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Classical Journal On-Line <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 13 Apr 2009 10:03:34 -0500
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Money in Ptolemaic Egypt: From the Macedonian Conquest to the End of the 
Third Century BC. By SITTA VON REDEN. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge 
University Press, 2007. Pp. 378. Cloth, $110.00. ISBN 

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Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 

-Transliterated Greek has been set off within double asterisks
-Aspiration and accent (in that order) follow their vowel

CJ Online 2009.04.02

The conquests of Alexander the Great brought about an extraordinary spread 
of coined money that transformed the economies of the eastern 
Mediterranean. There could be no better case study for the process of 
monetization than Ptolemaic Egypt, where we can compare actual coins with 
papyri and ostraca that document many types of official and private 
transactions. The sheer abundance and technical nature of both the 
numismatic and the papyrological evidence have tended to make specialists 
in those fields insular and to deter historians from engaging with the 
material. Sitta von Reden (VR) is one of the daring exceptions who 
approaches Ptolemaic Egypt from a historical perspective, having studied 
the social and ideological aspects of exchange in ancient Greece. [[1]] VR 
brings to her task a balanced judgment and an assiduous use of primary 
sources as she attempts to synthesize the work of specialists and to draw 
general conclusions about how money circulated in Ptolemaic Egypt. Her book 
is an important contribution to the literature and will hopefully entice 
others to attempt to push the analysis further.

If there is a central thesis to this book, it is that monetization was a 
state-driven process that entailed comprehensive top-down reform rather 
than incremental change (pp. 5, 15–16). While coined money lowered 
transaction costs and facilitated exchange, VR maintains that it was 
predicated on a central state intent on projecting its power ideologically 
and integrating local economies into the royal administration. Along the 
way, VR enters into detailed discussions of the monetary system and 
economic relationships of the 3rd century BCE. Part 1 (Chapters 1 and 2) 
examines the coins themselves, including their weights, metals, images, 
denominations and domains of circulation. Part 2 (Chapters 3–6) deals 
with why some payments and taxes were in coin while others were in kind. 
Part 3 (Chapters 7–10) addresses the circulation of money through loans. 
Part 4 (Chapters 11 and 12) considers the role of banks as instruments of 
taxation and credit.

In Part 2, a central element of VR’s thesis is on display: substantial 
royal revenue in kind, especially rents on royal land, which the state 
could trade for the precious metals Egypt lacked, was a necessary condition 
for maintaining a supply of coined money (pp. 16, 119–20). This “binary 
economy” model contains the implicit assumption that a market mechanism 
would have failed to convert Egypt’s agricultural surplus into metals 
capable of sustaining a monetized economy spurred by taxation in coin. VR 
does not explore this assumption, even though it conceivably challenges the 
logic of Hopkins’ taxes-and-trade model for the Roman Empire. [[2]] Given 
the frequent shortages of coined money in the countryside documented in her 
later chapters, Ptolemaic fiscal policy preserving the traditional taxes in 
kind on arable land may have been part of the problem rather than the 
solution, as VR suggests (pp. 298–9). VR makes an arguably false—and, 
for her argument, unnecessary—distinction between harvest taxes in kind 
on private land and rents due in kind on royal land, treating them in 
separate chapters. [[3]] Outside of agricultural rents and taxes, she 
maintains that most labor agreements were based on cash payments, 
indicating a high degree of monetization. But it is unclear that one can 
generalize, since most of her evidence concerns the Fayyum estate of 
Apollonios, finance minister of Ptolemy II, and state-financed irrigation 
projects in the Fayyum that presumably infused coined money into the local 
economy and are not necessarily indicative of private transactions 

In Part 3, VR shifts from her thesis about state-driven monetization and 
delves into the nature of the money economy in the 3rd century BCE. Again 
evidence from the estate of Apollonios looms large, as one of VR’s 
arguments is that estate managers and their agents lacked sufficient coined 
money and therefore frequently had to borrow to make ends meet. Her 
statement that these were “consumption loans” that did not serve to 
raise profitability and development (pp. 161–2) is misleading, since her 
own analysis shows that they provided crucial liquidity to smooth 
transactions, without which the estates would have been less profitable and 
the agricultural economy less developed. VR plays down the extent of larger 
loans, particularly on the security of arable land, but this may stem from 
her reliance on Greek sources (many of which concern officials and their 
agents) from the newly reclaimed Fayyum, where there was less private 
ownership except in vineyards and orchards (p. 174). [[4]] VR’s lengthy 
argument in Chapter 9 that prepayment in cash to contractors, designed to 
allow them to hire laborers to complete projects, was “modeled” on seed 
loans in kind to farmers hangs on her more general argument in Part 2 that 
such contractors lacked sufficient cash reserves just as farmers lacked 
grain reserves. On the other hand, who would not be reluctant to start an 
expensive project without seeing some of the money up front? Finally, the 
idea presented in Chapter 10 that being another person’s agent (**o( 
para\ ti/nos**) was an exclusively Egyptian social role, unknown even 
linguistically in the Greek world, is puzzling, especially given that VR is 
referring to the Greek milieu of Apollonios’ gift estate and to the 
subordinates of Greek officials. She imputes to this relationship a moral 
obligation, which allegedly explains why agents appeal to their boss rather 
than to an impersonal lending institution for short-term credit.

