You are here

Keeping up with the Apollonii: Social and Economic Strategy and Choice among Merchants in Roman Egypt

Jane Sancinito


Documentary papyri offer scholars of Roman Egypt an indispensable source of information for economic activity in the province. Evidence from customs houses, including both records and receipts, have long been central to this investigation. They have attracted considerable scholarly attention, including several monographs over the course of the 20th century. Though we may now discuss tolls and the processes of customs houses with considerable accuracy, efforts to use these documents to explain the social dynamics of these spaces have been less numerous and, on the whole, less successful. Sijpestin’s Customs Duties in Graeco-Roman Egypt made a preliminary sounding in this direction by noting the familiarity that the documents seem to have with their subjects, “the transporters,” as he calls them. However, despite advances in the field since the 1980s, this line of inquiry has not been followed up. Not only have new sources been published since Sijpestin’s study, but work on other kinds of documentary papyri have greatly expanded our understanding of the intersection between society and economy in Roman Egypt. The results of these studies have shown that social dynamics were a critical factor in economic decision-making, and that merchants and tradesmen were highly aware of how their social standing shaped and contributed to their economic opportunities. This paper elucidates how interpersonal relationships can be seen in the customs data, and how we may extrapolate social and economic strategies from these accounts.

In this paper, I create a network analysis of a corpus of customs house papyri from the Arsinoite nome in the 2nd century CE to represent the social interactions between traders operating in the region. This data demonstrates that there were close social and economic ties between mobile merchants and conveyers in Egypt during the Roman Empire, and that the same people met frequently at the same customs houses as they moved their wares. I contextualize this analysis with literary accounts from late antique Syria and Egypt to suggest how some tradesmen may have experienced this regular travel and interaction, and conclude that merchants in Roman Egypt were in a position to know a great deal about their peers and to use that knowledge to benefit themselves in both social and economic ways. I am able to prove that some transporters, even over the short periods of time that are preserved in customs house records, were able to adapt their actions to keep up with their peers.

This paper offers a socio-economic reading of customs house records from Roman Egypt and it presents several new directions for extracting social data from documentary papyri. Through this evidence, it will be possible to reconstruct the social forces that shaped economic activity in this important and well-documented province.

Session/Panel Title

Culture & Society in Greek Roman & Byzantine Egypt

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy