BMCR 2007.09.29

Land Transport in Roman Egypt. A Study of Economics and Administration in a Roman Province

, Land Transport in Roman Egypt. A Study of Economics and Administration in a Roman Province. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. xiv, 331. $110.00.

Table of Contents

P.A.Brunt once described transport as ‘the greatest failure of ancient technology’.1 Yet, in his penetrating study, Colin Adams (CA) convincingly argues that land transportation in Egypt was anything but a failure, and with good reason: requisition of animals used for the transportation of tax-grain played a vital part in the supply of Rome and Alexandria. Moreover, local trade in the desert depended heavily on the presence of professional transporters and the smooth functioning of numerous caravans. To prove this point, CA collects all ostraca and papyrological testimonies concerning the organisation of land transportation, analyses them with great scholarship and ultimately offers the reader a coherent and solid reconstruction of the various ways in which the Egyptians tried to bring goods to their destination.

In Part I, entitled ‘Setting the scene’, CA first tries to determine the role of transportation in the Roman economy in general, by analysing two of the most influential economic models, viz. the primitivistic approach of Finley and the ‘taxes and trade’ model postulated by Hopkins.2 His main conclusions are twofold: first of all, one cannot study land transportation without linking this with transportation by boat; on the contrary, both must be studied as complementary items. Secondly, every reconstruction of transport systems is bound to be heavily distorted by the number of requisitions ordered by the Roman emperor. How important these requisitions were in Roman Egypt is discussed in the following chapters. The second chapter deals with the specific geography and topography and the influence of the Egyptian landscape on transport systems. After a brief description of the annual flooding of the Nile and the consequences for the roads along the irrigation channels, CA offers an extensive survey of the roads in each Egyptian region, which are mentioned on ancient maps (e.g. the Peutingeriana) or described by Roman authors. Useful though this enumeration may be, it is a pity that the maps illustrating the road network are found in the preface, so that, unless you do not mind constantly thumbing back and forth, part of the valuable information may be lost. Nonetheless, the reader is presented with a very profound and convincing image of the Egyptian society as a mobile community in which land transportation seemed to have been as important as river-borne transport.

Part II focuses on transport resources. In the first chapter, the various types of transport animals are introduced and discussed. Papyri clearly indicate that donkeys were most commonly used, whereas camels were obviously more suitable for long trips through the desert. Due to the specific topography of the Egyptian countryside, horses, mules, oxen and wagons seem to have been solely used by farmers for short-distance transport on the estate. Animal use and maintenance is investigated in the second chapter. Especially in the paragraphs dealing with the use of transport animals, many of the previous chapter’s conclusions are repeated. Yet, more interesting is the author’s discussion of animal harnessing, which has been largely neglected in former studies of land transportation. CA clearly shows that efficient harnesses could significantly increase the animal’s traction. The last two topics investigated in this chapter, load-bearing capacity and maintenance, are somehow disappointing, as many of the conclusions are self-evident. It is quite obvious that the type of transport animal will decisively influence the amount of goods that can be transported. It is equally obvious that the region’s fertility and hence the availability of fodder will determine the maintenance cost. Anyhow, most of the papyri make clear that ownership of transport animals did not come cheap and that farmers rather hired or borrowed animals when needed. This topic is further elaborated in the last chapter of Part II, in which CA carefully examines animal trade and ownership. Two most interesting case studies of donkey-traders and animal markets in cities bordering the desert further illustrate the fact that for most farmers it was far more lucrative to buy donkeys or camels together, hire and/or borrow them than to own and maintain animals themselves.

Part III considers the organisation of transport, especially the requisition of animals by the Roman government and the administration responsible for the functioning of this transport system. Animals offered the government the possibility of a variety of taxes and requisition. Therefore, it was necessary to know who possessed transport animals and how many: Egyptians were thus obliged to register animal ownership. Additionally, an animal census was undertaken by the administration of the strategos, to control the registration figures. This way the central administration was able to raise e.g. a camel and donkey tax. More important, however, was the possibility of requisitioning transport animals. Though this was not a Roman invention — requisition was common during the Ptolemaic period-, the standardisation must be attributed to the Romans. Animals could be requisitioned for several reasons: CA analyses a few papyri illustrating the transport of tax-grain (by far the most important reason for requisitions), the provisioning of quarries and the supply of soldiers and officials. Although the authority of the central government was needed for local administrators to requisition animals, numerous papyri document the abuses animal owners were subjected to.

