Roman Egypt remains, as Winston Churchill called the Soviet Union, ‘a mystery wrapped up in an enigma’. There are routes into the mystery, which is proper since mysteries exist to be revealed to the devotee, and the highway is the royal road of papyrus; but the enigma remains: exactly how unlike everywhere else in the world was Egypt?
Carsten Drecoll (D.) in Die Liturgien im römischen Kaiserreich des 3. und 4. Jh. n. Chr. has focused on an age with a high papyrus preservation-rate, and made a more complete job than any previous student of the period of codifying and discussing materials which refer to liturgies, services performed by individuals at their own cost and forming part of the work of government. Previous studies, as D. notes (10), have focused either on one liturgical function, or on one province.
Contemporary material to compare against papyrus evidence exists in Libanius, and in legal sources, and D. draws on it thoroughly. He lists liturgies in Libanius (231-6): sitegia, the duty of shipping food to Antioch; provision of donkeys; provisions of draught animals for the cursus publicus; medical services from doctors; embassies; police service; provision for chariot races and wild beast fights, including service as Syriarch; tax collection; provision for public baths, including fuel for furnaces; other services including purchase of bread. But these are more or less bare bones, and over legal material (236-263) hangs inevitable uncertainty about the efficacy of legislators’ intentions.
Take doctors. Libanius makes a single tangential comment, in Letter 723: ‘the law requires only one liturgy from doctors, namely the one arising from their profession [ techne ]’ (cf. 232-3). It is a papyrus (P.Fay. 106, quoted at 49) which confirms the legal fact, and D. adds that no liturgy-payer in the sources is identified as a doctor; and then what ‘the [liturgy] arising from their profession’ amounted to emerges from a further handful of papyrus texts: giving opinions on injuries relevant to litigation seems to have been the full extent of the public duty of a demosios iatros in Roman Egypt. It was not part of the job to treat patients on the community’s behalf.
Recent research has tended to see convergence with the rest of the Roman empire, making Egypt less a counter-example against the normal way of doing things than it had been in the Hellenistic world. Commenting on the takeover of Egypt by Rome in the second edition of Cambridge Ancient History vol. 10 (1996, too recent to feature in D.’s bibliography), A.K. Bowman says (702) that ‘the institutions and structures of central and local government were radically altered. The creation of a “Greek” magisterial class in the nome-capitals introduced a type of local civic government previously unknown. With it came the introduction of a new and wide-ranging liturgical system.’
On similar lines, Jane Rowlandson in Landowners and Tenants in Roman Egypt (Oxford, 1996, also too recent for D.) points out (104) that nome metropoleis were the heart of this hellenizing process, having the social structure of Greek cities long before the grant of boulai and polis status by Septimius Severus: the few longer-established Greek cities outside Alexandria (Naucratis, Ptolemais, Antinoopolis) were of local importance only.
D., however, has observed a tide running in the other direction from the tendency exemplified in Bowman’s and Rowlandson’s work. Papyrology as a discipline, he argues (12), is apt to deny comparability between Egypt and the Roman empire in general. D., however, presents some strong integrative arguments. Papyrus documents deal mostly with village-level liturgies and liturgy payers (while Libanius and the legislators focus on the urban world): but D. is surely right to say that village liturgies should be assumed in Asia or Syria (354). The old view of the uniqueness of Egypt is no longer sustainable in the light of the evidence now to hand: D.’s book suggests that Bowman’s and Rowlandson’s analysis is correct.
Many liturgists at the village level were chosen from among council members, and (vitally) anyone who had the means, and did not have an exemption of some kind, was a council member — as SB III.7261, discussed at 39-40, reveals. In third and fourth century Egypt there were no choices made between candidates by public assembly: the council had to get the necessary posts filled (16), and chief responsibility for putting together a list of suitable persons who were liable to serve fell on the council chairman ( prytanis). He would put the list to the vote at a council meeting, and the council would pass it by acclamation — so when a choice later became problematic, the chairman was likely to be named in a petition as being responsible for it (e.g. P.Oxy. XLVII.3350, discussed at 17). Confirmation of choices from the strategos of the nome (at later dates the logistes) was needed, and lists were sent in, noting that the persons named could afford the liturgies, and were of reliable character (25), but the strategos would usually merely see a list and confirm it. Where no dispute was going to arise, the council chairman might as well simply write and notify a liturgist that his name had gone forward, which meant that he had got the job (22). When litigation did ensue, it could go up as far as the Prefect (P.Oxy. X.1252 verso, cf. 21-22).
