Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.07.37

Itzhak F. Fikhman, Andrea Jördens, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft im spätantiken Ägypten. Kleine Schriften. Historia Einzelschriften 192.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2006.  Pp. xviii, 380.  ISBN 3-515-08876-8.  €72.00.  

Reviewed by Karl Strobel, Alpen Adria Universität Klagenfurt (
Word count: 2493 words

This volume presents a series of important contributions by I. F. Fikhman which are focussed on the history of economy and society in late antique and early Byzantine Egypt until the middle 7th c. AD. A. Joerdens and G. Becht-Joerdens provide an introduction with a sketch of the life and the work of Fikhman under the difficult conditions of the communist Regime in the Soviet Union.1 Fikhman, who became a well-known papyrologist also in the West, left post-communist Russia in 1990 for Israel because of the omnipresent anti-Semitism. Born in a Jewish family in Kishinew in 1921, he lost most of his library when leaving Russia. A bibliography of Fikhmans's work (184 titles) is given on pp. 369-380. In this volume eight contributions are published for the first time in a western language, i.e. German, without any changes or annotations. The other articles were already published in Western languages in different collections and papyrological journals. They are often based on earlier contributions in Russian. All the articles in this book are published or reprinted without corrections or additions. It is a great pity that many of Fikhman's important contributions in Russian were not known in the West, especially his books on craftsmen and the conditions of their professions in late antique and early Byzantine Egypt and on Oxyrhynchos.2 The city of Oxyrhynchos, municipal offices, decuriones, great landownership, professional corporations and the conditions of crafts are the focus of his research based on the papyrological evidence and not on communist theory. Today, several new publications complementary to Fikhman's studies are still important for the current research.3 Fikhman's contributions are first of all devoted to the flourishing period of the early Byzantine cities and economy in the eastern Mediterranean during the 5th and early 6th c. AD. Infrastructure and far-reaching transport and exchange were still maintained, as well as the high standard of agriculture. Enormous building activities may be seen in the churches and monasteries of the 5th and 6th c. AD. Private trade and commerce on the local, regional, interregional and international level were still of great importance, the commercialization of agricultural production reached a new climax in the early 6th c. AD. The monetary system and the system of taxes were fixed conditions of everyday life and of the economy.

Basic questions about the organisation of crafts, working conditions, production and craftsmen are the topics of the first two contributions, now translated into German ('Die Frage der korporativen Gemeinschaftshilfe im byzantinischen Ägypten' [first published in 1965], pp. 1-6; 'Die Werkstattpacht im byzantinischen Ägypten' [1967], pp. 7-18) and of two studies published in German and French ('Grundfragen der handwerklichen Produktion in Ägypten' [1969], pp. 19-41; 'Sur l'attache professionnelle dans l'Égypte romaine' [1981], pp. 178-183; 'Sur quelques aspects socio-économiques de l'activité des corporations professionnelles de l'Égypte byzantine' [1994], pp. 302-323). Fikhman draws a convincing picture of the conditions and structure of this basic sector of the economy in late antique Egypt. The results of his research are of great importance for other parts on the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Empire as well, because Egypt provides only the basic sources for everyday professional life documented in thousands of papyri.

