 190-192].


In cheirographa from the Ptolemaic period the closing salutation [ἔρρωσο] was written after the main text, conforming to the structure of a letter, e.g. [3116; 3746]; this was followed by the date. When the closing salutation eventually disappeared, the date alone served to divide the main text from the subscription (ὑπογραφή), e.g. [15644]. Occasionally the date appeared both at the beginning and end of the document [60 136 BCE].


The contract ended with a subscription (ὑπογραφή), ostensibly written in the hand of the debtor, which provided an acknowledgement or confirmation of the terms of the agreement.



The pagina format with horizontal fibres appears to be the favoured orientation for cheirographa, e.g. [7332; 3116]. There are some examples transversa charta [20987] or in this orientation with horizontal fibres [17030 105-106 CE, Hermopolis]. A roll from Hermopolis with a contract for the sale of a house written out three times [18722 271 CE] measures H.20 x W.104cm, has several kolleseis, and mixed fibre directions. Half of the text of a loan repayment is written on the protokollon of a roll [19956], the sheet is in pagina format. A more squarish sheet records a loan of wheat on a papyrus also partly made with the protokollon [3746].


Some cheirographa from Oxyrhynchus have long, narrow formats similar to those used for the [private protocol] type of contract also favoured in Oxyrhynchus during the Roman period, e.g. [23263 235 CE (H.35 x W.6 cm); 22521 (H.34.5 W. 10cm); 15644 (H.35.9 x W.14cm)]. [140175 161-162 CE] is also particularly long and narrow (H.36.6 x W.8.5cm) but only the second of (at least) 2 columns survives. Other narrow examples come from Tebtunis [12147 45 CE (H.28 x W.8cm)] and Philadelphia [9530 264 CE (H.24 x W.7cm)]. Two copies of a loan, each written in duplicate and on the same day, have the same dimensions [15650, 15651 175 CE, Oxyrhynchus (H.33.9 x 20cm)] suggesting both sheets were cut from the same roll.



Cheirographa are usually written as a single block of text with little use of ekthesis or eisthesis [8875 159 CE, Arsinoite nome; 9159 ; 17415 186 CE Oxyrhynchus]. The scribe of [8908] writes in a chancery hand and separates χαίρειν at the end of the opening address. Sometimes the date can be indented or centred between the main content and the ὑπογραφή [7332; 22625], or at the end of the document [60]. A line can also separate the ὑπογραφή from the main content [60; 15644]. Wide margins are the distinguishing feature of a contract for the delivery of wheat to a temple [18652 18 BCE, Herakleopolite nome], but generally the margins are evenly maintained [7332; 15644].


Often the contract was produced in duplicate, presumably one for each party; this fact could also be pointed out within the contract itself, e.g. [11408 l.25-26] γεγραμμένον δισσόν ‘having been written twice’, [15361 l.29] δισσὴ γραφεῖσα ‘written in two (copies)’. Two copies of a dowry repayment in two different hands are found on two separate sheets, each in a single column, only one complete with the ὑπογραφή [19960 145 CE]. The duplicate loan agreements [15650, 15651] are written twice on each sheet in a single column, separated by a space. Other copies of contracts are written side by side in two columns on the same sheet [20335 225 CE; 17412 265 CE, both Oxyrhynchus]; another papyrus carries three copies of a long contract on a roll [18722].


Sometimes there are two different types of document on the same sheet: [9184 154 CE, Soknopaiou Nesos] is a cheirographon for the sale of a camel - a toll receipt for the same camel is added underneath in a different hand; a copy of an agreement for a loan of money is followed in a second column by a brief letter urging the recipient to chase up the debt [20540 57 CE, Oxyrhynchus].


How to Cite

Ferretti, L., Fogarty, S., Nury, E., Schubert, P. Description of Greek Documentary Papyri: Cheirographon. grammateus project. DOI: 10.26037/yareta:rebksy2ipbhmjh4a55arx7j5bq