Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.03.37 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.03.37

Roger S. Bagnall, James G. Keenan, Leslie S. B. MacCoull, A Sixth-Century Tax Register from the Hermopolite Nome. American studies in papyrology, 51.   Durham, NC:  American Society of Papyrologists, 2011.  Pp. 225; 4. p. of plates.  ISBN 9780979975844.  $50.00.  

Reviewed by Lajos Berkes, Universität Heidelberg (

The volume under review is the edition of a papyrus codex containing a Greek tax register from sixth-century Egypt (likely from 546-547) concerning a village and a hamlet in the Hermopolite nome. Tax registers written on papyrus codices are a well-known genre of late antique documentary texts; this book adds a further example to their growing corpus. The codex (P.Lond.Copt. 1075) has been known and studied for over hundred years, but this is the first full edition of the text. It is kept in the British Library and should be cited as P.Lond.Herm. according to the recommendation of the editors.

The introduction (p. 9–65) consists of twelve chapters and covers most of the relevant themes relating to the register: acquisition, provenance, codicology (1), palaeography (2), language (3), nature of the document and analysis of entries (4), money (5), chronology (6), taxation (7), tabulation of payments (8), analysis of distribution of wealth (9), occupations (10), the church (11), and onomastics (12).

The introduction is followed by the edition of the register (p. 66-171). The layout is very convenient for the reader: the left page contains the edition of one page of the codex with critical apparatus and the right the English translation. The book concludes with a brief commentary, the usual papyrological indices but only four plates. Thus the reader can obtain only an impression of what the original codex looks like. It would be more convenient to have the reproduction of the whole text as is common in modern editorial practice. It should be highlighted as a commendable praxis that one of the editors entered the text in the Duke Databank of Documentary Papyri soon after the publication.1

The document consists of 27 folios and one unplaced fragment. The pages are numbered (2-40); the first folio of the codex is missing. The height of the folios is slightly more than 28.7 cm and their width tends to be 13 cm. However, the modern glass mounting of the papyrus prevents the exact reconstruction of some codicological details. The register was written by at least two scribes, but some other hands were at work as well. The main hand occasionally uses Coptic letters in some Egyptian names. The ‘language’ of the text is minimalistic—as expected in a tax register. The vague use of cases (essentially nominative and genitive), the phonetic idiosyncrasies and other linguistic phenomena provide welcome evidence of ‘scribes sliding back and forth between linguistic codes’ (p. 16).

The pages of P.Lond.Herm.—which usually occupy 32 lines—are structured according to a fixed layout. The heading contains the dating and the page number. The body lists in three columns the tax payers or tax-paying institutions, the paid sum in solidi or carats and the value of this sum in talents. At the bottom, the total of the payments is given. Oblique strokes representing check marks appear in the left margin before each entry of the codex. The chronological order of the payments does not present a major pattern, but some minor observations can be made, e.g. that intermediaries appear only clustered in time.

The codex seems to attest to the use of the follis of 538–550; accordingly, the 10th indiction in which the register was drawn up should correspond to 546-547. The editors also carefully contextualize the problems related to the codex in the complicated and controversial field of late antique monetary history.

P.Lond.Herm. provides some hints in terms of the actual procedure of tax collection. It lists tax payments recorded for the village of Temseu Skordon and the hamlet (epoikion) Topos Demeou. The editors suggest that the boethos ‘assistant’ whose salary is mentioned in the text was the tax collector who or whose assistants compiled the register. The payments were made for the land tax, the demosion. The cash payments mostly in copper, but sometimes in gold (en chryso) prove that the Egyptian countryside was highly monetized in this period. It remains unclear, however, whether the bronze coins were counted or weighed. The boethos and perhaps some guards regularly appeared in the villages. On some busy days more than 100 individual collections are registered. The payments of each tax payer are conveniently listed in a table (p. 37-47).

The register also provides important data on village society and life. The analysis of the distribution of wealth in the village with the help of the Gini index suggests that almost 80% of the lands of Temseu Skordon were owned by the top 30 percent of the population and a bit less than 9% by the poorer half of the villagers. Women paid for ca. 5% of the lands in both Temseu Skordon and Topos Demeou. The distribution of wealth in Topos Demeou is different from Temseu Skordon, but the details remain obscure. Several individuals are identified by their occupation, so that we can form an impression of the range of economic activity. However, the register only lists landowners, which explains some biases in this respect; potters, for instance, are not mentioned. Professions include wine producers, bakers, masons, carpenters, cobblers, tailors, and smiths but also a doctor and a scribe or a teacher.

