Declaration of Pagan Sacrifice (libellus)


  1. Structure
  2. Format
  3. Layout

Declarations of pagan sacrifice, otherwise known as libelli, were issued by village officials as proof that the applicant had sacrificed to the gods in their presence. Following the edict issued by the emperor Decius in 249 CE, this statement of sacrifice was required by all in the Roman Empire, and has been interpreted by some as the first “centrally organised” persecution of Christians [Rives 1999 : 136].


Although an empire-wide requirement, only a small number of libelli survive from Egypt and only from the summer of 250 CE; the greatest concentration of these are from Theadelphia (34 cases), fewer from the wider Arsinoite nome (8 cases, 1 probable), and 4 examples from the Oxyrhynchite nome; see [Schubert 2016 : 192-194]. The cluster of documents from Theadelphia may have been stored together (compare the similarity of the damage on [12907] and [13936]), and points to the possibility that they were copies preserved by the officials, not those kept by individual applicants, see [Schubert 2016 : 176]. For an overview of the Decian persecution see [Rives 1999] and for a closer look at the papyri themselves see [Schubert 2016].



As a formal declaration made by an individual to an official, the structure is that of a standard ὑπόμνημα. This consists of an address in the dative, τοῖς ἐπὶ τῶν θυσιῶν ᾑρημένοις, ‘to the (officials) in charge of the sacrifice’, followed by the declarant’s name [from παρά + name <gen.>] and place of origin or residence.


In documents from the Arsinoite nome there follows a declaration by the applicant: ἀεὶ θύουσα τοῖς θεοῖς διετέλεσα ‘I have always sacrificed to the gods’ e.g. [56431 l.4-5]. The formula at this point is slightly different in declarations from the Oxyrhynchite nome where the applicant states that he has always sacrificed, but has also made libations to the the gods, ἀεὶ μὲν θύων καὶ σπένδων τοῖς θεοῖς διετέλεσα, e.g. [20403 l.6-8]. See [Schubert 2016 : 187].


In all documents a statement follows that the declarant has sacrificed again before the officials: ἐπὶ παρόντων/παροῦσι ὑμῖν (Arsinoite nome) or ἐνώπιον ὑμῶν (Oxyrhynchite nome), ‘in your presence’. Then a formal request is made for the officials to certify the sacrifice: ἀξιῶ ὑμᾶς ὑποσημειώσασθαί μοι, ‘I ask that you certify me below’.


The request ends with a ‘farewell’ [διευτυχεῖτε]. Officials confirm that they have seen the individual make his sacrifice (εἴδαμέν σε θυσιάζουσαν) - in the declarations from Theadelphia the two officials are Aurelius Serenus and Aurelius Hermas - and this is followed by the [signature] of one of them, usually Hermas, the village scribe. Finally the document is dated; those declarations where the [date@end] has been preserved have almost always been written in the month of Pauni 250 CE, others in the following month, Epeiph, i.e. June – July [13951].


The declarations from Theadelphia are significant in that different hands can be clearly distinguished in their preparation e.g. [11978, 12907, 13936]

  • a professional scribe wrote in advance the address, statement of sacrifice, request for certification, and the date at the end, in a trained but fast hand;
  • the confirmation statement is written by the official’s scribe at the time of the sacrifice;
  • the signature of the official, Hermas, is sometimes abbreviated and in a very clumsy hand, e.g. [13936 l.15, 13940 l.17].
For a more detailed examination of the hands involved in this group of documents see [Schubert 2016 : 179-184].


The structure of the libelli from other Arsinoite villages and towns is based on the same model as those from Theadelphia, with only minor differences:

  • sometimes the age and identifying features of the applicant are included e.g. [9033 l. 5, age and scar; 56431 l. 2-4, no father, names of mother and husband];
  • after the “farewell” of the main text, the applicant formally submits his request - a statement common in other declarations submitted to an authority in the ὑπόμνημα format - (ἐπιδέδωκα - ‘I have submitted’);
  • while the officials confirm the sacrifice, rarely is there a signature e.g. [44425]; conversely, one example has the signatures of six officials [13730 l. 14-19].


The four libelli preserved from the Oxyrhynchite nome conform to the same structure as those from the wider Arsinoite nome, apart from the difference in the declaration formula (see above), and a variation in the address to the official: see for example [204 03] τοῖς ἐπὶ τῶν ἱερῶν [καὶ] θυσιῶν πόλ[εως] ‘to the superintendants of offerings and sacrifices of the city’; and compare [21866] and [17912].



The format of certificates of pagan sacrifice follows the model found in other declaration types (Census, Notifications of Death, Camel Declarations), i.e. the shape of the document corresponds to the pagina standard, with the scribe writing along the horizontal fibres [14001, 13945]; there is also one with vertical fibres [12907]. Of the documents in our database the average height is 21.2 cm and width 7.4 cm; [56431] is wider than usual (22 x 12.4 cm), see [Schubert 2016 : 185]. Of the four Oxyrhynchite certificates only one is complete [21866] and it is shorter and wider than the Arsinoite examples at 17.2 x 9.8 cm.



That these certificates were prepared before the formal sacrifice took place, is evidenced by the large windows left to facilitate the written confirmation of the officials (by another hand), and the signature of one of them (a third hand), e.g. [13945, 11977, 11978]. These windows facilitated the different stages of the procedure and can be found in other declarations such as Notifications of Death; on these windows see [Schubert 2018b : 340-343]. The certificates from Oxyrhynchus do not display windows and it is likely that the official signature was added at the end of the document, see [Schubert 2016 : 196]. The address to the officials is generally written in ekthesis to the rest of the text, and separated from the παρά clause [13940, 14001]. The date often begins with a large (ἔτους) symbol [12907, 12909].


How to Cite

Ferretti, L., Fogarty, S., Nury, E., Schubert, P. Description of Greek Documentary Papyri: Declaration of Pagan Sacrifice (libellus). grammateus project. DOI: 10.26037/yareta:dlyt3qvm35au5l53eq3pgyh4hm