Post-pharaonic law is widely known through the papyri. But, although we often speak of “papyrus law”, this should not be considered as a unitary system, carried out according to its own development laws: the main interest of papyrological studies is instead in the possibility of comparing the different legal requirements of individual nationalities. and to observe the reciprocal receptions and contaminations.
In the Ptolemaic age (332-31 BC), the indigenous people retained their own courts and notaries, and therefore their right: for the use of the judges they drafted massimarî, such as the one mentioned in the trial of Hermias (pap. Taur. 1) or like the other, kept in the Munich Library, of which Spiegelberg has recently traced the fragments. Less uniform was the law of the Greeks: alongside the laws of Naucrati (founded by the Milesi in the VII century) those of Alexandria arose, in the form of edicts and decrees (διαγράμματα, προστάγματα) of the king (we know many of them, especially through the collection contained in the famous Halle papyrus, the so-called δικαιώματα): later, Ptolemais, founded in the century. III a. C., had all the typical organs of πόλις, and therefore autonomy; but also the military colonists lived by the Greeks (κληροῦχοι, and among them in the front line the κάτοικοι), settled by the Ptolemies in the various districts, and at least in the Fayyūm fictitiously connected to a city (Arsinoe) in whose neighborhoods each one considered himself domiciled. However, the rules in force among the Greeks tended towards unification: while Naucrati was reduced to a hamlet, the laws given in Alexandria were often imitated in Ptolemais, and the same was the tendency of the κάτοικοι, who initially did not have in common due to the variety of origin if not the fundamental ideas recurring throughout the Greek world. But Egypt also had other residents: some special rules were in force among the descendants of the Persians, once lords of the country (Πέρσαι τώς ἐκιγονής), and the Jews had a right of their own, numerous and combative especially in the capital. Mutual influences, maxims of Greek law over Egyptian, are not lacking: state supervision over real estate transfers tends to bring the regimes of sale and marriage closer together, and the need to translate into Greek – for the purposes of public registrations and for the judgment of mixed courts – demotic contracts sometimes succeeds in inserting the practical ends of the indigenous people into the Greek juridical categories: on the other hand, the strong economic prevalence of the rulers and the tendency of the few wealthy indigenous people to ape them chases the Egyptians more and more in the shadows, the whose customs – even if kept in the lower strata – are less and less documented.
All this is reflected, as mentioned, in the jurisdiction: the judicial power of the king, to which the parties often resort directly, is more often exercised through the permanent Egyptian (λαοκρίται) or Greek (χρηματισταί) or mixed (κοινδίκια) courts; but the competence of the crematists gradually extends to all the trials: in addition, the Greek cities have their own courts, and the district officials (στρατηγοί) are often invoked as justices of the peace, whose decision the parties most often abide by.
The Roman conquerors did not care about their rights in the first centuries except for the relations between them; on the contrary, they allow the pre-existing ethnic differentiations to exist (as can be seen from that very important maxim which is the γνώμων of ἴδιος λόγος), deepening from the political and administrative point of view the detachment between Egyptians and Greeks and confirming the prohibitions of marriage. But the notariat and the courts unify: the Greek agoranomas soon become the drafters of each contract, while the jurisdiction is formally centralized in the prefect and his delegates, such as the iuridicus Alexandreae and district strategists and epistrategists. This unification, as well as the growing decline of the indigenous population, accelerate the formation of a unitary system, which is generally Greek although it has absorbed various local elements and although traditional preferences find frequent expression in the multiplicity of institutions aiming at similar purposes. This is the law we call Greek-Egyptian: the Roman governors, at least from the time of Trajan, designated it as “the law of the Egyptians” (νόμος τῶν Αἰγυπτίων).
The Caracallian constitution of 212, which gave all subjects Roman citizenship, and of which a very incomplete Giessen papyrus (pap. Giss. 40) has preserved the Greek translation, radically transformed the situation, making Roman law the common norm. The phases of the struggle between imperial law and local law, which began at this point, were described as early as 1891 in an admirable work by Mitteis; but the papyri subsequently published have specified its aspects institution by institution. As was natural, provincials rarely practiced openly institutions contrary to imperial law: more often they resisted passively, giving a Roman form to the practical content of their law. The emperors opposed both tendencies in the early days (in principle, up to the whole reign of Diocletian), then the compromise became frequent: Hellenistic and oriental institutes were accepted in the Roman law of decadence, and more fundamental juridical negotiations, such as stipulation and tradition, degenerated in such a way as to satisfy, even under the aegis of the ancient name, the aspirations of the provincials. Therefore post-classical and Byzantine Roman law, as we know it through the more recent layers of the Justinian compilation, was called Roman-Hellenic law.
Moreover, although the Justinian law is at the basis of the papyri of the century. VI and VII and resist in part even after the Arab conquest (year 641), it is not to say that you will always find full membership. The decline of Greek civilization had brought the indigenous population back to the fore, and with it certain juridical currents of which trace had been lost after the first decades of the Common Era. In spite of repeated condemnations, these currents manage to prevail in practice.
The importance that the exploitation of soil fertility had for all the lords of Egypt made the problem of possessions fundamental. The Ptolemaic solution, that the whole earth belonged to the king, coincided not only with the pharaonic system, but also with the Greek construction (see, for example, Strabo, XI, 3, 6), according to which one of the differences between the city-states and territorial kingdoms was in considering the private citizens or the king respectively as the owners of the land. In Egypt private individuals are simple concessionaires of a more or less limited enjoyment: almost equivalent to private property for garden, orchard or building land (γῆ ἰδιόκτητος), for which no other limit is in force than the tax; perhaps also exempt from this limit, but precarious and revocable, for estates assigned to ministers and favorites, γῆ ἐν δωρεᾳ (like the estate of Apollonius minister of Ptolemy Philadelphus, well known to us through the correspondence of the factor Zeno); strictly personal for the lands of military settlers (γῆ κατοικική), whose hereditary transmissibility was hardly recognized, while among the living they were transmitted only with a pretense of subrogation for non-fulfillment of tax obligations; reduced to mere rent (μίσϑωσις) for the sowing land that is divided among the “colonists of the king”, with rewards in money or in kind, commensurate with the actual pipeline or a hypothetical production, in small plots corresponding to the working capacity of a family or in large plots intended for subletting. The situation did not change in Roman times, patrimonia (? οὐσίαι), assigned to members of the imperial family or to favorites, but returned to the emperor in the age of Nero while retaining a separate budget for some decades. The rent of the land for sowing, in large and small plots, is still the rule, indeed in periods of greatest famine, forced rent is used, and individual groups of small farmers are aggregated wealthy subjects who respond in a subsidiary way to the tribute: this is the time in which the peasants are forced, under the imposition of severe penalties, to stay in their respective villages. An expansion of private possessions is determined, from the century. IV onwards, through the patrocinium that the harassed peasants ask the potentiores, capable of defending them from the excessive claims of the state: this contrasts you for a long time, but in 415 Honorius and Theodosius capitulate, arranging (Cod. Th., XI, 24, 6) that the lands already given in patronage remain to the new lords and legitimizing so the serfdom (v. colonato). In the Byzantine age, powerful families, such as that of the Apioni in Ossirinco, had the territory and the population of entire villages or groups of villages: the territory of direct relevance to the state in the so-called public streets (μητροκομίαι) and the one on of donations and wills flowed to churches and monasteries.