Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.10.18 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.10.18

Giovani R. Ruffini, Life in an Egyptian Village in Late Antiquity: Aphrodito Before and After the Islamic Conquest.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2018.  Pp. ix, 233.  ISBN 9781107105607.  $32.00.  

Reviewed by Jennifer Cromwell, Manchester Metropolitan University (


Life in an Egyptian Village in Late Antiquity is the latest in a series of books by Giovanni Ruffini on Aphrodito, modern Kom Ishqaw in southern Egypt.1 The book centres almost exclusively on the sixth century, primarily Greek textual material from the site, rather than discussing in equal measure the post-Islamic Conquest material from the early eighth century (a point to which I return below). This focus enables Ruffini to write history at a local level, about “a social late antiquity, uninterested in cultural and macro-economic trends” (p. 27). Such a perspective stands in contrast to the image of sixth century Egypt that is normally presented, which centres on the great estates, in particular that of the well-documented Apion family. Instead, with Aphrodito we have the opportunity to zoom in on a more typical and representative settlement (p.18) to look at the range of concerns that occupied men (mainly) and women in their day-to-day lives.

After the introduction, which locates Aphrodito in its geographic and historic context, the following ten chapters adopt a thematic approach to life, and the chapter titles are mostly self-explanatory in terms of their content. Chapter 2, ‘Violence’, examines what residents did in the face of theft and violence, events that leave a greater paper trail than peace and quiet (p.40). What is key in the material are societal responses, at a local level, where the power of the central state is barely witnessed. Chapter 3, ‘A World of Law’, goes beyond just legal matters to look at the administrative framework of Aphrodito, including the appointment of headmen (pp. 49–50) and Aphrodito’s authority to collect its own taxes (p. 42 ff.).2 The rest of the chapter focusses on the practicalities of legal action and of solving disputes, whether in church on Sunday (pp. 57–58) or through a range of formal and informal, private and public approaches.

A detour from the thematic chaptering occurs with Chapter 4, which focuses on the best-known figure from sixth century Aphrodito: Dioskoros. While Dioskoros appears throughout this study, the texts he wrote primarily inform about other people’s affairs. This chapter highlights Dioskoros’ own concerns, accusations of theft—by and against him—and trespass that involve residents from neighbouring villages, showing Aphrodito’s wider interests at a regional level. ‘Working in the fields’ (chapter 5) is not actually about agriculture itself, but land management and taxation and the question of inequality (pp. 87–88). Chapter 6, ‘Crafts and Trades’, discusses the most commonly attested trades and the social function of guilds, but also raises a number of methodological issues involved in the available dataset that can also be extrapolated to other topics. As we know about guilds and trades primarily through Dioskoros’ records, are particular trades absent because they were not in fact present in Aphrodito or simply because Dioskoros had no need for them (p.100)? Another issue is that of job sharing: if farmers, for example, do specialist side jobs, these activities would also be silent in the written record.

Churches and monasteries are the subject of chapter 7, ‘Looking to Heaven’, which highlights the embedded nature of religious institutions in the economic life of the world at large. Ruffini observes that the church hierarchy, e.g., bishops, is strikingly absent from the records, which is part of a more general trend in which large structures are less central to the operation of daily life at this level (p. 125). The life cycle of villagers is dealt with in chapter 8, ‘From Cradle to Grave’, in which Ruffini notes the absence of children from the record, a point quite typical more generally in the written record of antiquity. The focus, based as it is on the surviving documents, is mainly on the transactional nature of life: marriage, divorce, wills, and bequests.

The next two chapters focus on women (chapter 9) and Big Men and strangers (chapter 10). Three categories of women are presented: the “most well-born” women, marginal women (a group that allows Ruffini to briefly discuss the spectrum of unfree labour witnessed in the documents), and widows. There is a brief attempt to examine gender, “what it means to be a woman in Aphrodito” (p. 159), but the discussion falls far short of what could be achieved here; for example, Ruffini does not examine gendered roles, nor what is typical and atypical. Most illustrative of this point is the discussion of a female pagarch, but the (ab)normality of this is not addressed (p. 162). For Big Men, we return to the world of violence and its use as a tool, and the importance of the individual—and individual reputation—in village society.

Finally, chapter 11, ‘Life in the Big City’, shifts the focus to Antinoopolis, which looms large in the Aphrodito record, in contrast to closer cities that make only a minor imprint on the textual record (Antaiopolis and Panopolis). Again, this prominence is mainly because of Dioskoros, who lived and worked there, and this chapter mainly concerns his experience and how he was shaped by this more diverse world and the literary and legal education that he received.

