Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.03.10 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.03.10

Katherine Blouin, Triangular Landscapes: Environment, Society, and the State in the Nile Delta under Roman Rule. Oxford Studies on the Roman economy.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2014.  Pp. xvii, 429.  ISBN 9780199688722.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by Eleni Manolaraki, University of South Florida (


The Mendesian Nome on the north-eastern Nile Delta is well documented by papyri from the Hellenistic to the Early Arab periods, mostly dating from the first and second centuries CE. Triangular Landscapes updates the author’s 2006 dissertation and subsequent publications into the first comprehensive study of this district.1 Blouin sorts out and clarifies a massive amount of papyrological data to elucidate Roman Mendesian hydrography, land tenure, administrative geography, agrarian economy, and their social ramifications. The book makes a solid contribution to its primary field, the history of Roman Egypt. Unsurprisingly for a title published under the Oxford Studies on the Roman Economy, its primary readers will be specialists and graduate students in history, papyrology, and archaeology. Yet the diachronic reciprocity Blouin establishes between environmental behaviors and human responses, and her use of literary sources from a wide range of genres, ranging from Pharaonic poetry to John Malalas, provide valuable historical backbone to any literary, aesthetic, and cultural research on Egypt.

Following a thorough overview of the argument in the introduction, the book is organized into four parts. Part I, The Mendesian Nome in Context (13-103), anchors Roman Mendesian data into the geomorphological, historical, and documentary setting of the Delta. This diverse information consistently links Nilotic and human dynamics and establishes that the interplay between fluvial risks and coping strategies is the defining force behind the socio-environmental profile of the region. Blouin then reviews the strategic sites of Mendes, Thmuis, and Tell Tebilla, our main papyrological evidence (known as the Carbonized Archives from Thmuis or CAT), and complementary material and written data. From its often destructive or illegal beginnings in the 1860s to preservation and excavation in 2013 by the University-of-Toronto-based Mission Canadienne de Thmouis, the history of research in the nome is a reminder of the vicissitudes of Egyptian archaeology and of the many losses due to human error. A Mendesian timeline from the Predynastic to the Arab period follows, highlighting the Hellenistic "Zenon Papyri," the Mendesian perfume industry, and the transfer of the nome’s metropolis from the city of Mendes to that of Thmuis. This migration organically followed the Nile’s Mendesian branch, the course of which shifted eastward and gradually silted up by the second century CE. As elsewhere, discussion is accompanied by a helpful figure, this one tracing the eastward movement of the river over a millennium (95).

Part II, The Mendesian Landscape under Roman Rule (107-169) outlines the agricultural and fiscal landscape in question, drawing mainly from the CAT. Blouin edits the conventional cartography of the nome in the light of new geo-archaeological research; she quantifies its toponyms and situates them in relation to each other; and she classifies the terms developed for its land typology, its administrative divisions, and its water distribution and management. Forty-six land categories of private and public land are defined with criteria ranging from their size, hydrographic profile, and productivity, to crop type, taxation rates, and improvement potential. The complexity of agrarian and fiscal data from the northern Mendesian nome is especially significant for contradicting traditional views of the northern Delta as a remote area occupied by semi-nomadic and marginalized herdsmen. In sum, the CAT unanimously point to the Mendesian branch as the structuring principle for the governance of the region.

Part III, Le beau risque: Society, the State, and the Land (173-239), explores the Roman authorities’ strategies for diversifying agrarian production and for promoting the use of agriculturally unprivileged ("marginal") land. The Mendesian rural economy was diverse, with a preeminence of cereal culture favoring wheat over barley. This was complemented by legumes, fruits and vegetables, vines, oleaginous plants, fodder, and animal husbandry. This profile is similar to elsewhere in Egypt, but the papyri also document regional peculiarities connected to the damp environment of the nome — for instance, state leases of wetlands for hunting and fish farming. Indeed Mendesian hydrography (river branch, river mouth, wetlands, littoral lakes, Mediterranean coast) links together agrarian, fiscal, social, and spiritual practices. For instance, the importance of water and its related activities is embodied in the earliest deity associated with Mendes: the fish-goddess Hatmehyt. Blouin also untangles intricate networks of delegation of fiscal responsibilities by land owners to their tenants and their subtenants, and she speculates plausibly on familial connections among the three groups. Diagrams presenting this information in alternative ways (e.g. by number of parcels per declarant, by land percentage per declarant, and by groups of declarants, 198-200) make the resulting web of proper names and land categories less daunting than it sounds. Here, as throughout the book, Blouin assesses the CAT both to add new information and to nuance prevailing demographic readings of the nome (e.g. population volume and density, 121-125; the notion of a state- driven initiative to extend the cultivation of legumes, 216-217). The Mendesian papyri also record terminology for the effects of the flood, and hence offer insight into the socio-economics of marginal land. The most marginal parcels were either chronically arid (chersos), semi-arid, e.g. not flooded for a year (abrochos), artificially irrigated (epantlemene), and chronically submerged under water (limnitike). The farming of these undesirable parcels was delegated to private landholders by the Roman fisc through various strategies, such as lower taxation rates, moratoria on taxes, or compulsory tillage. Unsuitable for the dominant culture of cereals, these soils were nevertheless integrated into the province’s subsistence and economy through valorization, selective usage, and alternative crops.

