When Octavian conquered Egypt in 30 BC he turned the country into a Roman province under the supervision of an equestrian prefect rather than a senatorial propraetor or proconsul. This move led to many assumptions about Roman Egypt, one of which is that it was the personal property of the emperor and another that Roman senators were generally barred from visiting it without the permission of the princeps. Yet Roman Egypt—unlike all other Roman territories—provides us with ample information about imperial administration through the papyri. Andrea Jördens, a papyrologist from Heidelberg, has thoroughly investigated the office of the praefectus Aegypti in her 2002 Habilitationsschrift from Marburg. Her magisterial study has now been published with a few minor revisions and updates. It will remain a standard work on the praefectus Aegypti and on Roman provincial administration.
Jördens’s study is in three parts with twelve main chapters and numerous subchapters. Since listing the complete table of contents would exceed the space allotted for this review only the main chapter headings will be listed below. Most subchapters conclude with a own résumé and all main chapters close with a general summary, which eases the access to this book.
The first section is a lengthy introduction (pp. 9-58). After some remarks about the position of the governor of Egypt and the specifics of his province, Jördens outlines her approach and the existing research before turning to the exceptional status of Roman Egypt. Here she challenges the traditional perceptions of its provincial status. In seven chapters she takes a closer look at various elements that have determined this view from Theodor Mommsen, until they were first questioned by Giovanni Gerati in 1989.1 One of these is the continuous use of administrative terms. There seems to be in fact more changes than have previously been assumed. Further elements are the dating after regnal years, the supposed lack of municipal structures, and the traveling prohibition for senators and equites illustres (senators needed imperial permission for even leaving Italy; except for their estates in Sicily or Gallia Narbonenis). Another is the role of the princeps as Pharaoh. This office, however, had lost its historicity by the Roman period at the latest, when the Pharaoh was reduced to a cultic figure who fulfilled the traditional offices by being depicted in the temple imagery. It is also evident that Octavian did not care to assume the role of Pharaoh (p. 43). Jördens also questions the widespread perception of the praefectus Aegypti being a “viceroy” and states that he was a governor of a Roman province from the beginning. The two most obvious reasons for Egypt’s special status were its topographical location and the fact that it had an equestrian governor. Yet Jördens justly challenges the view, that it was the emperors’ “private province” (p. 54).
The first major part deals with the fiscal measures of Roman provincial administration, which are examined in eight chapters. The major focus is on Egypt, but evidence from other provinces is taken into account. Jördens begins with the provincial census and analyzes the census declarations, the question of whether the emperor or the governor ordered a census (it was one of the routine duties of the prefect), and the details of the implementation of the census. A comparison of the literary and documentary sources and a summary conclude this passage. The recording of basic assets is the subject of the next chapter. It covers the calculation of the tributum soli, the Nile inundation as a standard for taxation, and the various responsible administrative institutions. Another component for the recording of assets was the land registers. It was the result of voluntary declarations as much as official inspections (episkepseis). The latter did not only take place after a request was filed, but were part of a routine procedure to establish a geometrical register of the whole country. Jördens points to a weakness of the system, as the administration sometimes had to resort to voluntary declarations whose reliability depended on the declarants honesty. Most important were the abrochia-declarations, which formed the basis for fixing the real-estate tax. It seems that in some areas an inspection might only have followed a property declaration, especially when a reassessment became necessary after damage was caused by the Nile food. Further passages cover the declarations for cattle, ships, and grain supplies. The extraordinary taxes at certain occasions are summarized in the short chapter IV (pp. 135-163). Most prominent among these contributions was the aurum coronarium, the roots of which date back to Ptolemaic times. It was normally presented to the ruler on his accession to the throne in form of golden wreaths or their equivalent. Jördens analyzes the edict of Severus Alexander which is known from a papyrus (= SB 11648) and substantiated from a short passage in the Historia Augusta (H.A. Sev. Alex. 23.5) and looks at the question whether there were two forms of wreath-taxes (a regular one and an occasional one).
Chapter V deals with the additional contributions the people of Egypt had to give in kind. This was mostly agrarian produce which was paid for at low rates or even had to be rendered without compensation. After the examination of edicts by four prefects concerning requisitions the various government purchases and utilizations are thoroughly evaluated. The produce most affected by forced purchases was grain, especially wheat. One passage investigates the possible uses (army supply, storage in Alexandria) and the role of the praefectus annonae. Further produce included wine (as supply for the city of Alexandria or the troops who accompanied the praefectus or operated within the province), meat (primarily pork), textiles, firewood, and boats. Imperial visits as well as the travels of the prefectus and important dignitaries are the theme of the concluding subchapters.