Part 4 contains a valuable overview of the role of banks in the 3rd century 
BCE that also links back to the book’s main thesis. The royal banks 
served principally to collect taxes paid in coin, to inspect these coins 
for purity and authenticity, and to supply money to local officials to pay 
salaries and private contractors. VR tries to account for the unusual 
number of banks in the Fayyum, which probably does not merely reflect an 
evidential bias. One of her suggestions, that this was because the Fayyum 
was “highly populated and urbanized” (pp. 262–3), is almost certainly 
incorrect, as the 3rd-century BCE census records indicate that the opposite 
was true. [[5]] But her ultimate conclusion is persuasive: the situation 
reflects the heavy involvement of the state in the Fayyum, with cleruchic 
settlements, gift estates and reclamation projects, in comparison with the 
Thebaid, where Egyptian temples maintained more control of the local 
economy (p. 268). VR demonstrates that it is difficult to separate the 
royal bankers’ role as tax administrators from their role as creditors or 
conduits in private transactions. Individuals could hold accounts at the 
royal bank and even authorize absentee payments from their accounts. In 
paying salaries to officials or temporary workers, the royal banks 
sometimes provided a tax credit to be deducted from the payment in cash. 
Unfortunately, the private lending activities of banks are still obscure in 
many points. Chapter 12 is biased even more than other chapters towards 
Apollonios’ estate, especially the section on bankers’ loans, where all 
the evidence concerns its manager Zenon (pp. 286–9). In addition to royal 
banks, there were also private banks licensed to individuals that could 
lend money. While private banks only lent money with some form of security, 
royal banks often did not require it. VR suggests that licensed banks were 
somehow prohibited from lending without security (p. 294), but one suspects 
rather that they would not have wished to and that royal banks did so only 
because the recipients of unsecured loans were well-connected people like 
Zenon, the manager of the finance minister’s estate, Zenon’s agents and 
other royal officials.

This review cannot do justice to the numerous well-reasoned arguments in 
the book about particular problems that have troubled specialists. The 
level of detail makes it a useful companion for studying the primary 
sources on a wide range of topics involving Ptolemaic money. On the other 
hand, Greek terms are frequently used without translation, often in a 
technical sense, so that many readers would have benefited from a glossary. 
The decision to limit the study to the 3rd century BCE gives it a coherent 
focus, but an immense proportion of the papyri from that century come from 
a single source, the gift estate of Apollonios in the Fayyum. VR never 
addresses this problem directly or considers whether the state-driven 
process of monetization she describes might have worked differently in 
regions that lacked enormous gift estates and state-financed reclamation 
projects. Her book is nonetheless a tremendous achievement. It focuses the 
discussion of difficult papyrological and numismatic evidence around timely 
historical questions, while providing an up-to-date synthesis of sources 
and secondary literature for essential and often neglected aspects of the 
3rd-century BCE Ptolemaic economy. Scholars will appreciate her effort and 
erudition as they attempt to gain a similar mastery of the complicated 
Ptolemaic monetary developments of the centuries that followed.

New York University

[[1]] Sitta von Reden, Exchange in Ancient Greece (London, 1995).

[[2]] In particular his claim that taxation in coin rather than in kind 
spurred both monetization and the market for grain: Keith Hopkins, “Taxes 
and Trade in the Ro-man Empire,” JRS 70 (1980): 101–25, which VR 
mentions briefly on p. 2.

[[3]] That **e)kpho/rion** is a general term for taxes in kind even on 
private land is shown, for example, in P. Eleph. 14 and P. Haun. Inv. 407; 
the latter is edited by Thorolf Christensen, The Edfu Nome Surveyed: P. 
Haun. Inv. 407 (119–118 BC), Diss. Cambridge, 2002.

[[4]] P. Hausw. 18 (212/11 BCE) from the Thebaid relates to a loan of 200 
dr. on the security of arable land, which we have no reason to think was 
unusual for that region.

[[5]] Willy Clarysse and Dorothy J. Thompson, Counting the People in 
Hellenistic Egypt (Cambridge, 2006) II 101.

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