BMCR 1997.03.37

1997.3.37, Rowlandson, Landowners and Tenants in Roman Egypt

, Landowners and tenants in Roman Egypt : the social relations of agriculture in the Oxyrhynchite Nome. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. 1 online resource (xiv, 384 pages) : illustrations, maps.. ISBN 0191589950. $80.00.

Egypt presents a continual problem for ancient historians. The sheer quantity of the documentary material that has survived in its arid climate ought make it an ideal subject for study, but paradoxically the technical nature of much of the evidence, which is in Egyptian as well as Greek, combines with a unique ecology and political history effectively to marginalize Egypt in the work of mainstream Hellenistic or Roman historians. Such scholars mine Egyptian data very selectively, for instance, in discussing commodity prices or literacy or brother-sister marriage. On the other side, the separate field of papyrology, whose practitioners devote themselves to the editing and understanding of Egypt’s documentary largesse, rarely think in terms of the broader issues of Greek or Roman imperial history and, for the most part, publish in specialized journals and monograph series. Reasons for the divide are not hard to find: region specific data make papyrologists reluctant to generalize even about Egypt as a whole and the relative lack of evidence from other regions of the Roman empire frustrate comparative work. Still, among English speaking scholars, R. S. Bagnall and Alan Bowman, in particular, have made an impressive effort to break this trend, and D. P. Kehoe’s Management and Investment on Estates in Roman Egypt During the Early Empire (Bonn, 1992), which uses Pliny’s letters to provide a comparison point for Egyptian estate management, serves notice that such work is not only possible, but can be both scholarly and accessible. Landowners and Tenants in Roman Egypt, with its subtitle of The Social Relations of Agriculture in the Oxyrhynchite Nome, would seem to align itself with this type of integrative work.

On the one hand, Jane Rowlandson has written a book that is both thorough and indispensible for those who wish to understand the Egyptian economy in the Roman period. It is a study in seven very full chapters and a brief conclusion focusing on the administrative district of Oxyrhynchus in Middle Egypt during the three centuries from Augustus until the edict of Diocletian in 285 AD. This location has provided the richest source of papyri from the Roman period, which form the raw data for her study. They include Oxyrhynchite leases, sales, and land registers, as well as peripheral documents that mention land transactions, for example, wills and petitions. The significance of her work is the demonstration of the symbiotic relationship between large and small landowners, citizens of the metropolis and the villages, and it provides a welcome counter-balance to the generally pervasive notion that land centrally held dominated the economy and that, as a consequence, those at the lower end of the economic scale were incapable of positive actions to affect their economic well-being. On the contrary, Rowlandson’s thesis is that there was both a substantial quantity of privately owned land in the Roman period as well as a thriving class of small landholders who were capable of employing a variety of strategies to acquire, maintain, and ultimately pass on their parcels to the next generation. Although her argument is contextualized by the Roman privatization of land within Egypt, she is less concerned with the ways in which Oxyrhynchite patterns of hand holding, alienation, and tenancy functioned within the money economy than in positioning these exchanges within the intersecting social networks of family, village, and urban life.

Unfortunately, the style and the organization of the book will restrict its appeal to those who have a serious interest in Greco-Roman Egypt, primarily because the author does not organize her material in a way that enables the less specialized reader to move easily through her arguments. There is little sense of hierarchy of information or of progress, of building on information from one chapter to the next, and for much of the book the corroborative data are almost overwhelming and the argumentation confusing. While this is a style found frequently in certain kinds of historical and papyrological monographs, particularly books like Rowlandson’s that began life as a dissertation, it is regretable that the study is so limited in focus. Rowlandson has an astute and consistent understanding of how the patterns of land tenancy functioned in rural Egypt on both the economic and social levels, but her admirably cautious sense of the limits of her evidence often leads her to submerge her most important formulations in a mass of data or of details the significance of which is not readily apparent. To be fair to the author, she does not set out to do more than she accomplishes, but the material that she collects and many of the conclusions she reaches would have profited from a broader contextualization. For example, she hints at continuities of agricultural practice with Pharaonic Egypt but discontinuities with the Ptolemaic period. A knowledgeable reader can tease this material out of the subsequent chapters, but it would have been preferable to have the specific points set out in more detail and in one place, not dispersed throughout the book. Further, in several places where a portion of her argument depends on the work of previous scholars, she seems to assume that her readers have more familiarity with the details of these prior studies than will necessarily be the case.

