Sunday, August 13, 2017


Philip F. Venticinque, Honor Among Thieves: Craftsmen, Merchants, and Associations in Roman and Late Roman Egypt. New texts from ancient cultures. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016. Pp. ix, 275. ISBN 9780472130160. $75.00.

Reviewed by Andrew Connor, Monash University (

Version at BMCR home site


In his book, Honor Among Thieves: Craftsmen, Merchants, and Associations in Roman and Late Roman Egypt, Philip Venticinque examines one important part of the ancient economy: the trade associations. While associations have long been a topic for study, Venticinque uses non-literary evidence (especially the papyrological record) to further the argument that they must be understood as deeply embedded, popular economic operations, and not as fiscally stunted social clubs.1 In doing so, he has produced a wide-ranging, thought-provoking book.

Key to Venticinque's study of associations is the application of ideas from the New Institutional Economics (NIE), a school of thought that has played a major part in the writing of the economic history of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt in the 21st century.2 A central contention of New Institutional Economics—that information is not shared freely, can be difficult to obtain, and thus has value in a world of imperfectly informed actors—underpins much of Venticinque's argument. The craftsmen and merchants of the ancient world prized accurate, reliable information and, at least in part, formed associations in order to reduce the cost of information among their group. Many concepts central to NIE, such as the relational contract, while not referred to by name, do seem to underpin the analysis throughout.3 Across six chapters, Venticinque approaches the associations (variously referred to in the scholarship as guilds, corporations, or voluntary associations)4 as economic, legal, and social phenomena. In doing so, Venticinque advances on a broad—sometimes very broad—front. Merchants from Ostia, Ephesus, or Aphrodito, while often geographically and chronologically far apart, frequently rub shoulders here, a point I will return to below.

The book consists of six chapters, along with introduction, brief summative conclusion, bibliography, and two indices (a general index and one of sources, divided by literary sources, papyri and ostraka, and legal sources). In the introduction, Venticinque uses the packing list for the journey of a 4th century katholikos, which he has published elsewhere,5 to highlight the diverse roles of craftsmen in daily life. The rest of the introduction offers discussions of the nature of papyrological evidence, associations and association membership, and the history of scholarship on the topic, focusing especially on Finley.

The first chapter, "Charters, Transaction Costs, and Trust," is an extended argument for associations as economic concerns. This is accomplished, in part, by highlighting the economic aspects of certain behaviors—the evidence for financial support for funerals or temporarily impoverished members—instead of the social, as Finley had done. Venticinque also interprets the associations in light of the argument that information has an economic value, and often a very high one. Risk, driven by a lack of information, could be mitigated through networks formed during the social and religious activities that previous studies have highlighted.

The second and third chapters, "The Business of Trust" and "Reputation Management" respectively, offer an extended study of the relational contract in commercial activities and associations, and the value of a good reputation in these matters. The second chapter, "The Business of Trust," focuses in particular on the cooperation and conflict that could exist within the group and between members and non-members of a commercial association. Venticinque argues that associations provided a structure for interactions within the group and with the community, and that this structure was underpinned by relationships of trust among members and between the association and the allies or administrators they frequently called upon.

In the third chapter, "Reputation Management," Venticinque focuses on the associations' presence in their communities and the role that reputation played in creating and reinforcing the presentation and perception of the association. The honorific decrees and religious activities of these associations are re-examined as evidence of mutually beneficial transactions that increased the social capital of the associations and the benefactor or religious center. Though one should still leave room for genuine expressions of religious feeling—the temples of Roman Egypt were in good health for much of this period—Venticinque is quite right to point out that these religious expressions were also (127) "part of a group's approach to interacting with the community and communicating information about the group, their individual members, and their ties to members of the elite."

In Chapter 4, "Reputation, Rhetoric, and Participation," Venticinque builds on his argument for the economic value to association members of reputation and allies through the case study of a dispute between a certain "well-to-do" Alexandrian named Isidorus and another prominent individual, Epimachus. The dispute revolved around Isidorus' economic status—as a weaver (according to him), who would be exempt from certain duties, or as a spice merchant (according to Epimachus), who would not. By working through the language of this dispute (recorded on P.Oxy. 22.2340), Venticinque argues that exemptions from duties and other privileges were markers of status in the community and could reinforce bonds within associations, but could also heighten competition among associations with different grants of privileges. While this chapter illustrates his point amply, it may take too many digressions from the affairs of Isidorus and Epimachus to be a true case study.

