BMCR 1994.03.19

Egypt in Late Antiquity

, Egypt in late antiquity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. xii, 370 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, map ; 25 cm. ISBN 9780691069869. $29.95.

Egypt’s unique troves of papyri documenting Greco-Roman and late antique history have served not only as the basis for broad conclusions about the evolution of the Mediterranean world. Quite often in the history of papyrology their exclusively microscopic glimpses into everyday life have allowed Egyptian society to become a mirror of ongoing contemporary conclusions about class struggle, ethnic polarization, religious innovation, urban/rural regionalism, and cultural devolution. Indeed, it is in the nature of papyri that, within some limitations, one can make the evidence mean whatever one wants to make it mean: a collection of classical literature from Oxyrhynchus can suggest a thriving and broadly literate gymnasium culture or an insular elite; a profusion of “magical” texts can mean a cultural decline into occult and selfish concerns or the ongoing attention to private ritual; a derogatory aside about “Egyptians” can signify an overarching Hellenistic racism or one person’s frustrated attempt at cultural self-definition in a far more complex ethnic situation.

With increased attention to the particularity of the evidence as well as the refinement of old categories like racism, magic, nationalism, and economic oppression papyrologists have now made Greco-Roman Egypt into a crucible for the study of the problems themselves: what did “Greek” mean? By what terms can we describe the role of estates in Byzantine Egypt? What could it have meant to be Christian for a fourth-century individual writing about his estate’s produce shipments? Following upon the synthetic works of two other contemporary papyrologists, Naphtali Lewis’ Life in Egypt Under Roman Rule (Oxford, 1983) and Alan K. Bowman’s Egypt after the Pharaohs (Berkeley, 1986), Roger Bagnall’s Egypt in Late Antiquity represents the most expansive study of Egyptian society in transition yet produced, both voluminously documented and self-critical in its use of papyrological evidence. Its difference in scope from the last-mentioned works makes it far more useful as a standard reference work (although perhaps less useful for a course on Greco-Roman Egypt overall) than Bowman and Lewis: where Bowman’s wonderfully illustrated and documented book captures the whole of Greco-Roman history and Lewis’ highly readable chapters the entire Roman period, both from largely synchronic perspectives, Bagnall focuses almost exclusively on the fourth century even while covering a tremendous range of topics. Chapters are devoted to: the Nature of the Sources; the Environment; the Cities; Country Villages; City and Country (incl. taxation and justice); People and Families; Power and Dependence (slavery, patronage, class); Languages, Literacy, and Ethnicity; This World and the Next (religion); and Egypt’s place in the fourth-century Mediterranean world.

There are important reasons for choosing the fourth century to take a sounding of late antique Egypt. Following the economic innovations and calamities of the third century, concurrent with the rise of Christianity as a legitimate social institution over the course of the fourth century, and on what for years has seemed the historical cusp between an ecumenical Hellenism and a parochializing Coptism, the fourth century can be taken as the transitional epoch par excellence. Bagnall’s thorough papyrological and epigraphical documentation of this period, deftly deployed at every page to criticize prior views or assemble a basis for historical generalization, can be credited partly to the existence of a computer database of fourth-century documents that he set up in the mid-1980’s with NEH support. Thus the reader can be confident in Bagnall’s knowledge of the extant materials (including secondary works) even if not convinced by one or another of his conclusions.

Bagnall’s picture of fourth-century Egyptian society, assembled through both statistics and anecdotes culled from the papyri’s own voices, does continue the reconstructions of previous scholars to a large extent. Linguistic, cultural, and economic factors require a distinction between the small agricultural villages and the merchant- and landowner-dominated cities. Greek language and culture dominated urban life, while in the villages one could expect no more than a Greek-Egyptian bilingualism (more often just Egyptian). In a very careful section on literacy Bagnall hesitates at absolute conclusions but follows Youtie and William Harris (Ancient Literacy [Cambridge, 1989]) in estimating literary compositional abilities in city and country as quite infrequent, with a few vivid exceptions. On the one hand, few village positions of status even required literacy; while on the other hand, in the cities, professional scribes were the common resource even for those urban elite whose positions did require literacy. Finally, Bagnall disputes the image of Egypt as overtaxed: for trade- (as opposed to agriculturally-) based earnings in the cities, he proposes, taxes were set comparatively low to allow the elite opportunities for prestige through financing civic projects.

