BMCR 2007.06.04

Economy and Society in the Age of Justinian

, Economy and Society in the Age of Justinian. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. viii, 258. $80.00.

As the latest crest in an already formidable groundswell of scholarship devoted to the late-antique economy, Sarris’ monograph contributes an impressive and crisply written reconstruction of the late-Roman local economy using the Oxyrhynchus papyri of Egypt. Sarris situates a very specific kind of economic regime, the elite estate, within the theater of eastern imperial politics, concentrating on Justinian’s reign in the sixth-century, while also taking into account developments of the fourth through the seventh centuries. The book is of immediate interest to anyone concerned with eastern imperial politics and polemics, fiscal administration, agrarian history, and the formation of elite identity.

Sarris reads in the fragmentary Egyptian papyri evidence for a mode of elite agricultural exploitation that was rationalized and consistent, heavily monetized and commercialized, and the result of a relationship with the imperial court that was opportunistic on the part of local provincial families. The book forms an interesting, although not complacent, companion to work on elite economic regimes by Jairus Banaji and, to some degree, Sarris responds to the work of Banaji (vii).1 Whereas Banaji demonstrated how elite patterns of landholding grew out of the expansion of imperial service and framed his study as an historiographical debate, Sarris dwells (with commendable patience) on the rich lexical details of the papyri in order to develop, from the “bottom up”, a tableau of social relations in the orbit of the elite estate. A chief distinction between the two models is that of agency. Sarris accords local elite landowners a vigorous independence from imperial authorities that, in Sarris’ view, provoked many of Justinian’s fiscal policies and would eventually enervate the eastern Roman state in advance of the Islamic conquest. Ultimately, this book grapples with the chimera of decline and fall in the Byzantine east. Below follows a summary of the contents of individual chapters.

The book begins with a brief introduction recounting the various successes and failures of Justinian’s program of state renovation. Following ground already cleared by Christopher Kelly and Anthony Kaldellis, Sarris notes the extent to which Justinian’s court was preoccupied with shoring up imperial authority, especially as it concerned the role of provincial and bureaucratic elite.2 This section sets the tone for how Sarris will later gauge agency in the economic relationship between the state and local elites, emphasis being given to how powerful landowners exploited weaknesses in imperial authority to develop patterns of land and labor management and how Justinian’s policies responded to these long-term trends.

In Chapter One, Sarris briefly recapitulates the features of Egypt’s well-known position as the economic engine of the eastern empire (noting demographics, agricultural production, trade links) and continues the theme of how Constantinople, because of Egypt’s importance, courted provincial elites as a means of ensuring secure access to the province’s resources (a discussion which introduces a tantalizing, though only briefly suggested, new valence on the Nika Revolt involving Egyptian landowners) (15-16). Here the reader encounters the Apion family, a gens of prominent landowners in Egypt who maintained a high profile through imperial appointments. The main dossier of Oxyrhynchus papyri dealt with in the book provides evidence for the Apion estates, and Sarris’ prosopographical survey of the family emphasizes the political nature of elite land ownership in the region. This chapter ends with a concise history of the Oxyrhynchus papyri, the Apion archive and a sketch of its contents.

