Monday, November 10, 2008


Tomasz Derda, Arsinoites Nomos. Administration of the Fayum under Roman Rule. The Journal of Juristic Papyrology Supplement, 7. Warsaw: Institute of Archaeology, Warsaw University and Fundaja im. Rafala Taubenschlaga, 2006. Pp. xviii, 345; maps 4, tables 2. $79.00. ISBN 978-83-918250-6-8.
Reviewed by Peter Fibiger Bang, University of Copenhagen (

In this useful and interesting study of provincial Egypt, Tomasz Derda has set himself the far from moderate task of disentangling the complex and fragmented papyrological evidence relating to the formal aspects of Roman administration in the Egyptian Fayum. The book grew out of his engagement with the project of Willy Clarysse on "Fayum villages in the Graeco-Roman Period" (p. XII) and as such reflects the classic concerns of papyrology. First and foremost, this is a study of the formalities of state administration; the emphasis is heavily on clarifying the use of administrative terms which scholars encounter in the numerous surviving documentary papyri in order to chart the nature of administrative units and offices. A more penetrating analysis of the relations of power underwriting Roman rule in Fayum society, on the other hand, is not really attempted, though Derda does occasionally offer some interesting observations on this topic too.

Conceived as a study of formal administrative divisions and their chronological developments from late Ptolemaic times till the 4th century, the structure of the book is more or less given. The introduction and Chapter 1 set the scene and situate the Fayum as a somewhat aberrant case within the administrative organisation of the province of Egypt. Then follows a survey of the administration over four chapters each dedicated to clarifying the character of a specific kind of office and administrative division. Finally a conclusion summarises the results.

Chapter 2 treats the subdivision of the greater Arsinoite nome (the Fayum area) into three so-called merides. Stretching back into Ptolemaic times, these entities served as the basis for a major reform introduced by the Romans around AD 60. Till then, though exceptionally large, the Arsinoite nome had been governed as a unity under one strategos. But from then on, each of the subdivisions/merides had appointed its own strategos, with the modification that from 136/37 the two smallest merides were usually governed by the same man (p. 102).

Chapter 3 traces the fate of the so-called toparchies under the Romans. Widespread in Egypt since the introduction under the Ptolemies, the coming of Roman rule relegated the institution to a rather obscure existence in the administration of the Fayum. It surfaces only briefly in the second and a number of decades in the third together with the office of the dekaprotoi introduced under Philip the Arab, in each instance in connection with the sitologia, the collection of the grain tax. In the beginning of the fourth century, the toparchies were finally dismantled and the pagus-organisation introduced in their place.

Before we come to the pagi, however, Chapter 4 deals with the lowest rung on the administrative ladder, the komogrammateiai, the village districts and scribes; or rather, Derda argues, an office which came to group together small bundles of villages instead of just one as in the preceding Ptolemaic period. This arrangement had previously been thought to constitute the occasional exception to the general rule, but now Derda makes a case for viewing it as the norm. To support his argument, Derda has compiled a very useful prosopography of known office holders. In general, this argument appears convincing, though the documentation is sufficiently scarce to leave considerable scope for alternative interpretations. In some, but still relatively few instances, Derda is able to show how the komogrammateia of a particular named village also comprised other villages not normally recorded in the title of the office. But whether this was invariably the case, or permanently, is a different matter. In practice, it is far from unthinkable, probably even to be expected, that there would have been considerable variation in the precise arrangements covering the many villages of the Fayum as a consequence of either historical accident or pragmatic compromise.

Derda's analysis of government administration, however, is generally controlled by an expectation to find consistency and efficiency. Administrative change is thus regularly interpreted an attempt to make government more rational (e.g. p. 283 summarising his position). But this, as anyone familiar with bureaucracies will instantly recognise, hardly constitutes the only concern of administrative systems. When, for instance, the Fayum began to be governed by 3 strategoi rather than one, it might reflect an attempt to increase efficiency in a nome which had become too large. However, when this number two generations later was reduced to 2, should we necessarily see that as fine-tuning? Other reasons are equally plausible, e.g. a deft strategos exploiting a vacant position to attach an extra office to his own and then holding on to it long enough for the new arrangement to harden into established custom. It might also simply have originated as a temporary practical arrangement if for some reason a suitable candidate for one of the three positions had been missing.

Pragmatism and compromise also characterise the operation of government. Derda interestingly documents how in the second century even the village scribe was normally fetched from outside the district he was to administer (pp. 149-50). Choosing an outsider increased chances that he would not act in collusion with the locals to cheat the government. However, this practice, familiar from many pre-industrial bureaucracies, also entailed costs. A person standing outside a local community would experience greater problems in penetrating the web of local intrigue and might in the end find himself totally dependent on the help and advice of a few trusted and privileged persons. At some stage, therefore, this practice was abandoned. In the third century, the contours of a new system are uncovered by Derda. Here village scribes and leaders, with new titles, appear to be chosen from their home communities. They now normally only hold office in a single village and they have colleagues, first one, later several. There is no reason to see this as a symptom of declining administrative standards, and Derda does not fall into that trap. What is happening, as Derda explains, is that the administration of the Fayum was gradually made to resemble that of the rest of the province.

This process is at the centre of the 5th chapter of Derda's book. In the third century, possibly under Gallienus, the Fayum had again been unified under a single strategos. Around 302 the toparchies and the office of the dekaprotos were abolished. The years following the abdication of Diocletian saw further change: the introduction of Latin titles in the administration, the disappearance of the 3 merides and then the division of the nome into an unknown number of pagi each headed by a praepositus drawn from the municipal elite. These changes were part of the process which since the Severans saw the gradual municipalisation of Egypt, assimilated the organisation of the province to the wider empire and now brought the Arsinoite nome more in line with the rest of Egypt.

Derda's study provides an interesting and at times even fascinating window on the minutiae of local administration and their development under Roman rule. There is much to interest here, also more than I can deal with in detail. Documentary assemblages of leading peasants such as the so-called archives of Petaus and Isidorus receive discussion; attempts are made to reconstruct the administrative geography of the Fayum, though they must remain tentative since too much is unknown. Apparently much of the manuscript started out in Polish, but the translation generally works well, apart from a few grammatical and lexical errors and oddities such as "Philip the Arabian". To conclude, this an interesting and valuable survey of the formal features of local administration in the Fayum under the Romans.

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