The initial chapters presents the most difficult challenge for the non-specialist: the book begins with what has become de rigueur for such studies, a discussion of the geography of the area under consideration and the circumstances of its agricultural production. Certainly it is important to discuss the evidence for population and types of agricultural production, but much of the chapter is heavy going—the maps are too small for the amount of detail included and the narrative too densely laced with Egyptian village names and what seemed (to this reader at least) to be geographical controversies that were irrelevant for her subsequent arguments. Tables 1-3 in Appendix 1 are very useful in supplementing this chapter; similar tables or a map that set out clearly the relative range and location of agricultural production throughout the nome would have been welcome. The second chapter, which discusses the categories of land that are used in Oxyrhynchite documents, is even heavier going. The author herself suggests that “readers not interested in the technicalities may prefer to skip the discussion” (5) and one would do well to heed her advice—in fact, much of this chapter could have been presented in a glossary or an annotated appendix. Points of significance for later chapters are: (1) that there is a gradual tendency during the period of the study for land to move away from categorization by origin, which was common in the Ptolemaic period (i.e., kleruchike ge, or land originally given to military settlers), to differentiation by tax rate (41). (2) While there may have been a general increase in the amount of privately held land over public land in the Oxyrhynchite nome from the first to the fourth century, the proportions of one type to the other seem to have varied considerably from region to region at all periods (67). These differences must be factored into any comparison data from other regions of Egypt. (3) Even small landowners tended to hold parcels in more than one geographical location rather than consolidate their holdings into one contiguous estate. This pattern probably persisted from pharaonic times and enabled individual farmers to cope more easily with the vagaries of the annual inundation. (4) “Sacred land” ( hiera ge) in the Oxyrhynchite nome was insignificant in comparison to public ( demosia ge) and private land ( idiotike ge). Since the relative proportion of sacred land may well have been higher in other areas, this too limits the usefulness of regional comparisons. (4) Imperial estates ( ousiake ge) were leased out in parcels as were other types of land and came gradually to function like public land in providing land for small-scale farmers to augment their holdings by lease.

Chapter III (The Tenure of Public Land) provides a detailed analysis of the ways in which public land was farmed and taxed. Compared to other areas in Egypt from which documentary evidence exists, it would seem that Oxyrhynchus had relatively little public land ( basilike ge in the Ptolemaic period, demosia ge in the Roman, though the categories are not completely identical, see 38-40). Public land was not an intact category located in only a few places throughout the nome, but rather consisted of large and small parcels physically intermixed with private holdings, probably because it came into the public domain at various times through confiscations or default. This geographical distribution guaranteed relative ease of access for villagers and small municipal holders who wished to cultivate public holdings. Since it was apparently possible in many cases to pass tenancy of public land from one generation to another, small farmers might look to this source to augment their own holdings. Indeed, Rowlandson observes that “tradition evidently counted for much in the tenure of public land; villagers felt that the basilike ge of their village was ‘theirs’, and resented any attempt to deprive them of access to resources which had traditionally been at their disposal” (86-7). Just how the public land was distributed and monitored is unclear, though it seems unlikely that the whole of public land for the nome was regularly surveyed and redistributed to tenants. Rowlandson’s view is rather that land would have been reassessed and put out for tenancy—either by choice or compulsion—as it became vacant. Productive public land seems to have been desirable for large and small holder alike, but the fact that public land was consistently taxed at a higher rate than private, regardless of actual quality, effectively limited cultivation of marginal lands to larger holders for whom economies of scale or lower than subsistence level returns after taxes might be feasible. The cultivation of marginal public land was imposed by authorities upon the wealthier landowners as a duty and such land holders could also compete more successfully for high quality public lands, hence there is a noticeable trend during the Roman period for public land to end up concentrated in the hands of a wealthy few.

