The Historicity of Peasants
Have been reading Michael Rostovtzeff’s A Large Estate in Egypt in the Third Century B.C. A Study in Economic History (Madison, WI: 1922), a short book in which the notorious Russian historian gives the Zenon archive his attention. Of course, in 1922 the Zenon archive, with early Ptolemaic documents numbering in the thousands, was bigger news than it is today. Bigger news not least because most of the early finds (in Philadelphia) had been found by farmers digging for sebakh, who sold their finds to dealers, who in turn sold them to European collectors, at times tearing an individual papyri to pieces to sell it to multiple buyers (p. 8); bits and pieces of the archive found their way to Hamburg, London, and Cairo, as well as to private collections (9).1
The archive itself is of interest because it contains the notes and correspondence of a Ptolemaic bureaucrat responsible for the ten thousand aroura estate granted to Apollonius, the dioketes (government official) of Ptolemy Philadelphus (the second Ptolemaic king of Egypt).2 The papyri give a glimpse of local Egyptian government in the period, a glimpse made more useful by the lack of any corresponding (coherent) historical narrative. That’s all well and good, I suppose, but if you’re interested in the government of Ptolemaic Egypt, you’ll probably want a book more recent than Rostovtzeff’s.3 The reason I’m wading through A Large Estate… has very little to do with my interest (or lack thereof) in Ptolemaic government; rather, it’s because of passages like the following:
The relations of the peasants with the administration of the dôrea, as well as with the state officials are not very friendly. Strike after strike, complaints, requests, trials, are the order of the day [….] The cause of these quarrels is evident. The peasants were mostly new settlers in the Arsinoite. Moreover, the State constantly introduced new rules which the peasants interpreted as being directed against them. Finally, the peasants had to deal with a complicated system of officials and private agents who certianly did not work together very smoothly, and each one of whom never forgot his private interests. No doubt, in all these dealings the peasants were the sufferers. Nobody cared how much of the produce of the land the peasants could retain; the state agents were anxious to get the regular payments for the State in full; the agents of Apollonius tried to get as much as possible for their master and for themselves. No wonder that the peasants were cheated very often and that a suspicious, dull mood characterized their relations with the administration and the landholders, just as in Russia under the old régime and now under the bolsheviki (86).
Works of history, you see, are mirrors of the society that produces them. The fascinations they express are less often those of their subject than of the writer. The government of the Ptolemies probably cared very little for the opinions of the ‘peasants,’ so long as they cleared the fields and brought their grain to the treasury. The ‘peasant’ as the object of history is a modern invention, and A Large Estate… is a genre piece.4 It is also a warning. Perhaps the greatest difficulty in dealing with fragmentary evidence, such as papyri, is the desire to fill in the gaps, to read one’s own sense into the lacunae instead of leaving the patches blank. Try to get too deeply into what you’re studying, draw the parallels too close, and you’ll end up drawing the evidence from conclusions, instead of the other way around.5
- The fate of the Zenon papyri is staid, compared to that purchased through a German black market run in Egypt in the last half of the 20th century — but that’s perhaps a story for another time.
- The bureaucracy of Ptolomaic Egypt is best exemplified by the regulations for the oil monopoly found in P.Rev. col. 44f. (English translation available in the Loeb Select Papyri vol. II — tho’ not, so far as I can see, online).
- The Cambridge Ancient History2, vol. 7.1 would be a good starting point — and it has an extensive bibliography.
- Cf. Marx & Engels’ The Conditions of the Working-class in England.
- That said, A Large Estate… is still a good read (especially as a lesson in early 20th C. intellectual history) and still one of the better examples of scholarship on the subject of Ptolemaic Egypt.