Andrew Monson, From the Ptolemies to the Romans: Political and Economic Change in Egypt. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. xvii, 343. ISBN 9781107014411.
Reviewed by Peter Nadig, Friedrich-Meinecke-Institut, Freie Universität Berlin
It is now widely understood that the establishment of Egypt as a Roman province radically changed many aspects of its land tenure and taxation. Monson’s thought-provoking contribution – in four parts with two chapters each – is the first structured assessment of this transition of power. It includes an examination of key issues like ecology, land tenure and ownership, taxation, administration and politics. In dealing with these matters Monson draws information from Greek and Demotic papyri and considers theoretical perspectives as well as models from social sciences. 1
Part I offers an introduction to the political economy of Egypt and its transfer to Roman rule. A major focus is on property rights and privatization, with critical assessment of sources (few if any papyri in the Nile Delta and most parts of the Nile valley as well as practically none from Alexandria) and relevant scholarship on population and property issues in Egypt. The next chapter is on geography and population. Egypt’s demography is particularly tricky since safe estimates cannot be established continuously for the whole country. Several land surveys allow some estimates for some towns and communities at certain times, but there is no sure way to give exact figures. Because of this Monson turns to recent scholarly publications of ancient land surveys and modern censuses of Egypt, as well surveys and theoretical models from outside Egypt during other periods. One focus is on the question of population density, which has always varied in Egypt depending on the region. Census figures from 1895-1910 confirm a stable estimate for a low density in most areas of the Nile delta and the Fayyum and a high density in the Nile valley; a similar contrast may have existed in ancient times. Yet judging from the ancient sources on Roman Egypt its population seems to have been lower by at least 30% (68). Monson takes a thorough look at many other data available from censuses and surveys from the 19th century as far as back as the Napoleonic expedition. He also deals with the question on how far environmental or climatic change may have affected the demography.
Part II examines “The land regime,” beginning with the regionalism of land tenure in chapter 3. A very helpful summary explains the main specifications of land of the Ptolemaic period (royal land, temple land, cleruchic land, gift estates, and private land) and Roman rule (public land, imperial estates, temple land, katoikic land, and private land), with the basic differences between the three main agrarian regions (Delta, Fayyum, Nile valley) over time. There seems to be a safe indication for a higher population density under Roman rule. In the Fayyum the extent of cleruchic land in Ptolemaic times was roughly similar to that of private land under Roman rule. The continuity of agrarian institutions is the subject of chapter 4. It begins with a major outline of private land in pharaonic Egypt before turning to the Ptolemaic and Roman administration. A very interesting section is on the administration of property (122-131); Monson continues by doubting the long-held perception that Augustus confiscated temple estates and turned them into public land; rather, he argues that what changed was the diminution of distributive power of the temples (131-141). He challenges this on the basis of one of his previous publications 2 and also rejects Rostovtzeff’s model of centralized state control over royal or public land (153).
In part III Monson turns to the fiscal and administrative reforms since the Ptolemaic period. Unlike law and land tenure, taxation in Greco-Roman Egypt has not received the attention it deserves. Its neglect, Monson argues, “leaves a crucial and explanatory gap” for the understanding of this transitional period (159). 3 Chapter 5 on land taxation is a thorough re-evaluation of previous scholarship, which saw no substantial changes in land taxes in Roman times. In fact tax reform seems to have been a central element in that transition of power; e.g., the harvest tax in Upper Egypt (whose amount varied annually under the Ptolemies) was abolished by the time of Tiberius and was replaced by a fixed tax. This and later tax reforms led to more responsibility by private owners and proved to be incentives for land investments. Monson compares taxation in early modern England, pre-Revolutionary France, and Tokugawa Japan. Chapter 6 contrasts the differences in government from the Ptolemaic to the Roman period concerning the temples, priestly offices and administration in general. The fundamental changes under Roman administration were the introduction of compulsory services (liturgies) and a more efficient bureaucracy. Another element was the economic decline of the temple estates, especially in their role as distributive power (227).
Part IV covers the politics of economic change. Chapter 7, “The impact of Empire,” offers a stark comparison between the economic systems of the Ptolemies and Rome. Roman rule brought stability to Egypt, which was riddled with foreign wars and political as well as economic instability during the Ptolemaic period. Rome reduced taxes, strengthened property rights, exercised a greater check on its state agents and gave more responsibility to local elites. Chapter 8 (275-289) is the summary conclusion of this book. Monson shows great expertise and familiarity with the sources and issues under investigation and points to future questions for research on Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt. Anyone following this line of research may greatly benefit from consulting this book.
1. One of the models he often applies is the by Boserup-Demsetz model, according to which “increasing scarcity leads to the development of individualized private rights" (20). Cf. E. Boserup, The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure, Chicago 1965. For H. Demsetz cf. e.g. The Palgrave Dictionary of Economics and the Law, P. Newman (Ed.), New York 1998, II 144-155, s.v. property rights.
2. "Sacred land in Ptolemaic and Roman Tebtunis", in: Tebtynis und Soknopaiu Nesos: Leben im römerzeitlichen Fajum, ed. S.L. Lippert and M. Schentuleit, Wiesbaden 2005, 79-91.
3. Agriculture and Taxation in Early Ptolemaic Egypt: Demotic Land Surveys and Accounts (P. Agri). Papyrologische Texte und Abhandlungen, 46. Bonn: Dr. Rudolf Habelt Verlag, 2012.