This brief overview demonstrates the broad range of topics that Ruffini touches upon in his journey through Aphrodito. Two main topics occur repeatedly throughout (not including Dioskoros, who is ever present): patronage and the use of documents. The central state appears here and there in the background to some events, and the wider Roman world of the sixth century is witnessed, whether in the application of Roman law, a petition to empress Theodora, or journeys to Constantinople. However, Ruffini stresses the light hand of the state in most affairs, emphasising instead the role of individuals and the importance of patronage: Dioskoros serves as a local powerbroker (p. 32), as do bishops (pp. 125–127); information buys patronage from elites (p. 74); and face-to-face connections are essential, even for the poorest sectors of society, including marginal women (pp. 154–156). To succeed, one needed a powerful patron and a “nexus of power networks” (p. 71). The threads of these networks are ever-present throughout this book, providing a very immediate sense of how village life functioned.

The second point lies at the very heart of this book: without documents, there would be no history of Aphrodito. But, the use of documents in a mostly illiterate world raises a central methodological issue: why do things get written down and who has access to this process? On one hand, we have a wealth of information at our disposal, but this is only a small fraction of what would actually have been written down, which itself only records a tiny proportion of activities and transactions that occurred every single day. It has already been noted that women and children are disproportionately represented. We also miss the victories in life, as good things invariably are not recorded, with favour instead being for grievances for past wrongs (p. 180). Ruffini reminds us of these issues throughout the book, but occasionally he also loses sight of this point. For example, he at times runs the risk of overly secularizing the entire landscape. In his discussion of the bishop Theodoros, the concerns that we see are only secular, but Ruffini does not emphasise strongly enough that the surviving documents do not accurately represent him and his main activities: “If we view late antiquity from this angle, there are no holy men here … In these archives, there is only business.” (p. 130). By way of contrast, we have the early 7th century bishop of Hermonthis, Abraham, resident at the monastery at Deir el-Bahri in western Thebes. If we were to examine the legal documents connected with him, we would see his affairs only through one Greek testament, but his day-to-day concerns are recorded in a vast body of short ostraca texts. Much of this material chronicles the mundanities of his role as a bishop, in which he did get caught up in many secular affairs, but the appointment of priests, ordination of monks, religious festivals, etc., all appear regularly in his dossier. Aphrodito’s Theodoros surely had similar concerns that filled most of his time, but we simply do not have that record. This might change in the future, as may our image of other matters and individuals. Ruffini mentions texts that remain unpublished (e.g., p. 98), and the publication of the Coptic letters in Dioskoros’ archive may significantly modify good chunks of the overall picture.3 New stories, at the very least, are still to come to light.

The major criticism against this book is directed towards the second part of the title: “After the Islamic Conquest”. This period, represented by a corpus of over 500 published documents written in Arabic, Coptic, and Greek, is treated in less than five per cent of the book and Ruffini here falls victim to what he advocates against elsewhere in the volume: treating the material as absolute and providing a one-sided perspective of the early eighth century. Ruffini stresses the authoritarian image of the Arab rulers and the heavy-handed nature of the state, which stands in contrast to the prevailing situation in the earlier material. Yet we are dealing with very different datasets and so not comparing like with like (we have far fewer private documents from the eighth century), Ruffini would have benefited from modern research on this material that draws out the nuances involved and the power negotiations and tensions at play between local and centre.4 One of the major issues with the eighth century material is how much needs to be translated—and even edited—before a synthetic analysis of the material can be undertaken. If anything, Ruffini’s book highlights the need of a thorough study of eighth century Aphrodito, to produce a more accurate understanding of life in the town at this time.

Overall, this is an impressive book and an excellent introduction to Aphrodito and the wealth of its material BEFORE the Islamic Conquest. It rests first and foremost on the primary evidence, with translations of many texts included throughout, and Ruffini’s engaging tone pulls the reader into the stories that are showcased and woven together. It is especially useful for students (undergraduate and master’s level in particular), but is a convenient synthesis of material that is not easy for the non-specialist to navigate, and the bibliography provides newcomers to the sixth century material with the most important resources. There are lots of places to go from here. Many topics are mentioned that only brush the surface of the day-to-day realities that these Egyptian men and women faced, and while this book will leave the reader wanting more, it also provides the tools for further exploration.


1.   Barrington Atlas 77 E3; Trismegistos (TM) Geo 237.
2.   In terms of local administration, one omission from the bibliography is Lajos Berkes, Dorfverwaltung Und Dorfgemeinschaft in Agypten Von Diokletian Zu Den Abbasiden, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz. 2017.
3.   See the doctoral thesis of Lorelei Vanderheyden, Les lettres coptes des archives de Dioscore d'Aphroditê (Unpublished doctoral thesis, École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris, 2015).
4.   Notably, Arietta Papaconstantinou, “The rhetoric of power and the voice of reason: tensions between central and local in the correspondence of Qurra ibn Sharīk,” in Official epistolography and the language(s) of power. Proceedings of the 1st International Conference of the Research Network Imperium and Officium: Comparative Studies in Ancient Bureaucracy and Officialdom, University of Vienna, 10-12 November 2010, ed. by S. Procházka, L. Reinfandt, and S. Tost (Vienna: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Vienna, 2015), pp. 267-281.

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