The evidence of the papyri provides our general knowledge of the extreme specialization of crafts and of the division of labour in the inner organisation of handicrafts' production. The products of the workshops were of high quality and partly exported from Egypt. There was a clear segregation between skilled workers and specialists on one side and unqualified labour on the other. Most of the independent craftsmen in Egypt produced their goods in workshops. However, many of these workshops were only rented to one or more craftsmen and thus these craftsmen were subjected to more or less dependent conditions, especially if renting a workshop or part of a workshop on big estates. On pp. 12-18, Fikhman gives a list of papyri documenting the lease of a workshop known until 1967. Meanwhile new important documents were published, for example, P. Oxy. 50/3595, 3596 and 3597. The lessors were the big secular or clerical landowners whose real estates were found in the cities too. The majority of the craftsmen, being free producers, worked in small workshops together with their family members. Big workshops were state enterprises or owned by the monasteries or working in Alexandria for the export. However, craftsmen were active in the villages for the local needs and consumption too. The workshops were not only concentrated in the cities, but also part of the economic system of monasteries and of big estates. Slave work had no importance in crafts. Paid workmen and free small producers selling their goods on the local or regional market or working on contracts of manufacture were the real structure as Fikhman emphasized already in the time of the Soviet ideology. Salaries and payments were still made in cash and/or in kind. He shows the increasing importance of the professional corporations within the social and economic life of Byzantine Egypt. This process and the increasing number of these independent or compulsory corporations are shown to be a characteristic of the history of Byzantine Egypt. At the same time, religious elements in the life of the corporations diminished, and religious and social corporations themselves disappeared or were considerably reduced in number. These corporations were always limited to one specific sector of crafts or commerce. The inscription into the list of a specific corporation prohibited the practice of another profession. However, these professional corporations were not guilds as known in medieval and early modern Europe; they were more like craftsmen's clubs. They were not cartels, they had no price control and they could not really monopolise the market, as Fikhman emphasizes. However, they tried to abolish competition and to fix minimum prices. Fikhman clearly differentiates between the compulsory collegia on one side and the free corporations of free craftsmen on the other, and the small number of corporations of untrained workmen or trained craftsmen being in dependency to a big landlord. State control was only reinforced for the sectors of direct state interests and those corporations were transformed into compulsory corporations; however, their importance must not be overestimated. In the other corporations, there was also no compulsory membership. A craftsman could perform his profession without such a membership; he could enter or leave such a professional corporation, whose great importance, however, was the representation and defence of common interests. There was also a system of mutual help and support. There was no hereditary membership or inheritable profession in Egypt which was controlled or implemented by the public authorities outside compulsory corporations regulated by the state. Normally, the inheritance of a profession was a natural consequence of the possession of a workshop, of family tradition or of professional training by the father or in the family. The state integrated the corporations into its system of tax collection and used them for implementing obligations and compulsory services. Thus the corporations always tried to recruit new members to fulfil their duties in a comfortable way.

A second group of studies is devoted to the city of Oxyrhynchus, its municipal organisation, especially the class of the curiales, and its leading class ('Die Bevölkerungszahl von Oxyrhynchos in byzantinischer Zeit [1971], pp. 48-57; 'Die Kurialen von Oxyrhynchos' [published in Russian in 1974], pp. 61-98; 'Kurienland in Oxyrhynchos?' [1974], pp. 106-109).

Fikhman estimates the number of the city's inhabitants in Byzantine times between 15,000 and 25,000 and about 30,000 in Roman times. However, all such estimations are highly hypothetical. The population of Oxyrhynchus is today estimated between 15,000 and 30,000 inhabitants at its height in the early 2nd c. AD.4 Fikhman analyzed the ordo of the curiales of Oxyrhynchus and their economic prosperity (land ownership, workshops, movables and immovables, ships, money). Slaves were of no greater importance in these property structures. He shows the existence of land owned by the curia which provided reinsurance for the fulfilment of the collective duties; its use could be a reason to join the curia. There was also an increasing social and economic differentiation within the ordo curialum. Fikman demonstrates that the municipal institutions still existed in the 6th c. AD, but the municipal functions were now occupied by the members of important land owning families and became munera patrimonii. However, these landlords could not be controlled any longer by the city. Their land was exempt from tax collection by the cities. Fikhman gives a list of the titles and charges of the municipal officials (pp. 69-72) and a list of the known curiales in Oxyrhynchus where the municipal elite still existed under early Arab rule (pp. 78-98). However, the traditional urban elite had lost the leading economic role in Oxyrhynchus because of the growth of big landownership of private individuals and of the church. This process was dominating the development all over Egypt.