Chapter IV (The Landowners and Their Properties) is a relatively brief chapter attempting to sketch out the social hierarchy of Oxyrhynchite landowners and to locate their holdings physically within the nome. Rowlandson begins by detailing what is really an underlying premise of the book, namely that the growth of a prosperous class of metropolite landowners resulted in part from calculated Roman policy throughout the provinces of Greek east. This is not, of course, her own idea but has been variously argued, and she bases her observations on the work of A.K. Bowman and D. Rathbone. 1 Using as comparanda land registers from fourth-century Hermopolis and R.S. Bagnall’s attempt to approximate typical land-holding patterns of metropolites and villagers within a nome, 2 she produces a rather predictable model: the wealthy few (no more than “a few dozen”) have the largest holdings (500 arouras or more), a rather larger group of the metropolitan class (she estimates no more than 100) and a far smaller number of villagers will have had holdings substantial enough to receive income from rents, and the largest group consisted of those who needed to augment their incomes by other types of work, either in trade or as tenants of public or private land. At the bottom of the pyramid are those who own no land at all, who will have provided a ready source of labor for the more prosperous (123-4). The written evidence unfortunately provides little help in assessing the size and relative autonomy of this last category, though it is the most critical. The smaller the percentage of the total population this group is, the more significant Rowlandson’s arguments become; if however the number is very large, then her population of small farmers is no more than the bottom of a very small elite class of property owners whose actual size may have fluctuated a few percentage points during the Roman period but who were never very numerous. Rowlandson had earlier estimated the rural population of Oxyrhynchus at about 100,000 and the metropolitan population at 20,000-25,000 (17), which makes her region roughly commensurate with Bagnall’s hypothetical nome. While, she makes no attempt to estimate the size of the lowest portion of the pyramid, she states that Bagnall’s estimate of “7,400 rural (i.e., village) landowners seems low (for a population of some 100,000, in which woman and children as well as adult males could own land.)” (122). But does she think Oxyrhynchite landowning should be higher by only a few percentage points or by a factor of two or three? 3 Her conclusion about the make up of land parcels is less obvious than her landowning pyramid. Both large and small holdings tended to consist not of one parcel in one discrete location, but were made up of many parcels of varying sizes and often as not in more than one location, though a definite clustering effect of small parcels in one location is observable in some instances, and this is a pattern observable in other regions of Egypt. Large landowners tended overall to have larger parcels, but will also have held some very small pieces (under an aroura). Parcels ranged in size from a very few of about 1,000 arouras to many under one aroura. Given that Rowlandson reckons five arouras/person on average as bare minimum for subsistence, the high number of very small parcels (under 5 arouras) for which we have leases (see her Appendix 21: Table 11) is remarkable and requires further explanation.

Chapters V (Inheritance of Land) and VI (Sale and Mortgage of Land) attempts to provide a partial explanation for these very small holdings and demonstrate the ways in which individuals manipulated the system for their economic advantage. Inheritance patterns in Roman Egypt were influenced by Egyptian practice, even among the Greek population. All children inherited equally regardless of sex (though the oldest male may in some cases have received a double portion), and from both parents, since women had the right to make wills independent of their husbands. But these circumstances will often have led to the fragmentation of land parcels. After the death of a parent, many parcels continued to be held in joint tenancy by inheriting children. Incidence of joint ownership is found everywhere, though it seems to have been more common among small-scale landowners, a circumstance that suggests that it may have been a mechanism to keep parcels at an agriculturally viable size. Rowlandson suggests that the possibility of leasing public lands may have functioned de facto as a redistribution system: if there were too many heirs, the individuals might augment their holdings by leasing public lands, and when a tenant of public land died without issue, the land would become available for new lessors. The right to sell land was widespread in the Roman period, but Oxyrhynchite sales do not indicate a particularly commercialized land market. Rowlandson identifies three typical patterns that would locate the sale of land as a strategy for managing property-holding within and among families: to reduce the numbers of joint owners (by selling from one to another), to reunite fragmented holdings, and to purchase land for children ahead of an eventual inheritance.

In Egypt women could own land and bequeath it to their heirs; about 25% of agricultural land in Egypt seems to have been owned by women. It is surprising therefore to find that in her Oxyrhynchite material about 40% of documented landowners entering into private sales contracts appear to have been women, and about 50% of all debtors in mortgages contracts appear to have been women (182, 200). (While she notes these high figures she does not attempt to provide reasons for their occurrence.) The Egyptian form of dowry ( pherne) was normally a money payment intended for the woman’s upkeep; it did not include land. Occasionally, however, families can be seem purchasing land for a daughter of marriageable age and deeding it to her outright, Rowlandson speculates, perhaps in lieu of a subsequent inheritance. Also, she provides good evidence that women were less likely to be able to farm land themselves, hence would have leased it if they had no husband or sons to undertake the work. These two chapters are highly recommended to anyone interested in concrete evidence for the status and circumstances of women in the ancient world.

