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Erhard Schaub: Studien zur Lebenssituation der Bevölkerung Ägyptens als Ursache der Revolten unter römischer Herrschaft. 30 v.Chr. bis 300 n. Chr. (= Pharos. Studien zur griechisch-römischen Antike; Bd. 31), Rahden/Westf.: Verlag Marie Leidorf 2014, 298 S., 1 Abb., ISBN 978-3-86757-259-0, EUR 54,80
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Rezension von:
Dominic Rathbone
Department of Classics, King's College, London
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Matthias Haake
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Dominic Rathbone: Rezension von: Erhard Schaub: Studien zur Lebenssituation der Bevölkerung Ägyptens als Ursache der Revolten unter römischer Herrschaft. 30 v.Chr. bis 300 n. Chr., Rahden/Westf.: Verlag Marie Leidorf 2014, in: sehepunkte 16 (2016), Nr. 11 [15.11.2016], URL:

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Erhard Schaub: Studien zur Lebenssituation der Bevölkerung Ägyptens als Ursache der Revolten unter römischer Herrschaft

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This book is the publication of Schaub's doctoral dissertation at Zurich in 2013 with, it seems, little if any revision. Explicitly in the last section Schaub compares his study and findings with Veïsse 2004 on 'Egyptian revolts' under the Ptolemies. In contrast to the Ptolemaic period, he claims, there were no 'nationalist' revolts against Rome until AD 297. The factors which he argues explain this are (as summarised on 201): that Roman rule had almost no impact on peasant life; that taxation, although tough, was fair; that the life of the peasants was hard but 'dignified' (menschenwürdig); that economic decline was much less than elsewhere; and that the Roman garrison was more 'helpful' (helfend) than oppressive. We should add his assertions from 251-6, comparing the Ptolemies, that the Romans did not provoke cultural resistance by trying to Romanise Egypt, and that under them Egypt was a patchwork of rival social groups (Greeks, Graeco-Egyptians, Jews, Egyptians), not the simple 'us and them' (Egyptians versus Greeks and Jews) of the Ptolemaic period.

One chapter of the introductory section and the three chapters of Part I, together almost half of the book, give a background sketch of the province, with the focus on the army, taxation and the economic situation. Although the legions are discussed in more detail than necessary, the rest is fairly superficial - especially the calculations of living standards - and repeats superseded views. Against the run of modern scholarship, for instance, Egypt is taken as a 'special case' (Sonderstellung), and the annona militaris is resurrected as a major new fiscal burden of the third century although its inventor, Van Berchem, recanted many years ago. It is not clear that this part is really necessary, in that it does not add to what we know, or in the right place. Nor is it clear why ethnic tensions, religious feelings and so on do not have their own chapters. It would have been clearer and more persuasive to discuss the revolts first, and then to have included this sort of information as appropriate in the following analysis of common patterns in the causes.

Part II, the other near half of the book, is a catalogue of the eighteen 'disturbances and revolts' (Unruhen und Aufstände) which Schaub has identified in Egypt from Augustus to Diocletian. A brief account is given of each event, full for the minor and ill attested ones, inevitably more summary for major episodes, with an 'interim report' at the end on the pattern of unrest and categorisation of the episodes as economic, Roman-on-Roman or ethnic. Parts III and IV offer a more substantive discussion of the causes of these episodes organised first by social groups and then, more briefly, by causes, now in six categories. The catalogue of episodes raises many queries. Some are struggles for power between Romans with no obvious indigenous content. Some seem very minor, such as the riot against Petronius in 24-22 BC; and why include this but omit the barracking of Vespasian? The story of Firmus, perhaps fictional, is really a feature of the semi-independent Palmyrene 'empire', which is not discussed. To Schaub the first and only 'nationalist' revolt was that against Diocletian in 297-8, perhaps including the revolt and sacking of Koptos and Busiris in 293/4. However the 297/8 event was on the face of it a usurpation by Domitius Domitianus, was limited to Alexandria and then Upper Egypt, and seems, from the letters of Paniskos, to have involved little fighting, just as there is no archaeological trace of a sack of Alexandria or of Koptos. Conversely the revolt of the Boukoloi is confined by Schaub to 172/3 and downgraded to action by a 'sect' (Sekte, 233) which he claims was as noxious to the Egyptian peasants as to the Roman authorities, although, as Schaub notes, destruction of villages by both sides had been occurring since the 160s and it took the dispatch of a strike force from Syria to quell it. This case also shows the problem of Schaub's exclusion from his book of consideration of low intensity resistance such as brigandage, tax evasion (he uses anachoresis simply as an index of economic problems) and written or shouted criticism.

Schaub's book is framed by the question, which he takes from Napthali Lewis, whether Egyptian peasants would have recognised that they were living in Gibbon's 'period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous'. This is an unhelpful start, begging numerous questions. Throughout the book the Egyptians are called 'fellahin', implicitly subscribing to the the myth of eternal Egypt, in which their rural life continues unchanged whatever happens above them. Schaub seems to unable to imagine that a community or society might resent the mere fact of political, military or economic domination by another (and I would have said that before the Brexit vote). His categorisation of revolts is too simplistic: he does not allow for multiple causes, and does not consider the influence of regionalism, clearly a factor in several of the revolts, while he exaggerates the separateness of the so-called Greeks, Graeco-Egyptians and Egyptians. The concluding comparison of his book with Veïsse 2004 unfortunately underlines that a good parallel study for the Roman period is still to be written.

Dominic Rathbone