The next four chapters reconstruct a social and economic profile of the elite estate by unpacking the Apion archive, which Sarris has organized into four documentary typologies: estate accounts of revenue and expense (Ch. 2, 29-49), labor contracts (Ch. 3, 50-70), letters of petition to the Apion family (Ch. 4, 71-80) and fiscal documents (Ch. 5, 81-95). These chapters represent the core of Sarris’ book and, in this reviewer’s opinion, the portion contributing most substantially to late-antique social and economic history. In his treatment of estate accounts, Sarris carefully illustrates the internal economy of the estate by differentiating regimes of exploitation and administration within elite property. His examination here focuses on the terminology used for different land parcels, the accountancy of revenues on each type of parcel and the discernable social status of various agricultural tenants and dependents. What emerges is a picture of the elite estate in Egypt as a proto-feudal institution in which leased properties and rural (sometimes urban) settlements supplied a labor pool and capital revenues for more centrally administered seigneurial lands.3 The chapter dealing with labor contracts brings into closer focus the kinds of obligations owed to the Apion family by specific groups of dependents. Sarris is able to draw out of these documents a detailed description of the financial profile and, by inference, the legal and social stratification of the population of an agricultural productive regime. The recruitment of educated townsmen and Christian clergy as estate managers also receives special attention. Letters of petition discussed in the following chapter show how complex and vast the hierarchy of estate management had become. The letters reveal the tiers of administrators through whom tenants and estate managers would petition the Apion household for the redress of various grievances. In Chapter Five, the scale of Apion land ownership takes geographical dimension, surveying evidence from the fifth and sixth centuries for how the Apion family extended its holdings through private purchase, distraint on loans and the appointed supervision of imperial estates. Sarris then compares figures for tax payments from Apion properties to documents for other elite families found in the Oxyrhynchus papyri in order to support the conclusion that modes of production and land management evident in the Apion estates were not unique in the region.

The next two chapters extend the model of Apion estates beyond the region of Oxyrhynchus. In Chapter Six, Sarris compares the Apion model to evidence found in a corpus of papyri pertaining to the region surrounding Egyptian Aphrodito, from which many of the same patterns of land and labor management emerge (Ch. 6, 96-114). Evidence from the Aphrodito archive additionally demonstrates how conflicts could arise between smaller landowners, particularly from the curial class, and the magnates of great estates. A pivotal theme for Sarris’ study is the αὐτοπραγία by which landowners with ties to imperial service could secure the right to act as intermediaries in the collection of imperial taxes from the free population and, by extension, the extent to which local economies became directly governed by the chief landowners of a given region. The following chapter attempts to estimate the extent to which the bipartite estate model represented in the Apion archive might be posited outside of Egypt, and here Sarris encounters a host of evidential limitations (Ch. 7, 115-30). Where Sarris would like to demonstrate the application of Egyptian models in a wider eastern Mediterranean theater, the comparative sources considered are simply not as detailed and coherent as the papyri. Sarris offers an impressive analysis of economic and social structures visible in the papyri, but the extension of the bipartite estate model beyond Egypt seems to rest on less conclusive evidence.

Sarris next locates an historiographical sketch of the great estate in Chapter Eight, though one would assume such coverage should have been more helpfully situated as part of the introduction (Ch. 8, 131-48). Nonetheless, the discussion does provide Sarris with a platform to restate his primary contention that the imperial court sought a modus vivendi with great estate owners by allowing select elites to exercise more invasive levels of coercion with local free populations. In Chapter Nine, Sarris maintains this line of argument by concentrating on legal texts to determine the extent that the imperial government tolerated the autonomy of great estate owners (Ch. 9, 149-76). Sarris again focuses on αὐτοπραγία and advances the current debate by suggesting that imperial legislation merely reacted to and confirmed a practice by which the estate owners opted to become guarantors for portions of the municipal fiscal burden through the adscription of a portion of the local population as estate labor. This offers a welcome qualification to the image of earlier Diocletianic reforms immobilizing vast populations of the empire as servile coloni. Similarly welcome is Sarris’ discussion of the buccellarii, or private militia, which developed as a corollary of estate owners’ independence. This is perhaps the most exploratory treatment of buccellarii presently available and it substantially supports the thesis of the government’s toleration of elite self-governance, particularly by stressing how the government could draw upon these bodies of armed retainers as a military reserve in time of need.

