Tuesday, May 21, 2013


Giovanni Roberto Ruffini, A Prosopography of Byzantine Aphrodito. American studies in papyrology, 50. Durham, NC: American Society of Papyrologists, 2011. Pp. xiii, 634. ISBN 9780979975820. $84.99.

Reviewed by Arietta Papaconstantinou, University of Reading (a.s.papaconstantinou@reading.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site

The book under review is in many ways invaluable, especially to those of us working on late antique Egypt. The discovery in 1905 of the papers of Dioskoros of Aphrodito, and their subsequent publication by Jean Maspero and Harold I. Bell, brought this Middle Egyptian village to the foreground for papyrologists interested in 'Byzantine' Egypt – indeed, one might say that the Aphrodito find actually sparked interest in this period for the first time in the history of papyrology. With the publication in 1988 of Leslie MacCoull's Dioscorus of Aphrodito: his work and his world in the University of California Press's widely circulating series 'The Transformation of the Classical Heritage', the village became famous among all students of late antiquity, not only papyrologists. Recently it has even made it into the world of western medievalists, as a result of its inclusion as one of two case studies on Egypt in Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages (Oxford 2005). That is to say that Aphrodito is on the map of any late antique and early medieval historian as a typical Egyptian village half-way along the Nile Valley.

As much, if not all, of the evidence for those studies comes from papyri, it is also very rich in prosopographical data. This had not escaped early scholars, and already in 1938, V. A. Girgis's Prosopografia e Aphroditopolis was published in Berlin. The difference in size between that book and Giovanni Ruffini's monumental A Prosopography of Byzantine Aphrodito (175 vs 634 pages) is enough to show how much the latter was needed after 70 years of analysis and study of the old texts and publication of new ones.

Ruffini began with a historical study, Social networks in Byzantine Aphrodito (Cambridge 2008), largely based on the prosopographical evidence from Girgis's Prosopografia, where he explained why using a 1938 prosopography was justified, but also clearly realised the need for a new one and announced the book under review (p. 200). A Prosopography of Byzantine Aphrodito includes four pages of preface explaining the decision to prepare this prosopography and defining a number of parameters and methodological choices; one page of corrigenda; 587 pages of prosopographical lemmata; a series of reconstituted family trees; an appendix listing the unpublished sources used; another discussing some names that could also be toponyms; and four pages of bibliography. As is obvious, this book is mainly about the prosopographical entries, and is only lightly framed by other elements.

Ruffini states in his preface that there is no prosopography of 'a single village anywhere in the Byzantine world'. This is technically true, despite long-standing works on that period relating to Arsinoe and Jeme,1 since Arsinoe is not a village, and Jeme is not properly speaking 'Byzantine'. Yet in both cases the lists compiled have been widely used by students of late antique Egypt, even though they were much less refined than Ruffini's. This alone shows the need for prosopographical work on Roman and late Roman Egypt.

At the same time, the very size of Ruffini's book shows the enormity of the task that a late antique prosopography of Egypt represents. For a single village and essentially a single century, Ruffini offers more than 580 two-column in-4º pages with the names of individuals attested in the documents of Aphrodito alone. There is no literary evidence for the village, so that mass of information is what comes only from the papyri. A prosopography of late antique Egypt done with the same degree of seriousness and exhaustivity and including literary evidence would evidently take several volumes.

There have been some partial, thematic prosopographies,2 but the volume on Egypt of the 'Prosopographie chrétienne du Bas-Empire' never made it beyond planning stage.3 The various searchable text databases partly make up for the absence of a comprehensive prosopography, or at least they make it less problematic than for other provinces. A glimpse at Ruffini's book, however, will immediately highlight the dangers of simply using a searchable database or indices of names. His careful reading and background work on networks has allowed him to distinguish between homonyms that others had sometimes hastily -- but understandably -- conflated. Conversely, he has sometimes identified the same individual where one might have seen two different ones.

One does wonder, considering all the above, whether it would not have been a better service to scholarship – and also to libraries, all crushed by the amount of new hard copy books – to have produced this prosopography directly online rather than in a volume that is heavy and difficult to handle, and that will be obsolete before long as new texts continue to be published and old ones revised. Appendix 1 already contains a list of 516 individuals who appear in unpublished texts and cannot be identified with individuals who have entries in the main section of the prosopography. The list can only get longer. Ruffini indeed announces a future database, which to some extent however makes the question 'Why a book?' even more relevant.

The one advantage offered by a book over an online database is the possibility to include an analytical introduction that can help all but the specialists to understand and contextualise the dataset. To a large extent Ruffini had already done this in his Social Networks in Byzantine Egypt, albeit based on a different prosopographical base, and he offers none of it here. Yet the impressive list he has put together calls for many more observations than issues of social networking.

In particular, some observations on naming patterns would have been useful, if only to highlight the extent to which Egyptian onomastics had a local flavour, a phenomenon that the papyri bring out very clearly. The dominance of names such as Victor (lemmatised as Biktor), Apollos and Hermaouos, for which there are respectively 234, 159 and 111 entries, is a typical feature of local onomastics. Apollos was the name of Dioskoros' father, for example. These face competition, however, from two names that are popular throughout Egypt, namely Ioannes (250) and Phoibammon (168). The most popular female name, Maria, appears only 48 times, which reflects the underrepresentation of women in documents.

Ruffini's book is useful, learned, and painstakingly complete as things stand. It is, as he claims, the only full and broadly synchronic prosopography of a village in the entire late Roman world, and for this reason has enormous value as a dataset for rural social history. It makes blindingly obvious the need for such work to be expanded to other times and places – starting with the enormously interesting documentation from Aphrodito itself in the early eighth century, under the Arab governor of Egypt Qurra ibn Sharik. The promised electronic version with its potential for growth is eagerly awaited.


1.   J. M. Diethart, Prosopographia Arsinoitica I, s. VI-VIII (Vienna 1980); W. Till, Datierung und Prosopographie der koptischen Urkunden aus Theben (Vienna 1962).
2.   Maria Jesús Albarrán Martinez, Prosopographia Asceticarum Aegyptiarum Colección DVCTVS 1 (Madrid 2010); Arietta Papaconstantinou, 'A preliminary prosopography of moneylenders in early Islamic Egypt and South Palestine', in Mélanges Cécile Morrisson (Paris 2011) 631-48.
3.   Annick Martin, 'La Prosopographie chrétienne du Bas-Empire, I. L'enquête prosopographique dans le cadre égyptien', in Prosopographie et histoire religieuse dans les mondes antiques, ed. Marie-Françoise Baslez and Françoise Prévot (Paris 2005) 305-314; Arietta Papaconstantinou, 'La Prosopographie chrétienne du Bas- Empire, II. Le cas du volume égyptien', in idem, 315-28.

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