BMCR 2011.09.04

Roman Egypt. Classical World Series

, Roman Egypt. Classical World Series. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2010. 89. ISBN 9781853997266. $23.00.

Livia Capponi, an enthusiastic and experienced papyrologist who is currently a lecturer in Ancient History at Newcastle University, has written a modest but well-documented introduction to Roman Egypt, a long historical period that begins with Augustus’ arrival at Alexandria on 1 October, 30 BC and ends with the Arab conquest of Egypt sealed by a treaty signed by the general ‘Amr ibn al-‘As and the patriarch Cyrus on 8 November 641. This introduction is intended for “students and teachers of Classical Civilization at late school and early university level”, according to the series’ mission statement on the back cover, even for “those with no previous knowledge of the classical languages and those who, before reading, did not even know what a papyrus was”, according to the author’s preface.

The book begins with a short preface in which the author briefly explains why the study of Roman Egypt is a difficult task that can be accomplished only by a few scholars who have the appropriate multilingual and multidisciplinary skills to be able to examine the diverse textual sources of this period. Although the author mentions that the book is looking only at a selection of aspects of Roman Egypt, she does not inform the reader on which criteria she bases her selection, a serious omission, I think, since it may lead the uninitiated reader to believe that these are the only important issues arising from the sources about this period.

In Chapter One, “The Conquest”, (pp. 11-17) the author narrates the initial involvement of Rome, with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, in the affairs of Ptolemaic Egypt leading to the final take over by Augustus and his major reforms that turned Egypt into a Roman province.1

In Chapter Two, “Forms of Roman Exploitation” (pp. 18-27), the previous brief presentation of social and financial reforms imposed by Augustus on the Egyptian society is now elaborated, including useful details about the taxation system, land management, and the development and use of coinage. In this chapter the author is at her best, since these topics were part of her doctoral work in Oxford and were thoroughly examined in her previous book “Augustan Egypt: The creation of a Roman province”.

Chapter Three, “Roman Emperors in Egypt” (pp. 28-36), surveys Roman interest in Egypt, and especially in Alexandria, manifested by the few documented visits paid by Roman rulers, starting with the conquest of Egypt and ending with Aurelian in the third century AD. The author here displays a commendable, well-balanced use of both Greek and Latin documentary and literary evidence, illustrating and supporting all her points with specific textual references.

The historical narrative continues in Chapter Four, “Byzantine Egypt and the End of Roman Rule” (pp. 37-41), where the author relates the story of the last phase of the Roman era in Egypt at an extremely fast pace, anticipating the fact that Late Antiquity will not play a large role in the upcoming discussion of specific aspects of Roman Egypt.

In the case of Chapter Five, “Cultural and Social Issues” (pp. 42-51), the aforementioned omission of laying out the reasons for the selection of topics to be examined becomes most relevant; the author here, guided by the papyrological and literary evidence, the limited space available, as well as probably her own interests, chooses to discuss only the Roman view of Egyptian culture and society, with a special emphasis on the Egyptian incestuous marriages,2 the multicultural character of the society of Roman Egypt,3 its educational system, and the status and role of women. Once again, the effective use of textual sources is noteworthy here, as, for example, a point about the type of student attracted to Alexandrian schools is illustrated by a letter by young Theon (p. 48), while a point about active involvement of women in business transactions is illustrated by Isidora’s business letters to Asklepiades (p. 49).

In Chapters Six and Seven, “Alexandria” and “Oxyrhynchus” (pp. 52-62 and 63-69), the author examines two of the most important sites of Roman Egypt. These two well-excavated sites are presented here as priceless sources for the study of Roman Egypt, since they are the provenances of valuable archaeological and philological evidence that have helped the experts reconstruct the history, society and culture of this period. Among other things, the author briefly discusses here famous monuments, such as Alexandria’s Serapeum and Museum, as well as famous texts that were discovered at these sites, such as the Greek version of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas found in Oxyrhynchus. The important role the context of discovery plays in the interpretation and usage of such ancient sources is well noted in these chapters.

