Liturgical oath


  1. Structure
  2. Format
  3. Layout

A liturgical oath was required from every individual who had been nominated to a liturgical office [nomination to liturgy] and then notified of their appointment [approval of nomination] [Lewis 1997 : 84].


[Seidl 1933 : 76-80] makes a distinction between two kinds of oaths: on the one hand, those that merely assert a fact, e.g. an oath denying the embezzlement of agricultural products [110153 34 CE, Ptolemais Melissurgon (Arsinoite nome); 128303 254 CE, Oxyrhynchus]; on the other hand, pledges to act according to a prescription, such as undertaking a liturgy. The technical word used in this context to designate the oath is χειρογραφία, ‘written testimony’ [Seidl 1933 : 132-135] [18342 208 CE, nome of Arabia], to be distinguished from χειρόγραφον ‘hand-written contract’.


The oath was the final stage in the nomination process. In the oath, which was addressed to the strategos, the nominee pledged that he would dutifully perform his compulsory public service. Several copies of the oath were produced, e.g. [16555 277 CE, Oxyrhynchus] which has three copies, one written completely in the hand of the liturgist himself; one was presumably kept among official records, pasted in a τόμος συγκολλήσιμος [78601; 78602 both 288 CE, Herakleopolite nome]. At the end of a [letter of condolence] the text of an oath is quoted [17411 235 CE, Oxyrhynchus]; this is presumably an exceptional case.


A list of liturgical oaths is provided by [Lewis 1997 : 117]. A few more have appeared since [79121 138-161 CE; 15806 139 CE; 15200 182-184 CE, both Oxyrhynchus; 30053 III CE; 78602], but they offer little new information. A clear definition of the category of liturgical oaths is difficult to establish. For instance, an oath [12074 24 CE, Arsinoite nome] by ἀφεσιοφύλακες (sluice guards) is discounted by [Lewis 1997 : 117, n. 1], who does not consider ἀφεσιοφυλακία as a liturgy at so early a date. It should, however, be noted that: a) although the wording of [12074] suggests ἀφεσιοφυλακία only indirectly, the word itself is attested elsewhere [13157 182-184 CE, Oxyrhynchus]; b) in its formulation, the oath found in [12074] closely resembles liturgical oaths stricto sensu; c) this quasi-liturgical oath precedes liturgical oaths stricto sensu by one century and originates from the Arsinoite nome, which is otherwise poorly represented.


Moreover, there exists a second group of liturgical oaths, namely those sworn by the guarantors presented to vouch for the nominees. A scribal model for this type of document is to be found in [27285 II-III CE, Arsinoite nome]. This may be done by simply adding a signature at the bottom of the nominee’s own oath [16555], or by producing a separate document containing the guarantor’s oath [9655 96 CE, 9656 205 CE, both Arsinoite nome; 16554 253-254 CE, Oxyrhynchus].


In this respect, [15806] constitutes a singular case where three steps of the procedure are recorded in a sequence: in the first column, a sworn declaration by an individual who was nominated to the service of village scribe (κωμογραμματεύς); in the second, the sworn guarantee provided by the person vouching for the nominee; and in the third, a guarantee given by the village elders (πρεσβύτεροι) to produce the nominee if required.


Liturgical oaths stricto sensu are attested from ca. 130 CE [23906 Hermopolis (?)]; the latest cases date from 303 CE [15231, 16556 both Oxyrhynchus]. Among the several dozens of preserved liturgical oaths, more than half – and most of the best-preserved documents – come from the Oxyrhynchite nome. Other nomes are represented (Small Oasis [21536 212 CE], Hermopolite [17503 221 CE; 22366 261 CE], Herakleopolite [20184 180-192 CE], Memphite [31834 212-214 CE], Arabia [22547 183 CE]); liturgical oaths from the Arsinoite nome are conspicuously scarce [13007 156 CE; 41438 180-193 CE] and badly preserved.



Liturgical oaths follow a regular pattern. The [type of liturgy] is sometimes inscribed in the top margin [15976 225 CE; 20741 244-245 CE, both Oxyrhynchus], after which the opening starts with:


[to strategos <dat.>] [19099 175 CE, Oxyrhynchite nome; 15976; 22459 207 CE, Oxyrhynchite nome ; 16555; 21582 212-213 CE, Oxyrhynchus]


An exception is to be found in [17503], which has a typical letter opening, with χαίρειν. The names of nominees are sometimes followed by identifiers (age, scars etc.) [19099; 15806]. The list of nominees can be quite long [15987 253-256 CE, Oxyrhynchus].


