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  • The Demography of Roman Egypt. Cambridge Studies in Population, Economy and Society in Past Time 23
  • John Whitehorne
Roger S. Bagnall and Bruce W. Frier. The Demography of Roman Egypt. Cambridge Studies in Population, Economy and Society in Past Time 23. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. xix + 354 pp. 22 figs. 21 tables. Cloth, $49.95.

“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. . . . And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.” Thus the familiar words of Luke 2:1, 3, telling of the return of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to be registered in their own home town of Bethlehem.

We have no census returns from ancient Judaea. What we do have, however, are 300 or so returns from Roman Egypt, written on papyrus and submitted to the local authorities in connection with a similar house-to-house census which was held every 14 years from early in the reign of Augustus until the mid-third century A.D. The returns detail the composition of individual households, including in many cases tenants and slaves as well as family members, and constitute perhaps the best source available for the study of any ancient population. It is these texts which form the basis of Bagnall and Frier’s study.

This is not, of course, the first time that the demographic importance of this body of evidence has been recognised. The information contained in the census returns was brought together and comprehensively discussed as long ago as the 1950s by M. Hombert and C. Préaux, Recherches sur le recensement dans l’Égypte romaine, Leiden 1952. But many more documents have been published since then and the science of demography itself has developed considerably in the last 40 years. As a result The Demography of Roman Egypt represents a quantum leap forward in the study of Roman Egypt’s population.

The book is divided into two parts. The first, written mainly by Frier, analyses and interprets the data and makes use of the techniques of modern demography [End Page 341] to construct as full a picture as possible of the population of Roman Egypt throughout the 250 years covered by the census returns. The second consists of a Catalogue, in which Bagnall sets out all the known returns in their chronological and topographical order. Bagnall has examined all available texts, many in the original, and corrected and improved the reading of many of them in a series of articles in BASP 1990–93. His results are summarised here in a form comprehensible to the nonspecialist reader and there can be no doubt that the study’s database is as accurate, complete and up-to-date as is humanly possible to make it.

This does not mean, however, that what finally emerges from the evidence is anywhere near a complete portrait of an ancient population. The majority of the census returns come from only three nomes (the Arsinoite with its three merides, the Oxyrhynchite, and Prosopite, representing the Fayum, Middle Egypt and the Delta respectively) out of a total of some 50. They are concentrated almost entirely in the second century A.D., with the examples from the Prosopite deriving almost entirely from the census of 173. Nevertheless throughout their work the authors remain alert to the chronological and geographical limitations of their data and sensible of the dangers of pushing their conclusions too far. The result is the construction of a hypothetical population, which probably corresponds quite closely to the historical ancient population of the Arsinoite and the Oxyrhynchite, which remain the two best documented regions of Greco-Roman Egypt.

The first part of the book begins with a chapter on the history of the census insofar as it is known, the census process and the uses which the government made of the information extracted. Chapter 2 considers the value of the census returns as demographic evidence and the relationship of the census population as reconstructed from the data to the actual population of Roman Egypt. In Chapters 3–8 we are introduced to the census population itself, with chapters...

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