BMCR 2004.06.37

Chronological Systems in Byzantine Egypt. Second Edition

, , Chronological systems of Byzantine Egypt. Leiden: Brill, 2004. viii, 349 pages ; 30 cm. ISBN 9004136541. €70.00.

Roger Bagnall and Klaas Worp (hereafter B. & W.) have provided the scholarly world not with a light reflection on how the inhabitants of Late Antique Egypt regarded the passage of time, but with a densely argued and comprehensively researched work of reference on how documents were dated in Egypt from the time of Diocletian until some time after the Arab conquest. It will be most useful to those with some familiarity with papyri (certainly a familiarity greater than my own), but it is far from inaccessible to classicists and historians with some interest in problems of chronology. This is the second edition of a book which first appeared in 1978, but the changes — as might be expected in a field which almost alone in the classicist’s discipline acquires new primary material on a yearly basis — are more than merely cosmetic. Rather, there are discussions of new material, expansions of coverage, and drastic revisions to old arguments. It is only fair to offer the warning that the reader is swept immediately into the details and problems of time-reckoning in Byzantine Egypt, and those in need of a more generous introduction might turn to Bagnall’s own ‘Egypt in Late Antiquity’ (Princeton, 1993). For those who work with the papyri, B. & W.’s work is bound to prove indispensable.

The first chapter is an introduction which provides a comprehensive overview of the chronological systems to be described in later chapters and how they worked together. There are also special treatments of the distinct systems used in Egypt’s different regions and the introduction of the indiction system.

The second chapter discusses the first cycle (312-327) of the newly established system of fifteen-year indiction cycles, and presents the evidence that during this first cycle the harvest of each indiction came at its end, so that the end of the indiction year coincided with the end of the traditional Egyptian year on Thoth 1 (29th or 30th August).

Chapter Three discusses the development of the indiction system after the first cycle, especially the shift of the indiction year to the early summer. B. & W. suggest the Egyptian date of Pachon 1 (26th April) for the new New Year. They suggest that the adjustment was made so that all harvests in the same Julian year could be counted together, and so as to reduce problems with arrears of taxes due. They defend their date for the altered New Year on the basis of receipts for grain at the river harbors, and on the consistency of this shift with the Egyptian division of the year into three four-month seasons (a shift of one season precisely), and on the use of this division by the Roman administration.

In Chapter Four B. & W. explode the previous theories proposed to explain the use of ‘archei’ (in/at the beginning) and ‘telei’ (in/at the end) in reference to the indiction as it appears in the papyri. The most prominent theory was that the starting date of the indiction was movable from year to year. On the basis of the evidence (which is tabulated in Appendix A) B. & W. suggest that the peculiar features of the usage arise from scribal traditions distinct to different nomes, which recognized different dates for the beginning of the indiction: the publication of the ‘praedelegatio’ (the tentative tax schedules) on 1 May, the issuing of the ‘delegatio’ (the final tax schedule) on 1 July, or the Constantinopolitan indiction on 1 September, which coincided with the beginning of the Egyptian civil year.

Chapter Five deals with the meaning of νέα ἰνδικτίων (new indiction). B. & W. conclude that the phrase does not have a single consistent meaning. Rather, it first referred to the newness of the cycle, instances of the phrase being concentrated at the beginning of a cycle and in the century following the introduction of the indiction system. Then, some time around 347, νέα also began to refer to the coming year.

In Chapter Six, as well as Appendices F and G, B. & W. review in detail the usage of dating by the regnal years of emperors, and the chronological information provided by oath formulas. The practice of dating by regnal years had been adopted from the Ptolemies, and involved as many as four dates during the Tetrarchy, but largely fell into abeyance after the last year of Constantine (337). A law of Justinian in 537 ordering that the regnal year appear on legal documents changed this situation. Documents also contain oaths sworn by the attributes of the emperor (his ‘victory’ or his ‘fortune’, for instance), which appear with varying degrees of standardization.