Finally, in Chapter Eight, “The Papyri” (pp. 70-76), the author pays special attention to papyrology and the manner in which the discipline examines the corpus of Greek and Latin papyri from Egypt, which contributed greatly to ancient history and classical philology.4 Although an important task, the special discussion of papyrology’s role in the study of the ancient past seems a little misplaced in such a short introduction to Roman Egypt. One would expect such a discussion to be part of an introductory chapter in this book, where all types of available source material could have been presented and evaluated. This six-page analysis of papyrological issues, which seems rather long if compared to the nine pages dedicated earlier to all cultural and social issues of Roman Egypt, would have been justified if the book were entitled “Roman Egypt according to the papyrological evidence”. Given that this is not the case and given that it is found at the end rather than the beginning of the book, the chapter here reads, I think, somewhat as a defensive afterthought on an unjustly disregarded discipline (maybe so, if it is compared to the more popular classical philology) or perhaps as an attached leaflet advertising papyrology and trying to attract new students to the discipline.

The eight chapters are succeeded by a clear and useful timetable (pp. 77-80), a valuable list of suggestions for further reading on various topics briefly touched upon in the book (pp. 81-85), and a general index (pp. 87-89). At the beginning of the book the reader may also find a list of the illustrations (p. 6) and a guide to the papyrological abbreviations (p. 9).

In general, the author’s writing is clear and concise and her approach to the material is mature and well thought out. One striking absence in the author’s discussion of Roman Egypt is that of contemporary Egyptian sources, written in hieroglyphs or demotic.5 Some additional features of this book that could have been revised are: (a) inconsistent citation style, for example the quote from Augustus’ Res Gestae without citation on p. 14 as opposed to the quote from Cassius Dio and Suetonius with a full citation on the next page; (b) repetitions, as in the case of the description of the Constitutio Antoniniana on pp. 18 and 34; (c) the lack of cross-references, necessary for avoiding repetitions and for producing a more coherent discussion of the subject matter; (d) the absence of a glossary of Greek and Latin terms for non-specialist readers a few of which are left undefined (e.g. ‘Ides’ on p. 11 and ‘triumvir’ on p. 12); and (e) the presentation of the illustrations that, with the exception of figure 3, does not mention a source other than the author’s father, who in the preface is thanked for being responsible for them. Most of these negative features could have been avoided through more careful editorial work by the publishers.

Overall, Livia Capponi in this book elegantly bridges the gap between primary source and historical narrative and offers to the non-specialist reader a well-documented and maturely critical introduction to important aspects of the history, society and culture of Roman Egypt visible in papyri.


1. The author is to be commended for clarifying at the end of the chapter that Egypt was not an atypical example of a Roman province, though it may seem so because of its sheer bulk of discovered papyrological sources, a unique and rather circumstantial phenomenon in Roman History.

2. The issue of incestuous marriages in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt is still debated among scholars. I would like to note that the author should have included here her relevant discussion of Isidora’s letter to her ‘brother’ Asklepiades, where ‘brother’ is used as a term of formal endearment, found on p. 49; such terms were suspiciously used both in the Greek and Egyptian non-royal corpus of sources as popular metonymies for ‘dear friend’ or ‘lover’ rather than denoting real kinship.

3. The title of this sub-section includes a rather confusing question mark: “A multicultural society?” From the expert’s point of view this question mark may be justified, if it refers to the questionable degree and nature of interaction between the different ethnic communities in Egyptian towns and villages, or if it hints at the general ambiguity of the term “multicultural society”, but to an untrained reader this question mark does not make much sense.

4. For recent books on papyrology and the use of papyri for the study of Ancient History, see Roger Bagnall (ed.), The Oxford handbook of papyrology. Oxford: Oxford U.P, 2009; and Andre Erskine (ed.), A companion to ancient history. Malden, Mass. and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

5. The first and last reference to the demotic script and its corpus of texts is made on p. 47, where the author quickly tackles it as a dying language that from the second century AD onwards is replaced by Greek. This was probably true in the sphere of administration and state affairs, but the Egyptian language, in its hieroglyphic, demotic, or Coptic script, remained until the end of the Roman period an important medium of the Egyptian native population’s cultural expression. For the uses of demotic in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt, see, for instance, Friedhelm Hoffmann, Ägypten Kultur und Lebenswelt in griechisch-römischer Zeit. Eine Darstellung nach den demotischen Quellen. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2000, and its subsequent review by Joseph G. Manning in BMCR 2001.02.14.