Book Review: Egypt in the Byzantine World

12 Apr

Bagnall, Roger S., ed., Egypt in the Byzantine World, 300-700. Cambridge, UK (2007). Pp. 480. ISBN: 978-0-521-87137-2.

Roger Bagnall has assembled an impressive collection of papers regarding Egypt in Late Antiquity. These papers are arranged in three topical segments with a fourth section consisting of a single essay regarding the Arab Conquest.

The Sections and Papers are as follows:

  • 1. “Introduction” by Roger S. Bagnall

Part I: The Culture of Byzantine Egypt

  • 2. “Poets and pagans in Byzantine Egypt” by Alan Cameron
  • 3. “Higher education in early Byzantine Egypt: Rhetoric, Latin and the law” by Raffaella Cribiore
  • 4. “Philosophy in its social context” by Leslie S. B. MacCoull
  • 5. “Coptic Literature in Egypt and its relationship to the architecture of the Byzantine World” by Stephen Emmel
  • 6. “Early Christian architecture in Egypt and its relationship to the architecture of the Byzantine world” by Peter Grossmann
  • 7. “Coptic and Byzantine textiles found in Egypt: Corpora, collections and scholarly perspectives” by Thelma K. Thomas
  • 8. “Between tradition and innovation: Egyptian funerary practices in late antiquity” by Francoise Dunand

Part II: Government, Environments, Society, and Economy

  • 9. “Alexandria in the fourth to seventh centuries” by Zsolt Kiss
  • 10. “The other cities in later Roman Egypt” by Peter van Minnen
  • 11. “Byzantine Egyptian Villages” by James G. Keenan
  • 12. “The imperial presence: Government and army” by Bernhard Palme
  • 13. Byzantine Egypt and imperial law” by Joelle Beaucamp
  • 14. “Aristocratic landholding and the economy of Byzantine Egypt” by Todd M. Hickey
  • 15. “Gender and Society in Byzantine Egypt” by T. G. Wilfong

Part III: Christianity: The Church and Monasticism

  • 16. “The institutional church” by Ewa Wipszycka
  • 17. “The cult of saints: A haven of continuity in a changing world?” by Arietta Papaconstantinou
  • 18. “Divine architects: Designing the monastic dwelling place” by Darlene L. Brooks Hedstrom
  • 19. “Monasticism in Byzantine Egypt: Continuity and memory” by James E. Goehring
  • 20. “Depicting the kingdom of heaven: Painting and monastic practice in early Byzantine Egypt” by Elizabeth S. Bolman

Part IV: Epilogue

  • 21. “The Arab Conquest of Egypt and the beginning of Muslim rule” by Petra M. Sijpesteijn

I will not be discussing each essay – that would require a review article, not a review. Where this collection excels is in the breadth of topics. If you are interested in the presence of the military in Egypt, Bernhard Palme covers this. Want to know about education? Criboire covers this in depth however MacCoull also discusses it. There are essays on law, village life, city life, rural life, governance, the church, monasticism – I am very impressed with the ground covered in this collection.

The essays are well written with some simply providing information for the reader while others argue for a particular point of view. I am not able to provide a detailed analysis as I do not have extensive knowledge of Egypt during this period. I do, however, have a fair degree of knowledge of the Eastern Roman Empire overall and there were several essays which certainly provided unexpected information. Chapters nine through eleven and fourteen all discuss the nature of property ownership and wealth in Egypt however Todd M. Hickey in particular argues that the influence of The Great Estate is sometimes overstressed and that smaller landholders and even villages still were able to exert considerable influence. I was evidently laboring under some misconceptions of desert monasticism and asceticism. James Goehring argues – and argues well – that the extreme poverty and asceticism, such as that portrayed in Athanasius’ Life of Antony was much more of an ideal than a reality and that monks and ascetics often still owned property and had access to wealth. He argues that the reality of the ideal often involved detachment from wealth and property, rather than outright renunciation. Elizabeth Bolman’s excellent article discusses monasteries down to the individual cells and her article, accompanied by numerous illustrations, shows that monks did not live in completely barren accommodations but their cells were often richly decorated with images of the holy serving them as a means of focus for prayer.

Because of the breadth of this collection, I feel this book would be suitable for those with little knowledge of Egypt in Late Antiquity. However a reader should be aware of some of the major issues involving the Eastern Roman Empire. Athanasius’ struggle in maintaining his position as Patriarch in Alexandria comes up, however the reasons for this issue are not fully explored. Similarly the evolution of the Coptic Church in light of the Chalcedon/monophysite controversy is discussed – however the details of this controversy is not. There is also a discussion of Egyptian law and the degree to which Egypt followed the Justinian legal reform, however the Justinian reforms are not discussed in any depth. So a reasonable knowledge of the Eastern Empire during this period would be helpful.

The one criticism I have of this work is that almost no attention is given to the Arab Conquest. The final essay does discuss it briefly however it is mostly an assessment of the lack of source material (or the lack of source material that has been studied) and the changes in Egyptian society are discussed in a fairly general way. In essence, this book could as easily have been called Egypt in the Byzantine World, 300-640.

However, Bagnall has gathered an excellent collection. In-depth, perceptive, well argued essays provide a great deal of information about Egypt in Late Antiquity. I strongly recommend it for students of the Eastern Empire and, particularly, those who would like to learn more about what was truly the breadbasket of the Eastern Empire before the Arab Conquests.

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Posted by on April 12, 2010 in Books


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