Late Antique Egypt

by Traianos Gagos and Peter van Minnen
NB: The following has been extracted with permission ((c) The University of Michigan Press 1994) from the introduction to Traianos Gagos & Peter van Minnen, Settling a Dispute: Toward a Legal Anthropology of Late Antique Egypt (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), x, 150 pp., 5 plates: paperback $24.95 + $3 postage and handling; write to The University of Michigan Press, P.O.Box. 1104, Ann Arbor, MI 48106-1104. This book contains the publication of a long papyrus document recording the settlement of a dispute over a piece of property near the ancient village of Aphrodito in Upper Egypt. A fifty-page introduction discusses the important role of private settlements in late antique society; the Greek text and the English translation follow side-by-side; an exhaustive commentary clarifies details in the text; an extensive bibliography and a subject index both guide readers to the fascinating world of late antiquity.

The study of late antiquity from the fourth to the seventh century A.D. has attracted the attention of a growing number of scholars in the past twenty years. Late antiquity is indeed an attractive field of study, because its society was in many ways comparable to our own. Scholars have always stressed the ever-growing bureaucracy and the increasing importance of professional services in the economy of late antiquity as developments parallel to what was going on in their own society. However, growing inefficiency in government and a decline in the economy as a whole seem particularly apt parallels to our day and age. In late antiquity the public response to the problems facing the Roman empire was unable to prevent its fall.

Late antiquity is also an attractive field of study because its society was in some ways different from our own. The insistence on theological correctness, the prominent role of the holy men and women in society, the careful use of expressions and titles of respect when people addressed one another, and the formal hierarchy in all walks of life are unfamiliar to us. Yet in a time of rapid change the study of civilizations with roots radically different from ours can provide an interesting form of reorientation. And a multicultural society that somehow managed to survive for centuries on principles we no longer share presents something of a challenge.

Late antique Egypt was an integral part of the later Roman empire. In the earlier Roman empire the country was kept separate from the rest of the Mediterrean world for political reasons and in a variety of ways. This was no longer the case in late antiquity. Administrative institutions in late antique Egypt down to the lowest level of government were very similar to those elsewhere in the Roman world. This situation was to a large degree due to the emperor Diocletian and his colleagues and to their immediate successors, whose aim was to unify and simplify the administrative system in an effort to consolidate the empire. The closed currency system of Egypt, which separated its economy from that of other countries under the early Roman emperors, was abolished by Diocletian and replaced by a universal currency system based on the solidus. From the conquest of Egypt by Augustus until the time of Diocletian, Egypt had had its own currency based on the tetradrachm and it was not permitted to take Egyptian money out of the country. It is unlikely that the gold and silver coins found in Egyptian hoards but issued elsewhere were ever part of the ordinary currency used in Egypt.

Religion had also set Egypt apart from other countries throughout antiquity. Ancient Egyptian religion was characterized on the one hand by its exotic array of zoomorphic gods and on the other hand by the omnipresence of its very business-like priests. In the early Roman empire the Egyptian gods Isis and Serapis were very popular elsewhere in the Mediterranean world, but they were anthropomorphic gods and could not conceal the fact that what was going on in Egyptian religion in general was as strange as ever. In the fourth century all this had finally started to give way to a new faith, Christianity, which Egypt was to share with the rest of the empire. That the church in Egypt by and large came to adhere to doctrines different from those elsewhere in no way interferes with this fundamental fact. The isolation of a "Coptic" church, i.e., the so-called monophysite Christians of Egypt, is a byproduct of the conquest of Egypt by the Arabs in the mid-seventh century.

Scholarship particularly devoted to late antique Egypt follows the main lines set out for late antiquity in general. During the early part of this century much attention was devoted to the military, administrative, and legal history of late antique Egypt. The sharp increase in publications of late antique documents written on papyrus seemed to warrant this particular version of historical interest. Scholars such as J. Maspero and H.I. Bell contributed heavily to the study of late antique Egypt through their text publications (PCair.Masp. and PLond. respectively). Others contributed studies on the administration (M. Gelzer and G. Rouillard) and the development of the so-called large estate as a figure of economic history (E.R. Hardy). These studies are indispensable to students of late antique Egypt, but their revision is long overdue.

The study of late antique Egypt was revived in the last thirty years by scholars interested in the broader spectrum of social and economic history. New methods and strategies have been employed, but modern scholarship could not exist without the work of a previous generation of scholars. There has been a large number of publications onm specific aspects of late antique Egypt, such as administration, agricultural growth and decline, religion, and the growth of the church as an institution of social and economic power. Many of these works are mentioned in our commentary. Here we note only those scholars whose work deals with broader issues. R. Rémondon started publishing studies on late antique Egypt in the fifties and I.F. Fikhman did so in the sixties. The general inaccessibility of Fikhman's major studies-Rossica non leguntur-is hardly his fault, but it adds not a little to the difficulties facing the modern historian of late antique Egypt. Like the major text editions of late antique documents on papyrus, Fikhman's studies are at once indispensable and intractable. J.G. Keenan made his début with studies on late antique Egypt in the seventies, and L.S.B. MacCoull followed in the eighties. The themes they broached in a series of articles and one monograph show the potential and the diverse character of the material from late antique Egypt. Their studies cover a wide range of topics, such as expressions of social status in nomenclature and titulature, social mobility, the impact of legislation on the day-to-day workings of society, the ownership of land and its exploitation, the dynamics of the relations between city and countryside, and the cultural heritage shared by the educated inhabitants of Egypt with those in the rest of the empire. R.S. Bagnall has recently joined their ranks with another monograph on the period up to the middle of the fifth century.

NB: All studies mentioned can be traced with the help of the footnotes in the original publication or with the help of the following publications:

J.G. Keenan, "Papyrology and Byzantine Historiography," Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 30 (1993) 137-144

R.S. Bagnall, Egypt in Late Antiquity (Princeton 1993)

Return to the papyrus home page

Return to Duke University Special Collections Library home page

Please see our page with contact information if you have any comments or questions about the Duke Papyrus Archive.

Last updated by Suzanne Corr on 5/10/95