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Climate Science and Ptolemaic Egypt

Joseph Morgan


This paper explores the interface between climate science and the documentary record of Ptolemaic Egypt. The appearance of several monographs (e.g. Cline 2014, Harper 2017, Manning 2018), articles (Bresson 2014, Knapp and Manning 2016), as well as collaborations (Princeton’s CCHRI, the PACES project, the Yale Nile Initiative, the Basel Climate Science and Ancient History Lab) in recent years have demonstrated the uses of cutting edge climatological datasets in the writing of ancient history. Of the disciplines that pursue historical questions via analysis of ancient documentation, papyrology is the natural ally to paleoclimatology. Over the past five years, this alliance has produced much interesting work, much of it focusing on the question of calibration and correlation between events evidenced in the records available to each discipline (e.g. Sigl et al. 2015, Manning et al. 2017, McConnell et al. 2018). I submit this paper as a small but necessary corrective to this focus on correlation by shifting emphasis back onto examination of the societies that produced the documents. This paper therefore does not focus on the well-explored phenomena of collapse but instead discusses the environment in its bureaucratically processed form, that is, the environment as a subject of ancient documentation. I venture the hypothesis that the administrative reforms implemented by the first Ptolemies introduced fragilities into the fabric of Late Egyptian society through a process of increased administrative centralization and vertical concentration of information flow at the expense of millennia-old proliferation of horizontal communication networks upon which local communities depended in times of environmental crisis.

I argue this point by presenting the evidence for communication speed in the region politically dominated by the Ptolemaic kings in the second half of the 3rd century BC, that is, the period of the “new Ptolemaic state” as outlined in Manning 2010. I produced this set of parameters through an analysis of data culled from the corpus of 3rd century epistolographical evidence (both Greek, collected in Sarri 2018, and Demotic, collected in Depauw 2006). I then turn to the evidence for communication networks and suggest that the character and contours of these networks governed the speed and trajectory of specific types of information, such as local prices and agricultural conditions. This information held real value to those who recorded and exchanged it, even if that value was never realized at market for a price. I demonstrate that the ancients understood the value of this information and actively sought to secure it through both formal (i.e. administrative) and informal (i.e. social) channels, expending resources on the creation and maintenance of links to important nodes in the networks of information flow. Having established the temporal and spatial parameters for information transfer and the demonstrable value of this information, I introduce the dynamic of the environmental shock into the equation. I argue that the mid-3rd-century administrative overhaul as outlined by Manning (2010) rendered Egyptian society more fragile and vulnerable to such shocks in proportion to the degree of administrative centralization, the undermining of preexisting social networks among the Egyptian elite, and checks placed on the mobility of tenant farmers, while at the same time ameliorating the repercussions of such crises for those subjects embedded in the social network of the Alexandrian elite and their clientele by full integration of this network into the Mediterranean economic sphere.

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Culture and Society in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Egypt

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