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Performing Measurement in the Roman East

Melissa Bailey

In this paper, I argue that measurement was only selectively standardized in many parts of the Roman Empire, and that we can best approach this selectivity by conceptualizing the act of measurement as a performance, which the government controlled or coopted at key moments, rather than as (only) the production of uniform units, which often dominates ideas of standardization in the modern world. Using this model, we can then see how, for example, taxation in kind relied on not only on specific kinds of containers, but on repetitive labor tasks, quality checks, and transition points leading in a chain to Rome or Constantinople, and largely ignoring lateral economic encounters (encounters that did not involve the state) between citizens or subjects. I argue this point using documentary texts (taxation documents, leases, and loans in kind) from Roman Egypt, particularly the site of Oxyrhynchus, and further argue that here, measuring transactions do seem to have become more widely standard over time; less, however, through the direct interest of the imperial government than because of the increasing symbiosis between the government and large estates in matters of taxation.

With reference to modern states, standardization is often conceptualized through the production of uniform units. By imposing exact units of money, weight, capacity, and time, states created a standardized system encompassing every transaction for all their citizens. Scholars have also emphasized how the modern transactional world involved entirely new modes of transporting, storing, counting, and loading/unloading commodities like grain. This latter perspective is the most useful for evaluating the different approaches of the Roman government to measurement. The Roman Empire produced some kinds of standardized units (coinage, for example) on an extremely massive scale.  Nevertheless, specifically Roman units of measure were not imposed in many areas, and a wide variety of local named grain measures persisted, for example in Roman Egypt. Grain intended for the state followed a path of standardized measuring encounters bringing not only particular capacity (and possibly weight) units, but labor (such as the grain one person, donkey, or ship could carry), repetitive movement (loading, unloading, and counting), and quality of grain all into play. But transactions between individuals still cited a wide variety of local measures, with a high disconnect between how each measuring encounter was arranged.

I compare and contrast these sets of encounters (those along the taxation path of the state, and those between individuals), asking what modes of verification were used, how quality was evaluated, and whether different overall priorities were at work (for example, one such priority for the state might be massive transport, thus prioritizing weight, wagonload, or repetitive tasks over or in addition to uniform units). I furthermore suggest that the scope of the chain of measuring encounters could change over time. In particular, the increasing symbiosis between the government and large estates in the late Roman period (at least in certain areas, such as Oxyrhynchus) meant that more people in transactions beyond taxation encounters measured grain in the same way. However, this was again less due to the Roman government’s interest in widespread standardization than to increasing chains of dependency at the local level. Where the government did attempt to produce exact standard units, meanwhile—in coinage—the careful standardization of one unit (gold) coupled with instability of other units (billon and bronze) caused estates to exploit unstable transactions rather than increasingly standardize them.

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Standardization and the State

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