The rise and fall of the village from Roman to Arab Egypt

by Dr Micaela Langellotti and Professor Dominic Rathbone

23 Aug 2021

Ruins of Soknopaiou Nesos, HemikRania via Getty Images

The common image of life in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds is of bustling urban centres such as Athens, Alexandria, Rome, Pompeii and Londinium. The remains of many cities of the Roman Empire have been excavated and restored to make tourist attractions. Library shelves are packed with academic and popular studies of individual cities and Roman urbanisation, which draw on the many written accounts of civic life and the inscriptions (dedications, tombstones, which it was the Greek and Roman urban habit to erect). Impressive, however, as the level of urbanisation was by pre-modern standards, the vast majority of the population of the Roman world lived in villages, not cities.

In recent decades there has been far more archaeological study of rural settlements, especially in the western provinces of the empire, but we have very little written evidence, literary or from inscriptions (except in Asia Minor, modern Turkey) for villages. So there are no general books on village life in the Roman Empire, and few studies of particular regions or villages.

Egypt to the rescue! Because Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE and ruled for 300 years by the Ptolemies (and Cleopatras), then another 650 years by the Roman (later Byzantine) Empire, for over a millennium almost all official and many private documents were written in Greek on papyrus (a form of paper). Several million documents have survived in the rubbish deposits of desiccated sites in Middle Egypt, of which some 50,000 texts of the Roman to Byzantine periods have been deciphered and published, about half of them from village sites in the Fayyum (a semi-oasis southwest of Cairo). Thanks to these texts, we are able to investigate – in detail impossible elsewhere – village life during the Roman and early Arab period. There have been a few studies of individual villages, but our volume Village Institutions in Egypt is the first to attempt a general survey of village institutions across this period, and we hope that it will itself mark a turning point in the study of Roman villages.

Village life

The first thing to note about villages in Roman Egypt is their variety. Villages varied greatly in size and social composition, from tiny agrarian settlements to larger centres with their own socio-economic hierarchies and substantial public and private buildings. Second is the range of formal institutions in the first two centuries CE which contributed to their self-administration, including local officials such as village elders, police officers and tax-collectors; banks; record-offices; associations and festivals. Depending on the size of the village, its location (near the district capital or near the Nile) and the availability of land, each institution played a relatively different role in a particular village.

The most remarkable outcome of our investigation was to discover how high the level of independence of the larger Egyptian villages was in the earlier period of Roman rule. Against the common belief that rural settlements were generally subordinate to urban centres, the Egyptian evidence shows that villages were mainly independent units from an administrative as well as economic point view. For example, villages that were far away from the main city all had a bank which villagers could access for money transfers and credit operations; most villages had a record office which allowed anyone to get a contract drawn up and all villages could rely on a network of local officials for a wide range of activities, from tax collection to land administration.

Villages also offered plenty of occasions for leisure activities, like those provided by associations and festivals, two key institutions in the Egyptian countryside. Associations, which were formal groups of people with a common focus such as an occupation (for example, an association of farmers), regularly held social gatherings for all their members. Festivals were a common feature of Egyptian culture and some villages hosted an incredibly large number of festivals throughout the years. At Soknopaiou Nesos, for instance, situated on the north-shore of the modern Fayyum region, the festival calendar occupied around half of the year. Villagers, therefore, did not need to travel to the city for economic or leisure activities.

Centralisation of power

Another new result of our investigations is to trace how Egyptian villages gradually lost their independence. This process started in the second century CE. Stricter government control over life in the Empire became the main strategy adopted by the state to face various crises, which inevitably caused financial problems and the need for the state to enforce tax collection from its subjects. The most significant of these crises was the Antonine Plague (smallpox) in the late second century, whose effect on two Fayyum villages can be documented, showing a sharp dip in manpower (maybe of 25-30 per cent) and output. As a result, village institutions came under closer control, for example the imposition of compulsory services and taxes on members of associations.

Overall village independence, however, was not scrapped until the fifth century, when the process of centralisation of power by the government, which had started four centuries earlier, reached completion. Continuous external pressures on the empire – the so-called “barbarian” invasions – had caused the state to increase taxation, hitting those belonging to the lower strata of society badly. Higher taxation caused a reshuffle of society, which became more hierarchical. Only the elite could survive the oppressive fiscal regime and they were the ones who were now in charge of local administration, as can be seen clearly in Egyptian villages, which were now made collectively liable for the payment of taxes. Corruption became increasingly common in village administration and the once diversified economy of the Egyptian villages, and of the East in general, suffered to a point of no return.

The fifth-century turning point was exacerbated by the huge social and economic crisis brought about by the Justinianic Plague (541-49 CE), which may have killed up to half the population of the Mediterranean. The imperial state faced this unprecedented crisis in the only way it knew, with further centralisation of power, which undermined its capacity for defence in depth in the face of external threats.

That political, social and economic tension between local and central powers and populations has continued to run through the history of the lands once part of the Roman Empire and more widely. As European countries face a concatenation of crises – environmental, medical and economic – the attractions and dangers of centralised control over more regional or local responsibility are again becoming a live issue.

Dr Micaela Langellotti is Lecturer in Ancient History at Newcastle University and Professor Dominic Rathbone is Professor of Ancient History at King's College London.


Sign up to our email newsletters