Rezension über:

Willy Clarysse / Dorothy J. Thompson: Counting the People in Hellenistic Egypt. Volume 1: Population Registers (P. Count), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2006, xxiv + 694 S., 5 plates, ISBN 978-0-521-83838-2, GBP 128,00
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Willy Clarysse / Dorothy J. Thompson: Counting the People in Hellenistic Egypt. Volume 2: Historical Studies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2006, xx + 395 S., ISBN 978-0-521-83839-9, GBP 69,00
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Rezension von:
Arthur Verhoogt
Department of Classical Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Matthias Haake
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Arthur Verhoogt: Counting the People in Hellenistic Egypt (Rezension), in: sehepunkte 7 (2007), Nr. 9 [15.09.2007], URL:

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Counting the People in Hellenistic Egypt

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Counting the People has been long in the making, but it was definitively worth the wait. What we have here is an enormous and well-written body of scholarship by two leading scholars in the field on many aspects of the population of (early) Ptolemaic Egypt. Discussion ranges from the tiniest detail in straightening fibers in a papyrus document to an overall comparison of the Ptolemaic situation with that in other pre-modern societies, and everything in between. These volumes are a must-read for anybody interested in Ptolemaic Egypt, or the Hellenistic world at large.

The first volume, which will be known as P. Count, is a first rate papyrological text edition. It (re)publishes fifty-four Greek and Demotic papyri with facing English translations and informative commentaries. Many of the texts were published before, but their historical significance was not understood at the time. As usual, texts have to be put back into their contexts, and be compared to each other, in order to allow the best historical reconstruction to be made.

The texts, all of which derive from mummy cartonnage (the papier maché casing for human mummies), consist of various administrative registers from the third and second centuries B.C.E. in Greek and Demotic. They provide different lists of Ptolemaic Egypt's adult inhabitants, arranged per village, occupation and social group, and detail the taxes these people had to pay on their person, livestock and trades. Most texts come from the Fayum, but there are also a number of texts from other locales in Egypt. Taken together, these texts provide detailed information about the population of Ptolemaic Egypt that is discussed and analyzed in the second volume.

The editors provide each text with an extensive introduction detailing the physical condition of the papyrus, its scholarly history, and the importance of the text for and its contribution to the present argument. Then follows the Greek or Demotic text with facing English translation, and a detailed line-by-line commentary. There are very few plates of the papyri in the volume itself. There are references to plates published before, however, and many texts are included in digital format on the companion website to the book,

The texts, both Greek and Demotic, are written in small cursive scripts and largely preserved in fragments only. They are therefore not the easiest to decipher and the editors have really done a marvelous job, both in deciphering the unpublished texts, and in graciously correcting mistaken readings from earlier editors.

The extensive commentaries contain many points of interest. Most significant are the numerous discussions of personal names, ranging from the regional significance of a name and its link to local deities, to naming patterns in families (brought together in Chapter 8 of the second volume). Study of these personal names, and the patterns and traditions found in several families, is facilitated by an online prosopography on the companion website.

What is interesting, and would warrant some more research outside of the scope of the present work, is the frequent re-use of these various registers, both for similar documents and for unrelated documents. Text 27, for example, a Greek composite tax-register for three villages (254-231 B.C.E.) was used on the back for text 28, another tax-register for the same three villages, but from a different year (28, 48-49n.). On the back of text 6, there are remains of a register of land and crops (in Demotic) and a draft of a letter in Greek, dated to 13 July 232 B.C.E. It would seem that these registers stayed in archives long enough to allow this re-use. Comparison with the re-use of texts in other government archives could yield some interesting information about the workings of the bureaucracy in early Ptolemaic Egypt.

The second volume contains nine chapters presenting the historical analysis of the documents (re-) published in the first volume and their historical significance in the larger picture of pre-modern societies. It aims to "illuminate the means by which some of [Ptolemaic] wealth was acquired": through the levy of personal taxes on the population and the livestock of Egypt. The first chapter, "Ptolemies, taxes and papyri," presents the geographical and historical setting of Ptolemaic Egypt in the third and second century B.C.E., and sets the texts that form the source material for this study into this framework. What it clearly shows, is that the Ptolemaic administration of especially the third century B.C.E. is a system under development. This is made clear, among others, by the variant use of Demotic and Greek in the same administration, and the lack of consistent and standardized forms for the documents and registers concerned.

Chapter 2, "The census," gives an overview of the Ptolemaic census, its workings, and its uses. Counting people (per household and occupation) and counting animals was not new in Egypt and there are numerous indications for such a practice in Pharaonic Egypt; what was new was the fiscal use made of the counting, the extensive use of written records, and the use of Greek as recording language (originally side-by-side with Demotic). There is no indication that the Ptolemaic census was a periodic operation like the Roman census. What the documents published in this volume suggest rather is that existing records were regularly updated to take account of changes in the population. The fact that local officials like the village scribe, who would be quite up-to-date with such changes, were very much involved in the process of counting the people, allows for such a non-formalized system to work; as remarked by the authors in a later chapter, tax payers were names on the local level, but they became numbers on the nome level (69). Also unlike the Roman census, which used written declarations from household heads, the Ptolemaic census was rather the work of traveling officials who would take oral declarations, and work them into written reports and registers (per household and per occupation). Personal census declarations do survive (listed on page 22), but in insufficient numbers to allow definite conclusions about their role (required or not) in the census process.