The nominee then indicates to what liturgy he has been appointed, e.g. εἰσδοθεὶς ὑπὸ τοῦ τῶν [τ]όπων κωμογρ(αμματέως) εἰς νομοφυλακίαν ‘having been appointed by the village secretary to the nome police’ [22459, l.4-6].


This is followed by the oath, starting with ὀμνύω ‘I swear’. The emphatic particles ἦ μήν, which often introduce oaths in the Classical period, are not used (exception : [12074, l.15] an atypical oath of guarantors, dating from 24 CE). The nominee swears by the emperor himself [21618 138 CE, Oxyrhynchite nome], or by the emperor’s τύχη ‘destiny’ [15976; 31834] [Seidl 1933 : 23-32].


In the oath proper, the nominee takes a pledge that he will undertake the task (χρεία) that has been attributed to him [22459]. This is often emphasized by a pair of adverbs, e.g. ἀδιαλείπτως καὶ ἀμέμπτως ‘without any interruption or blame’ [31834], πιστῶς καὶ ἐπιμελῶς ‘trustfully and with care’ [19981 138-161 CE], ὑγιῶς καὶ πιστῶς ‘in a healthy and reliable way’ [15976].


The nominee is made accountable for his oath, with the formula ἢ ἔνοχος εἴην τῷ ὅρκῳ ‘or let me be bound my oath’, presumably a curse against perjury [Seidl 1933 : 121] [21618; 19981; 22459; 15976].


He then provides the name of one or several guarantors, e.g. [22547 l.19-20] παρέσχ̣ον δὲ ἐμαυτοῦ ἐν[γυ]ητήν ‘I have provided as my guarantor...’, and the guarantor himself states after his own signature (l.30-31), ἐνγυῶμαι αὐτόν ‘I vouch for him’. See also [31834; 16010 237 CE, Oxyrhynchus].


The oath usually closes with a [date@end] and a [signature] [16555]. In a document from the Arsinoite nome, a notary (νομογράφος) writes on behalf of the nominee, who cannot write [13007]. In [22547] the guarantor vouches for the liturgist, but also signs on the latter’s behalf.


A short summary is sometimes inscribed on the back of the document [22459, 21582].



Given the uneven geographical distribution of well-preserved liturgical oaths, it is easier to describe the format of documents from the Oxyrhynchite nome [15976] (which also seems to correspond to that of the nome of Arabia [22547], the Memphite [31834] and – not invariably – Hermopolite nome [22366]). Oxyrhynchite liturgical oaths conform to the demotic style format, also prevalent among other documents pertaining to liturgy [nomination to liturgy, approval of nomination]. This format consists of a long and narrow vertical sheet (ca. H. 30 x W. 10cm), with the writing following the direction of fibres. The scribe does not necessarily use the whole height of the sheet, thus leaving an ample margin at the bottom [21618, 22459].


There are also atypical cases. An oath from Hermopolis (?) was prepared on a squarish sheet [17503]. It was written in the form of a letter addressed to the strategos by an Alexandrian who owns land in the Oxyrhynchite nome. He refers to some help provided to the local authorities in order to collect taxes in kind (ἐβοήθησα πράξας τὸ σ[ι]τικόν), before taking a formal oath to remain in Hermopolis and help. This document was probably prepared by the landowner’s secretary in a format that did not conform to the standard for liturgical oaths.


The above-mentioned oath made by sluice guards [12074 24 CE, Tebtunis], discounted by [Lewis 1997 : 117, n. 1], displays a shape typical in the Arsinoite nome, following the pagina format (H. 26 x W. 13cm).



Given the state of preservation of liturgical oaths, the layout can be described only for documents from the Oxyrhynchite nome. By extension, this seems to apply also to the Memphite nome [31834] and to the nome of Arabia [22547].


Liturgical oaths are written in one block of writing [21618]; in some cases, the initial address to the strategos is highlighted by a small line spacing [22459] and a second line in eisthesis [15976, 16554]. There can also be a space between the date and the main text [15976, 16554].


In the special case of [12074] (see above), the text was also written in one block, except for a space between the oath and the signature.


How to Cite

Ferretti, L., Fogarty, S., Nury, E., Schubert, P. Description of Greek Documentary Papyri: Liturgical Oath. grammateus project. DOI: 10.26037/yareta:7buhk2uru5bgtiwo4mq7qmjmmi