Studying Socio-Economic Life in Ptolemaic Egypt

26.5.2021
Imagine: It was early morning, April 27th 136 BCE, and Apollonia alias Senmonthis had not slept well. She had lain awake all night, thinking about the agreement she and her sisters had just drawn up. They had quickly renounced their initial claim to 35 auroras of land left by their recently deceased aunt Tamenos, but she feared that their assertion of ownership had already damaged the relationship they had with their niece and nephew. After a while, her mind had wandered off in pursuit of joyful memories from a simpler time, but this was not the moment to dwell on the past. She was the wife of a Greek soldier, a (step)mother of six and was striving to establish herself as a trusted creditor within the local community, so she had much to see to. Reluctantly, she had forced her thoughts to fast forward to the coming day until she finally dozed off – her head filled with accounts and lists of things to do.

Apollonia’s reflections can only be guessed at, but we do know a lot about her and the socio-economic relationships that tied her to other members of the small-scale community she lived in, namely the Upper Egyptian town of Pathyris. For example, written sources from the site reveal that she offered loans to a number of people outside of her kinship group as a means to increase her personal wealth, and that she continued to do so after her husband passed away (in or shortly after 126 BCE). This was despite his last will (from June 29th 126 BCE) stipulating that she was to receive monthly payments from her (step)children, so long as she fulfilled the requirements of the contract.

We also know that Apollonia occasionally acted together with her sisters, e.g. in attempting to claim the land mentioned above. The sisters acknowledged their defeat on April 26th 136 BCE, but the case was not easily forgotten. A second and more persistent group of relatives soon made another claim to the same land, and this disagreement was only settled in court in 134 or 133 BCE. As such, the disputes over the land of Tamenos must have caused substantial tension to the relational ties of various members of her extended family, and this is reflected in some of the other documents relating to these people.

Ancient Archives from Pathyris

Ironically, many of the stories we can tell about Apollonia and her family are known to us because such negative relationships developed between relatives, since a decreasing level of thrust and positive attitudes between acting parties increase the demand for written evidence. Another reason is that (parts of) several family archives are preserved from Ptolemaic Pathyris – including those kept by some of Apollonias’ relatives. Many individuals are attested in more than one document and, occasionally, they even serve to bridge archives. Thus, I found that the 21 reconstructed archives from the site can be meaningfully studied together, utilising Social Network Analysis (SNA).

For my recently completed PhD, I did just that: studied the texts associated with the archives collectively by means of mapping a large number of relational ties (1) linking persons to the texts in which they are attested and (2) connecting pairs of individuals by the types of relationships the sources reveal them to have been entangled in.

The main objectives of this research was to study Pathyris up close by examining how the social and economic spheres of the inhabitants overlapped, examining the degree to which the positional roles of individuals and groups might have encouraged, or restricted, their individual or group behaviours, and analysing how the network models develop over some 100 years (186-88 BCE). For this purpose, I employed conceptual and digital tools offered by SNA to model and analyse the datasets and used social and economic theories to interpret the outcome of the network analysis.

SNA approaches are still far from mainstream in Egyptology and related fields, so another purpose of my PhD project was to critically assess the applicability of SNA tools for this type of research. Having demonstrated the considerable potential SNA holds for the study of ancient archives, but also identified certain pitfalls, I am now ready to apply the methods on an even larger scale.

The Archive of Zenon son of Agreophon

For my next research project, I will conduct an in-depth network analysis of the so-called Archive of Zenon in the interdisciplinary research environment of ANEE. With c. 1850 texts, the archive hardly qualifies as a ‘big data’ case per se. However, for an Egyptologist, it is a gold mind - especially considering that, in addition to being the largest surviving archive from Ptolemaic Egypt, it covers only a brief period of some 30 years (263-229 BCE). Moreover, it is quite unfeasible to tackle in its entirety without the assistance of digital tools.

Although the texts are treated as one archive, it should be clarified that the Zenon archive is really compiled of various smaller text groups in that it also contains documents kept by other people and relating to various things. It is thus of crucial importance for my approach that a solid prosopographical base has already been laid by other scholars, and that many individuals are again attested in more than one of the manuscripts.

Another trait of the textual corpus is that it concerns people with relatively diverse social, ethnical and economic backgrounds – from the financial minister of Ptolemy II to rather ordinary people living near the town of Philadelphia in the Fayum Oasis. As such, the dataset is not only sufficiently large for statistically supported conclusions to be drawn; it can also be used to explore various aspects of socio-economic life based on empirical data (as it is reflected in the sources).

The project is still in its infancy, but I can hardly wait until the time-consuming task of collecting data is completed, so I can explore the network models and get to know the attested persons and their stories better! Who are mentioned in the documents, how do they relate to one another, and what can a collective study of their interpersonal relations and behavioural patterns teach us about socio-economic life in 3rd century Egypt and the Levant?