The main contours of the society, or societies, of Hellenistic and Roman Egypt have been described in a number of works drawing on the rich documentary and archeological material (Lewis 1983; 1986; 1993; Bowman 1986; Bagnall 1993; Ballet 1999). Striking though the finds from Kellis are, they are not voluminous enough to alter that picture significantly, and indeed much of what they tell us is familiar from the papyri of the Fayyum, Oxyrhynchus or Hermopolis. Despite a substantial degree of commonality in social relations across the entire country, however, each part of Egypt retained, or even developed, its own individual character, and the oases, too, had their distinctive traits.
Many of the staple topics of social history are not easily studied through the Kellis papyri and ostraka. The major demographic functions, for example, require large quantities of data (Bagnall and Frier 1994; Clarysse and Thompson 2006), and we have only a couple of census declarations from Kellis (Bagnall et alii 2011). Nor do we have much about marriage and divorce from Kellis. On the other hand, some staples of social history in Roman Egypt figure prominently, including violence, often characterized as an abuse of power, but petitioners tended to underplay their own position. Some examples are: P.Kellis Gr. 20, which alleges a violent appropriation of a donkey by a locally powerful person from Mothis; the petitioner, from Kellis, describes himself as of middling status and was not of age. In P.Kellis Gr. 21 (10), the same man petitions against the komarch of his village for assault and battery committed against his wife. In P.Kellis Gr. 23 (17), the petition is by a different komarch against a recalcitrant liturgist, who is being protected by his employer Harpokration, a former magistrate of Mothis. This notable had some of his men assault the komarch, leaving him on the edge of death. The komarch also alleges the theft of a pig and of wine, robbery of his ‘brother’ (probably a colleague), and chasing him away to Egypt. He lists the villains involved.
Rather than these standard subjects, the distinctive evidence seems to be concentrated on three aspects of life, none of them surprising if we think of the distinctive shape of the economy of Dakhleh Oasis and the way it grew in the Roman period. These are hierarchy and collegiality; absence and connections; and gender.