A third topic which developed out of research on the question of the relationship between the great landowners and the still functioning municipal organisation in late antique and early Byzantine Egypt is Fikhman's studies of land-property of the leading social elite and of the organisation of the big estates ('On the Structure of the Egyptian Large Estate in the Sixth Century' [1970], pp. 42-47; 'Zur Interpretation von SB VI 9152, P. Oxy. XXXVI 2780 und P. Vars. 30' [published in Russian in 1973], pp. 58-60; 'Grossgrundbesitz und Munizipalverfassung im spätrömischen Ägypten (nach den oxyrhynchitischen Papyri)' [published in Russian in 1975], pp. 118-137; 'Quelques données sur la genèse de la grande propriété foncière à Oxyrhynchus' [1975], pp. 138-144; 'Oxyrhynchos und Hermupolis in byzantinischer Zeit (eine vergleichende Betrachtung der Pachtverträge)' [published in Russian in 1975], pp. 145-151; 'Les <[patrocinia]> dans les papyrus d'Oxyrhynchus' [1979], pp. 152-160). Several contributions focus on general question of the social order in late antique and early Byzantine Egypt, especially on the topics of slavery, colonate and personal freedom which were problematic subjects within the Soviet system of historical research if treated in the way of critical research based on sources and not on Soviet or Marxist ideology. Fikhman however succeeded in avoiding the ideological dogmatic and developed a sober picture of these phenomena ('Quelques considérations sur les données sociales et économiques des papyrus d'Oxyrhynchus d'époque byzantine' [1973], pp. 99-105, an article of less importance; 'Slaves in Byzantine Oxyrhynchus' [1974], pp. 110-117; 'Les cautionnements pour les coloni adscripticii' [1981], 169-177; 'Ad P. Wash. Univ., 1, 25' [1984], pp. 184-189; 'Coloni adscripticii -- ἐναπόγραφοι γεοργοί in den Papyri' [published in Russian in 1984), pp. 190-250; 'De nouveau sur le colonat du Bas Empire' [1990], pp. 258-278; 'Καταμειν( ) = καταμήν(ιος)?' [1990], pp. 279-280; 'Esclaves et colons en Égypte byzantine' [1991], pp. 281-291; 'Aspects économiques de la dépendance individuelle dans l'Égypte romaine et tardive' [1995], pp. 302-323).

The important article on the coloni adscripticii, first published in Moscow in 1984 and now translated into German, is a fine example of Fikhman's accurate work on the papyrological evidence based on documentary papyri and juridical texts. An additional discussion of new theories is given in the following article (pp. 258-278). Coloni adscripticii remained free in all parts of everyday life which were not in a direct relationship to the managing of the estates; they were ordinary citizens in their villages. In the 6th c. AD., jurisdiction gave important rights to the landlord concerning the colonus and even his family in which the tenant-status was hereditary. The colonus was not only bound to the land, but also to the landlord and his heir or successor. The coloni had to be submissive; the socioeconomic power of the landlords had become a dominant factor in the reality of life. Juristic freedom did not prevent de facto dependence and the development into dependent farmers within a "proto-feudal" social system (p. 276). But Fikhman also demonstrates that the hereditary tendency had positive aspects too, especially the security of the land use and also the protection against violence and abuse of taxes and compulsory services. The pressure of taxes and liturgies on the small farmers and landholders stimulated the system of Patroziniumsbewegung.

Fikhman analyzed the administrative and economic structures of big estates from the 4th to the 6th c. AD. An important subject of his research is the archive of the Apiones family, who had an administration of their own for their estates and properties which were based on the work of tenant farmers (coloni adscripticii) and lease-holders. Only the central estate had a permanent staff. The big landlords had armed forces of their own (bucellarii or neoteroi) and the officers of these private troops had military titles, although the state unsuccessfully tried to abolish that phenomenon by law. The landlords collected taxes and transferred them to the state authorities. The estates were cultivated by free or dependent and often hereditary tenants. Fikhman shows a massive reduction in the evidence for slavery and for the emancipation of slaves in the papyri since the late 4th c. AD. He emphasizes how little importance slavery had in Egypt and also the fundamental differences between slaves and coloni, both results in contrast to Marxists' dogma. He strengthens that individual dependence first of all developed out of economic conditions and reasons and that there was an enormous range of different forms of dependence from short-time relations based on contracts of lease to hereditary tenancy which could develop into hereditary dependence and status. Economic dependence did not abolish personal freedom and personal property; however, a certain danger arose out of the length of such a dependency which could lead to a lack of freedom quite similar to slavery. He emphasizes that the work of tenant farmers and the labour of coloni instead of slaves was the result of socioeconomic rationality and not of a change in ideology or ethics (pp. 233).

One article considers the relationship between the state and the development or control of prices ('State and Prices in Byzantine Egypt' [1991/1992], pp. 292-301). Prices fixed by the state were known for compulsory deliveries and for the monopolized sectors of production and trade in Egypt since Ptolemaic times. But Fikhman overestimates the public control and documentation of prices. Two contributions are devoted to more general topics ('Neue Quellen zur Buchherstellung im byzantinischen Ägypten' [published in Russian in 1981], pp. 161-168; 'Über Platz und Bedeutung der dokumentarischen Papyrologie im System der althistorischen Hilfswissenschaften' [1989], pp. 251-257), two more to the presence of Jews in Graeco-Roman and Byzantine Egypt ('On Onomastics of Greek and Roman Egypt' [1996], pp. 356-367; 'Les Juifs d'Égypte à l'époque byzantine d'après les papyrus publicés depuis la parution du <[Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum]> III' [1996, an enlarged version of a Russian paper of 1987], pp. 349-355). Fikhman discusses the possibilities and limits of the interpretation of onomasticon which shows a total break caused by the Christianization. He emphasizes the continuity of a certain presence of Jews in the Egyptian chora. He also shows the internal evolution of the Jewish onomastic and the specific difference between naming in the Egyptian diaspora and in Palestine.


