- Honor Among Thieves: Craftsmen, Merchants, and Associations in Roman and Late Roman Egypt by Philip F. Venticinque
The study of the “associative phenomenon” in the Roman world has developed into something of a cottage industry of its own over the last twenty years. Since the mid-1990s a growing body of work has broadened the scope of inquiry beyond the traditionally narrow, often juristic, focus on the Roman collegium and the imperial center to encompass the complex topography and history of associations across the Roman world, grounding them firmly in their social, economic, political, and religious milieux. With a few notable exceptions, the evidence from Egypt has thus far played only a supporting role in this discussion. Philip Venticinque’s book is therefore a welcome addition, representing not only the first book-length treatment of associations in Egypt in over a century, but also the first systematic integration of the rich Egyptian evidence into the new social history of associations in the Roman world.
Venticinque’s book is ambitious in both scope and aim, analyzing the associative phenomenon in Egypt over seven centuries of Roman rule from a [End Page 590] particular social science perspective. Central to his project is the conceptual apparatus of the New Institutional Economics, as Venticinque argues that associations worked to reduce transaction costs by building interpersonal trust between members (through communal feasting, pledges of mutual aid, and sanctions for antisocial behavior), thereby facilitating information exchange and cooperation and managing relations between the association and the community at large (by building social capital via public displays, benefactions, and endorsements).
After a methodological introduction, Venticinque begins with two chapters in which he reads several well-known charters from first-century Tebtynis for what they tell us about trust and how it might have operated in the background of the sorts of business documents we find in the papyri. Venticinque then discusses the public face of associations through the inscriptions they erected between the first century b.c.e. and the third century c.e., evidence, in his reading, of antique “reputation management.” Venticinque’s fourth chapter treats the involvement of associations in political life (a phenomenon that seems to start in the late second or early third century, although Venticinque does not explicitly state this). Chapter 5 tackles the important question of the attitude of the imperial authorities in Egypt to associations; and chapter 6 is a surprisingly narrow discussion of associations in late-antique Egypt, concerned largely with the question of compulsory service and the relationship of associations to taxation. Venticinque’s overarching aim is to recover the vital role associations played in the economy and society of Roman and late antique Egypt as part of a sub-elite “strategy to mitigate risk and uncertainty,” polemicizing against the (already outdated) views of craftsmen and merchants as marginal to Roman society, and of associations as funerary or social clubs for the alienated and downtrodden, with no economic function or significance.
To his credit, Venticinque brings to bear an impressive array of interesting documents, particularly from the third century onwards, many of which rarely, if ever, figure in the scholarship on associations outside papyrological circles. But it is in his treatment of the evidence that many readers will begin to suspect that the theoretical tail is wagging the evidentiary dog. If Egyptian associations were a social technology responsive to a particular socio-institutional landscape, should we not expect that they, as institutions, changed with the society, government, and economy of Egypt over seven centuries? Venticinque’s sociological lens, however, efficiently filters out history, enabling him to juxtapose documents several centuries apart with little recognition of the gap between them and what it might represent with respect to changes in Egyptian society and the nature of the papyrological evidence from different times and places. Many, for example, are bound to feel the absence of Christianity in this book, particularly in light of the fact that...