Writing in Graeco-Roman Egypt

The major languages used in Egypt at this time were Egyptian, Greek, and Latin. Egyptian was spoken by the native people living in Egypt, and the language was represented by a variety of scripts. Hieroglyphics were the earliest writing system, used primarily for monumental inscriptions and religious writings. In addition to being inscribed in stone, Hieroglyphics could be written in ink on papyrus, and were sometimes intricately painted in many colors. A faster, cursive form of Hieroglyphics, called Hieratic, came to be used for writing in ink, and this later evolved into a script known as Demotic. Demotic was used until around the 3rd century AD, when it gave way to the Coptic script, which is based on the Greek alphabet.






Greek began to be spoken in Egypt after Alexander the Great conquered the region in 332 BC and installed his generals as the new leaders of Egypt. Because of its widespread use in government, literature, and education, Greek was the most common language to be written down. Many Greek soldiers and merchants came to Egypt and settled there, greatly increasing the number of Greek speaking citizens, and thus, the number of Greek documents. The ancient Greek alphabet was much the same as the modern Greek alphabet, although different types of handwriting evolved over the centuries, and some letter shapes underwent radical transformations. Below are some samples of Greek handwriting from different periods, highlighting the different styles that evolved over the centuries.

Ptolemaic Era
330 BC - 30 BC

Roman Era
30 BC - 300 AD

Byzantine Era
300 AD - 641 AD

After Octavian conquered Egypt in 30 BC, Egypt became part of the Roman Empire. Greek remained the official language of the government, but Latin was spoken and written down under certain circumstances. Latin was used by the Roman military, which maintained a strong presence in Egypt, and by the very highest levels of the government: officials who came from Rome and reported directly to the Emperor. Although the Latin alphabet is very much the same as our alphabet, the cursive handwriting of this time period is very difficult to read, even for some trained papyrologists. Compare the vastly different styles of the Latin book hand and the Latin cursive hand shown below.

Latin Book Hand

Latin Cursive

Continue on to see How the Ancients Used Writing