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Classical Journal On-Line <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 27 Jan 2009 16:59:39 -0600
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BAGNALL, ROGER S., ed. Egypt in the Byzantine World, 300–700. Cambridge 
and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xv + 464. Cloth, 
$99.99. ISBN 978–0–521–87137–2.

Order this text for $96.06 from Amazon.com using this link and 
benefit CAMWS and the Classical Journal:


Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 

CJ Forum Online Exclusive 2009.01.04

This is a fantastic book. It is broad in scope and thoroughly detailed, 
brims with new insights into old problems, is loaded with suggestions for 
future research, and will serve as an entry-level text for the 
non-specialist, but will likewise encourage even experts to push the 
boundaries of their fields. Roger Bagnall has done a commendable job as 

The book is divided into four thematic sections (see below) and begins with 
Bagnall’s Introduction (pp. 1–17), in which he addresses issues of 
chronology, terminology and the nature of the source material for the study 
of Byzantine Egypt, among other things. The book contains no general 
bibliography or list of works cited, as each individual essay concludes 
with a “References” section. Several essays are accompanied by (black 
and white) maps, illustrations and photos, which are generally useful and 
always accurately cited in the text. There is a general Index at the end of 
the volume (pp. 460–4).

Part I, “The Culture of Byzantine Egypt” (pp. 19–184), begins with 
Alan Cameron’s “Poets and pagans in Byzantine Egypt” (pp. 21–46), 
an examination of (primarily) literary culture. Cameron suggests that the 
persistence of classical and classicizing themes in the Greek literature of 
the Byzantine period had more to do with the unwillingness of (mainly) 
Christian writers to break with tradition than with any sort of pagan 
agenda. Raffaella Cribiore’s “Higher education in early Byzantine 
Egypt: Rhetoric, Latin, and the law” (pp. 47–66) follows and provides 
an admirable overview of the subject. Leslie S.B. MacCoull tackles 
“Philosophy in its social context” (pp. 67–82) in her contribution, 
which highlights the importance of Alexandria as an international 
philosophical school and the social value of the philosophical training of 
the day for Christians and pagans alike. In the following chapter, 
“Coptic literature in the Byzantine and early Islamic world” (pp. 
83–102), Stephen Emmel delivers a useful survey of the surviving 
material, which is predominantly religious (Christian) in content, mainly 
comprised of translations from other sources and dominated by the works of 
Shenoute (AD 347–465), identified by Emmel as the sole great writer of 
Coptic literature. The next essay is Peter Grossman’s “Early Christian 
architecture in Egypt and its relationship to the architecture of the 
Byzantine world” (pp. 103–36). Grossmann draws a distinction between 
the architecture of Lower Egypt in late antiquity, which tended to be 
receptive to external influences, and that of Upper Egypt, which hewed more 
closely to existing traditions. Thelma K. Thomas’ “Coptic and Byzantine 
textiles found in Egypt: Corpora, collections, and scholarly 
perspectives” (pp. 137–62) delivers splendidly on the promise of its 
title: the reader encounters a frank assessment of the earliest discoveries 
of and work on Coptic and Byzantine Egyptian textiles in the 19th century. 
Thomas proposes that the production and trade of textiles in the Byzantine 
period was pan-Mediterranean. The last essay in Part I, Françoise 
Dunand’s “Between tradition and innovation: Egyptian funerary practices 
in late antiquity” (pp. 163–84), highlights the predominance of 
traditional Egyptian funerary practices in the Byzantine period. Dunand 
notes that it was not until the 4th and 5th centuries that the Egyptians 
adopted many of the funerary practices common in other Byzantine states.