1.   Cf. J. Hösler, Die sowjetische Geschichtswissenschaft 1953-1991. Studien zur Methodologie und Organisationsgeschichte, München 1995. It is a pity that the language of Jördens' introduction is sometimes not easy to understand even for a German speaker.
2.   Egipet na rubeze dvukh epokh. Remeslenniki i remeslennyij v IV -- seredine VII v. [L'Égypte aux confins de deux époques. Artisans et travail artisanal du IVe au milieu du VIIe siècle], Moscow 1965. Oksirinkh -- gorod papirusov. Social'no-ekonomiceskie otnosenija v egipetskom gorode IV -- seredin y VII v. [Oxyrhynchus -- "cité de papyrus". Les relations sociales et économiques de la ville égyptienne du IVe au milieu du VIIe siècle], Moscow 1976. For the importance of that book cf. R. S. Bagnall, 'Family and Society in Roman Oxyrhynchus', in: A. K. Bowman et al. (eds.), Oxyrhynchus: A City and its Texts, London 2007, p. 183.
3.   In general cf. R. S. Bagnall and K. A. Worp, Chronological Systems of Byzantine Egypt, Leiden-Boston, 2nd ed., 2004; C. Morrisson (ed.), Le monde byzantin I. 330-641, Paris 2004; J. Lefort, C. Morrisson, and J.-P. Sodini (eds.), Les villages dans l'empire Byzantin (IVe -- XVe siècle), Paris 2005; J. Lefort, Société rurale et histoire du paysage à Byzance, Paris 2006; E. Laiou and C. Morrisson, The Byzantine Economy, Cambridge 2007, 23-42; K. Strobel (ed.), Die Ökonomie des Imperium Romanum, Pharos 17, St. Katharinen 2002; H.-J. Drexhage, H. Konen, and K. Ruffing, Die Wirtschaft des Römischen Reiches, Berlin 2002. For Egypt in Late Antiquity and Early Byzantine times cf. R. S. Bagnall, Egypt in Late Antiquity, Princeton 1993; R. S. Bagnall, Later Roman Egypt: Society, Religion, Economy and Administration, Aldershot 2003; R. S. Bagnall (ed.), Egypt in the Byzantine World 300-700, Cambridge 2007; for cities and villages cf. R. Alston, The City in Roman and Byzantine Egypt, London 2002; A. Egbert, B. P. Muhs, and J. van der Vliet (eds.), Perspectives on Panopolis (P. Lugd. Bat. 31), Leiden 2002; J. Rowlandson, Landowners and Tenants in Roman Egypt: The Social Relations of Agriculture in the Oxyrhynchite Nome, Oxford 1996; C. Zuckermann, Du village à l'Empire: autour du registre fiscal d'Aphrodito, Paris 2004; R.S. Bagnall, 'Village and City: Geography of Power in Byzantine Egypt', in: J. Lefort, C. Morrisson, and J.-P. Sodini (eds.), Les villages dans l'empire Byzantin (IVe -- Xve siècle), Paris 2005, pp. 553-565; for the upper class in the cities cf. L. E. Tacoma, Fragile Hierarchies: The Urban Elites of Third-Century Roman Egypt, Leiden 2006; K. A. Worp, 'Bouleutai and Politeuomenoi in Later Byzantine Egypt again', CE 74, 1999, pp. 124-136; A. Laniado, Recherches sur les notables municipaux dans l'empire protobyzantin, Paris 2002. For Oxyrhynchos cf. A. K. Bowman, R. A. Coles, N. Gonis, D. Obbink, and P. J. Parsons (eds.), Oxyrhynchus: A City and its Texts, London 2007.
4.   A. K. Bowman, 'Roman Oxyrhynchus: City and People', in: Bowman et al., Oxyrhynchus, 2007, p. 171.

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