In many of these domains the fourth century saw little change from previous centuries. But Bagnall focuses on several changes occurring over the course of the fourth century. The first such transformation, extending from the third through the sixth century and affecting economic and political spheres, consisted of a decline in bureaucracy and an increasing class of large landholders (the “Great Houses”) that were “sharing public responsibilities—in such a fashion that it is very difficult to disentangle public from private functions” (160). Thus power and administration become locally based, supporting the consolidation of a civic elite and a competitive culture of patronage and prestige. Here Bagnall largely sharpens and offers more nuanced documentation for a trend observed by earlier historians like Rémondon and Gascou.[1] On the village level, however, this localization of functions and responsibilities did not effectively translate into autonomous political systems as in the cities, but rather ad hoc and often leaderless group attempts to meet the obligations that the urban landholders imposed. Bagnall observes a profound decline in village organization during the fourth century, due largely to the decline of the native temples.

Another change lies in public culture. The pan-Mediterranean rise of the institution of the circus begins, in Egypt, to bring drama, poetry, and music together with the traditional athletic events and thus to become the axis of public culture in Egypt. From the gymnasium, the traditional locus of Hellenistic culture and self-definition for centuries, there begins a shift of emphasis to the public arena, “the professionally staged events of the circus, in which the characteristic racing of that setting is [now] interspersed with other forms of entertainment historically associated with the theater” (104). Taken in tandem with the broad selection of Greek literary texts found from this period and the literary skills of Egyptian authors (like the later Dioscorus of Aphrodito), this change signals not the decline of Hellenistic culture but its fundamental assimilation and even democratization by urban society.

The Hellenistic literary tradition continues alongside a third development, the growth of Coptic as a written language. Its use of the Greek alphabet and liberal use of Greek words make it certain that Coptic was not simply Egyptian in some nationalistic sense but a conscientious and regionally diverse synthesis of Egyptian and Greek. As the (essentially priestly) writing system of Demotic Egyptian declined with the priesthoods, Coptic was quickly taken up by Christians (as well as Manichaeans) for religious literature and, in later centuries, for economic records. But Coptic’s roots themselves lie in the native temples: the earliest Coptic texts contain the typical quotidian rituals of which the native priests were the masters. Bagnall’s reference to these ritual texts as “the first tries” (238) seems a bit anachronistic.

A third transformation that Bagnall outlines, and the subject on which he is most provocative, lies in the sphere of religion. As Peter Brown and Annik Martin have respectively detailed in various publications, the fourth century sees the rise of both the Christian holy man and Christianity as a civic institution in Egypt.[2] But for what proportion of the population were these trends relevant? Against triumphalist church historians of another age who viewed “paganism” as an inherently lost cause by the first century CE, scholars like Wilcken, Maspero, Rémondon, and Kaegi provided abundant evidence, papyrological as well as literary, for the continuity of Egyptian religion through the sixth century (although only in isolated enclaves like Philae and Abydos after the fourth century).[3] This argument, continued more recently by Wipszycka, van der Vliet, and Trombly, has grown more refined with greater awareness of the limitations of the sources (predominantly hagiographical after the fourth century) and greater attention to the class, region, discourse, and activities of such “lingering paganism.”[4] Thus one might almost conclude that Egyptian religion was not really suffering in the fourth century.

Bagnall himself had attempted to refute this conclusion from statistical angle in a 1982 article and an ensuing debate with Ewa Wipszycka.[5] Using all the datable papyri from the fourth and fifth centuries he calculated the proportion of Christian and non-Christian names and thus proposed the percentage of Christians in the Egyptian population at several periods over the fourth century. By this ingenious, if unrealistically mechanistic approach to “conversion” Bagnall deduced the Christians’ shift over the course of the fourth century from minority to heavily majority status.

But what then became of the native religion? In a recent article and now in this book Bagnall has argued compellingly for a non-spiritual explanation for the temples’ own demise—and hence the evaporation of native piety.[6] The cause was the decline, over the Roman period and particularly after the economic catastrophes of the third century, of imperial patronage to a native religious infrastructure that had historically depended on such patronage. Thus while papyri and inscriptions do document priestly and temple activities through the fourth century— and Bagnall provides a good assessment of the data— they do so in steadily and then drastically decreasing amounts. Of course, as Bagnall is well aware (though perhaps less so here than in other sections of the book), papyri are a notoriously idiosyncratic type of data for such statistical conclusions, their existence and selection due almost entirely to historical and archaeological accident. But his argument for a lingering effect of the third-century crisis, with the eventual end of patronage by a Christianized imperium, makes good historical sense and should change the way the religious transformation of Egypt is conceptualized.

