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Village Elites in Roman Egypt: The Case of First-Century Tebtunis

Micaela Langellotti

Despite the availability of rich documentation, and apart from a few scattered discussions, a comprehensive study of village elites in Roman Egypt is still lacking. In a paper entitled ‘Village and Urban Elites in Roman Tebtunis’ (Berkeley, 1999), Roger Bagnall indicated in the Tebtunis material, particularly family archives and dossiers, an excellent starting point for the investigation of village elites and of the socio-economic links between them. By reviewing some of the large Tebtunis archives, mostly dated to the second century AD, he proposed a social ‘framework’ which envisaged the presence of a considerable number of Greek landowners. A similar view had been proposed by Daniele Foraboschi (L’archivio di Kronion, 1971), who identified in the lessors and creditors of second-century Tebtunis a privileged group of Hellenised rich landowners, with Greek names, as opposed to the native small landowners, lessees and debtors, with Egyptian names. However, this model of society does not seem to be applicable to first-century Tebtunis. For this period we can draw on the evidence of the grapheion archive of Kronion, mostly made up of contracts and summary lists of contracts which were recorded at the local record-office (grapheion) by Kronion and his staff. The whole assemblage is unique in kind, and not only provides a clear sample of the economic activities contracted in the village at a specific time, but also allows us to reconstruct the socio-economic status of certain individuals and families. One example is the priestly family of Psuphis, son of Serapion, whose large property was made up of five substantial houses, land and slaves. A few of the Hellenic landowners and creditors can be identified as the ancestors of some wealthy families attested in second-century archives – e.g., the great-grandchildren of Herakleides the younger, son of Maron, a rich landowner in the 30’s and 40’s, appear as creditors in the archive of Kronion, son of Cheos, in the early second century.

In this paper I will use the grapheion archive and other contemporary documents to identify the most prominent individuals and families in first-century Tebtunis, examine their social condition and economic activities, and analyze the relationships between them. In particular, I will try to determine to what extent the priestly families, on the one hand, and the Hellenic families, on the other, were financially and socially influential.

To conclude I will show how a study of the role and nature of the elites in early Roman Tebtunis may contribute to advancing our knowledge of village economy and society in Roman Egypt.

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Culture and Society in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Egypt

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