A town council in Egypt during Roman domination. One of the features that set Egypt apart from other Roman provinces was the scarcity of towns (in the legal sense of the term) and the peculiar status of the metropoleis, the nome capitals. The latter, literally “mother cities,” while including the designation polis (city), were in fact different from the Greek polis as well as from the Roman municipium (town) at least as far as their legal status was concerned. The Egyptian metropolis did not enjoy the paraphernalia the traditional Greek polis had preserved even in the period of the Roman empire, among them the town council (boule), one of the most important and typical polis institutions (see GREEK TOWNS IN EGYPT).

Nor did the agencies of the Egyptian metropolis have administrative competence over the nome territory. But the Greek cities of Egypt (Ptolemais, Antinoopolis) were there to remind the citizens of the nome capitals of their inferior status and of the desirability of a change. This change came about in 200 when the emperor Septimius Severus not only conceded the boule to Alexandria but upgraded the nome capitals by granting them the boule as well (for the chronology, see Lewis, 1982, pp. 78f.; for the boule of Alexandria, see GREEK TOWNS IN EGYPT).

The reasons for this move are not on record, and various explanations can be thought of. As for the prerequisites of this change, we are on firmer ground: the metropoleis, long considered “villages” (komai) by Roman law, had in fact fulfilled in the past many functions of urban centers, thus well deserving the label metropolis, because they were the political, economic, social, and religious focus of their respective nomes. The gap between the nome capitals and the rare Greek cities of Egypt had long been narrowed as many metropolitans had been hellenized (in some respects) in the course of the general evolution of Roman Egypt, and not least so under the influence of the metropolitan elite, the gymnasial class, which was or professed to be of Greek stock.

Notwithstanding the accretion of honor and prestige, the of the metropolitan boule proved at best a mixed blessing. The boule had no legislative authority; its activity was restricted to routine business and to the administrative handling of the requirements imposed by the central state authorities. Financial supervision and the collection of taxes were among the boule‘s main attributions. As a rule, members of the boule (bouleutai) were not trained officials, a factor that, under the prevailing conditions, partly accounted for the failure of the boule as an administrative unit (this aspect is stressed by Bowman, 1971, p. 126f.).

We do not know whether all metropoleis had the same number of bouleutai (probably not), nor do we know the exact number of bouleutai in any given metropolis ( 100 in Oxyrhynchus). Upon entrance into the boule, each new member had to pay a fee (the honoraria). It amounted to 10,000 drachmae, clearly an important sum only the wealthiest among the metropolitans could afford. Membership in the boule was for life; its presidency was limited to one year. Bouleutai normally were male adults, but this situation changed when the gradual reduction of the bouleutic class made it desirable to include women and to retain hold of their property for public service (see the case of Gabrielia, below).

After the president, the secretary and the treasurer of the council fund were important members of the boule. Besides managing finances and tax collection, the town council ran the local administration, appointing and supervising the liturgical officials. In its turn, the boule was under the tight control of the central state authorities, represented in the first place by the nome strategos (general) residing virtually next door to the council’s meeting place (bouleuterion) in the metropolis.

With the deterioration of general conditions in the second half of the third century (foreign wars, usurpations, economic difficulties), municipal magistracies became a heavy burden that ruined many of their holders and provoked abandonment of functions, family, and town (). Toward the end of the third century, the general political and economic crisis led to a far-reaching reorganization of the Roman empire. As a consequence, state supervision increased at every level, especially in the municipalities, where the boulai had clearly become unable to fulfill their responsibilities.

Bowman (1976,P. 166) reaches “the conclusion that an important change occurred during the first decade of the fourth century, as a result of which the councils lost much of their power; this was thereafter vested in a board of officials, the most important of whom was the logistes (auditor) drawn from the rank of the council but with direct responsibility to the central government. In effect, this was an admission of the failure of the Severan reform, which attempted to decentralize by creating the councils in order to relieve some of the government officials of the responsibility for local administration.”

In Byzantine Egypt, the bouleutai (actual members of the boule) and the politeuomenoi (curiales, members of the ordo curialis [curial rank] but not of the boule proper) became mere instruments of the state administration and above all of tax collection. Their activity encompassed the whole nome territory. The boule continued to exist throughout the Byzantine period and politeuomenoi still occurred in Egypt during the first century of Arab domination (Fikhman, 1974, p. 63). The tendency to escape from the heavy burdens of the bouleutic class was checked by imperial decisions tying the politeuomenoi—that is, their property—to their status obligations (Rouillard; Fikhman, 1974 and 1976).

The reduction of the bouleutic class led to a widening of the social gap and to cumulation of offices, as shown by a document from 553 (Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Vol. 36, no. 2780), in which a woman, the patrician Gabrielia, holds not only the presidency of the town council but also the positions of logistes (curator civitatis, curator of the city) and pater poleos (father of the city). These municipal offices had only nominal character compared with the status of the great houses (oikoi) and their influence on public affairs in Byzantine Egypt (see Gascou for a different view about the oikoi).


  • Bowman, A. K. The Town Councils of Roman Egypt. American Studies in Papyrology 11. Toronto, 1971. This is the standard work on the subject with comprehensive bibliography of earlier research.
  •  _. “Papyri and Roman Imperial History, 1960-75.” Journal of Roman Studies 66 (1976):153-73.
  • Drew-Bear, M. “Les Archives du conseil municipal d’Hermoupolis Magna.” In Atti del XVII Congresso internazionale di papirologia, Vol. 3, pp. 807-813. Naples, 1984. Interesting for the connection among athleticism, membership in the boule, and relations between Hermopolis and the outside world, not least with Rome and the imperial court.
  • Gascou, J. “Les Grands domaines, la cité et l’état Egypte byzantine (Recherches d’histoire agraire, fiscale et administrative).” Travaux et Mémoires 9 (1985):1-90.
  • Jones, A. H. M. The Later Roman Empire, 284-602. A Social, Economic, and Administrative Survey, 2 vols. Cambridge, 1964.
  •  _. The Cities of the Eastern Roman Provinces, 2nd ed., esp. pp. 327-48. Oxford, 1971.
  • Lallemand, J. L’Administration civile de l’Egypte de l’avènement de Dioclétien à la création du diocèse (284- 382). Contribution à l’étude des rapports entre l’Egypte et l’Empire a la fin du IIIe et au IVe siècle. Brussels, 1964.
  • Lewis, N. “Notationes Legentis.” Bulletin of the American Society of Papryologists 19 (1982):71-82.
  •  _. Life in Egypt Under Roman Rule, pp. 36-64. Oxford, 1983.
  • Rouillard, G. L’Administration civile de l’Egypte byzantine, 2nd ed., pp. 62-74. Paris, 1928.
  • Wegener, E. P. “The βουλή and the Nomination to the α̉ρχαί in the μετρόπολεις of Roman Egypt.” In Textes et études de papyrologie grecque, démotique et copte, ed. P. W. Pestman, pp. 62-114. Papyrologica Lugduno-Batava 23. Leiden, 1985.
  • Work, K. A. “φενόμενος βουλειτής.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 30 (1978):239-44.