- Honor among Thieves: Craftsmen, Merchants, and Associations in Roman and Late Roman Egypt by Philip F. Venticinque
The new book by Philip Venticinque, Honor among Thieves, assesses evidence for associations in Roman and late Roman Egypt from the annexation of the province in 30 bce until the seventh century ce and systematically approaches the complex relationship between honor, commerce, and associative membership in Roman antiquity. Based on his 2009 dissertation written at the University of Chicago, the book uses hundreds of papyri, ostraca, and—to a lesser extent—inscriptions in order to explore how various degrees of uncertainty were mitigated by Egyptian artisans and merchants through the formation of associations. He then compares this material evidence within the surviving literature and [End Page 168] demonstrates the gulf between elite ideologies of work philosophized upon by the likes of Cicero and the way work is represented by documents produced by the workers themselves. The book consists of six chapters, as well as an Introduction and Conclusion. The Introduction sets the stage for understanding the formation of associations often termed collegia, corpora, or societates in the Latin West and θίασοι, κοινά, or σύνοδοι in the Greek East. This was the most common terminology applied to these associations, but it is a slippery lexicon; artisan groups could, for instance, simply refer to their occupation in the plural.
In the introductory chapter, Venticinque not only lays out the terms, but he also begins to deconstruct the false typologies created by modern scholars for ancient associations. He poses the important question of economic uncertainty and risk in Roman antiquity, which will be a central theme of the book. This uncertainty can be located spatially—in the forum, agora, macellum, fairs, and the workshops of ancient cities—and could be caused by a number of external factors: prices, demand, competitors, legal ambiguity, and even poor communication. There were internal sources of uncertainty as well: personal financial crisis, injury, and sickness were genuine challenges faced in the day-to-day lives of merchants and artisans both today and in the past. Venticinque notes that most of the individuals known to us from the papyri from Roman and late Roman Egypt were male and freeborn, although there were indeed women's groups as well, with small groups of 10–25 members being the norm in the province.
Chapter One focuses on the economic nature of many associations through the lens of charters and transaction costs. Here Venticinque perhaps overstates the lack of analysis of the economic aspects of Greco-Roman associations (of which there has been much in the past few years), but does rightfully underscore the need to look more closely at charters in order to access the internal structure, ideals, and anxieties of this pivotal social unit. A look at a first century ce charter likely for a sheep and cattle herder association from Tebtunis, for instance, shows the desire to meet regularly, pledge support, offer financial backing for funereal costs, and expresses the group's power to punish members for various offenses. Beyond this, charters from Roman Egypt reveal not only how an association could manage tax payments for a member, but also how members employed the association in economically advantageous ways: to collect information on the particulars of prices or the state of the market, or to disseminate information about their own goods and services. However—as with the study of Roman legislation and juristic opinions—charters often project an ideal rather than providing us with a depiction of social reality. Here Venticinque accentuates the associative reliance on trust, reputation, and honor which seems to infuse itself into every crevice of the ancient city.
Chapter Two explores the theme of trust by looking at papyrological archives and dossiers from the Fayum, Oxyrhynchus, and Aphrodito, and then uses comparative examples from elsewhere in the Mediterranean in order to see how this idea might have manifested through documented collaboration between group members. The chapter demonstrates that the impact and significance of [End Page 169...