BMCR 2023.02.45

The ties that bind: the economic relationships of twelve Tebtunis families in Roman Egypt

, The ties that bind: the economic relationships of twelve Tebtunis families in Roman Egypt. London: University of London Press, 2021. Pp. 208. ISBN 9781905670918

This book offers the first detailed analysis of twelve families from an Egyptian village, Tebtunis, in the second century AD. By delving into the rich papyrological evidence that survives from this site, mostly in archival form, Takahashi reconstructs a coherent social and economic picture of the village based on the relationships among these families and their activities, with a focus on land leases (ch. 3) and loans (ch. 4). More broadly, this study explores how tenancy and credit relationships shaped the socio-economic life of a rural community in an Eastern Roman province. The book consists of six chapters, including introduction and conclusion, and four appendices (‘Family trees’, ‘Some further notes on the families’, ‘List of land leases’, and ‘List of loans’), which enable the reader to use the material systematically. It also includes an up-to-date bibliography and three indexes (Sources, Proper names and Subjects), which facilitate the consultation of the various topics. The core chapters (2-5) are each divided into two sections: the first presents the evidence in statistical form, the second includes an analytical discussion of the main features of the evidence and the patterns emerging from it.

Starting with an overview of the book’s wider historical issues, such as the functioning of local elites and the role of economic and family history, the introduction (Ch. 1) provides a brief discussion of Roman Tebtunis and its evidence, followed by the book structure and methodologies. The families’ economic activities are treated synchronically, as the author argues that a synchronic analysis provides ‘important insights that would not be apparent from purely diachronic analyses’ (p. 11). However, he also acknowledges the value of a diachronic approach, which researchers could use further to study key features of Tebtunis society in the long term.

Ch. 2 explores evidence, lives, status and wealth of the twelve Tebtunis families. As the author explains, most of the evidence comes from the cantina dei papiri, a cellar of a private house where in 1934 an Italian team, led by Achille Vogliano, found a large number of papyri. Most of the families represented in this material, as the author observes, belonged to the elite – namely the gymnasial group (7) and one family from Alexandria – while only a minority belonged to the lower strata of society (3 families of villagers and 1 metropolitan family).[1] This inevitably hinders the level of village representativeness of the corpus, as the author points out several times in the book. He finds that everyone, villager or not, was involved in administration at different levels. This trend can be seen also in other Fayum villages, such as first-century Philadelphia.[2] Lastly, he observes how in private legal disputes the privileged families ‘seem to have made a habit of approaching the highest authorities possible’ (p. 33). This confirms the existence of a net of relationships between elites across the countryside, the district capital and Alexandria, already identified for other areas in Roman Egypt.

Ch. 3 considers the land leases and the connections between them, families and individuals. Section I offers a statistical analysis of 92 land leases dated between AD 90 and 199, including contracts, which are the best-represented document type within the corpus (71 or c. 77%), as well as receipts and other document types.  More than half of the lessors belonged to the gymnasial group, while metropolites and villagers mainly appeared as lessees.  Two important points are made here. First, lessors and lessees had several business partners and engaged in long-term relationships. Second, the number of female lessees appears to have been much smaller than that of female lessors, which is also the case for first-century Tebtunis.[3] Takahashi convincingly argues that diversifying business partners would have allowed lessees to maintain independence from prominent families, though some lessors, like the Asklepiades family, do not appear to have been oppressive. He observes how both wealthy families and villagers used prodomatic leases, a contract type in which the rent is paid in advance. This arrangement worked like a loan whereby the lessees could secure a supply of produce, normally fodder for sheep. Prodomatic leases reveal the existence of complex socio-economic relations in the village, where the lessor was not always and necessarily the stronger party. This contract type is also well documented in Roman Egypt more broadly and commonly adopted in first-century Tebtunis.[4]

Ch. 4 investigates the role of loans to understand the social relationships between creditors and debtors. The aim is to establish whether the Tebtunis evidence confirms the general picture on loans from Roman Egypt, based on Tenger’s analysis, which argued for a regional credit market monopolised by a small number of prosperous families.[5] Takahashi’s statistical analysis convincingly disproves this view, showing that people of all social status took loans and that cash loans were embedded in the rural economy. Cash loans are much better represented than loans in kind (57 cases or 59.1% versus 8, or 11.1%), which points to a high level of monetisation in the village, a picture that is commonly accepted for Roman Egypt more broadly.[6] The author observes that, while loans in kind were strictly related to agricultural activities, it is difficult to identify the reasons why people borrowed cash. This is perhaps a missed opportunity to understand more about second-century village society. Did people need cash to pay taxes? Or to invest in other economic enterprises? Or was borrowing money simply engrained in the village economic behaviour, as it seems to emerge from Takahashi’s analysis? Further investigation of such reasons is needed. The Philosarapis family is the only family of gymnasial status in second-century Tebtunis who appeared to have borrowed money, using creditors from their own family and relatives or from others of the same status. It is unclear, however, whether this was a pattern for all gymnasial debtors. It also remains to be established how common it was for gymnasial people to borrow money. In Section I, the author considers 72 loans dated between AD 90 and 199, noting that the families of Kronion (15 cases or 20.8%) and Philosarapis (8 cases, or 11.1%) stand out in the corpus. While the sums lent (in the range of 36 to 6200 dr, with a mean of 624 dr) were higher than loans and deposits in the 40s, they were still lower than the averages calculated from data for the whole of Egypt in the second century. The author attributes this gap to the fact that Tebtunis was simply a village and not an urban centre. Why though were second-century loans higher than in the first century? It would be interesting to tackle this question. Not surprisingly, most creditors appear to have been members of the gymnasial group, while most debtors were villagers, a scenario that we also see in the first century. Overall, relationships between creditors and debtors seem to have been shorter term and less strong than the enduring relationships often found in the case of land leases. These relationships, the author argues, were such that the debtors could remain economically independent and the creditors could not exploit the weak. This is a rather positive interpretation of the material, which envisages a society where people had the opportunity to aspire to and maintain economic independence. One wonders whether this was the case because dependence on one single family was too oppressive, or whether other reasons were at play.