The Oxyrhynchite Era, discussed in Chapter Seven, developed out of the habit of continuing to date by a prominent emperor’s regnal years after his death. Specifically, in the Oxyrhynchite nome alone, the combined regnal dates of Constantius II and Julian (41/10 in the Julian year 364/365) continued to be used to date documents until the late seventh century.

In Chapter Eight B. & W. deal with the Era of Diocletian and the Era of the Martyrs, basing their discussion on a comprehensive table of instances where these designations are used (which runs to the twelfth century). The Era of Diocletian takes 284/5, the first regnal year of the emperor Diocletian, as its initial year, and was used extensively in horoscopes, as well as in private inscriptions (graffiti and gravestones) over a lengthy period, and in papyrus documents after the Arab conquest. B. & W. examine at length the question of the calendar date on which the years of this Era began. The Era of the Martyrs starts with the same year as the Era of Diocletian, but its use is much later, first appearing in the late eighth century. It seems to have arisen as an expression of religious self-consciousness by the slowly dwindling Coptic minority of Egypt.

Chapter Nine is concerned with the use of the names of the consuls to date documents. This form of dating was common, but as the consul changed annually, and in a confusing manner during periods of political upheaval, it can present problems. Documents can be dated by ‘postconsulates’ as well as ‘consulates’ (i.e., by the name of the current consul), but these postconsulates can be stretched out beyond a single year, and are therefore to be considered only after more precise dates, such as the indiction. The difficulties and delays involved in conveying the information of the new consulate from Constantinople to the various parts of Egypt can explain some discrepancies; these factors are only exacerbated after the fourth century. B. & W. also change the stance they took in the first edition, and reject Stein’s theory of a “new style” of year counting which conflated consular and postconsular years, and ascribe this usage to scribal eccentricity and error.

The emperor Mauricius published an edict ordering that documents should also include an invocation of Christ. The invocation was soon varied over time and by region to include invocations of the Trinity, Mary, and the Saints. These invocations are the subject of Chapter Ten and Appendix H. Although they exhibit some consistency by emperor (and locality), they have limited usefulness in dating documents.

The greater part of this book is taken up by several appendices. In some cases these closely complement the discussion in certain chapters, and their content has been noted above. Otherwise, they are often tables for reference or indices, and they will be discussed below.

Appendix B presents those cases where discrepancies in the dates cannot be reconciled by means of the hypotheses presented in Chapter 6 and elsewhere.

Appendix C comprises four tables. The first lists the Julian years along with their equivalent consular years, regnal years, indictions, and years in the Oxyrhynchite and Diocletianic eras. The second table allows the reader to work back and forth from the days of Egyptian months to dates in the Roman calendar and our own. The third enables dates to be converted from the ‘Egyptian count’ (which does not include an extra day in the leap year) to the ‘Alexandrian count’. There is finally a perpetual calendar which makes it possible to determine day of the week or the precise year of a text on the basis of day of the month and the century.

Appendix D offers a year-by-year list of all references in the papyri to consulates from 284 to 641, with the standard titulature and appropriate citations.

Appendix E provides an alphabetical index of the names of consuls, with the years in which they served, as well a list of consular epithets with the years in which they were used. There is also a somewhat baffling ‘reverse list of consular names’, in neither chronological nor alphabetical order.

Appendix I is a table of Julian years with their equivalent years in the Saracen Era (i.e., years from the Hijra), along with the day on which each Saracen year began, their equivalents in the Era of Diocletian, and the appropriate indiction.

Appendix J lists 21 texts from Nubia which employ dating by the moon.

Appendix K lists 21 texts which mention the day of the week, noting the accuracy or inaccuracy of these references.

B. & W.’s book stands as a substantial piece of scholarship sure to guide the way of neophytes and provide experts with fodder for their arguments. It is all the more welcome in being a work unafraid to be daunting to the dilettante and hard reading for all but the specialist.