Szegedi Tudományegyetem, Állam- és Jogtudományi Kar Ahol tudás és szándék találkozik

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Legal Documents in the Ancient World

Legal Documents in Ancient Societies


Legal documents have come down to us from many different parts of the ancient world. Students of these documents frequently confront similar questions: How was a legal document drafted? How did an ad hoc formulation develop into an established scheme? How was it transmitted through time? How does it reflect the political, social, cultural and economic settings in which the document was issued? To what extent did inter-cultural contact influence the contents, language, and format of the document? To what extent was the wording of the document affected by the legal, socio-economic, or cultural affiliation of those involved in its composition?

Scholars dealing with ancient documents have all faced these questions, have frequently applied similar methodology, and the solutions they came up with are commonly similar. The organization of academic and scholarly institutions has tended to obscure these similarities across disciplines and has hindered the reaping of full benefit across disciplinary boundaries. The creation of a seminar series called "Documents in Ancient Societies" is intended to confront and overcome these obstacles. This series of seminars is intended as a framework in which scholars can present and apply their methodologies in active collaboration with scholars in other fields. Scholars dealing with the documentation of court proceedings in thirteenth-century BCE Egypt will benefit from a discussion of the methodology applied in the study of proceedings from the Arabic period. Students of the scheme of decrees in the Greek world will be enriched by a presentation relating to the methods applied in the study of this type of document in the Ancient Near East.

A first meeting embodying this approach—"From Sumer to the Genizah—Legal Documents in the Ancient World"—was held at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem between on 11-13 March 2007. One of its results was a shared sense that its agenda needed to be pursued over an extended period and in settings allowing the more detailed and focused exploration of particular document types and topics. Building on this consensus, the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University and Harvard University's Center for Hellenic Studies have joined in supporting this more extended exploration of ancient documents. We look to an open-ended series of encounters, taking place in different locations, on ancient documentation.

The meetings are designed to avoid some of the disadvantages of typical conferences, with their emphasis on presentation of papers with limited discussion. They are meant, rather, for the reading and active discussion of sources and problems in relatively small groups (around a dozen), held once or twice a year, starting from summer 2008. Our first aim is to create a working group of specialists in documentary practices in the ancient world, from which participants in individual meetings will be drawn in a rotating manner. Each meeting will focus on a different subject and bring together participants whose interests are particularly pertinent to that subject. These topics will include not only documentary types (leases, loans, wills, etc.) but cross-cutting problems about the reasons for drawing up documents, archival practices, state interest in documents, publication practices, and the like.

During the months before each meeting, its participants will be divided into three or four sub-groups, each charged with preparing the documents from a particular legal tradition or domain. Members of these subgroups will be assigned a text or texts, which they will be asked to prepare together in advance for the meeting. The subgroups will typically consist of scholars from different places. Its member will 'meet' physically or electronically, depending on circumstances, often in sessions made possible through video conferencing facilities provided by ISAW, CHS, and institutions in Europe and Israel. The workings of the subgroups will be mutually complementary, and together will help to provide a more coherent cross-cultural picture for the larger meeting. These annual or semi-annual meetings will normally involve more than one venue as well, with participants linked in live video conferencing.

This is a new, experimental project, and its details will change and be refined with experience. We hope that you will be willing to join us as a member of the group from which participants in the individual meetings will be drawn. If you are interested in participating, please send me at your earliest convenience a reply giving a sense of the fields and document types that are of greatest interest to you; a current c.v. (and links to any web sites you maintain) would also be helpful. We are particularly concerned to know what topics you would like to see given priority in the planning of meetings.


1. First Meeting: "The Letter" (The American Academy, Rome 2830.9.2008).

In every literate society, writing is used to convey information between two persons who, for geographical reasons, cannot communicate orally. The type of writing used for that purpose — the letter — commonly contains fixed formulae and follows established schemes. Once these schemes take root, the letter can also be applied as a routine means of documentation of official and international correspondence, as well as to bear witness to legal and economic activities. In these spheres, the letter is used not only to convey information between correspondents who are geographically apart, but also as a means of recording and witnessing to the parties' doings when they are present in the same place,

especially whenever the format of a letter is established as a routine means for the documentation of their particular activity.

When did the letter become conventional for the documentation of everyday activities of this sort? Is this a universal phenomenon, evident in all ancient societies? If the answer is no, why did it take root in one society, but not in others? When the letter is established as a routine format for documenting a certain activity, it is rarely the only means of committing that activity to writing: in Ptolemaic Egypt, for example, a contract can take the form of a letter, but also that of a report of a formal declaration before witnesses or state official. In case of multiple options, then, what made the parties record their contract in the form of a letter, and not employ other extant schemes? How did local practices, the social standing and relations of the two parties, cultural considerations, and the costs of each option interact in their decision making? How did the use of the document influence the physical shape of the document (e.g. the length of the lines, the quality of the script)? How was the letter treated by the state? Was its use promoted or repressed, or was the state in general indifferent to these considerations?


2. Second meeting: Washington, Center for Hellenistic Studies, 23-28. July 2009 „Transaction Costs”


3. Third meeting: „Identification in Ancient Legal Documents” Leuven, 23-26. September 2010

For the LDAS session in Leuven and Brussels Mark Depauw is finishing the application to the Flemish Academy.

Planned participants:

Ancient Near East (Démare-Lafont): Sophie Démare-Lafont (general); anonymous (graduate student; specific aspect)

Ancient Egypt (Depauw): Arlette David (general, up to New Kingdom); Mark Depauw (general, Third Intermediate period until rise of Coptic); Sandra Coussement (graduate student Leuven; specific aspect)

Greece (Faraguna): Michele Faraguna (general); E. Maffi (specific aspect: slaves)

Rome (Jakab): Eva Jakab (general); anonymous (graduate student; specific aspect)

Graeco-Roman Egypt (Yiftach): Uri Yiftach (general, Greek); K. Vandorpe (specific aspect: seals); Ido Israelowich (specific aspect: physicians)