The third chapter, "The salt-tax and other taxes", discusses the most important tax, the salt tax, its rates (presented in a table on page 45), and compares the salt tax with other Ptolemaic taxes that feature in the documents published in the first volume. This chapter takes up and concludes a number of Clarysse and Thompson's earlier studies, and the scholarly reactions that those papers generated. The salt tax, first attested in 264/263 B.C.E., was levied in cash on all adults, with differentiated rates for men and women. This tax, and especially granting exemption from it, allowed the Ptolemaic state to make clear what features of society it thought important (army, police, and anything "Greek"). Ptolemaic tax exemptions were given to people "not for who they were, but for the role they played in developing the new system" (88). The more important the state perceived this role to be, the more likely it was to grant (tax-)privileges to them.

Chapter 4, "Settlement in the Fayum", introduces the demographic geography of the Ptolemaic Fayum. It provides a clear picture of the average size of settlements in the Fayum, and sets these data against possible numbers for the population of Egypt as a whole. The population of the Fayum in the third quarter of the third century B.C.E. is reconstructed to have been between 85,000 and 95,000 people, giving a population density of 60 people per square kilometer (95). On this basis, one would expect the population of Egypt as a whole in this time to have been not more than 1,500,000. The second half of this chapter gives an important overview of the administrative topography of the Fayum, detailing what the documents teach us about villages (and village sizes, see 104-105) and tax districts (compared to the system of merides in the Fayum). This information will be required reading for anybody trying to work out village networks in the Fayum.

Chapter 5 is entitled "The people counted" and forms the core of the study. It gives an overview of the different tax categories found in the documents published in the first volume. It provides, although based on documents that are the workings of very bureaucratic minds, a lively overview of the people that made up the society of Ptolemaic Egypt, providing a much needed framework for reading contemporary documents such as petitions, letters, and legal documents.

In the tax registers, the population was divided in ethnê, which in the Ptolemaic period refers to both ethnic groups in the modern sense of the word, and to occupational groups. Although undoubtedly there will have been overlap between various categories for numerous individuals (Hellene and doctor, for example), the registers only account for a person under one category. There are detailed discussions about all these different ethnê, found in the texts: teachers, athletic coaches, actors (all involved "with the teaching and practice of Greek culture", 124), Hellenes (so designated for purposes of taxation), Jews, and the army. All these formed, in the third century B.C.E., "the Greek side of things" (155). In the Fayum, this part of society may have accounted for more than thirty per cent of the total population, but this high percentage is undoubtedly the result of the intensive settlement of soldiers that took place in the Fayum. Other ethnê that enjoyed (partially) exempted tax status were Persians and Arabs (more ethnic based), and, often listed as a subdivision of tax-Hellenes, doctors, fullers, police, priests and temple-workers, and so-called allophyloi, an unclear term that may simply point to people coming from elsewhere (a very attractive interpretation).

The final section of chapter five approaches Ptolemaic society from the occupational point of view by showing what people did for a living (as far as listed in these tax registers), and by analyzing the differences in occupational breakdowns between various villages and tax districts. Overall, it is not surprising, that the main occupation of the population was agriculture. Nonetheless, Ptolemaic Egypt, it appears, was a "diversified community with a wide range of specialized activities." In this respect, it did not differ much from Pharaonic Egypt, where too occupational groups stood at the basis of the societal framework.

Several little interesting facts of Ptolemaic life are to be found, often hidden in the main argument. Here, I should mention the discovery of "Greek as second language" instruction, seemingly offered by Egyptians to Egyptians (127), and the difference in available vocabulary between Greek and Demotic, with Greek providing more specialized vocabulary in some areas, and Egyptian in others (notably for priestly and temple functions) (164, 168, etc.).

Chapter 6, "Counting the animals", provides a short summary about the information that is to be gained from the documents about animal husbandry. In Ptolemaic Egypt, all animals, like adults, were taxed in various ways, and therefore needed to be counted at regular intervals. Especially interesting are the various terms, in Greek and Demotic, found to denote different kinds of animals, with again the noted differences in specialized vocabulary between both languages.

Chapter 7, "Family matters", discusses the demographic data that can be gleaned from the documents. Although the Ptolemaic documents are less useful for such research than the Roman documents that include ages, we should not forget that the data found in these registers from Ptolemaic Egypt offer the most detailed picture for family and household structure for the classical and Hellenistic periods. The Ptolemaic texts allow some interesting vistas in Ptolemaic family and household life, and, especially, the differences between Greeks and Egyptians. The "Greek side of things" was notable in the Ptolemaic countryside, not only by receiving tax breaks, but also, more visibly, by difference in household size and complexity, slaveholding, and possibly, the exposure of girls. In discussing the family and household structures found in these texts, the authors use the same model used by Bagnall and Frier for the Roman period (The Demography of Roman Egypt) allowing for easy comparison between both sets of data (see especially 254ff.).

Chapter 8, "Naming the people", studies the 4,765 names that are found in the documents. The richness of these data allows to point at naming patterns in families and in geographical regions. Again, the fact that we here have Greek and Demotic documents allows the onomastic research to be brought further. Chapter 9, "Conclusion", finally, summarizes the most important conclusions reached in the book, and puts them in a wider historical perspective of both the Hellenistic and the later Roman world. An appendix that classifies the documents in several types, an extensive (and broad) bibliography, and an index of subjects conclude the book.

This is, indeed, a wonderful piece of scholarship, setting the framework of Ptolemaic society, and providing future studies with a strong foundation to keep adding new material.

Arthur Verhoogt