Patrick Sänger

Patrick Sänger (University of Vienna): “Associations in Ptolemaic Egypt: A Sociopolitical Typology”


In the older scholarship on Hellenistic Egypt, the purpose of the Ptolemaic institution of politeuma (“polity”), a kind of association, was thought to be to separate non-Egyptian (pseudo-)ethnic groups from the indigenous population and grant certain rights to the former. This anxiety to distinguish Egyptians from non-Egyptians was regarded as one of the main principles of Ptolemaic domestic policy. More recent scholars, however, have denied that politeumata (or indeed any other associations) had such a function. At the same time, the population categories observable in Ptolemaic Egypt have now been systematically investigated, with the result that these occupational and/or ethnic categories have come to be understood as a basic feature of Ptolemaic fiscal and social policy: they were the fundamental elements of an individual’s status, but did not imply membership in a specific association. Deprived by the march of scholarship of the function previously attributed to some of them, the associations formed by various groups now warrant a fresh look, examining both their relationship to the various Ptolemaic population categories and the details of their internal arrangements. Was the association-together of ethnic or other groups in fact actively or passively promoted by the Ptolemies? A typology of the different types of associations might help to define their function and significance—along with their economic functions and role in networks—more clearly.

In this context we need to know what associations already existed in Egypt before the Ptolemies, and which organisations emerged in Ptolemaic times. Is it appropriate, furthermore, to apply terms such as “public,” “private,” “official” or “unofficial” to define different kinds of association?

In sum, this paper seeks to create a typology of associations in Ptolemaic Egypt by characterising their similarities and differences. This systematic approach will cover occupational and ethnic associations, including synagogues, formal and informal clubs, politeumata, and gymnasia, illuminate the origin of these organisations, and—building on the work of San Nicolo, Clarysse, and Thompson—take a first step towards revaluating this important aspect of Hellenistic social and legal history.


Selected bibliography:

San Nicolò, M. (1972 = 1913, 1915) Ägyptisches Vereinswesen zur Zeit der Ptolemäer und Römer. 2 vols. (Münchener Beiträge 2), 2nd ed., Munich (hitherto the only monograph on associations in Greco-Roman Egypt; first published 1913 [vol. 1] and 1915 [vol. 2]).


Taubenschlag, R. (1955) The Law of Greco-Roman Egypt in the Light of the Papyri: 332 B.C.–640 A.D., 2nd ed., Warsaw, pp. 9–11. (representative of and summarising the older literature).


Mélèze Modrzejewski, J. (1966) “La règle de droit dans l’Égypte ptolémaïque,” in: Essays in Honor of Bradford Welles (American Studies in Papyrology 1), New Haven, esp. pp. 142–149. (arguing decisively against the old politeuma-theory).

Clarysse, W. and Thompson, D. J. (2006) Counting the People in Hellenistic Egypt, Volume 2: Historical Studies. Cambridge 2006. (the standard work on the Ptolemaic fiscal policy).

Monson, A. (2006) “The Ethics and Economics of Ptolemaic Religious Associations,” Ancient Society 36, 221–238. (focusing on economic aspects and network analysis).

%d bloggers like this: