BMCR 1996.10.05

1996.10.05, Soldier and Society in Roman Egypt: A Social History

, Soldier and society in Roman Egypt : a social history. London and New York: Routledge, 1995. 1 online resource (viii, 263 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9780203066737. $59.95.

The jacket illustration for this book is a bronze statuette, probably from the first century AD, of a falcon-headed man (the Egyptian god, Horus) garbed in the costume of a Roman general and executed in a thoroughly non-Egyptian fashion. The statuette could have been commissioned by Roman soldiers garrisoned in Egypt, in which case it argues for adaptation of native beliefs by the conquerors. Alternatively, it may have been Egyptian, hence a symbol of conquest transformed into a pro-Egyptian emblem of Pharaonic power. But whatever its origin it is an admirable example of the complexity of the interaction between the conquering and now resident Roman army and their subject peoples which the author sets himself to reconstruct. This study is one of a growing number that appropriate the mass of papyrological material to write social history and in the process attempt to reposition Egypt as central to the ancient historical enterprise, instead of an aberration from an otherwise homogeneous empire.

The book is a study in nine chapters (with two appendices) of the Roman army in Egypt from Augustus to Diocletian. The author begins with an introductory chapter summarizing the current state of work on Roman military history. The dominant model employed in writing Roman military history, he contends, is that of historians like M. Speidel or E. Birley, who seek to understand ancient armies and military practice in terms of modern armies, on the a priori assumption that the role and goals of the military have remained constant throughout history, allowing only for differences in technological sophistication. Not surprisingly, this approach has come under criticism from Roman social historians who question its fundamental assumptions. Alston positions his own work as integrative, attempting to answer such questions as “what the army was for, what the soldiers did, who the soldiers were and how the army related to the civilian population” (p. 6) by using the abundance of documentary material from the province of Roman Egypt. While he acknowledges the uniqueness of Egypt in terms of culture, ecology, and administration, he argues that the army in Egypt was structured no differently than in other provinces and that to some extent every province had a unique cultural history and specific logistical problems to overcome. He attempts, whenever feasible, to provide corroborating material from places outside of Egypt.

Chapters Two through Six treat respectively the location of legions in Egypt, patterns of recruitment and settlement upon retirement, legal status of soldiers and veterans, what the army actually did with its time from day to day, and its economic impact. The procedure in each chapter is roughly the same: to outline the current state of the scholarship on each issue, for example, how did the army affect the economy of the empire, then to assess to what extent the Egyptian evidence requires modification or amplification of the status quo. Among the more interesting conclusions of these chapters are: (1) the number of troops seems to have decreased from about 22,000 to 12,000 over the three centuries of the study (though it increases again in the fourth century). (2) Troops appear to have been positioned and deployed for reasons other than control of Egypt proper in this period. The garrisoning of two of Egypt’s three legions near Alexandria indicates that a relatively higher priority was given to control of the city and the Mediterranean. (3) There was no apparent government policy for recruitment or for the settlement of veterans. While a relatively high percentage of veterans settled in the Fayum, they would at no time have constituted more than 10% of the total population of the region (if that). (4) The presence of the army had relatively little impact on the overall economy of Egypt, and the wealth of veterans, though sufficient to allow them to enjoy relatively high status within their village communities, was by no means on the same scale as that of the imperial elite. While these conclusions may not seem particularly startling to papyrologists, they do, in some measure, run counter to received wisdom (or speculation) on the impact and function of the army elsewhere in the early Roman empire.

Chapter Seven takes a different approach: Alston focuses on the village of Karanis in the Fayum to examine the ways in which soldiers and veterans interacted with the rest of the Egyptian population. The region of the Fayum in the northwestern quadrant of Egypt was an area of heavy veteran settlement and recruitment with the result that a number of military families can be traced through several generations along with their property holdings. Roman soldiers and ex-soldiers neither form a separate class nor enjoy the greatest wealth, though they do belong to the upper stratum in the village. While Roman citizens themselves, they have dealings with the Greco-Egyptian population and even intermarry. Alston claims that there is no evidence at all that the presence of a large population of soldiers over a relatively long period of time much altered the local culture. “The veterans of Karanis were not in the forefront of the process of Romanisation. In spite of the presence of a significant minority of Romans, Karanis remained a typical, if somewhat large, Egyptian village” (p. 142).

Chapter Eight briefly sketches the changes to the army following the reforms of Diocletian in effect to reinforce his limiting of this study to the period between Augustus and Diocletian. While the rationale for his decision is clear, it has the unfortunate consequence of excluding the Abinnaeus material (dating from AD 342-4) from detailed consideration and comparison with earlier evidence (though he does treat it in passing). Further, the fact that the number of army units and fortifications in the chora seems to have considerably increased in the fourth century raises a suspicion that conclusions about “Romanisation” and general impact of the army in Egypt might well be altered by inclusion of later material.

Nine is an all to brief final chapter that tentatively integrates the conclusions Alston reaches about Egypt with evidence on the function of the army from other locations in the empire, primarily Britain because of the finds from the fort at Vindolanda near Hadrian’s wall. Here, a far more detailed discussion would have been welcome, particularly of any evidence that might have run counter to Alston’s general conclusions about Egypt.

There are two detailed and valuable appendices. One provides a critical review of the documentary evidence for each of the military units that have been attested for Egypt. The second summarizes the archaeological evidence for the army in Egypt, this latter accompanied with drawings of five forts, the most impressive of which is Mons Claudianus in the Western desert. This latter appendix would profit from the addition of a map that is more detailed than Map 2 (printed on p. 34).

Roman military history is a subject usually neglected for both political and practical reasons: it has been out of fashion since the end of the cold war and military historians tend to write only for themselves in a technical language that borders on the opaque. While papyrologists regularly study the military documents found in Egypt, their conclusions have tended to remain localized within the papyrological community. Alston’s study demonstrates that this need not be so. This is a well-researched and lucidly written book that skillfully subordinates the mass of detail to a clearly discernible central argument. As in all such studies, the credibility of the conclusions in each section varies with the available documentation and the reader’s willingness to accept many of the necessary but unprovable inferences that underpin the arguments. However, Alston is careful to distinguish for the reader fact from inference, and to articulate clearly the basis for his inferences. One minor problem throughout this otherwise admirable book is the question of audience. Alston appears to be writing for the general classical and/or historical reader rather more than a specialized set of military historians or papyrologists. He sets out in some detail the organization of legions and auxiliaries, but occasionally he seems unaware that his reader might not be entirely familiar with Egyptian geography or administration. But these are insignificant flaws in a book that is well worth reading.