In the fifth chapter, "Associations in Legal Thought and Practice," Venticinque studies the "rules of the game," that is, the official legal and economic guidelines within which the associations operated, from local laws to the Gnomon of the Idios Logos and the jurists Gaius and Marcian. He picks through the claims for bans on associations, or distinctions between licit and illicit organizations and places them against the evidence from other sources (papyri, inscriptions, etc.) demonstrating that associations were active and recognized at all levels and areas of Roman society. While grumbles from the literati might form an "informal constraint," they do not seem to have had a major impact on association activities. Venticinque also notes, quite rightly, that we ought to be careful generalizing— chronologically and spatially—from very localized instances of restrictions on associations to speak instead for the entirety of the Roman world (though see below).

In his final chapter, "Associations in Late Roman Egypt," Venticinque offers an extended comparison between the prescriptive legal declarations found in the Theodosian Code on the one hand, and the day-to-day realities found in the documentary, primarily papyrological record on the other. It functions as a pendant to Chapter 5, echoing many of the insights found there. The discussion of the rhetoric of compulsion (the "dragging back," detrahere, of absentee association members) is especially interesting, and highlights Venticinque's larger point that controls on association behaviour are often quite a bit less extreme, when read in context.

In some ways, the final words of the subtitle (Craftsmen, Merchants, and Associations in Roman and Late Roman Egypt) are misleading—Venticinque moves from Egypt to other areas of the ancient world (especially Ephesus and Ostia) briskly and frequently. For those interested in commercial associations outside of Egypt, there will be much to consider in this book. It does also mean, however, that a picture is sometimes presented of a generic association mentality or legal environment from the Iberian Peninsula to Asia Minor and Egypt, throughout the Roman period, across the various types of associations. More discussion of regional, professional, and chronological variation (even within Egypt) seems necessary to properly contextualize the behaviour of these groups. This might also have more firmly fixed the discussion in some areas that were otherwise disrupted by these geographic or topical shifts. A greater emphasis on the connective tissue of the book might have helped to ease these transitions or to make the course of the argument more explicit at points.

The text itself is cleanly presented, and there are no obvious typographic errors. Quotations from ancient sources are presented in translation only, and technical terms are transliterated. While some may miss the Greek or Demotic itself for particular passages, this approach will no doubt make the book more accessible for those working in related fields who might want to see how things were done in the ancient world. Evidence is generally presented carefully—see Menas, the tow-worker of Oxyrhynchus and possible association member (91)—but in some of these instances the connections can seem speculative—a statue base found "in or near the temple of Ptah in Memphis" (116) is perhaps taken one half-step too far into the realm of speculation about patron-religion ties, for instance. Many of Venticinque's arguments, as on the relationship between a merchant's status (economic or otherwise) and association membership (generally, members represented the higher rungs of the workshop ladder), are interesting and, in light of the problems of ancient terminology discussed throughout, might usefully have been explored together in more detail.6 Finally, one might wonder, following the suggestion of Venticinque's title (Honor among Thieves) what the effect of all this was on the associations and on the economy at large. If, as Venticinque has argued, the "rules of the game" were not biased against the associations and they were not in fact economically stunted, did this necessarily translate into actual financial success (whatever that might be—and for whom?), or is any supposed success simply more rhetoric?

Despite these concerns, it is clear that Venticinque has produced a book that will be critical reading for anyone working on commercial associations in the ancient world, whether or not they focus on Egypt (Roman or otherwise). He has compellingly demonstrated the centrality of economic activity or motivation to the operations of these associations. There has been an upswing in interest in commercial associations in recent years,7 and Venticinque has positioned himself squarely in the debate with this wide-ranging book.


1.   For an earlier discussion of the economic side of associations, see, e.g., P. van Minnen, "Urban Craftsmen in Roman Egypt," M√ľnstersche Beitr√§ge zur Antiken Handelsgeschichte 6 (1987), 31-88.
2.   See, e.g., J.G. Manning, Land and Power in Ptolemaic Egypt (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
3.   For a brief discussion of NIE and the ancient world, see Frier and Kehoe, "Law and Economic Institutions" in The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World, Scheidel, Morris, and Saller, eds. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 113-143.
4.   For his discussion of this terminology, see page 10.
5.   Discussed in his 2009 dissertation (Chicago) and published as "Packing List of a Katholikos in the Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists Volume 53 (2016) 175-188.
6.   The need to distinguish between different types and skills of craftsmen was recognized in antiquity, as in the Digest (46.3.31).
7.   See, e.g., the edited volume of Gabrielsen and Thomsen (including Venticinque): (BMCR 2016.07.02).

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