Liturgists, D. argues (9), were not ‘government officials’ ( Beamten). In most cases, a liturgy was not a full-time occupation (council chairmen, who had much to do, may constitute an exception), and was ordinarily held only for a year. On the other hand, not all liturgies were council posts in the cursus honorum. Many appeals against appointment rely on the idea that no one should have to do two liturgies at the same time (although D. argues  that the ban on holding two liturgies was repealed in the early third century), and the fact of having completed a cursus honorum and served as sacerdos provinciae gave one immunity from further liturgies (CTh XII.1.75, discussed at 56); but liturgies which were not council offices ( archai) included vital posts in the machinery of tax collection.
Through the third century praktores collected nearly all taxes: terminology varied but in general praktores argyrikon collected cash, praktores sitikon collected tax in kind, and only praktores ousiakon, collectors of imperial taxes, were appointed otherwise than via the nomination process typical for liturgists (111). Then in the first decade of the fourth century a complete rearrangement and almost complete professionalization of the tax system supervened (involving a change in the whole basis of calculation of tax: 121). The term apaitetes comes to have a specific meaning in the fourth century, D. argues against B. Palme (112-3), whereas beforehand it meant nothing more exact than ‘tax-collector’. This empire-wide reform, D. suggests (353), reduced the scope of involvement of local elites in taxation.
The other side of the coin was that career possibilities multiplied (cf. 354). Diocletian’s huge additions to the ranks of the civil service drew on people of the same social groups which had supplied the liturgists before. If liturgists had not been Beamten — and on a reasonable understanding of what constitutes being a government official D.’s point to this effect must be allowed — then fourth century tax collectors were.
D. is content for the most part to record the symptoms of this professionalization rather than speculate on its causes. This is consistent with the method he adopts throughout his book, and it would be wrong to find fault with an author who has given the scholarly world such a thorough classified source-collection with commentary for failing to do something which was evidently not part of the task he set himself; but it does mean that he does not take the opportunity to give his opinion on an important general question. Did liturgies break the back of the class which had to take them on, or was the implicit trade-off which the Roman empire offered valuable enough to compensate the unpaid archons and gymnasiarchs and the rest?
Naphtali Lewis in Life in Egypt under Roman Rule (Oxford, 1983) argued the ‘crippling burden’ viewpoint: ‘decades of economic recession, further aggravated by ever-increasing taxes and assessments and by requisitions imposed to sustain the internecine struggles over the imperial succession and the wars on the empire’s frontiers, succeeded in undermining the fortunes of many a well-to-do family’ (182). Complainants trying to get out of nominations said they could not afford it, he pointed out (but they would, wouldn’t they?). Even amnesties only perpetuated the problem: ‘doubtless many would welcome the opportunity to return home with impunity. and then the vicious cycle would begin all over again, for the amnesty might wipe away past debts and offences, but it could effect no amelioration for the future’ (184).
Rowlandson’s Landowners and Tenants offers a corrective. ‘The conduct of Roman provincial government during the Principate was impressively economical of manpower, but this was possible only through reliance on provincial elites to carry out government at a local level. In return for their loyalty, Rome supported and buttressed the local power of these elites by ensuring the conditions for increased wealth (predominantly based on landownership) and offering enhanced status within an empire-wide hierarchy of rank’ (103).
D.’s evidence tends to tell in Rowlandson’s favour, even when it amends details in her broad-brush treatment. D. argues that a liturgist’s whole wealth, not only value of land owned, was taken into account in assessing financial suitability for nomination (37), adding that it seems impossible to think that one could only be chosen if one could personally afford the whole possible downside of failure in discharging one’s office: a komarch was theoretically liable for the village’s whole revenues for his year — but in practice a typical komarch’s personal assets came to one to two thousand drachmas. It was possible to live with the tough rules, because the system worked well enough most of the time. Individuals might face financial ruin (hence Lewis’s instances) but they could usually be replaced: that’s social mobility.
D. has published a valuable compilation with sensible commentary. He has strengthened the factual foundation on which future discussion will be conducted. He is a well-informed contributor to debate, if sometimes more modest than he need be about putting opinions forward. Die Liturgien im römischen Kaiserreich des 3. und 4. Jh. n. Chr. will be a useful book for many years. The contents list (5-7) is good, and there is a complete index of documents cited (380-401); but the indexed glossary of Greek and Latin terms (375-379) and a half-page allgemeiner Stichwortindex (380) fail between them to compensate for the absence of a full general index.