BMCR 2023.11.32

Response: Riggsby on Dolganov on Riggsby, Mosaics of knowledge: representing information in the Roman world

Response to 2023.10.03

1 Responses

Response by

I thank Anna Dolganov for bringing to bear her substantial expertise in an area quite relevant to the area of my book. However, I think it will be helpful to drill down further into how her data fit into the specific claims there.

The main argument of the review is that the claims of my first two chapters are undercut if we attend more closely to the papyrological evidence. (Below I discuss the different objection to chapter 3; the other chapters don’t really come up.) To assess that, it is important to be clear about what my claims actually are: several complex information technologies were rarely used in the Roman world, and when they do appear, they are limited to fairly specific use contexts. The technologies in question are (I bracket ones which Dolganov does not discuss):

  • [Alphabetized lists]
  • [Tables of contents]
  • Indexed lists
  • Nested lists
  • “Obligatory cross-reference”
  • Tables

Most of the supposed counter-examples in the review (a) ignore the definitions of the phenomena I set out to examine or (b) are already included in or are redundant with evidence I already present.

(a) In the cases of tables and of obligatory cross-reference, Dolganov ignores my explicit definitions of the terms and offers examples of other things. For instance, in the book I explain why I stipulate a fairly narrow sense of “table” (pp. 42-9). Tables so defined are nearly non-existent in the Roman evidence, despite both being potentially useful and being more plentiful in other ancient contexts. That is a phenomenon worthy of notice and explanation regardless of the existence of adjacent phenomena. There is extensive discussion of why I do not include long, two-column “telephone book” type lists (47-9); this is precisely the form of the tax records she cites from P.Mich. IV (n.2). And to say that a document like P.Fay. 300 (n.3) “functionally resembles” a table not only begs the question but is in fact false since its lack of row-and-column structure (indeed, even of even consistent columns) means it cannot be used in the same ways.

Her “implicit cross-reference” (paragraph 6) in the Trajanic alimenta tablets is by definition not an instance of my “obligatory cross-reference,” which is expressly about the use of numerical coding to move from one document to another. BGU I 95 similarly shows no trace of such numerical cross-reference (n. 10). Conversely, her other supposed example (P.Lond. III 1164e) does have reference numbers, but (as she appears to admit) already contains the detailed information that might be found in an associated property register. That is to say, it is not “obligatory” in the sense I offer.

Similarly, I do not discuss documents from a variety of institutionally important contexts such as the census (nn. 8 and 9) since they don’t happen to provide evidence that addresses my specific claims.[1]

Finally, much of what the review has to say about nested lists is based on a misreading of a footnote. Dolganov says “indexing marks [on official documents] were not merely rhetorical (‘more about authority than recall’ 203).” While I do take the symbolic significance of archiving procedures seriously, the phrase she quotes is not in fact about “rhetoric.” My immediately preceding sentence says “His [Keith Hopkins’] specific examples…are all about verifying an already known or suspected piece of information, not novel research or combination.” To unpack that a little, when information flowed into Roman state archives it was tagged in various ways that amounted to serial file numbers, often based on nested lists. If you had that file number you could confirm the authenticity of a purported copy.[2] That is to say, my “authority” refers to the production (n. 6) and demand (n. 7) of “authenticated copies” that Dolganov claims I am unaware of.

(b) In other cases there is at least genuine disagreement as to the fact (or not) of “rare and…limited to specific use contexts.” On the account in the book, “rare” does come in degrees. There are literally only a handful of tables of contents and of tables. The other technologies (e.g. alphabetical or nested lists) are attested in perhaps dozens of examples, and on the basis of that evidence are likely standard within certain narrow contexts, but that does not make them common in the world at large. Notably, Dolganov doesn’t address the point about limited use contexts, which is the most important to the broadest claim of the book (balkanization of information and information technology).

At any rate, it is in the context of those categorical arguments that I treat the kind of evidence that Dolganov thinks is missing. So, for instance, she cites tomoi synkollesimoi as missing examples of nested lists (her paragraph 5); I discuss them as examples of nested lists at p. 31. She then cites tabulae/paginae systems as other missing examples of nested lists (paragraph 5/n.4). I discuss them as examples of nested lists at pp. 29-31. In an earlier article, Dolganov had already complained that there are few individual papyri in my index locorum.[3] But given the logic of my argument, if I have already pointed out and discussed the existence of an entire category, there is rarely a reason to cite random specific examples.

Dolganov’s critique of chapter 3 (on metrology) is a little different. The central claims of that chapter are that the Romans did not use systems of measurement that were both precisely and universally standardized, and that they had a variety of tactics to avoid the potential pitfalls of that lack. Here she does not purport to offer new evidence (and in fact ignores the substantial archaeological evidence marshaled in the chapter). Accordingly, her assertions that, for instance, the existence of such standards are “clearly implied” by the legal texts (her paragraph 8; cf. my pp. 110-112, 119-120) or that different versions of the modius are reliably “terminologically distinct” (her paragraph 9; cf. my p. 92) simply ignore the explanations in the book why those claims are not true. Her final argument is a priori incredulity:

It is difficult to fathom that in the Roman empire “the bulk of taxes were computed in ways that avoided having to do any kind of standardized measurement” (109) and that officials in Roman Egypt who measured grain to minute fractions of artabai were in each case employing purely local artabai or stylizing approximate figures to give them the semblance of real measurements (122, 126-127).

The former is in fact true whatever one believes about the availability of standards, since neither fixed taxes on individuals or communities nor—crucially—proportional taxes like tithes, many customs dues, and the manumission tax require standardization (as discussed on p. 109). As for the latter, I point out in the same discussion that the only “victims” of non-standardization would be tax-payers whose respective burdens would be ever so slightly unequal from place to place. From the point of view of the officials broad standardization would not be easier nor necessarily more profitable.

Most of the argument of the book is straight-forwardly falsifiable. That is, it is not hard to imagine what kind of documents or other evidence could turn up that would disprove its claims. I don’t think this has happened yet.



[1] Unlike birth records, statutes, and Senatorial decrees (which explicitly are coded with a nested system when they are filed), most document types are indexed by accession date and/or later formed into the tomoi synkollesimoi discussed below. These are the forms of “tagging” referred to in my next paragraph.

[2] For instance, this appears to be the the mechanism at work in two of the examples cited (n.5) as instances of records “looked up” in the archives” (W.Chr. 77 and CJ 2.42.1) as well as in P.Lond. III 1164e discussed above. The other document cited for “look up” (BGU I 73) is better taken to refer to the holding of a hearing rather than a document search. Dolganov and I do have substantive disagreements about the searchability of Roman archives which I hope to treat elsewhere, but they are well outside the scope of the book.

[3] A. Dolganov, “Documenting Roman citizenship,” in Ando, C. and Lavan, M. (eds) Roman and Local Citizenship in the Long Second Century, Oxford 2021, 185-228, at 186n3.