In the last two chapters, Sarris develops a more comprehensive model for reading the role of the great estate in imperial politics. By comparing the social model read in the Egyptian papyri to select imperial constitutions, Sarris traces the growth of the elite estate from the fourth through the sixth centuries (Ch. 10, 177-99). Again, the salient themes are reinvigorated relations between the central government and provincial elites and the coalescence of patrocinium at the local level. Sarris argues convincingly (and with much in common with Banaji) that elites involved in the imperial bureaucracy were able to invest their privileged access to gold and silver specie in developing commercialized and heavily monetized agricultural regimes. Additionally, Sarris stresses that these estates attracted a large clientage and were responsible for an economic boom in late-antique Egypt. As the prestige and power of estate owners increased, imperial access to provincial wealth conversely decreased, leading to Sarris’ explanation for Justinian’s attempt to reassert imperial authority through various legal, religious and military interventions (Ch. 11, 200-227). By way of conclusion, Sarris describes Justinian’s reign as a short-lived attempt to curb elite social and economic prerogatives that had accumulated since the fourth century and he suggests that, ultimately, the state returned to a conciliatory posture after Justinian (228-34). As local magnates increasingly assumed the aspect of ‘the state’ through their mediation in fiscal affairs, the lower orders of communities became disassociated from the idea of imperial government. According to Sarris, this same process had already occurred in the Roman west (for which he provides a rather cursory reference) and would be responsible for the collapse of imperial rule in the east with the advent of Islam.

This book is an engaging study in the details of economic history for which a reader unacquainted with the significance of the Egyptian papyri will be grateful. Sarris excels in the careful handling of such details. Nonetheless, the specialist may justifiably hold reservations about the more ambitious conclusions forwarded by Sarris. While most would agree that some level of provincial detachment from the imperial state preceded military conquest, it is not certain that the rise of the bipartite estate played the crucial role.4 Sarris’ evidence for the elite estate derives almost entirely from late-antique Egypt and, in view of the province’s heightened economic development, we should exercise caution before allowing agrarian productive regimes in Egypt to dictate a model for the entire east, much less the west where contemporary documentary evidence (such as the Variae of Cassiodorus) produces few similarities. The assumption that the Egyptian bipartite estate explains wider social and economic behaviors tends to flatten the diversity of social and economic narratives evident throughout both the eastern and western Mediterranean.5 Similarly, Sarris’ explanation of the political polemic surrounding the reign of Justinian assumes that the bureaucratic elites who figured as the principal targets of Justinian’s reform legislation were landowning provincials such as the Apions. Despite the high profile of certain provincials at Constantinople (such as Procopius and John Lydus, whom Sarris makes much use of in the book), it is not a given that the bureaucratic elite at the capital were predominantly estate owners. Such a claim would require as a companion study a detailed prosopographical examination of actors visible in Constantinople, where the political polemic generated.

Overall, this book is a welcome contribution to a steadily advancing field of study. The writing is precise, engaging and accessible even to the non-specialist. Sarris has succeeded in bringing the Oxyrhynchus papyri into light in such a way as to invigorate a number of debates concerning important topics: the social history of agrarian production, the relationship between urban center and the countryside, and the formation of elite identity. As a monograph of late-antique Egypt, Sarris’ study is of lasting importance and utility. As an explanation for the decline and fall of the imperial east, though not conclusive, the book nevertheless offers an exciting point of departure for continued debate.


1. Jairus Banaji, Agrarian Change in Late Antiquity: Gold, Labor and Aristocratic Dominance. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001.

2. Anthony Kaldellis, Procopius of Caesarea: Tyranny, History and Philosophy at the End of Antiquity. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2004; Christopher Kelly, Ruling the Later Roman Empire. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004.

3. Sarris rightly avoids using terminologies alluding to the medieval manor, although resemblance to the classic manorial system is evident enough and by p. 115 he refers to the αὐτουργία as a “demesne”.

4. Points of agreement found even in very different approaches to the subject of decline and fall: Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians. New York, Oxford UP, 2006; Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005.

5. A reprise of Horden and Purcell would advise against this, Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History. Malden: Blackwell, 2000.