The first of the seven essays in Part II, “Government, environments, 
society, and economy” (pp. 185–327), is Zsolt Kiss’ “Alexandria in 
the fourth to seventh centuries” (pp. 187–206), a detailed treatment of 
a thoroughly Christianized city with a Christian government that 
nevertheless saw its share of violent clashes with religious minority 
groups (mainly pagans and Jews). Though the essay is otherwise dominated by 
the lives of the patriarchs, Kiss has repeated recourse to the 
archaeological evidence for Alexandria in the period. The next chapter, 
“The Other cities in later Roman Egypt” (pp. 207–25) by Peter van 
Minnen, forms a nice complement to Kiss; van Minnen’s wide-ranging essay 
defies summary and should be required reading for anyone seeking a general 
overview of the nature of the evidence—primarily archaeological and 
papyrological—for Byzantine Egyptian cities. James G. Keenan takes us 
into the chôra with his chapter, “Byzantine Egyptian villages” (pp. 
226–43). Here, firm conclusions are undermined by or impossible because 
of the chance survival of evidence, so Keenan wisely focuses on case 
studies. As he notes, papyri associated with Byzantine Egyptian villages 
tend to concern problems: unjust imprisonment, excessive taxation, 
agricultural disruptions and the like. In “The Imperial presence: 
Government and army” (pp. 244–70), Bernhard Palme sketches the civil 
and military organization of Byzantine Egypt, underlines as primary the 
security and police functions of the Egyptian army, and notes that much of 
the Byzantine military/political infrastructure was retained by the Arab 
invaders in the 7th century. Joëlle Beaucamp’s “Byzantine Egypt and 
imperial law” (pp. 271–87) asks to what extent the legislation of 
Justinian was known and employed in Egypt. She concludes that in the course 
of the 6th century, law in Egypt became more markedly Roman, but that 
overall the fact that the Egyptians had idiosyncratic uses for Roman law 
did not make them different from provincials elsewhere in the empire. Todd 
M. Hickey’s “Aristocratic landholding and the economy of Byzantine 
Egypt” (pp. 288–308) has as its focus the great estates of Byzantine 
Egypt and papyrus archives that seem to indicate that landholding and land 
use varied from place to place. Part II closes with T.G. Wilfong’s 
treatment of “Gender and society in Byzantine Egypt” (pp. 309–27), 
which includes a helpful survey of past scholarship on the subject and 
identifies a number of new avenues for investigation.

Part III, “Christianity: The Church and monasticism” (pp. 329–433), 
kicks off with Ewa Wipszycka’s “The institutional church” (pp. 
331–49). Wipszycka highlights two important characteristics of the 
Byzantine Egyptian church, the primacy of the bishop of Alexandria and the 
lack of metropolitan bishops, and returns again and again to the effects of 
the monophysite/Chalcedonian divide on Egypt’s Christian population. In 
“The Cult of saints: A haven of continuity in a changing world?” (pp. 
350–67), Arietta Papaconstantinou provides a chronological survey of the 
evidence for saints’ cults from the middle of the 5th century onward, 
traces the gradual rise to predominance of monastic cults starting in the 
6th century, and outlines a number of important characteristics of the 
cults. Chapter 18, “Divine architects: Designing the monastic dwelling 
place” (pp. 368–89), addresses two major questions: where Egyptian 
monks lived, and what kinds of living environments they constructed. The 
author, Darlene L. Brooks Hedstrom, suggests that over time monastic 
communities located themselves further and further away from inhabited 
communities, while at the same time remaining in close contact with these 
communities in a number of ways. The next chapter, “Monasticism in 
Byzantine Egypt: Continuity and memory” (pp. 390–407) by James E. 
Goehring, contrasts the ascetic ideal presented in Byzantine literature 
with the realities of the ascetic life illuminated by documentary evidence 
and archaeology. Goehring sees a number of divergences between the two, but 
stresses that the ascetic ideal—renouncing all property and 
wealth—remained constant over time. The last essay in Part III is 
Elizabeth S. Bolman’s “Depicting the kingdom of heaven: Paintings and 
monastic practice in early Byzantine Egypt” (pp. 408–33). Bolman argues 
that Byzantine Egyptian architecture and artwork reflects the fact that 
visuality was integral to the spiritual work of Egyptian monks. Images of 
(e.g.) holy men, martyrs and Christ in (primarily) oratories were meant to 
help monks focus on the eternal world of the spirit.

The book closes with Part IV, the Epilogue, which contains one chapter: 
Petra M. Sijpesteijn’s “The Arab conquest of Egypt and the beginning of 
Muslim rule” (pp. 437–59). Sijpesteijn identifies three major problem 
areas for those who would seek a history of Egypt under the Arabs: the 
motivations behind the conquest of Egypt, the characteristics of Muslim 
rule, and the extent of Arabization and Islamization in Egypt. The overall 
message is that many long-held beliefs about Egypt under the Arabs need 
revisiting, that much of the evidence for the period has been 
underutilized, and that a tremendous amount of work remains to be done.

Let me stress again that this is a thorough, stimulating and satisfying 
book, which will be of interest to a wide readership of students and 
experts. Bagnall and his talented crew have done the scholarly community a 
great service in compiling Egypt in the Byzantine World, 300–700 and 
lighting the way for future study of this fascinating time and place. [[1]]

University of Arizona
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[[1]] The book is amazingly free of errors. I include the few that I found 
for the sake of completeness: p. 221, paragraph 2, line 12: dittography of 
“that”; p. 242, in the entry for “Mayerson, P.” (line 38): read 
**“a)mpelourgo/s”** [Greek transliterated for list-serve]; p. 401, n. 
64: read “II.15”; p. 437, paragraph 3, line 1: superfluous comma after 
“years”; p. 458, in the entry for “Morelli, F. (2000)” (line 3): 
read **“klē/rōsis.”**

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