The various aspects of tax collection are covered in chapter VI. These included the method of tax farming which existed under the Ptolemies, but eventually was increasingly replaced by liturgies. The control of the institutions in charge, the principle of collective tax liability (a system which failed within fifty years after its introduction), and the arbitration in disputes about responsibilities are explained here. The problem of farmers fleeing from their villages and home areas (anachoresis) is examined in the following section. Included among these problems were escaped slaves and people who fled from their liturgical obligations. The collective liability, which was established in the second century AD, was meant to ease the tax burden, but this approach was undermined when the population in an area dropped below a certain minimum. Chapter VIII is about tax exemptions. Such exemptions were an imperial prerogative, but all disputes about them fell under the prefect’s jurisdiction. He had to implement the privileges the emperor had granted. The following subchapters deal with the various tax privileges of the citizens of Alexandria and Antinoopolis, temples, agonistic associations, government officials, as well as the exemptions from trade tax. Interesting are some rare examples of exemptions from poll tax due to physical disabilities (lameness or diminished eyesight) granted by the prefect (pp. 349-351). Jördens also draws attention to a singular application of a citizen from Kerkesucha Orus to get two of his relatives who were condemned ad bestias exempted from the poll tax. The way this document was handled points to a routine procedure and Jördens asks if people condemned ad metallas—usually a sentence for a limited period—received similar privileges. The next major portion deals with customs in three sections: a. Tariffs for import and export, b. Internal tariffs (boundaries of Alexandria, epitrategies, and nomes), and c. General regulations for customs tariffs and tax farming. The extant sources about customs boundaries and tariffs are meticulously examined here.
The last two chapters of Jördens’s study are included in the second major part on economic and sociopolitical measures. Chapter X covers the relationship to water in Egypt. It starts with an examination of two exceptional cases from the times of Augustus and Probus. They concern major maintenance work on the irrigation canals. Jördens compares the literary sources with the papyri. In the first case, Suetonius and Cassius Dio mention Augustus’s measures, but only Strabo (17.1.3, 788) refers to the name of a prefect, Petronius, under whom the agricultural irrigation finally improved. Probus’s activities are only mentioned in the Historia Augusta (Prob. 9.5), but Jördens points out that there was also prefect named Tenagino Probus in 270. A section deals with the regular maintenance work which involved the provincial population and the role of the prefects. Sources about the trials under the governor are, however, very rare and only date to the early fourth century.
In the following chapters Jördens outlines major construction works to improve the water-related infrastructure, which included two canals built under Augustus and Trajan and concern for wells and irrigation systems. A concluding chapter looks at the cultic function of the praefectus Aegypti. A famous passage from Pliny (N.H. 5.57) refers to a supposed sacrilege, when kings and prefects travel on the Nile during the inundation. Jördens makes it clear that there seems to be a practical reason (danger to shipping) rather than religious reason behind that. If there was such a “taboo” it related to the prefect as the representative of the emperor and not to any complete power of his. The same can be said about the annual sacrifice to the Nile. Chapter XI encompasses the Roman administration’s relationship to the land of Egypt. Five sections summarize the so-called re-integration edicts, compulsory rents, the allocation of government land under special conditions, the care for agriculture, and the cultivation of imperial estates. A general summary concludes this study (chapter XII). Four maps (Graeco-Roman Egypt, the Nile Delta, Alexandria, Egypt and Arabia), three Appendices (see below), an extensive bibliography, a source index and a general index complete Jördens’s great volume.
It is difficult to find fault with Jördens’s study. She mentions in her introduction (pp. v-vi) that she has only done the most necessary updates and changes since the submission of her work in 2002. The time gap of over six years until the publication must not be seen as flaw, however. In fact the book leaves little to be desired. The astute examination as well as challenge of long-held perceptions about the prefect of Egypt and his province is one of the major strengths of her work. The same goes for the thorough evaluation of the sources and scholarly literature. The lengthy footnotes provide any reader with an extremely useful apparatus, often with citations of the original texts. Despite its bulk and the wide range of subjects covered therein, this book is fairly easy to read. It is therefore also an excellent introduction to Roman provincial administration. Her examination does not cover the functions of the prefect alone but also the other levels of the Roman administration. The exceptional sources of Roman Egypt provides exemplary insights into the working of this province. This fact may perhaps lead to a better understanding of the administration of other provinces as well. Jördens’s contribution has opened the door in this direction.
Table of contents:
II The provincial census
III The recording of the basic assets
IV Extraordinary taxes
V Forced acquisitions and requisitions
VI Tax collection
VII The anachoresis
VIII Tax exemptions
IX The customs
Economic and sociopolitical measures
X The relationship to water in Egypt
XI The relationship to the land of Egypt
I List of prefects
II Governors in census declarations
II Governors in so-called abrochia declarations
1. Th. Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht, Berlin 1887, cf. f.e. II 859 note 2, 952-953. G. Gerati, L’Egitto romano nella storiografia moderna, Egitto e storia antica dall’ellenismo all’età araba. Bilancio di un confronto, edited by L. Criscuolo—G. Geraci, Bologna 1989, 55-88.