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.
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.