Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.6.1

Ann Ellis Hanson (ed.), On government and law in Roman Egypt: Collected Papers of Naphtali Lewis. American Studies in Papyrology, 33. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995. Pp. xiii + 383. $49.95. ISBN 0-7885-0146-1.

Reviewed by Clifford Ando, University of Michigan,

Naphtali Lewis has long been among this country's most distinguished papyrologists. He has focused his energies above all on the editing and contextualizing of documentary texts of the Roman period. Many of his articles originally appeared in papyrological publications not commonly available outside research libraries. Scholars of Roman administration and social history will therefore greet the publication of this volume, which reprints forty-nine of his essays, with profound interest and gratitude.

Papyrology does not shelter fragile egos. New readings, to say nothing of new finds, can humble even the best of scholars and render older publications obsolete, all the more rapidly when those publications attempted to catalogue and to define a set of data. After excluding items which appeared in BASP, Lewis has for the most part chosen essays which concentrate on issues rather than the publication of texts and which, therefore, have better withstood the test of time. The appearance of new material and further reflection has caused Lewis himself to return to topics and to texts, and this volume frequently allows us to reflect both on the growth of its author's discipline over five and a half decades and to share in his unique perspective on that growth. For this and other reasons, the most lamentable omission from BASP may well be the bibliography of Lewis' works prepared by Ralph Keen and published in volume 15 (1978) 2-8.

The earliest and latest essays, from 1937 and 1993 respectively, illustrate nicely the continuities of his interests and the characteristics of his scholarship. They elucidate aspects of the Roman response to A)NAXW/RHSIS, the flight of individuals from their native villages to escape from the burdens of Roman taxation. The Roman government did not allow the fisc to suffer from the irresponsible behavior of such criminals. In the first century Rome required that tax-collectors assume the burden for any shortfalls. Starting at least from the reign of Trajan, as Lewis demonstrated in 1937, the Roman government tabulated the arrears of the delinquent taxpayers and distributed that burden to the remaining population of the delinquents' I)DI/A. "Henceforth the financial responsibility for fugitives was placed upon the community, on which, in the last analysis, the responsibility for the satisfactory performance of all liturgies rested" (9).

In 1937 Lewis emphasized the shortsighted nature of Roman policy: concern for the bottom line of the imperial budget came at the expense of those who stayed upon the land and exacerbated the desertion of farmlands in the late second and early third centuries. These documents can also tell another story. As Lewis acknowledges, the administration allowed individuals officially to declare the flight of their relatives and thus to avoid personally assuming responsibility for the arrears (6). The survival of many such declarations suggests that many learned the rules of Roman administration and sought, through the use of official documents, to manipulate the system as far as possible to their advantage.1

In his article from 1993 Lewis reflects on evidence that became available in the intervening years, especially in the form of P. Thmouis 1. That carbonized, fragmentary roll revealed a change in policy from the system of collective responsibility initiated under Trajan and outlined by Lewis in 1937. In January, 163, M. Annius Syriacus declared an end to collective responsibility at his conventus in the Mendesian nome and the record of his declaration notes that he had issued the same ruling "in similar situations" (107). Lewis uses this text to clarify similar, scattered rulings by other prefects over the next decade; he can on their basis claim that the change initiated by Syriacus was permanent and that it obtained throughout Egypt. Only then, with supreme hesitation -- he relegates this material to excursuses --, does Lewis consider the import of his reconstruction for contemporary historiography on depopulation and on the Antonine age generally.

In that context Lewis suggests that the problems of Roman Egypt could be paradigmatic of larger economic and social trends throughout the empire (373-374). In essence, scholars of Roman social and administrative history should consider themselves fortunate in the abundance of documentary evidence from Roman Egypt. Rather than retreat from the challenge that abundance poses, through appeal to a "specious" "uniqueness" of Roman Egypt, Lewis urges, in the words of Alan Bowman, the "sane" use of papyrological evidence for the illumination of conditions in the empire as a whole (374 n. 46). Lewis cites Bowman with characteristic reticence, since he himself has been an eloquent exponent of the "Romanity of Roman Egypt" (138-149, 298-305). The burden of integrating the study of Egypt with that of the other provinces must fall on papyrologists as non-papyrologists continue to relegate Egyptian evidence to appendices and footnotes.2 Papyrological finds outside Egypt will hopefully aid that cause, and Lewis has played a large role in that task in his publication of the Greek texts from the archive of Babatha.3

A brief survey will not do justice to the quality and variety of the other essays. Lewis has written abundantly on civic liturgies; a few of those articles are reprinted here. Several essays concentrate on the penetration of the concepts and categories of Roman law and social thought into Egyptian life: I single out studies on patria potestas (120-127) and the alimentary program at Oxyrhynchus (178-182). Also reprinted are his essays on membership in the Alexandrian Museum: the earlier article published a papyrus which, in narrating the career of one Valerius Fannianus, suggested that membership in the Museum became a regular reward for advancement in the imperial bureaucracy (94-98), while the later article collates evidence for secretaries ab epistulis Graecis and membership in the Museum and deflates, once and for all, any presumption of a necessary connection between that secretariat, membership in the Museum, and literary distinction (257-274). Finally, many of the essays, notably but not exclusively those on the Michigan-Berlin Apokrima, support the theory advanced long ago by Ulrich Wilcken that imperial rescripts were drafted and published in the first instance in Latin (201-211, 213-214, 222-223, and 335-336).

The essays are photographically reproduced and therefore preserve their original pagination. The editor has supplied minimal addenda which, unfortunately, defy categorization. Beyond helpful references to the numeration of relevant papyri in the Sammelbuch, the editor has occasionally listed corrections to texts, cited relevant epigraphical material, and provided cross-references to other items in the volume (see, for example, pp. 75, 97, and 173). The latter are frequently helpful but their haphazard coverage proves just as often frustrating. Even the former cannot be regarded as definitive: specialists will know, and non-specialists are advised, to consult the Berichtigunstliste for re-editions of relevant texts. The organization, too, is often unhelpful. For example, several of Lewis' articles on the Michigan-Berlin Apokrima and his two essays on P. Oxy. 2820 reside next to each other, out of chronological order, but the pairs of essays on A)NAXW/RHSIS and membership in the Alexandrian Museum are both widely separated. On the other hand, Cora Acebron and Roger Bagnall have supplied the volume with three immensely useful indices (to subjects, Greek words, and texts discussed). The index of subjects is both whimsical and extremely cursory, but the three together lend the volume an immediate coherence and usefulness it would otherwise lack.

If papyrologists and epigraphers need to spend more time talking to each other and to ancient historians generally, they must do so in part by escaping the boundaries established by traditional avenues of publication: the same audience rarely reads the proceedings of international congresses of papyrology and epigraphy. This volume will hopefully bring a distinguished body of work before the wider audience which it so clearly deserves.


  • [1] Cf. R. L. B. Morris, "Reflections of citizen attitudes in petitions from Roman Oxyrhynchus," Proceedings of the XVI Int. Congr. of Papyrology (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1981) 363-370; or J. F. Gilliam, "Some Roman elements in Roman Egypt," ICS 3 (1978) 115-131.
  • [2] Thus the practice of A. Lintott, in what is otherwise the finest available introduction to its topic: Imperium Romanum (London: 1993), 126-128 and cf. 157-158.
  • [3] The documents from the Bar-Kokhba period in the Cave of Letters. Greek papyri (Jerusalem: 1989), abbreviated P. Yadin or P. Babatha. See now H. M. Cotton, W. E. H. Cockle, and F. G. B. Millar, "The papyrology of the Roman Near East: a survey" JRS 85 (1995) 214-235.