A lot of information about the society of Ptolemaic Egypt derives from records on papyri preserved due to the particular climatic conditions in that region of the Hellenistic world. In this way, different aspects of social life in Egypt are revealed, such as the relations of the kings to the lower social classes or with higher administrative officials, or the grievances of individuals against the king. Particularly interesting are the public and, mainly, the private correspondences as well as notarial deeds.

The higher grade of hierarchy was occupied by the king. When the Ptolemies settled in Egypt, they adopted the title of Pharaohs, in order to establish themselves as their descendants in the people's conscience, but also to be accepted by the natives.

Although native Egyptians constituted the larger part of the kingdom's population, immigrants of different nationalities settled there from the beginning of the 3rd century BC. They formed separate groups depending on their nationality -they were often organized into politeumata- and their hierarchy was different from that of the natives. Transition from one group to the other, either to people of a different nationality or to natives, could be ensured only by the king's consent.

Foreigners had certain privileges allotted to them by the king, such as the trial of their cases by special courts, but they were obliged to pay taxes and were liable to the restriction of monopolies. Greeks who lived in cities and rural regions had maintained certain of their institutions, such as the gymnasium, while their legal code had been adopted by the royal administration. Native people had their own courts and often conducted trial proceedings without taking into account the royal orders and regulations.

Greeks and other immigrants who had settled in Egypt could ascend to high military and administrative offices. However, even the less privileged portion of foreigners who were involved in agriculture in the rural regions of the royal land had more chances than local people to acquire landed property. Moreover, in works that were related to tax collection, all settlers occupied high ranks, such as that of the supervisor or the guarantor. Of course, the privileged position of settlers should not be overestimated, since even those who held high positions were dependent on the king.

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Note: Click on the small photo to enlarge it.

01. Papyrus from Egypt, which contains a letter by a worker to his wife. 1st century BC.

02. The Ptolemaic kingdom.

03. Detail from a mosaic from Palestrina, which depicts an idyllic landscape in Egypt. Photo: scene from everyday life of the Egyptians. Ca. 80 BC.