It must nevertheless be said that the economic decline of temples could not itself lead to the end of a region’s religion, properly conceived. On the one hand, Bagnall offers a seductive hypothesis of complete socio-religious disintegration: “The end of any vital existence for most village temples stripped away the literate and respected leadership class the priesthood had long provided and no doubt eliminated to a large degree the ritual occasions that lent the village a sense of itself as a community. Even spatially it is hard to imagine that abandoned and decaying temples, whether in the center of villages or integrated on the periphery, did not depress the ability to perceive the village as something more than a collection of houses” (315). And yet one sees in Egypt, as elsewhere in history, a diversity of responses to this kind of economic decline that range from continuity (festivals, oracles, shrines, and even occasional temple services) to innovation (the fourth-century rise to international prominence of an oracle of the god Bes at Abydos, mentioned by Ammianus 19.12) to syncretism (among many symbols and rituals assimilated in Coptic Christian folk religion, the central use of “healing water” in Christian as in native sanctuaries). In none of these responses is the concept of “paganism’s end” historically meaningful unless one projects some kind of post-conversion mental shift over the entire populace of late antique Egypt.

Thus from the perspective of an Egyptologist Bagnall’s concept of “paganism” is oddly static— and “replaceable.” It revolves entirely around public sacrifice for the civic good, performed by priests who are bankrolled by the state, altogether an image reminiscent of those of older (Protestant) historians who cast “paganism” as a type of Catholicism, stilted and outmoded: “Only with Christianity,” Bagnall asserts, “does Egyptian culture emerge from being a survival in the near-ghetto of the temples” (324). While accurately pointing to the intrinsic continuity of temple and popular piety Bagnall seems unaware of the integral nature of “magic”— healing stelae, oracles, amulets, shrines, and mortuary traditions— in Egyptian religion, as these types of devotion have been continually described by Egyptologists (e.g., most recently, Baines and Ritner) as very much the religion’s life-blood among the populace.[7] In these spheres “paganism” certainly seems to have continued with only minimal priestly aid and, if anything, mere corners of temples. It seems remarkable for a book on Egyptian culture to shunt “magic and astrology” off to the side of more general discussions of piety when Egyptians themselves never made such a distinction, or to assert that, “where for a pagan the ritual of the proskynema before the local god on behalf of others was a general means of propitiating the god on their behalf, for a Christian prayer was a more specific means of asking divine help in dispelling a particular illness” (186). This is a comparison of apples and oranges: both religious contexts carried both types of ritual, and the statement ignores most of what we know about popular devotion and healing at Egyptian temples. The temples did indeed have socially integrative functions, but these came for the most part in festivals, not sacrifices per se. Bagnall devotes some discussion and appropriate documentation to festivals but downplays their significance, an unfortunate choice since Plutarch describes several Egyptian festivals as integral to regional self-definition (De is. 30-31, 50) and a considerable number of the Roman-era domestic figurines analyzed by Françoise Dunand refer to festivals.[8] Even though their frequency and extravagance had declined by the fourth century the function of festivals in mediating people and temples would not have changed significantly. Finally, while Garth Fowden’s landmark Egyptian Hermes (Cambridge, 1986) is cited once, there is nowhere a discussion of the new directions Egyptian priests apparently took in late antique Egypt to preserve their authority and literary traditions.

One needn’t overstate the fourth-century evidence in order to construct an accurate portrait of Egyptian religion that is consistent with Egyptologists’ own conclusions and that assesses iconographic and literary materials as well as the papyrological and inscriptional documentation. But Bagnall’s assessment of Egyptian “paganism” is really only relative to its supplantation by Christianity: the temples’ demise actually “cleared the way for the society of the fourth century and for a new form of Egyptian culture, one integrally linked to Christianity” (322).

It may indeed be that such a one-dimensional description of traditional Egyptian religion is due precisely to Bagnall’s devoted subscription to the categories “pagan” and “Christian.” “Pagan” may have its uses for discussing Christian rhetoric; but in such a complex ethnic and religious arrangement as Greco-Roman Egypt’s, and contrasted with a religion whose local assimilation would more accurately be described as selective absorption than “conversion,” such a binary category seems useless for the purposes of this book. Certainly the hagiographical authors did not have nearly as clear an understanding of the parameters of “paganism” as does Bagnall, who elsewhere takes great care to develop accurate descriptive categories.

