Violence in Roman Egypt: A Study in Legal Interpretation

Violence in Roman Egypt: A Study in Legal Interpretation

Violence in Roman Egypt: A Study in Legal Interpretation

Violence in Roman Egypt: A Study in Legal Interpretation


What can we learn about the world of an ancient empire from the ways that people complain when they feel that they have been violated? What role did law play in people's lives? And what did they expect their government to do for them when they felt harmed and helpless?

If ancient historians have frequently written about nonelite people as if they were undifferentiated and interchangeable, Ari Z. Bryen counters by drawing on one of our few sources of personal narratives from the Roman world: over a hundred papyrus petitions, submitted to local and imperial officials, in which individuals from the Egyptian countryside sought redress for acts of violence committed against them. By assembling these long-neglected materials (also translated as an appendix to the book) and putting them in conversation with contemporary perspectives from legal anthropology and social theory, Bryen shows how legal stories were used to work out relations of deference within local communities.

Rather than a simple force of imperial power, an open legal system allowed petitioners to define their relationships with their local adversaries while contributing to the body of rules and expectations by which they would live in the future. In so doing, these Egyptian petitioners contributed to the creation of Roman imperial order more generally.


Pain may be a human universal; writing about one’s own pain is not. When historians see individuals transforming pain into narratives that complain about neighbors, local officials, or family members, we would do well to pay attention. These narratives about pain and injury invite a series of questions: What can we learn from the ways that people experience, describe, and complain about violation, pain, and injury? in what ways, and under what circumstances, can we use a narrative about violence to give an account of the ways in which non-elite individuals theorized their own behaviors? in what ways can accounts of pain—and the redemption and socialization of pain through petitions—contribute to a historical account of empires?

These questions are hardly unique to the ancient world. and they are tricky enough for social historians, especially those of an anthropological bent. They become yet more complex when we have to take into account that, in the Roman world at least, we have our accounts of pain and violation only because they have been mediated through legal structures. This is so not only in the narrow sense that these narratives were attempts to participate in the legal arena by asking authorities to judge and punish violators, but in the broader sense that the practice of defining what counts as a violation was already contingent on particular sets of legal categories. This fact of legal mediation in the writing of non-elite history is thereby complicated not only because a layer has been added to the analysis, but also because such a history runs up against a deep and persistent disciplinary division.

In the historical tradition, one might say, individuals exist in the subjunctive, always as an endless series of possibilities, capacities, and complexities; law . . .

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