Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.02.47
Benjamin Kelly, Petitions, Litigation, and Social Control in Roman Egypt. Oxford Studies in Ancient Documents. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xix, 427. ISBN 9780199599615. $150.00.
Reviewed by Georgy Kantor, New College, University of Oxford
Interest in the social history of provincial Roman law and in the reasons for which the provincials decided to resolve their disputes through Roman courts has been steadily growing in the last decade. Kelly’s monograph on the social history of litigation and dispute resolution in early imperial Egypt brings the debate back to its origins in juristic papyrology and is a major contribution to the subject. His main achievement, hard to overestimate, has been to produce, for the first time, a study based not on a small and relatively random sample of legal petitions and court minutes, but on the whole body of the published material: 568 petitions, catalogued in Appendix I, and 227 reports of proceedings, catalogued in Appendix III (Appendix II provides a checklist of petitions which did not involve dispute resolution). For all his prudent admission (p. 332) that the ‘aim of the social historian of ancient law should be typological, not cliometric’ Kelly comes incomparably closer to producing genuine (if rough) statistics than any of his predecessors. Kelly’s approach is informed by wide reading in social theory and anthropology, but he is never in thrall of theoretical approaches from outside the discipline and engages with models based on other pre-modern societies independently and fruitfully.
The first two chapters are introductory, presenting the argument of the book, a very brief sketch of Roman Egypt and a useful discussion of difficulties in using petitions for writing social history, aimed largely at an audience unfamiliar with papyrology. Chapter 3 deals with the organisation of the legal system and its efficiency in achieving its aims. Kelly's statement (qualified by a reference to SB XII 10929) that ‘there was no question of some officials having criminal and others civil jurisdiction’ (p. 82) does not fully convince. For Roman law the key distinction was between capital and non-capital (rather than criminal and civil) cases, and there is nothing to show that jurisdiction in capital cases was not restricted. Furthermore, we need to distinguish more clearly between jurisdiction and adjudication. The prefect still had the former in the cases he habitually delegated. None of this, however, vitiates the vivid picture of a chaotic way in which judicial hierarchy worked (pp. 79–86), which is what mattered for a common litigant. All-inclusive prefectural jurisdiction may have even exacerbated that. In other respects, however, the system is shown as more efficient than one could expect. In particular, Kelly demonstrates (pp. 92–4) that initial processing of petitions was normally very rapid, sometimes even within the same day. His opinion of the ‘quality of final decisions’ (p. 112) is high and he makes an interesting assessment of administrative culture behind them. Although Kelly concludes that the manpower of the Roman administration was insufficient and there should have been a high attrition rate of cases going through the system, this is mostly based on general considerations. One wonders, on the basis of his own data, whether Roman justice was not more efficient than he allows within its own terms of reference. Kelly’s definition of its aims, ‘to bring an end to disputes or to punish wrongs through an adjudicative act’, in common with ‘most legal systems’ (p. 75), takes too much for granted.