It is this same “pagan”/”Christian” dichotomy that leads Bagnall to a strangely monolithic conception of a “Church” at precisely the period when Christianity was in its thickest internecine struggles. One may attribute this unified picture of fourth-century Christianity to his explicit decision not to consider Gnostic materials, Manichaean corpora, or Christian literary texts, an astounding limitation on any portrait of the evolving institutions and powers of Christianity since the bulk of these literary materials do in fact pertain to the fourth century. Melitians do receive perfunctory discussion because of their appearance in papyri; but Manichaism, whose literary (and now archaeological) remains testify to its considerable influence in fourth-century Egypt, is barely mentioned.[9] Bagnall justifies this monolithic picture of fourth-century Christianity on two grounds: that such diversity as the literary texts demonstrate is not reflected in the papyri, and that ideological diversity did not matter anyway to most of those claiming Christian identity. But this reasoning does not really suit a book broadly entitled Egypt in Late Antiquity; and the second argument ignores both the social underpinnings of “theological” disputes and the whole atmosphere of religious competition in late antique Egypt, in which Christian holy men seem to have had such an edge. It wasn’t so much “theology” as communities and social attitudes that mattered to adherents of the movement. But in Bagnall’s portrait one is left with a Christian Egypt sounding much more like eighteenth-century England than a distant society in transformation: there are “parishes,” “bishoprics,” and always only one “church.” For any use of Bagnall on Egyptian Christianity, therefore, one would have to supplement his chapter with the essays in The Roots of Egyptian Christianity, ed. Pearson and Goehring (Minneapolis, 1986), which tell a quite different story.

In an era when such informed work is being done on late antique religious transformations by historians like Peter Brown, Raymond Van Damm, Ramsay MacMullen, and Valerie Flint,[10] Bagnall’s approach to “religion” seems somewhat archaic, an ill-defined aspect of ancient lives that might best be understood in reference to contemporary Christendom (note esp. 305 nn.254, 256!), being ultimately unitary despite schism and regional diversity and being essentially distinct from a superstitious “magic.” A more useful perspective on ancient religions requires not so much cross-cultural comparison as an awareness of the types of categories and models that such comparative work or studies in religion do and do not find useful— e.g., regarding the typical parameters of peasant or urban religion, or public ritual, or popular functions of priesthoods. Yet Bagnall dispenses with the value of anthropological studies in a single paragraph of the Introduction.

These criticisms would be unimportant if the chapter on religion were less central to Egypt in Late Antiquity; but for Bagnall as for most historians the nature of Christianization is one of the major issues in the study of fourth-century Egypt. And it is an area where Bagnall has himself contributed some of his most original and important thinking. Egypt in Late Antiquity nevertheless makes a tremendous contribution to our understanding of social, economic, and administrative activity in early Byzantine Egypt— and therefore to our knowledge of the late Roman Empire as a whole (for which scholars have traditionally depended on Egyptian documents). As a synthesis of a vast amount of papyri, inscriptions, and contemporary scholarship the book will also be a valuable reference source for those working on Greco-Roman Egypt of any period. The book would also serve as a model of papyrology’s potential use to unveil the nuances of ancient social history.


[1] Roger Rémondon, “L’Égypte au 5è siècle de notre ère: les sources papyrologiques et leurs problèmes,” Atti dell’XI Congresso Internazionale di Papirologia (Milan: Istituto Lombardo, 1966), 135-48; Jean Gascou, “Les grands domaines, la cité et l’état en Égypte byzantine (Recherches d’histoire agraire, fiscale et administrative),” Travaux et mémoires 9 (1985): 1-90.

[2] Peter Brown, The Making of Late Antiquity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity,” Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity (London: Faber and Faber, 1982), 103-52, and “The Saint as Exemplar in Late Antiquity,” Saints and Virtues, ed. John Stratton Hawley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 3-14; Annik Martin, “L’Église et la khôra égyptienne au IVè siècle,” Revue des études augustiniennes 25 (1979): 3-26.

