Thursday, July 9, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Giovanni Ruffini, Social Networks in Byzantine Egypt. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. x, 278. ISBN 9780521895378. $110.00.
Reviewed by Conor Whately, University of Warwick

[Table of contents at the end of the review.]

There has been some significant work done on the economy and society of Byzantine Egypt in the last decade.1 Although most of those studies have concentrated on the economy of Byzantine Egypt, as well as its relationship with, and impact on, the region's various social groups, Ruffini's new book, Social Networks in Byzantine Egypt focuses squarely on Egypt's social structures, though for some aspects, like the Great Estate, the two are necessarily intertwined. Ruffini's monograph, a prosopographical overview of Oxyrhynchos and Aphrodito, as well as a network analysis--employing social network theory and the computer programs UCINET and Pajek--of those two locations, is an important contribution to the study of Byzantine Egypt in the periodfrom the second half of the fifth century through the Arab conquest. Indeed, one of the most significant features of Ruffini's study is his novel utilization of social network analysis, a theoretical, quantitative tool, which allows us to "measure the extent of a society's centralization, to identify topographical patterns in the formation of its large estates, and to identify the most central...figures in its social networks" (p. 3). This book marks one of the first applications of this method to the ancient world, and despite some drawbacks, its largely successful usage by Ruffini raises questions about its relevance to other significant bodies of evidence from the ancient world, such as Greek and Latin civic inscriptions, the Nessana papyri, and, potentially, the PLRE. As such, Ruffini deserves an audience beyond the papyrologists and students of the economy and society of the sixth and seventh centuries who make up this book's primary readership.

In the introduction, Ruffini provides a tutorial on network analysis specifically aimed at ancient historians, much like this reviewer, who are unfamiliar with this method. This includes its history, a look at its limited use by students of the ancient world, and an overview of the terminology and practice of network analysis.2 A key component of this introduction is his discussion of how to make and use a data-set. Its creation is the first step in network analysis, and despite the fact that we (that is, students of the ancient world) lack individuals to interview, in contrast to an anthropologist who would undertake such an analysis, our evidence can still enable us to analyse the social connections from (1) person to person, (2) person to place, (3) place to place, and (4) person or place to event (p. 21). The first and third items are one-node networks where evidence of one type is linked, while the second and fourth items are two-node network, where evidence of two types is linked. It is the former Ruffini is concerned with, and besides telling us how to convert from one to two-node networks, he identifies his data sets, namely, the (1981) Pruneti topographical register for the Oxyrhynchos, and the (1938) Girgis Prosopography for Aphrodito.3 After this, Ruffini provides a discussion of the key terminology (pp. 28-40).

The first chapter of the book, entitled "The Centralized Elite of Oxyrhynchos," is a sometimes dry prosopographical analysis of the Oxyrhynchite nome. Ruffini discusses a host of landowners in this chapter, including Kyria, Alexander, Phib Anastasia, and Apion (pp. 44-53), and their relationships within the Oxyrhynchos. We also find discussions of the estates of Theon and Timagenes (pp. 53-61); Fl. Apion Theodosios Ioannes, Samuel, and Phoibammon (pp. 61-64); Flavius Eulogios (pp. 64-70); Fl. Euphemia and Fl. Anastasia (pp. 70-75); Christodote, and Kometes (pp. 75-80); and the Oxyrhynchite church (pp. 80-91): a dizzying array of elites and properties. It is in this chapter that Ruffini delves into the contentious issue of the "Great Estates", and sides with Gascou, the "fiscal shares" position, and the concomitant belief that these large estates were the exception rather than the rule.4 On the other hand, Ruffini also characterizes these estates as the central hubs of the nome's social networks. This seeming incongruity begs the question, if the estates were exceptional, how valuable would an analysis of their networks be if we wanted to use the results to discuss Egypt at large, let alone the Eastern Empire as a whole? Of course, the evidence afforded by the Oxyrhynchos is so substantial that to ignore it would be a mistake. Ruffini makes a number of useful observations over the course of this chapter, including the fact that the urban elites seem to have been quite distanced from their rural holdings, and that many of their social connections were both indirect and vertical. He concludes that the nome was economically centralized, with the rural periphery bound to the urban centre through hierarchical ties.

