In 537 CE, emperor Justinian ordered all officials charged with drawing up documents and all notaries of the Eastern provinces to have their dating formulas comply to a format that named him and his successors first. Egyptian scribes were used to a different system. Did the scribes pay heed to this imperial instruction? In this blogpost, we look at the speed of the implementation of this Justinianic instruction in the provinces. First, we turn our attention to how scribes used to count regnal years in Egypt. Then we dive into Justinian’s reform in more detail, after which we return to papyri from Egypt. We end with a short excursion outside of Egypt, to test whether it is justified to draw more general conclusions from the known Egyptian situation.
In Egypt, scribes tended to count the first regnal year of an emperor from the day of his accession until the Egyptian new year’s day, the 1st day of Thoth, 29 August (Bagnall & Worp 2004: 43). For Hadrian, to name just one example, this meant that the first year of his rule lasted from 8 August 117 until 29 August 117, not even one month (Sijpesteijn & Worp 1978: 239 n.3). The regnal year of an emperor was, in other words, not counted as the 365 days between the day of the emperor’s accession, his dies imperii, but in civil years according to the Egyptian calendar, from 1 Thoth to 1 Thoth, starting in the year of his accession.
In the sixth century, the emperor Justinian tried to reform the ways in which the officials and notaries of his realm dated documents. While placing himself in a long illustrious line of Aeneas ‘King of Troy and Prince of the Republic’, Romulus, Numa Pompilius and Augustus, Justinian ordered all scribes of the Empire to date documents in the following way: “The year of the reign of the most holy and august emperor”, followed by consul of that year, the indiction, the month and the day (Nov. 47). Cities that, according to local traditions, used to count years in local eras, often starting at the day of their independence, were still allowed to do so. Scribes could add it after the prescribed formula. Askalon in the First Eparchy of Palestine, for example, was one of the cities that had such a system.
Justinian’s justification for his reform, according to the novella’s text, was not increased efficiency thanks to the standardisation of dating formulas, but the surety that the name of the emperor would become immortal like that of Augustus. He also wanted every official document to be a reminder of the Empire. Justinian, furthermore, made clear one had to count a regnal year from the day of accession until the next day of accession, as had long been the normal practices in most provinces apart from Egypt.
As Bagnall and Worp have already established, dating by regnal years virtually disappeared in Egypt from 337 AD onwards, except for in the Herakleopolite and Oxyrhynchite nomes, where it persisted until the end of the fourth century (Bagnall & Worp 2004: 45). Oxyrhynchus developed its own Era based on counting post-mortem regnal years (Bagnall & Worp 2004: 56-58). The first known papyrus that contains the ‘correct’ Justinianic formula is P. Harris 2.238 from 539, but ‘wrong’ formulas keep occurring for a long time afterwards. During Justinian’s reign, the provinces of Arkadia and the Thebaid developed distinctive interpretations of the Justinianic prescription as they used two different regnal formulas: one calling the emperor ‘most holy’ (in the Thebaid) and the other calling him ‘most holy and most pious’ (in Arkadia) (Bagnall & Worp 2004: 47). Soon after, more variations come into use, of which Bagnall and Worp provide an overview (Bagnall & Worp 2004: 48-54).
A quick look at a non-Egyptian papyrological dossier from Nessana, Palestina, shows Justinian’s novella was implemented in a different way in this formerly Nabatean city. In 537, the year the emperor issued his novella, we see how the year of the Bostran Era follows the consulate without any mention of the emperor in P. Ness. 1.3. In 566 (P. Ness. 3.22), 569 (P. Ness. 3.24), and 570 (P. Ness. 3.26), approximately thirty years after novella 47, the Bostran Era is consistently inserted between emperor, regnal year and consulate on the one hand and month and day number on the other. Justinian’s instructions were to add local dating customs after month and day number. Papyri from Nessana provide us with only a snapshot of society in the Negev and the province of Arabia Petraea. Nevertheless, it is remarkable to see yet another local reception of imperial legislation.
Variations are minimal, but as we see provinces and regions develop their own ways of implementing imperial legislation regarding dating formulas, inside and outside Egypt, we can plausibly conclude that dating formulas bear witness to a glocalised reception of Justinian’s intructions in (at least) the Eastern provinces. Glocalisation is the adaptation, or rather local translation, of global phenomena according to local custom. To what extent this was the case for other legislation remains to be seen. The fact that something as relatively insignificant for the lives of people as a dating formula cannot escape the influence of local tradition begs the question of how Justinianic law was received regarding topics more imbued with tradition and with a larger impact in the private sphere, such as inheritance.