Writing in Graeco-Roman Egypt

Writing was used for a wide range of purposes in ancient times, just as it is today. Think of how writing can be used today; handwritten notes, newspapers, name tags, graffiti, letters, e-mail, etc. The uses are too many to count. However, papyrologists try to divide the types of writing into three broad categories: Literary, Subliterary, and Documentary.

Literary papyri include works of literature such as the epic poems of Homer or the plays of Aristophanes, as well as religious texts such as the Egyptian Book of the Dead or the Christian Bible. These types of works were generally copied by professional scribes, just as modern books are made by professional printers. The handwriting is usually very neat and the text is written on a freshly manufactured piece of papyrus. The typical format was the papyrus roll, but in later times the codex, which is much like a modern book, became more popular.

Papyrus Roll

Papyrus Codex

Documentary papyri include all manner of personal, government, and business writings. The administration of the government required huge amounts of paper to keep track of tax records, send official letters, record court proceedings, etc. Private citizens also wrote to send letters to friends and family, and businessmen used papyrus to record sales and inventories.

Tax Roll

Private Letter


Some types of texts were written which did not use words at all. In ancient Greek, numbers were represented using the letters of the Greek alphabet. Numbers were important for recording monetary values, as in the tax roll above, and also for scientific work, as in the astronomical table below. The musical papyrus also below uses a unique set of symbols that is especially difficult for scholars to decipher.


Mulitplication Table

Astronomical Table

Musical Notation


Contine on to learn about Literacy in Graeco-Roman Egypt