[3] Ulrich Wilcken, “Heidnisches und Christliches aus Ägypten,” Archiv für Papyrusforschung 1 (1901): 396-436; Jean Maspero, “Horapollon et la fin du paganisme égyptien,” BIFAO 11 (1914): 163-95; Roger Rémondon, “L’Égypte et la suprême résistance au Christianisme (Vè-VIIè siècles),” BIFAO 51 (1952): 63-78; Walter E. Kaegi, “The Fifth-Century Twilight of Byzantine Paganism,” Classica et Mediaevalia 27 (1966): 243-75.

[4] Ewa Wipszycka, “La christianisation de l’Égypte aux IVè-VIè siècles: Aspects sociaux et ethniques,” Aegyptus 68 (1988): 117-65; Jacques van der Vliet, “Spätantikes Heidentum in Ägypten im Spiegel der koptischen Literatur,” Begegnung von Heidentum und Christentum im spätantiken Ägypten, Riggisberger Berichte 1 (Riggisberg: Abegg-Stiftung, 1993), 99-130; Frank R. Trombley, Hellenic Religion and Christianization, c. 370-529, 2 vols., Religions in the Graeco-Roman World 115 (Leiden: Brill, 1993-94), 2: 205-46. See also László Kákosy, “Das Ende des Heidentums in Ägyptens,” and Adelheid Burkhardt, “Zu späten heidnischen Priestern in Philae,” in Graeco-Coptica: Griechen und Kopten im byzantinischen Ägypten, ed. Peter Nagel (Halle-Wittenberg: Martin-Luther-Universität, 1984), 61-76, 77-83.

[5] Roger S. Bagnall, “Religious Conversion and Onomastic Change,” BASP 19 (1982): 105-24; Ewa Wipszycka, “La valeur de l’onomastique pour l’histoire de la christianisation de l’Égypte. A propos d’une étude de R. S. Bagnall,” ZPE 62 (1986): 173-81; Bagnall, “Conversion and Onomastics: A Reply,” ZPE 69 (1987): 243-50; continued in Wipszycka, “La christianisation de l’Égypte” (above, note 4), 119-22, 164-65, and Bagnall, Egypt in Late Antiquity, 279 n.115, 280 n.121.

[6] Cf. Roger S. Bagnall, “Combat ou vide: christianisme et paganisme dans l’Égypte romaine tardive,” Ktema 13 (1988): 285-96.

[7] John Baines, “Practical Religion and Piety,” JEA 73 (1987): 79-98, and “Society, Morality, and Religious Practice,” Religion in Ancient Egypt, ed. Byron E. Shafer (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), 123-200; Robert K. Ritner, “Horus on the Crocodiles: A Juncture of Religion and Magic in Late Dynastic Egypt,” Religion and Philosophy in Ancient Egypt, ed. W.K. Simpson, Yale Egyptological Studies 3 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 103-16, and The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice, SAOC 54 (Chicago: Oriental Institute, 1993), which has already become well-known in the form of his 1987 University of Chicago dissertation of the same title. B.R. Rees, “Popular Religion in Graeco-Roman Egypt, II. The Transition to Christianity,” JEA 36 (1950): 86-100, not cited by Bagnall, remains an accurate synthesis; and see also H. W. Fairman, “Worship and Festivals in an Egyptian Temple,” BJRL 37 (1954): 165-203, on the integration of devotees in temple rituals during festivals of the Ptolemaic period.

[8] Françoise Dunand, Religion populaire en Égypte romaine, EPRO 76 (Leiden: Brill, 1979).

[9] See especially Michel Tardieu, “Les manichéens en Égypte,” BSFE 94 (1982): 5-19; Ludwig Koenen, “Manichäische Mission und Klöster in Ägypten,” Das römisch-byzantinische Ägypten, Aegyptiaca Treverensia 2 (Mainz am Rhein: Philipp von Zabern, 1983), 93-108; Gedaliahu G. Stroumsa, “The Manichaean Challenge to Egyptian Christianity,” The Roots of Egyptian Christianity, ed. Birger A. Pearson and James E. Goehring, Studies in Antiquity and Christianity 1 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986), 307-19; and Iain Gardner, “A Manichaean Liturgical Codex found at Kellis,” Orientalia 62 (1993): 30-59.

[10] E.g., Peter Brown, op. cit.; Ramsay MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire (A.D. 100-400) (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984); Raymond Van Dam, “From Paganism to Christianity at Late Antique Gaza,” Viator 16 (1985): 1-20, and Leadership and Community in Late Antique Gaul, Transformation of the Classical Heritage 8 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985); and Valerie I.J. Flint, The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).