Communal Agriculture in the Ptolemaic and Roman Fayyum
Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics, October (2007)
The article presents the model that rising demand for land drives the process of privatization. It likens ancient developments in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt to similar trends towards privatization in nineteenth-century Egypt. Given the difficulty imposed by the ancient evidence for tracing changes over time, it concentrates on observable regional variations that conform to the model. Differences in population density seem to correlate with differences in agrarian institutions. There are especially good data for tenure on public land in Roman Egypt, so this period is treated in more detail. In the more sparsely populated Fayyum, communal peasant institutions remained important for the cultivation of public land just as they were in the Ptolemaic period. In the Nile Valley, by contrast, private landowners encroached on public land by having it registered into their names and treating it more like private property.
The enormous documentation from the Fayyum, known administratively as the Arsinoite nome, has tempted scholars in the past to assume that agrarian institutions were similar throughout Egypt. This assumption aligns with the view that the Egyptian state was so highly centralized in comparison with other ancient states that a uniform system of land tenure was possible. As the evidence for regional differences accumulates, this depiction of the Egyptian state has become less plausible. In this paper, I argue that communal agriculture in the Fayyum is not representative of Egypt. My ultimate goal is to explain why land rights in the Fayyum and the Nile Valley were so different. In a previous article, I treated the problem of regional differences in the Ptolemaic period in some detail so here the argument is summarized rather briefly and more emphasis is put on the Roman-period evidence and on the comparison with nineteenth century Egypt. In the first section, I hypothesize that there is link between population density and the level of privatization. Then I discuss regional differences in population density. The third section compares the proportion of public land in the Fayyum and the Nile Valley. Finally, I consider qualitative differences in tenure on public land between these regions.