The church also appears in the codex on several occasions. We see monks and clergymen (some of them in possession of significant landholdings), but ecclesiastical institutions like ‘the holy church’ of Hermupolis and a ‘Holy Martyrion’ also occur. The landowning church institutions seem to be connected to cities rather than to the village itself. The absence of landowning monasteries is conspicuous. The codex also gives a ‘good snapshot’ (p. 55) of the onomastics of the village at a certain point in time. The editors give a list of the names attested in the register with basic etymological information. Based on previous research they point out that the most common names are those of New and Old Testament characters and local martyrs, the three most common names being Ioannes, Victor and Phoibammon. Regional names are also amply attested and we find several new names (Pachaon, Parbas, Stex).

The introduction is concise and presupposes a specialist reader. The same applies to the commentary: some issues are left unexplained which are difficult for a non-specialist to grasp, and sometimes even for a specialist. It might have been useful to explain several Greek terms, e.g. protocometes, cephalaeotes, pragmateutes are not commented on in the notes and are merely transliterated in the translation. Similarly, to a non-papyrologist reader phrases like ‘the tax was the standard δημόσιον’ (p. 34) may be somewhat cryptic without further references. The intriguing mention of the monetary standard of the village (folio 4r.20; folio 4v9) might have been further elucidated. This is even more so since such standards appear in other contemporary Hermopolite villages as well and connect to the monetary problems discussed in length by the editors.2 The meaning of these technical terms is often not self-evident and may vary from context to context.

The readings are reliable, I would suggest improvements only at some minor points. In folio 9v.1 and folio 12r.1 the published images allow reading ὁμοί(ως) instead of ὁμο(ίως). In folio 14v.15 the abbreviation Κολ(λού)θου is not in accordance with the scribal habits of this period, although we expect this name (cf. 10v.7). I would prefer to read Κολθου as a short form of Κόλλουθος, perhaps as a genitive of the well attested Κολθε.

As for the interpretation of the codex as a whole, some obscure points remain. It certainly contains records of tax payments as the editors suggest, but this leaves some strange entries unexplained. We encounter payments ‘for price of wine’ (folio 24r.2), ‘for price of cheese’ (folio 24r.31), ‘for price of loaves’ (Unplaced fragment, line 2), and references to ‘loaves of bread’ (27v.23-24) occur as well. Are we dealing with an account book that includes different kind of lists of income?

One important question is not addressed in the edition, namely how we should understand the relationship of the village community, the koinon, and the tax collector. Village communities were collectively liable for the payment of their taxes in the Byzantine period. The village headmen had to deliver taxes to middlemen, boethoi, who forwarded the payments to the higher echelons of administration. The koinon of the village is several times mentioned in the codex and there is also a reference (folio 21r.6) to the ‘expenses of the assistant (boethos)’. Usually, these expenses had to be covered by the village community itself. In a similar Byzantine tax register (P.Lond.Copt. 1076), which also seems to stem from a boethos (folio 1b), the heading of folio 3a suggests that the actual division (merismos) of the taxes among the villagers was performed by the village scribe (gnoster). This suggests that the register was drawn up with close cooperation between the boethos and the village officials (protocometai, comarchai and the village scribe) who represented the koinon. It seems to be more likely therefore that P.Lond.Herm. was written in Temseu Skordon itself and not in the city of Hermopolis as the editors suggest. It might have principally contained a register of the land tax payments from Temseu Skordon and Topos Demeou. The references to payments for wine and loaves of bread could be explained as notes of other business that the boethos had with the villagers. The codex might have been the semi-private notebook of the boethos.

It has to be stressed that this book adds an important text to the study of the late antique countryside. It can only be hoped that its sister piece P.Lond.Copt. 1076, another similarly interesting and important late antique documentary codex in the British Library, will be published in a similar fashion.


1.   The author of this review was involved as a member of the editorial board of the Duke Databank of Documentary Papyri in the process of checking the entry of P.Lond.Herm.
2.   Cf. A. Benaissa, „An Usurious Monk from the Apa Apollo Monastery at Bawit“, CdÉ 85 (2010) 374–381, 380.

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