After scrutinising the various aspects of animal transport in the first three Parts, CA collects four case studies in Part IV: the state grain transport; the supply of desert regions and military units; trade and transport and the role of transport in the land economy. It is well known that the Egyptian grain transport was vital to Rome’s survival. Therefore, the government made huge efforts to ensure an efficient supply system. After briefly sketching the Ptolemaic background to the transport system, CA offers an extremely thorough and well-documented analysis of the various stages of the grain transport, which can only be outlined here. First of all, cultivators were responsible for the transport from the fields to the threshing floors after which the grain was taken to the granaries by the πράκτορες σιτικῶν, where it was received by the σιτόλογοι. These were supposed to take care of the onward transport to harbours on canals and the Nile. The grain was then allocated to a ναύκληρος to be shipped to Alexandria.3 Every stage of this land transportation system was assigned to members of the local elite as a liturgy, who made sure that the responsibility and performance ultimately fell on the shoulders of the local villagers and farmers, while the central administration carefully controlled the whole transport system.

The following chapter focuses on the deserts and military supply, mainly in the eastern regions of Egypt, which were of the utmost importance for Rome’s trade with India. Moreover, the region was strategically important and rich in mines and quarries. CA first concentrates on the transport of stone columns on wagons, hauled by harnessed camels. Apparently, this was very similar to the transportation of tax-grain: the local population bore the burden, while the government controlled the functioning of the system. He then turns to the supply system of quarries and military units. Military supply on the contrary shows a striking civilian involvement: ostraca provide ample evidence that civilians must have taken advantage of the government’s transport needs. It is a pity CA merely states that “it must have been more convenient for the state, its officials or contractors, to engage civilian transporters, rather than organizing transport itself using requisitioned animals”, without really offering an explanation for the government’s choice. The reason may very well have been that, while transport of tax-grain peaked closely after harvesting, military supply on the other hand was a continuous task throughout the year. It is possible that ensuring a constant supply of transport animals by requisitioning, in addition to the grain transport, simply would have been too complex and too burdensome for both the administration and the local population.

In the next chapter, CA considers the role of transport in trade and commerce. It is no surprise that the main part of this chapter is dedicated to the eastern desert regions of Egypt: these were crossed by several routes connecting Koptos and the Nile Valley to Myos Hormos and Berenike, the most important trade harbours on the eastern shores. The archive of the merchant-transporter Nikanor, which records the commercial activities of one family over a period of sixty years, offers first-class information: CA clearly describes how traders engaged the family of Nikanor to transport their wares to Koptos. Ostraca from Berenike add some more valuable details. Apparently, as papyri suggest, professional transporters not only operated in the eastern part of Egypt, but must have been fairly common throughout the land.

The last chapter deals with transport in the land economy. To evaluate the availability of transport animals, CA closely examines several archives, e.g. the Zenon archive and the Heroninus archive of Aurelius Appianus’ estate. All present a very similar picture: capital investment in transport was kept to a minimum by hiring and borrowing animals when wares had to be transported.

To sum up, CA offers the reader a dazzling study of the organisation of land transport. He not only fulfilled the admirable task of collecting all the papyri and ostraca concerning land transport, but presents each with a meticulous analysis, always indicating great scholarship. Each chapter yields new information, conclusions are well-founded and insightful. Moreover, this study is well-written, lucid and almost free of misprints.4 Therefore, this book can be enthusiastically recommended.


1. JRS 62 (1972), 156.

2. M. Finley, The Ancient Economy, 3rd ed., Berkeley, 1999; K. Hopkins, Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire, JRS 70 (1980), 101-125.

3. Although river transport is beyond the scope of this book, CA should have added a reference to the excellent work of J.Vélissaropoulos, Les nauclères grecs. Recherches sur les institutions maritimes en Grèce et dans l’Orient hellénisé, Paris, 1980.

4. κτνηνοτρόφοι should of course be κτηνοτρόφοι.