The second chapter, "The Growth of the Apions," applies network analysis to the Oxyrhynchite topography, marking the first test in this book of this novel approach. In the absence of a detailed prosopography for Oxyrhynchos, Ruffini decides to "use the topographical evidence in Paola Pruneti's register of the Oxyrhynchite nome as a substitute for the social connectivity of the nome as a whole" (p. 95). There is a concise overview of the Flavii Apiones (pp. 96-99), followed by some, perhaps, foolhardy,5 though also thought-provoking, discussion of the Apionic population, which delves into the aforementioned issue of fiscal shares (pp. 99-119). Although Ruffini sticks to the Gascou line (supported by Hickey among others, and to my mind ably challenged recently by Sarris 2006) regarding fiscal shares, he rightly qualifies this by noting that whether the Apiones owned the land in question in his analysis or simply had fiscal responsibility for it would not alter his model (p. 99, n. 28). Ruffini concludes that the population under Apionic control was probably around 10,096, noting that this was possibly only a fraction of the total (p. 118).

Next, he turns to one of the chief aims of this chapter, namely his attempt to map the growth of the Apionic estate, a noble task which, hitherto, no scholar has successfully carried out. He begins by looking at the traditional means of answering such a question (pp. 119-127). Ruffini then turns to his network analysis approach, and the results are striking (pp. 127-142). The evidence suggests that the Apionic holdings were scattered throughout the nome, that they came under their fiscal responsibility seemingly at random, that the family's influence was fairly evenly distributed throughout the nome, that there is no geographic sequence to their growth, and that their presence in the region predates the existing (sixth century) bureaucratic structures. Ruffini notes that the evidence seems to confirm the conclusions reached from the previous chapter concerning the nome's centralization. What is more, he also suggests that the growth of the Apionic estate may have changed the region's social geography, while noting that the rate of change seems to have accelerated in the years following the outbreak of the plague in the 540s.

Chapter three, "Aphrodito and the Strong Ties of Village Society," focuses on the village of Aphrodito, the social landscape of which is characterized by strong, horizontal, multiplex ties, that is ties in which a person may be connected to someone by more than one means, such as family. Ruffini notes the village's continuing efforts to promote its right to autopragia, which Zuckerman (2004) argued disappeared in the 550s. While describing the relationships of the village's elite, including Apollos, Dioskoros, and Phoibammon, the son of Triadelphos (pp. 152-163), he makes the plausible suggestion that land acquisition in the village proceeded along social and familial lines (p. 163, 168). In a similar manner, Ruffini claims that the famous petition to Theodora (P.Cair.Masp. 3.67283) shows, due to social networks, a barely discernable distinction between village, community, family, and friends (p. 179). He then turns, briefly, to the murder mystery (P. Mich. 13.660, P. Mich. 13.661), which has received some attention from scholars, and to Aphrodito's relationship to its neighbouring villages (pp. 184-187), as well as to the village and its pagarchs, those officials responsible for the collection of taxes. Ruffini notes that the Flavii, the 'region's political elite,' were in regular contact with Aphrodito society, so laying the basis for his--to my mind unsuccessful--challenge to Banaji's (2001) model of an imperial aristocracy composed by outsiders. This is largely framed around a discussion of the career of Flavius Menas, a man with strong multiplex ties to the village, yet opposed to Aphrodito's leading men as a result of his opposition to securing its right of autopragia. At the end he discusses Zuckerman's supposition that Flavius Ioulianos was the dominant land owner in the village, which Ruffini had referred to at the start of the chapter, and despite his concerns, he fails to discard it, although he concedes that the evidence concerning Ioulianos is insufficient (p. 197, cf. p. 241).

In the last chapter, "Qualifying Aphrodito's Social Network", Ruffini returns to network analysis, and at the end of the opening paragraph he makes the following provocative statements (p. 198): "Aphrodito's social network had a very low degree of hierarchy and was relatively decentralized," which, "coming from a century we picture as having rather rigid social hierarchies...opens the door to reconsidering the realities of village life throughout late antiquity." Much discussion of late antique social structures has focused on ecclesiastical, imperial, and urban elites;with the obvious exception of Aphrodito, village life has been ignored. However, studies of rural life exist, for the countryside in Syria and Palestine have attracted some attention. Thus his rather bold statements are a bit presumptuous. Ruffini discusses his data set much as he did in chapter two, and while doing so he argues that he ought not to combine post-Girgis material with the Girgis material (p. 201, 211). Yet, if one of the aims of chapters three and four is to get at the social connections of the village as whole, and new evidence has been brought to light since the publication of Girgis in 1938, then I think we ought to include this material on the chance that it might uncover not only previously unknown individuals, but possibly hidden connections.6 On the other hand, omitting texts that boast a disproportionate number of names, such as P. Flor. 3.297, and P. Cair. Masp. 3.67288 which list 466 and 28 villagers respectively, is sensible. Objections aside, Ruffini's analysis does produce some interesting results, namely that the keys to social connectivity in the village are the owning of land, the ability to write, and the forming of relationships with shepherds (p. 217). The last of the three is the most surprising, though Ruffini notes that the shepherds were important in large part because of their mobility and concomitant connections with Aphrodito's satellite villages, as well as for the security that they offered (p. 226). Ruffini is also interested in the changes in connectivity over time, and here the discussion is less convincing, partially due to the numbers employed (pp. 232-240). His results suggest little change in connectivity over the course of the sixth century. Interestingly, and tellingly, he also finds that Aphrodito's social network is stronger than is statistically likely, which does raise some questions about the applicability of the results. Still, one would be surprised if the villagers were not closely connected socially and his arguments in this regard are surely correct.

In the conclusion Ruffini points out the divergent picture that his prosopographical and network analyses of the Oxyrhynchos and Aphrodito have produced. Where Aphrodito is characterized by face-to-face multiplexity, Oxyrhynchos is characterized by vertical centralizing ties. This begs the question, as Ruffini notes, of whether we should accept these regional differences and search for other such evidence, or ask what is missing from our evidence to make the social structures from the two sites more similar, in keeping with the recent studies of Zuckerman (2004) and Sarris (2006). Ruffini casts asides these two possibilities and instead adopts a middle course of action regarding future work, what he calls the universalizing thesis, one I find attractive: "I rather suspect [Byzantine Egypt] looked quite a bit like Aphrodito in [sic] Oxyrhynchos, in which village networks formed from strong horizontal ties connected to nome-wide networks through centralizing vertical ties" (p. 249).

Much is often made about the application of modern theory to the ancient evidence, and one can be assured that some will find fault with Ruffini's usage of modern network analysis. Indeed, some of the results are unsurprising, such as his conclusions about the close face-to-face ties of Aphrodito, a seemingly timeless characteristic of village life as any long-time resident of a small town (whether in southern Ontario, such as myself, or Byzantine Egypt) could attest. Perhaps what is surprising is the fact that this position has not been adopted more widely before. The same might be said for his observations on the centralized character of social relations in the Oxyrhynchos, given the generally hierarchical character of late antiquity, and the Roman world generally, as this too is unsurprising. Other conclusions, however, such as what Ruffini's analysis has to tell us about the growth of the Apionic holdings, and the role of important individuals and groups (shepherds for example) in Aphrodito, are new. As such, his use of social network analysis has, to my mind, proven its worth, and those with an aversion to numbers and figures should not be put off. Although I am a sceptic of the applicability of the Egyptian papyrological evidence to the whole of the Mediterranean, this analysis has ably dispensed with many of my reservations (p. 252). Ruffini has made an important and provocative addition to modern scholarship on the social history of late antiquity.

Table of Contents:

1. The Centralized Elite of Oxyrhynchos
2. The Growth of the Apions
3. Aphrodito and the Strong Ties of Village Society
4. Quantifying Aphrodito's Social Network


1.   Some of these works include Banaji's (2001, Oxford) Agrarian Change in Late Antiquity: Gold, Labour, and Aristocratic Dominance, Mitthof's (2001, Florence) Annona Militaris: die Heeresversorgung im spätantiken Ägypten; Zuckerman's (2004, Paris) Du Village À L'Empire: Autour du registre fiscal d'Aphroditô, Sarris' (2006, Cambridge) Economy and Society in the Age of Justinian, and Bagnall's (2007, Cambridge) edited volume Egypt in the Byzantine World, 300-700, not to mention Hickey's (2001) unpublished University of Chicago dissertation, A Public 'House' But Closed: Fiscal Participation and Economic Decision Making on the Oxyrhynchite Estate of the Flavii Apiones, and Wickham's (2005, Oxford) Framing the Early Middle Ages, notably absent from Ruffini's bibliography, which includes considerable discussion of late antique Egypt.
2.   The common phrase "six degrees of separation" has its origins in social network analysis.
3.   Pruneti, P. (1981, Florence) I centri abitati dell'Ossirinchite: repertorio toponomastico; Girgis, V. A. (1938, Berlin) Prosopografia e Aphroditopolis.
4.   Gascu, J. (1985), "Les Grands Domaines, la cité et l'état en Égypte byzantine (Recherches d'histoire agraire, fiscale et administrative)," T&M 9: 1-90. Sarris (2006), and to a lesser degree Zuckerman (2004), have challenged this view, arguing that the Great Estates were a fixture of the Eastern Mediterranean.
5.   Ancient populations are notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain. See the discussion of Scheidel (2007: 38ff, Cambridge) in the recent Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World.
6.   Granted, although it would be a considerable undertaking--which thankfully Ruffini says he is currently undertaking for another project, namely an Aphrodito prosopography--it is surely necessary if the results achieved are going to have any lasting value.

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