Chapter VII (Private Tenancy) is a very full chapter setting out Oxyrhynchite leasing patterns and what can reasonably be concluded from them. Since Egyptian agriculture seems not to have been dependent on chattel slavery, a question often asked is what substituted for it. By the sixth century large estates with a permanent class who performed the agricultural tasks in exchanges for subsistence (usually food and shelter but little else) gives rise to the supposition that this pattern prevailed earlier as well. Rowlandson argues otherwise. Beginning with a brief comparison between Greek and Egyptian leases, she finds that the Egyptian pattern of single-year leases continued through most of the Ptolemaic period and into the first century of the Roman period. She notes a gradual move to longer-term (usually four-year) leases from the mid-first century AD with reversion to the shorter term lease again in the third. After Diocletian the trend towards the few large estates with a permanent dependent labor force begins. Rowlandson argues that “there is a general correlation between the short duration of leases and a high social status of the tenant in comparison with the landlord” (209). Short-term leasing of course allowed both parties flexibility. Owners did not have to farm themselves, and tenants who provided equipment and labor were never completely dependent on their landlords. Further these types of leases required renegotiation annually and many arrangements, Rowlandson argues, might even have been informal and unwritten, a circumstance that presupposes a greater degree of interaction of the two parties than the longer term lease. From the tenants’ viewpoint, labor and equipment provided flexibility in choosing what land to work and was a hedge against a poor Nile. But she sees the trend towards the longer term leases a symptom of the increasing prosperity of the metropolitan class over that of the villagers Longer term, in contrast, gave the owner greater security at the expense of the lessor, who needed to commit to rent in advance of actual agricultural conditions. She makes the plausible though unexplored observation that even if these arrangements provided little economic benefit, they would have enabled the metropolite landowners to “adopt the leisured lifestyle proper to the urban, Hellenized, upper class” (275).

The raw data for the study has been assembled in two hefty appendices: Appendix 1 is a catch-all containing 19 separate tables ranging from the relative size of Oxyrhynchite villages (Table 1), public land in the Oxyrhynchite nome (Table 5), evidence from wills (Table 8) and dowries (Table 9), prices of land (Table 11) to duration of leases (Table 17), while Appendix 2 contains a list of extant published Oxyrhynchite leases broken down into 13 categories, including date, location, area, crop, terms, names, and status (metropolitan or villager) of lessor and lessee. These are essential for understanding Rowlandson’s arguments and are worth reading through, independent of the text to get a sense of the range and magnitude of the evidence as well as the relative strengths or weaknesses of the data which underpin her arguments. For example, in Appendix 2 the strikingly large number of leases of small land parcels (fewer than five arouras) makes it clear why she devotes so much of her book to accounting for this phenomenon; while Table 17: The Duration of Oxyrhynchite Land Lease Contracts. I c. BC-IV c. AD. reveals that the central premise of Chapter VII—that leases shifted from one-year’s duration to longer term over the course of the first three centuries AD—rests on very fragile data indeed.

Finally, a word needs to be said about the production of this book. Maps and tables have obviously been reduced to fit a standard book size, but this has resulted in a considerable loss of clarity and ease of use for the reader. Further, competent press editing seems to have been lacking: there are a number of formatting errors that are hardly the fault of the author, for example, Tables 5 and 6 have some incorrect alignments and we are informed on p. xi that technical terms are “listed in the Glossary, p. 000.” If this were from a press dedicated to keeping down the costs of production low by using camera-ready copy and relying on the author to provide all of the editing the errors would not occasion comment, but this is an Oxford Press publication whose supposedly higher standards for quality are reflected in the book price. Rowlandson and the reader deserved better.

1.”Cities and Administration in Roman Egypt,”JRS 82 (1992) 107-27

2.”Landholding in Late Roman Egypt; the Distribution of Wealth,”JRS 82 (1992) 128-64.

3. Bagnall computes his percentages on the basis not of individuals but of householders (using 4 as the number for an average household = about 25,000 village households). His figure of 7,400 suggests that about 30% of all village households would have possessed some land.