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Economy and Society in the Age of Justinian

Author(s):Sarris, Peter
Reviewer(s):Gregory, Timothy E.

Published by EH.NET (June 2009)

Peter Sarris, Economy and Society in the Age of Justinian. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xi + 258 pp. $88 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-521-86543-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Timothy E. Gregory. Department of History, Ohio State University.

A detailed monograph on the economy and society of a part of the Byzantine Empire might not encourage a large and enthusiastic readership. Well, this book should do so, both because the history of the Byzantine empire deserves to be better known and because this carefully crafted book has much food for thought in the context of the contemporary economic situation. Sarris?s work is based on deep research in the voluminous papyrus archives of early Byzantine Egypt (fifth to seventh centuries A.D.) and the introductory material is rather rough going for the reader not familiar with this sort of detail. The core of the book is a social and administrative analysis of the workings of the estates of the wealthy and powerful Apion family, whose land holdings centered on Oxyrynchus in Middle Egypt but had expanded to include properties in Constantinople and Sicily. Sarris uses the surviving, frequently fragmentary papyrus documents to paint a picture of how these estates were divided between lands that were operated for the direct benefit of the family and those that were rented out to poor farmers who were essentially chained to the plots they farmed. The author provides considerable detail about how the estates were administered and by whom, arguing that individuals of a ?middle? economic and social status were the primary administrators, who effectively demanded productivity and loyalty from those under their jurisdiction. The landowners themselves had mainly risen from relatively lowly origins but by the fourth century A.D. they had become enormously wealthy and they frequently obtained high imperial positions, and these allowed them to use the power of the state, as well as their own wealth, to pursue their interests and maintain control over the vast populace living and working on their lands. All this seems rather dry, but since the evidence Sarris uses is individual documents (accounting lists, contracts, letters, petitions, and orders) the book provides fascinating details not only about administrative structures but also about the kinds of people who lived on the estates and significant detail about their individual lives. Sarris concludes that the Apion family grew more and more powerful as time went on and as their holdings increased their control over large numbers of people became nearly absolute.

All of this is extremely interesting, but Sarris claims much more. In fact, he argues that the situation in Oxyrynchus existed in lesser or greater degree in all of rural Egypt, and that it reflected the basic economic and social conditions throughout the whole of the eastern Mediterranean in this same period. In a useful but not well-integrated chapter Sarris provides a long discussion of the historiography on the nature of Egyptian rural economy in this period, varying from the view of Hardy and Bell, who emphasized the negative (proto-feudal) character of the landowning aristocracy, to Rouillard and Johnson and West, who argued for an efflorescence of the peasants in the same period. Sarris himself clearly follows the views of R?mondon and Gascou, who argued that the state encouraged the transfer of many public institutions to the great landowners. Particularly significant is Sarris?s observation that the growing power of the extraordinarily wealthy was one of the most characteristic phenomena of the age and that it determined most of the major events of the succeeding centuries. Thus, in his view, much of Justinian?s reign is understandable only as a serious attempt to put a halt to this development and to reassert direct state control over many areas of life. This involved ferocity in tax collection and direct supervision of the aristocrats, as well as a policy of deliberate reduction in the ratio between the copper coins and gold, something which would have given the poor and working class a real economic benefit. All these policies, however, led to bitter hatred on the part of the aristocrats, discernable in Prokopios and elsewhere. In addition, Justinian encountered serious economic problems, beginning with the appearance of plague in 541 and the resulting drastic decrease in population and a severe shortfall in state income. Beginning in the reign of Justin II (565-78) the situation turned once more, and among other things the drastic reversal of the internal exchange rate indicates the triumph of the aristocrats and the economic devastation of the poor. This, in turn, had negative impact on the soldiers and the ordinary citizens, who had to depend on the copper coinage, and their dissatisfaction may have contributed significantly to the social unrest at the very end of the sixth century and the military collapses against the Persians and the Arabs in the seventh centuries.

Sarris?s arguments are fascinating and they demand serious consideration. His detailed discussion of documents from the Apion archive is convincing in terms of its reconstruction of the system used in the administration of the properties of the family, and this may be the most important contribution of the book. His broader conclusions are somewhat less easy to accept, especially his attempt to see the emergence of aristocratic dominance as an empire-wide phenomenon. In addition, the organization of the book is a little rough, and the individual chapters lack coherence and development. But this is an important work deserving to be read by all who have an interest in the pre-modern economy and the relationship between economic and political developments.

Timothy E. Gregory (gregory.4@osu.edu), is Professor of Byzantine History at Ohio State University and Director of the OSU Excavations at Isthmia, in Greece.

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):Middle East
Time Period(s):Medieval