Ch. 5 explores the relationships between wealthy families and their employees, estate managers and wage labourers. As the author points out, the argument here relies heavily on the Patron family due to the nature of the evidence. The analysis mostly confirms the established view of estate management for Roman Egypt, whereby the managers had a variety of responsibilities, including account keeping and communication with labourers and tenants, but did not have the power to arrange matters without their employers’ permission.[7] Though the evidence is too fragmentary to draw any firm conclusion about labour organisation, the author offers important insights into the social status and recruitment of managers and labourers. He shows how the majority of managers were almost certainly locals of Tebtunis, while a few had a servile background. Higher status managers, on the other hand, seem to have been uncommon, the only likely attested exception being Laches, who was probably not from Tebtunis and might have had a more significant social position. Casual labourers, the author argues, were also locals and made up the bulk of the estate workforce. Recruitment of managers and labourers among the local population shows that villagers were important actors in the local economy. This confirms the positive reading of the Tebtunis corpus as it emerges from the book. Whether and how far villagers’ involvement in the local economy translated into actual prosperity is, however, a different question, not addressed here, but one which would be worth exploring. The argument whereby the estates favoured the use of casual labour so as to have flexibility to maximise numbers when needed is well made and convincing.

In the general conclusions (Ch. 6), the author clearly outlines the book’s main findings, as they emerged in the individual chapters, and posits two questions, which remain essentially open: how far the behaviour of the twelve Tebtunis families was representative of second-century Tebtunis and to what extent the patterns identified in this study are applicable to other rural societies in Roman Egypt. The author argues that the over-engagement of gymnasial families with the village economic activities, as it emerges from the evidence, offers only a partial view of the Tebtunis society. The publication of the unedited papyri from Tebtunis, he concludes, might be able to shed light on this. As to the applicability question, due to the uniqueness of the evidence the author suggests that patterns of interfamilial relations be seen as a ‘working hypothesis’ for other societies in Roman Egypt, but more will need to be done to ascertain the level of representativeness of this material.

The book is clearly written, with no major typos or errors, and Takahashi is to be commended for making such intricate material so accessible. It would have been helpful to have more comparisons with evidence from other centuries and villages, especially concerning land leases and loans, but that would take another book. Takahashi’s analysis is an essential starting point for studying a wide range of topics, from the role of the elites in the Eastern Roman empire to the relationships between landlords and farmers and the role of credit in rural societies. This study can be used to investigate, comparatively, other regions outside Egypt in different periods of time, to understand how people adapted to diverse social and economic situations. More specifically, the statistical analyses offer students a unique opportunity to further the study of this material and use it as a model for analysis of other rural societies. As the author acknowledges, more work can be done with this corpus, especially once new data from the unpublished documents become available, but the whole community of ancient historians and papyrologists should be grateful to Takahashi for an extremely clear and insightful analysis of life in a second-century village in Egypt.



[1] For a study of the gymnasia in the Ptolemaic to the early Roman period see now M. C. D. Paganini,  Gymnasia and Greek Identity in Ptolemaic Egypt (Oxford 2021).

[2] See, for example, A. Hanson ‘Village officials at Philadelphia: a model of romanization in the Julio-Claudian period’, in L. Criscuolo and G. Geraci (eds.), Egitto e storia antica dall’ellenismo all’età araba (Bologna 1989): 429-40.

[3] See D.W. Hobson, ‛Women as property owners in Roman Egypt’, Transactions of the American Philological Association 113 (1983): 111-21; and id., (1984) ‘The role of women in the economic life of ancient Egypt: a case study from first century Tebtynis’, Echos du monde classique/Classical Views 28: 373-90.

[4] J. Rolawndson, ‘Agricultural tenancy and village society in Roman Egypt’, in A. K. Bowman and E. Rogan (eds.) Agriculture in Egypt: from Pharaonic to modern times (Oxford 1999), 139-158.

[5] B. Tenger, Die Verschuldung in römischen Ägypten (1.-2. Jh. n. Chr.) (St. Katharinen 1993).

[6] F. Lerouxel, Le marché du crédit dans le monde romain (Égypte et Campanie) (Rome 2016).

[7] D. P. Kehoe, Management and investment on estates in Roman Egypt during the early empire (Bonn 1992).