BMCR 2004.06.41

Land and Power in Ptolemaic Egypt. The Structure of Land Tenure

, Land and power in Ptolemaic Egypt : the structure of land tenure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 1 online resource (xx, 335 pages) : maps. ISBN 0511061536 $70.00.

Ptolemaic Egypt largely derived its wealth from the taxation of agricultural production. Most information about land tenure under the Ptolemies is provided by the abundance of documentary papyri in Greek and demotic, the latter being a late form of the ancient Egyptian language with its own script. These sources elucidate our understanding about many aspects of rural life in Hellenistic Egypt which otherwise would be unknown. In order to get a more complete picture it is therefore necessary to examine various sources, which include classical literature, Greek papyrology and epigraphy, coins, as well as Egyptian inscriptions and demotic documents. The Egyptian texts in Ptolemaic studies can prove difficult, however, give the abundance of Ptolemaic hieroglyphs with far more signs than were in use during Pharaonic times and the numerous sources in demotic. Both text groups require a certain degree of specialization, which only a few scholars have. For this reason many ancient historians and Egyptologists shy away from Ptolemaic studies and concentrate on other periods.

The Egyptologist and ancient historian J.G. Manning has been investigating issues of Ptolemaic land tenure for many years and has now produced this important study in which he explores the relationship between the Ptolemaic state and the ancient traditions of landholding. “Land and Power” is structured in seven chapters (numbered consecutively) grouped in three main parts: I. Issues and Historical Background, II. Regional Case studies of Land Tenure, and III. Interpretation. Some passages in this book are based on previously published studies by the author.

In several sub-sections of chapter one (pp. 3-26) M. presents his aims. While most historical studies on Ptolemaic land tenure have focused on the Greek sources from the Fayyum, M. intends an examination from the viewpoint of long-term Egyptian history. He therefore focuses on the demotic documentation from the Thebaid, which “has not been fully brought to bear on general discussion of the Ptolemaic state or its economy” (p. 7). These sources are crucial for the reconstruction of landholding patterns and the analysis of local economies as well as the study of Egyptian families and their relationship to the land. M. further explains his issues and methodologies by asking two interrelated questions on (1) the relationship between central and local economic institutions, and (2) how the power of the Ptolemaic state affected the organization of land tenure. The author also summarizes the sources for an agrarian history of this period and the previous views held by scholars on Ptolemaic Egypt.

Chapter two (pp. 27-61) covers the structure of the Ptolemaic state and aims to place the land tenure regimes of the Thebaid and the Fayyum in the context of institutional control and taxation. The organization of land tenure was a political response to the environmental constraint and historical property rights which date back long before the Ptolemies. After outlining the geographical setting of Egypt, its dependence on the annual Nile flood, and the general mode of agriculture, M. defines the term “region” in a more environmental context and consequently separates Egypt into three “eco-zones”: the Delta, the Fayyum, and the Nile valley, with the latter divided into two major sub-units: the Thebaid from Aswan to Abydos, and Middle-Egypt from north of Abydos to Memphis. This chapter also contains a concise overview of the historical difference between the Thebaid and the Fayyum in Pharaonic times and the period that followed after the end of the New Kingdom (1069 BC) and subsequent collapse of central political power. The political history of the Ptolemies and their various institutions relating to the administration of the land is outlined also, along with further information on the economic systems as well as land rent, taxes, and types of land. The following two chapters are combined in Part II and deal with the bureaucratic hold over the land. M. begins with the land tenure regime in Upper Egypt (chapter three; pp. 65-98) and provides some case studies. The Thebaid can be considered the vestigial remains of ancient Egyptian civilization and also a region that was less affected by the Greek world under the Saite and Persian rulers. This area also retained a certain degree of quasi-independence which lasted until the Ptolemies, but after the uprising at the end of the third century BC military settlers were increasingly established there. After a detailed introduction to the Nile valley, the use of land in the region as well as the sources and institutions, M. turns to Edfu and the Edfu nome. The first source discussed is the Edfu donation text, which was inscribed on the outer wall of the temple of Horus in Edfu during the first century BC. This document is a transliteration of an administrative text (from hieratic and demotic papyrus originals) into a public, epigraphic form (hieroglyphs) and is of great importance for the study of Upper Egyptian land tenure. The inscription refers to several different events relating to donations of land to the temple by pharaohs at the time of its origins subsequent donations of the “sacred domain” of Horus by several later pharaohs, a survey of temple domains probably under Ptolemy I, a fictional donation by Ptolemy X Alexander I, and a cadastral survey dating from sometime between 107 and 88 BC. For better understanding M. has added an English translation of this inscription in Appendix I (pp. 245-266). In the next subchapters several sources are introduced. For the third century BC the Hauswaldt papyri (published in 1997 by Manning himself) and the Milon archive from Elephantine confirm the presence of the Ptolemaic administration, the royal economy, and its controls. For the second and first century BC in Pathyris/Gebelein M. cites the Adler Papyri. A brief section concerns the Senpoeris affair (P. Amh. gr. 49 = P. Survey 56; W. Chrest. 161; Select Papyri II, 36; formerly P. Amh. 2,31) which deals with the illegal appropriation of land by a woman who planted a few palm trees on a lot not her own.

The land tenure regime in the Fayyum depression is examined in chapter four (pp. 99-125). This zone was developed on a great scale only during the 11th and 12th Dynasties of the Middle Kingdom (c. 1941 till 1873 BC) and later under the Ptolemies. The Fayyum was dominated by military settlers and royal land to ensure a ready and loyal fighting force. M. summarizes the Ptolemaic settlement and takes a closer look at two main source groups: the Zenon archive from Philadelphia (third century BC) and the Menches archive from Kerkeosiris (120-110 BC).

The remaining three chapters form Part III “Interpretations”. The “reach of the state” with regard to its ability to control land tenure and surplus agricultural production is the theme of chapter five (pp. 129-181). M. starts with a discussion of the central bureaucratic structure of the state and the organization of social power within it. He then turns to the economic power and the relationship between state economic power and land tenure and presents a revised model of the social structure of the early Ptolemaic state. He also explains the four sources of social power in Ptolemaic Egypt, based on a clarification of Michael Mann’s IEMP model1 (the order of which M. changes to IPEM): 1. Ideological (temple texts/images, festivals, temple building), 2. Political (royal decrees, priestly synods), 3. Economic (registration of contracts, tax receipts, census, land survey/crop reports), and 4. Military (settlement of soldiers, use/threat of force) (p. 134).

In contrast to the previous chapter on the institutions of the central state, chapter six (pp. 182-225) centers on the Egyptian traditions regarding property transmissions of land and the interaction of the Ptolemaic state. Here M. again turns to documents from the Thebaid, which provide the most profound Egyptian material, and singles out two things of interest: ancient Egyptian institutions and social networks relating to landholding, and Egyptian traditions of property rights on land that were transferred by inheritance as well as by lease and sale contracts. These sources demonstrate a continuity of social and economic patterns as well as scribal traditions which already existed in Pharaonic times. Here it becomes evident that the Ptolemies did not change old property rights but rather built new institutions to ensure fiscal revenues from production and the circulation of property. In several subchapters M. discusses irrigation, the social network, status groups and the land, property rights, joint vs. individualized landholding, leases of land, the Asyut probate dispute (dating from 181 to 170 BC conveyance of land in the Thebaid and the related documentary evidence, contracts of sale or real conveyance (as an example for such a demotic sale document M. offers a translation of P. Brit. Mus. IV.28 [from Thebes, 208 BC] the parties of land conveyances, the normality of written documentation, inheritance of land, and reconsolidation of family property.

Chapter seven (pp. 226-241) is a summary of the book’s conclusions and the advancement of a neoclassical model of the Ptolemaic state which gives a better explanation of its historical development: “The rulers negotiated with the local elite and institutions in exchange for revenue. A colonial model that understands Ptolemaic history as an imposition a uniform political order and without opposition is no longer tenable.” (p. 226). The same can be said about a political history (the so called “Polybios-model”) which had conveyed a picture of political and economic decline after the battle of Raphia in 217 BC. But the historical development of the Ptolemaic state during its last two centuries is completely different when judged by the documentary papyri on the local level, since these sources do not indicate a steady economic decline.

Three appendices are added: 1) a translation of the Edfu-donation text, 2) a chart of documents of Ptolemaic land transfers in demotic from Upper Egypt dating from before 243 till 68 BC, and 3) a translation of P. Amh. gr. 49 (Senpoeris affair). A very detailed bibliography (pp. 279-324), a full source index of Greek, demotic and hieratic Papyri, Greek and demotic ostraca as well as other sources (ancient classical writers, inscriptions and Egyptian texts) and a general index provide easy access to the material and themes discussed.

I find very few flaws in this excellent book and would mention only the following. Manning’s incorporation of two previous papers tends to give some repetition in the overall presentation, but since this volume deals with some really complex issues, these repetitions are rather helpful than disturbing. The map on page xx does not include Panopolis (modern Akhmim). This place is hardly mentioned. It was one of the centers of opposition under the later Ptolemies and even had building restrictions imposed upon it in the famous decree of Ptolemy VIII and his queens in 118 BC (P. Tebt. 5). Since M. also covers the revolts after 217 BC, a closer look at this town might have rounded up his evaluations even more.

Manning’s familiarity with the sources is amazing. He is in touch with several other specialists in the world, as can be seen in his notes, in which he points to ongoing projects and forthcoming publications. M. makes it very clear that a deeper and more thorough picture of Ptolemaic Egypt cannot be achieved by a mere reliance on the often fragmentary information of the classical authors and the Greek documentary sources alone. It is one of the most important books on Ptolemaic studies in recent years and full of intriguing details. It is difficult to do it justice in such a short review.


1. M. Mann, The sources of social power, Vol. 1, Cambridge (Cambridge University Press) 1986.