While Roman administration lay stress on the cultivation of wheat in marginal parcels, this choice would be predictably avoided by local communities who had to confront the realities, literally, on the ground. The enforced cultivation of marginal lands and the fiscal pressures for the production of wheat raise the issue of conflict between political authorities and landholders. This topic is addressed in Part IV, Autopsy of a Region in Crisis (243-297). Attention turns to Mendesian anachōrēsis, a massive exodus of taxpayers from their residences attested in 159-160 and 168-170 CE. While this demographic phenomenon is known already in the Pharaonic period, the CAT reveal a detailed combination of a drop in agrarian productivity, hassling administrative agents, economic devastation, social unrest, and military interventions. Despite some state measures to stem the exodus, redistributions of the fiscal burden on the remaining population prompted further anachōrēseis in search of relief. Blouin then links these impoverished Mendesian peasants to the brigands named Boukoloi in Dio Cassius, the Historia Augusta, and Achilles Tatius (also in Heliodorus, but unnamed). She defends the basic historicity of these accounts by establishing convincing similarities between theBoukoloi and the topography and economy of the insurgents named Nikōchites in P. Thmuis 1. Blouin argues that, on one hand, the novelistic Boukoloi are caricatures aligned with Egyptian and Greek topoi associating the Delta with wilderness and barbarism. On the other, the historical Boukoloi/Nikochites are not the hardened criminals of literature, but distressed villagers who violently defied authority when exasperated by financial ruin. Made plain in the CAT, the disconnection between fiscal demands and socio-environmental dynamics reconstructs Egyptian anachōrēsis from a previously unacknowledged environmental angle, and exposes the timeless and universal logic of that desperate flight. The last fifth of the book (298-429) systematizes its archaeological and documentary sources. Two long appendixes (on Mendensian papyri and on taxes collected), a glossary, and two indexes (locorum and general) are followed by an international and broadly diverse bibliography.

The above hopefully captures, especially for historians and archaeologists, the original contributions and methodological sophistication of this work. To a wider readership, one more benefit of this study is that Blouin’s material focus and vivid portraits of human pragmatism challenge, mostly unintentionally, Roman literary and figural exoticizations of Egypt. The geo- archaeological reading of the novelistic Boukoloi is a detailed example of this healthy corrective (243-297) but shorter discussions have a similarly recalibrating effect. To this reader at least, the fiscal challenges posed by marginal lands, their compulsory cultivation, and the hard labor involved in their tillage (209-220), belie the Nilotic utopia of spontaneous fertility and leisurely tryphé (e.g. Praeneste Mosaic, wall paintings from the House of the Doctor at Pompeii, Tib. 1.7, Plin. Nat. 36.58, Phil. Imag.1.5.2). Similarly, the discussion on the flax industry and the widespread use of Mendesian linen throughout the Mediterranean (233-239) defictionalizes the estranged, ´linend-clad´ devotees of Roman poetry (e.g. Ov. Met. 1.747, Iuv. 6.533, Mart. Ep. 12.28.19). Elsewhere, Blouin remarks that Egyptian wine had to be consumed within less than a year because of its low resistance to heat (184). Wine unable to age properly adds a note of realism to Lucan’s scorn for the lowly "Mareotian grape," shunned even by Cleopatra for the sake of Italian (Luc. 10.161–163).

Volumes in the OSRE series emphasize ethnography, and the author’s commitment to this element also adds to the wider appeal of Triangular Landscapes. In both text and illustration, she demonstrates continuities between ancient and modern agricultural living in Egypt and she parallels conditions by the Nile to those in other periods and places. Practices in vegetable growing (174), sheep grazing (186), land tenancy (206), crop diversification (209) orchard cultivation (218-219), fishing and fish farming (227-228, 286-287), cattle rearing (229), and hut construction (275) are a few of the intuitive and widespread parallels that transcend Mendesian topography and timeline. In the same inclusive vein, politico-historical and geo-morphological terms (e.g. toparchy, flow gradient, transverse canal, Wadi, Tell) are amply explained and compared to ancient and modern equivalents. Finally, literary critics will appreciate Blouin’s linguistic insights into ancient imagination. In one memorable example, she points out that the combination of two genitives in the legal formula eis thēran ixthyos kai agriōn (226) suggests that fishing was perceived as a form of hunting.

The book is well-produced and generously illustrated with figures, tables, maps, and landscape photographs. Greek words in the main text are transliterated, significant papyri translated, while the Greek original appears in the footnotes for those terms discussed in the text. Egyptian words are also transliterated and translated. Cross references are by chapter only (e.g. "see Ch. 3.d," 111; "see Section b of the present chapter," 163 n. 96). This sometimes makes connections hard to follow, especially given the volume of data. As for typographical quibbles, I only found "in term of" for "in terms of"(7), and "seem" for "seems" (54).

With the Mendesian nome as a case study, the book is of import to anyone interested in how the physical environment shapes economic, social, and cultural concerns in Egypt and beyond. Scholars in different fields will surely benefit from Blouin’s contribution to and her reshaping of this timely and ongoing discussion.


1.   See Blouin (2014) 169-177; (2013) 291-318; (2012) 57-67; (2012) 83-89, (2010) 85-95; (2010) 386-422; (2008) 107-128; (2008) 135-166; (2007).

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010