Notaries in Ancient Greece, 360 BC
In Ancient Greece, there were several types of public officials in Greek city-states who performed document writing, witnessing and record keeping duties. They were early notaries, and their practices were later adopted under the Roman Empire.
Aristotle, a Greek philosopher, student of Plato at the School of Athens, and teacher of Alexander the Great, mentioned in 360 BC, in Classical Greece, there were “public officials charged with drafting the citizens’ contracts“.
Image Credit: Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), at the School of Athens, by Italian painter Raffaello Sanzio (Raphael) in 1509 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The earliest predecessors of modern notaries were in Ancient Greece and Rome, where notary functions were dispersed among different officials. Notaries kept a register, for documents from private contracts to international conventions.
Singraphos and Apographos
The Greek officials mentioned by Aristotle were known as singraphos and apographos.
The singraphos were regarded as true notaries, whose main function was to keep a public register. They were very common in the city of Athens. Contracts were not granted if not recorded in the public register held by them. Each tribe had two singraphos, who were more confined to the gentile family. They enjoyed great consideration and honor.
There were also other officials who appear to be predecessors of the modem notary. The mnemonics, also known as Promnemon Sympromnemon, were “in charge of formalizing and registering public treaties and conventions and private contracts.“
But, there is incomplete information about the full functions of each of these professions in Ancient Greece. This leads to debate among scholars. Conclusions about their contributions appear to be mostly anecdotal.
Many Greeks stored wealth in gold and silver coins. They created accounts to loan money to merchants who could earn a profit, and received interest in return. Lending was accompanied in different cities by various ceremonies. A primary element was to secure witnesses to the transaction, to prevent the borrower from later denying the loan.
Sometimes the loan contract was made in the presence of a notary, appointed by the State. More often, it was made before witnesses chosen by the parties.
Alexander the Great in Egypt, 333 BC
Macedonian king Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 333 BC. He created a new capital in Alexandria, bringing a Greek government into power for a thousand years, until the Arab invasion in 640 AD.
The Macedonian dynasty of the Ptolemies (meaning “aggressive, warlike”), ruled from the Greek city of Alexandria, until 30 BC, when the Romans gained control.
All fourteen kings of this dynasty were called Ptolemy, numbered by modern historians I to XV (Ptolemy VII never reigned). The dynasty included seven queens named Cleopatra (meaning “glory of the father”).
Greek notaries came to Egypt during this time. The Greek influence extended east across Alexander’s Empire to India.
The English name Egypt is derived from the ancient Greek word for the country, Aígyptos. Pharaoh comes from the Greek word pharaô, from the ancient Egyptian word for Great House or palace of the king.
Rosetta Stone, 196 BC
Some Egyptian scribes took Greek names and learned to write Greek. There were Greek notaries and Egyptian notaries during the Ptolemy reign. The Rosetta Stone, issued in 196 BC, contains a decree by Ptolemy V, written in Egyptian hieroglyphs, demotic script and Greek.
The discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 provided critical missing information, needed by scholars to decipher the Ancient Egyptian language and hieroglyphic script, by using the Greek translation.
Codification of Laws
Dates found in notarial contracts and tax receipts help to reconstruct events. Law and governance served to provide legitimacy and to extract taxes. The Ptolemy reign codified and clarified Pharaonic law, which applied to native Egyptians. Greeks fell under a form of Greek law, and cities, strongholds of the immigrant nobility and royalty, fell under royal law.
Early Ptolemaic contracts required sixteen witnesses, and often required that witnesses transcribe a copy of the contract. More witnesses and more copies made it easier to tax transactions. Earlier Egyptian contracts required four to eight witnesses.
The people grew tired of these excessive witness measures. In 200 BC, the witness copy procedure was abandoned, due to the rise of state notaries. Contracts were required to be notarized, aiding the taxation on the transaction.
Recording of contracts had a long history, back to Pharaonic times. Copies of important documents were deposited into state archives. On certain Greek contracts and other documents, red stamps were used to acknowledge receipt for recording.
Notaries, agoranomoi in Greek, are evidenced by documents issued from the nomarchy (regional government) of Pathyris and its capital, Krokodilopolis.
Migration of Greek Law
The influence of Ancient Greece and Greek law and notaries affected Egypt, Rome, the Mediterranean region and across Alexander the Great’s Empire.
Modern maritime law originated from the maritime court on the Greek Isle of Rhodes near Turkey. The law code traveled to the Holy Land and then to France and England during the Crusades, spreading far and wide, and has lasted for centuries on the seas.
- School of Athens (cropped to show students writing), 1511 fresco by Italian painter Raphael [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
2. Egyptian Pyramids, by Ricardo Liberato (All Gizah Pyramids) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
3. Map of Ptolemaic Empire, 200 BC by Thomas Lessman (Contact!) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
4. Colossus of Rhodes, by gravure sur bois de Sidney Barclay numérisée Google [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons