BMCR 2007.05.16

Hellenistic and Roman Egypt. Variorum Collected Studies Series

, Hellenistic and Roman Egypt. Variorum Collected Studies Series. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006. 352; figs. 6. $114.95.

Table of contents

Here we have a single volume of work by Roger Bagnall in which he has, for a second time, published a collection of articles in the Variorum Series.1 These two volumes, along with the collection of articles by Sir L. Kirwan ( Studies on the History of Late Antique and Christian Nubia, edited by T. Hägg, L. Török, and D. A. Websley, 2002) and by L. S. B. MacCoull ( Coptic Perspectives on Late Antiquity, 1993), are the most important texts about the Nile Valley in Roman Times published by Ashgate.

The Papyrological work done by Bagnall is one of the most valuable tools for the study of Eastern Mediterranean History in Late Antiquity. This group of most valuable articles, some of them already well known to and praised by scholars interested in Roman and Byzantine Egypt, is an excellent survey of research conducted in the field over the last three decades. In this book, Bagnall’s central focus is devoted to theoretical models. In his previous book on papyrology for historians2 he insisted on the importance of working with models. Articles III, VI, VIII, XVII of the present collection are all concerned with models, and are, at the same time, the most important papers in the volume. In chapter III, for example (“Evidence and models for the economy of Roman Egypt”, originally published in 2005), Bagnall provides a long critical introduction to the work of M. Finley before making invaluable comments about the possibility of working with models in order to interpret the economy of Roman Egypt. According to Bagnall, historians have not yet outlined a theoretical model to interpret the economy of Roman Egypt. In contrast to Ptolemaic or Byzantine Egypt, the characteristics of the documents, and their publication, have not yet allowed for (or led to) a synthetic work. The importance of working with a theoretical model was stated by Bagnall in his book Reading Papyri, Writing Ancient History (p. 3):

historians are undoubtedly more hostile to theories of the master-explanation type than any other and with reason. There is a cogent philosophical argument, which I accept, that such substantive philosophy of history is inherent “a misconceived activity”, essentially because our “knowledge of the past is significantly limited by our ignorance of the future”. This sort of theory will therefore largely be left out of account here. (…) these large-scale explanations do, to my mind, have some use if deployed only as models to stimulate thinking and as source of questions, but none at all when treated like historical laws.

The book is divided into four parts: “Questions of Method” (articles ι “Hellenistic Egypt” (ι “Roman Egypt” (articles XII-XVIII) and “Late Antiquity” (articles XIX-XXIV). The first article in this collection (“Archeological Work on Hellenistic and Roman Egypt 1995-2000”) traces the progress of research in the field, virtually absent in Greco-Roman Egypt during the greater part of last century, leaving an empty space that papyrology tried to fill. The bibliography of this article is of prime utility. With the exception of the Nile valley, the work accomplished in the different sites of Egypt is addressed. Section 6 of this article (“The Desert a City: Christian Egypt”) is of particular interest, finding its chronological complement in the bibliographical survey “Greek Papyri and Coptic Studies 1990-1995”, the last article in this volume (XXIV).

The first part continues with the article “Restoring the text of documents” where Bagnall explores a number of examples in order to underline difficulties presented by textual restorations that are based on the interpretation of editors.

In article VI, “Decolonizing Ptolemaic Egypt”, 1997 (included in the section on “Hellenistic Egypt”), Bagnall offers an important critique of Edouard Will’s “colonial view” of Hellenistic Egypt and of different publications (1990-1994) by Barbara Anagnostou-Canas. Bagnall follows a similar line of argument, illustrating once again the risk of applying contemporary models to ancient societies. As for the interest for the historian of Roman Egypt of making analogies with other similar societies, Bagnall refers to a group of novels by the Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006), who narrates the life in independent Indonesia. Bagnall says: “What I find most striking here is not the structural similarities, however, but Toer’s ability to give voice to the way in which these were experienced by the people affected”.

Two articles refer to the Library of Alexandria: “Alexandria: Library of Dreams” (IX, 2002) and “Dioskourides: Three Rolls” (X, 2003). In the first article, Bagnall begins by saying “my title does not intend to suggest that the Alexandrian Library did not exist, but it does point to what I regard as the unreal character of much that has been said about it”. Precisely, the true interest of this article lies in the study of those descriptions of the Library that have survived, shaping a distorted, but grandiose, image of the Ptolemaic Library. Bagnall goes on from this imagined Library to the real one. The next article pursues a subject already mentioned briefly in the previous text: a block of granite, housed in the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna, with the inscription: “Dioskourides: three rolls” apparently associated with the famous Library. Bagnall shows that most probably it is the base that supported a bust of Dioskourides and not any kind of book-container.

The third section, on “Roman Egypt”, includes article XV (“Egypt and the Lex Minicia“, 1993). In this paper, Bagnall criticizes an article by David Cherry (1990) on the application of the Lex Minicia in Roman Egypt by interpreting a clause of the Gnomon of the Idios Logos. Bagnall concludes that the Lex Minicia,-by which it is provided that where a child is born of an unequal marriage it follows the condition of the parent of inferior rank- was the same everywhere, only the extent of concessionary made any difference. In article XVI, “A trick a day to keep the tax man at bay? The prostitute tax in Roman Egypt”, Bagnall discusses a paper published in 1989 by Thomas McGinn. Bagnall shows that the tax on prostitutes introduced by Gaius was, in all probability, abolished by Claudius and reintroduced some decades later. He also dismisses the possibility of this tax having its origin in Ptolemaic times, instead relating this possible origin, assumed by McGinn, to a “major misunderstanding of Roman rule” which substantially changed the tax system. Because of the difficulties of the reading of O. Edfou 117 (= P. Jud. II 387) Bagnall offers an image on a plate as a supplement to his own transcription. The reproduction of the ostrakon is not of very good quality, making any contribution to its interpretation by a reader of the present volume nearly impossible.

In article XVII (“Managing estates in Roman Egypt: a review article”, 1991) Bagnall reviews “Management and Investment on Estates in Roman Egypt during the Early Empire” by Dennis P. Kehoe. According to the model presented in his book, and based on his study of Pliny, Kehoe states that rich Roman landowners “sought a secure income from their property, sufficient to support their economic and social standing in society. They preferred land to riskier forms of investment, and they preferred to minimize risk and managerial demands from their landholdings”. Bagnall reviews the book’s contents and then analyzes the coherence of the binary categories of “landowner” and “tenant” and the possibility of tenants contributing to their lessors more with their capital than with their work. As Bagnall says: “the utility of the model Kehoe has examined in his book seems to me more its ability to throw into relief the complexity of the situation reflected in our evidence than its full congruence with the situation”.

Finally comes a short section on Late Antiquity (his previous volume in the Variorum Series deals mostly with Late Antiquity): article XIX (“Public Administration and the Documentation of Roman Panopolis”), deals with the study of the Roman administration of Panopolis, which is, as a scholarly field, according to Bagnall, “a relatively recent phenomenon”. This is a major contribution since the city is not fully excavated and it is thanks to papyrology that we have been able to develop some understanding of the history of the city during Roman times.

In chapter XX (“The date of the Hermopolite land registers: a review article”, 1979), Bagnall makes valuable comments on the well known publication of Sijpesteijn and Worp on the Hermopolite papyri, but this article was improved upon by Bagnall himself in his “Landholding in Late Roman Egypt: the Distribution of Wealth” ( JRS, 82, 1992), reprinted in his Later Roman Egypt, Aldeshot, 2003, chapter XII) where he includes the seminal contributions made by other scholars who had worked on landholding issues.

Finally we should make a special mention of chapter XXII (“Monks and property: rhetoric, law, and patronage in the Apothegmata Patrum in the Papyri”, 2001) where Bagnall finds (through the study of property documents) two cultural trends in the Apothegmata : the older and more severe Egyptian version of the collection and the probably later Palestinian.

This book is an important contribution to the literature on Hellenistic and Roman Egypt. In this one volume, researchers have easy access to a complete set of valuable articles by one of the most important scholars in the field. It deserves to be read widely by Classical scholars, Byzantinists, Roman historians and those working on related subjects.


1. See R. S. Bagnall, Later Roman Egypt: society, religion, economy and administration, Aldeshot/Burlington: Ashgate, 2003.

2. See R. S. Bagnall, Reading Papyri, Writing Ancient History, London and NY: Routledge, 1995, reviewed by Fred W. Jenkins, BMCR 97.03.24.