Report of imperial decision (ἀπόκριμα and ὑπογραφή)


  1. Introduction
  2. Structure
  3. Format
  4. Layout



A reply (ἀπόκριμα) is delivered orally to an individual – or a representative – who has appeared before the emperor with a formal petition; a subscription (subscriptio, ὑπογραφή) is the written form given to this reply. Although both belong to a same sequence of actions, the ἀπόκριμα is related to [report of official proceedings (Roman)] inasmuch as it is part of the verbatim quotation of the oral exchange.


In more general terms, there are two ways in which an appeal to the emperor can be formulated. The written reply (rescriptum or constitutio) differs accordingly:

  • A city or an individual in a high position may formulate a request by sending a letter. To this, the emperor replies with a letter [Wilcken 1920 : 2-7; Nörr 1981b : 9-10].
  • Individuals in an ordinary position may submit a petition (libellus, βιβλιδίον) to the emperor, but must appear in person before him. He first delivers his reply orally (ἀπόκριμα), before it is recorded in writing at the bottom of a copy of the petition, as a subscription (ὑπογραφή) – and then publicly posted for all to see [Peachin 2012]. The petitioner – or his representative – can then make a copy [Williams 1974 : 98-101].


There is, however, some confusion around the precise terminology regarding the exact meaning of ἀπόκριμα. A large collection of replies given by the emperor is explicitly labelled as ἀντίγραφα ἀποκριμάτων ‘copies of replies’ [14250 200 CE, Tebtunis (?)]. An abstract of an ἀπόκριμα is preserved in [13449 ca. 138 CE, Tebtunis]. The emperor’s ἀποκρίματα are also recorded in a register containing a verbatim report of proceedings [14522 l.25-26 ca. 237 CE, Karanis]: [ἐξ ἀπ]οκριμάτων θεῶν Σεουήρου κ[αὶ Ἀντωνίνου·] | [μεθʼ] ἕτερα τὸ ἀνῆκον μέρος ‘From the replies (given by) the deified Severus and Antoninus; after other matters, the relevant part...’. [Nörr 1981b : 4-5].


The word ἀπόκριμα seems to suggest a close parallel with decretum, and from a juridical perspective it may correspond to the Latin responsum [Turpin 1981 : 106-107; Lewis 1999]. On the one hand, according to [Turpin 1981 : 146], “it was an oral decision, given in open court, after the emperor had listened to litigants presenting their case”; on the other, [Nörr 1981a : 582-192] does not recognize ἀπόκριμα as a technical term.


As for the ὑπογραφή, it is possible that, at some point, only the subscription was posted, without the text of the original petition [Nörr 1981b : 20]. Officials may have also produced certified copies, as suggested by the presence of a fragment written in the chancery style [30329 III CE, Oxyrhynchus].


Most of the evidence available for the province of Egypt dates from the visit of emperor Septimius Severus in 199/200 CE [Papathomas 2000 : 130], with cross-references to [Oliver 1989 : 9-10]. We do not possess any original petition with its subscription, but only copies made on the basis of the posting. In one case, three separate copies of a same reply quote Septimius Severus’ decision several decades after his visit [23660 ca. 229-237 CE, Talao (Oxyrhynchite nome), an addition to the list drafted by [Papathomas 2000], i.e. [15984 229-235 CE, Oxyrhynchus; 21815 236-237 CE, Sinkepha (Oxyrhynchite nome)].


It is not clearly established if, in the case of the hearings in Alexandria, the replies were given by the emperor in Latin or Greek [Nörr 1981a : 600-601]. The emperor no doubt was assisted by a team of jurists, and the precise wording must have been crafted by subordinates [Turpin 1981 : 101]. In all likelihood, the original reply was formulated in Latin, but the subscriptions posted for all to see were Greek translations, or else they would have been useless to most petitioners. Moreover, whereas many rescripts in Latin appear in the Corpus Juris Civilis (CJ), no Latin copy of a subscription is preserved on papyrus.



The structure of subscriptions is straightforward:


Several subscriptions appear on a single sheet of papyrus [20363 200 CE, Oxyrhynchus]. The subscription may be copied together with the text of a petition as supporting evidence [23660; 9197 ca. 215 CE, Arsinoite nome; 15984 229-235 CE, Oxyrhynchus; 19394 ca. 223 CE, Moirai (Hermopolite nome)]. It is also found together with a [report of official proceedings (Roman); 18669 ca. 217 CE, Hermopolis].



No original subscription is preserved and it is therefore not possible to determine a consistent format for the sheet. In a fashion similar to [report of official proceedings (Roman)], the copies are usually made by trained scribes [22552 200 CE, Oxyrhynchus; 20201; 23660; 14250].


The text may run in the direction of fibres [23660], or across the fibres [20201].



The first line of the emperor’s titulature may be set in ekthesis [9197; 18669]. When several quoted subscriptions are copied on a single sheet, each is displayed in a separate paragraph [21670], with the applicant’s name in ekthesis [14250]. A paragraphos may also be used to separate the text of subscription from other contents [19394].


How to Cite

Ferretti, L., Fogarty, S., Nury, E., Schubert, P. Description of Greek Documentary Papyri: Report of Imperial Decision. grammateus project. DOI: 10.26037/yareta:ofmdpzbibnclbn6zf3rwi25i3e