They Were Not Mainly “Peasants”

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Towards an Alternative View of Village Life in Greco-Roman Palestine and Egypt

By: Sharon Lea Mattila

It has been very common for the vast majority of the people in the Greco-Roman world, with the exception of those who lived in the élite urban spheres, to be depicted as a homogeneous mass of “peasants”—members of subsistence-oriented, self-provisioning “peasant family farms,” living in tradition-bound, autarchic village communities, at slightly above subsistence after rents and taxes were paid. Market exchange, according to this received wisdom, was at best peripheral and indeed inimical to this “peasant” mode of existence. Instead, barter was supposedly the predominant and preferred means by which “peasants” exchanged their produce for the few necessities that they themselves could not produce.

There have been dissenting voices to this common view, most notably among archaeologists of Palestine. Despite these protests, its influence remains intransigent and strong. To provide but one recent example from no less prestigious a venue than The Cambridge History of Judaism (2006), Joshua Schwartz asserts that village communities in Roman Palestine, even if varying in size, were nonetheless “homogeneous and monolithic” in their socioeconomic composition, with an “absence of social stratification” (Schwartz 2006: 433–434).

This received wisdom derives in the main from two scholarly constructs which in the 1970s and 80s had acquired virtually orthodox status. The first is the (Karl) Polanyi–(Moses) Finley paradigm, according to which market exchange was of marginal importance in the ancient world, except among the élite. For a documented critique of this paradigm, see Mattila 2014b.

The second, which has arguably been even more influential, is the questionable and essentialist social-scientific concept of the “peasant” as a distinct socioeconomic and cultural human type, purportedly having constituted the vast majority of rural people in pre-industrial societies, past and present. This concept owes a great deal to the cold-war era popularization in the West of the neo-populist Russian economist A. V. Chayanov’s micro-economic analysis of the so-called “peasant family farm.” In Chayanov’s debate of the 1920s with the Agrarian Marxists (followers of Lenin), even his Marxist opponents accepted the notion that Chayanovian “peasants” had constituted the vast majority of people in the countryside prior to the industrial revolution. In the West, this concept was further essentialized by G. Foster and R. Redfield, who argued for a distinctive “peasant” ideology and even cognitive orientation innately adverse to market exchange. For a more detailed critique of this concept, see Mattila 2010.

In fact, however, as I also document in the above-mentioned article, in the field of the social sciences it has been a subject of intense debate for decades whether such “peasants” can be identified both conceptually and empirically. Those who oppose the usefulness of this category point to the following characteristics of rural communities, which have been routinely observed in anthropological field work: (1) marked socioeconomic inequalities within village communities, which are key to understanding their internal dynamics; and (2) a multiplicity of economic strategies employed by rural people in order to procure their livelihood, which include combining the cultivation of holdings with tenancy and wage labor, and/or with small-scale commerce and commodity production, as well as working in the transportation of goods, all of which involve market participation and not just production for self-use. It is important to emphasize that, in the view of the opponents of the “peasant” model in the social sciences, these two characteristics are fundamental to understanding the nature of rural societies, and not just incidental. For its opponents, one cannot properly acknowledge this, and yet still affirm the basic assumptions of the standard “peasant” model.

In my view, the ancient data fit far better into a model that would properly acknowledge the above-mentioned fundamental characteristics of rural life. In the case of the ancient data deriving from rural contexts in Greco-Roman Palestine, I have argued (Mattila 2014a) that the early rabbinic evidence, the documents and finds from the Dead Sea (the famous Babatha archive, etc.), and the ever-growing body of archaeological data recovered from Greco-Roman Palestine, all suggest that “Inner Village Life in Galilee” was in fact also “A Diverse and Complex Phenomenon.” See also my article on the village of Capernaum (Mattila 2013).

Here I wish to bring in for consideration some comparative evidence from Egypt— namely, a private-land register (P. Yale III 137) from Philadelphia in the Fayum, dating to 216/17 CE (Schubert 2001: 3, 8–9). The analysis of this register presented here is part of an ongoing project that I am presently undertaking, which will also include a similar analysis of other land registers, as well as land-tax registers (on the basis of which, knowing the current average land- tax rates, one can also deduce the sizes of holdings). The Philadelphia land register is the only one for which my analysis is almost complete, and thus the results I present here are preliminary.

The Philadelphia register contains usable data for 191 individual landowners. It records holdings explicitly of “private land,” both of grain land and of orchard land (Col. I, line 8)—the latter most likely having been olive-orchard land. It does not include holdings of “royal land” or “public land” (these two designations in the early third century referred to roughly the same kind of land), which in the Fayum in particular would have constituted a large proportion of the land near any village. It is also lacking imperial land (which typically belonged to the emperor or some other member of the highest élite of the city of Rome) and temple land. The importance of public grain-land near Philadelphia is indicated by a papyrus dating to just a few years later (P. Gen. I 42), namely to 224 CE, which refers to the “farmers of public land” in Philadelphia, who had appointed 30 elders for the management of this land, as well as of imperial land (Schubert 2001: 11, n. 18). In sum, the Philadelphia land register provides only a partial picture of the distribution of land near the village.

Of the 191 individuals recorded in the register who owned private land near the village and for whom the register provides usable data, 5 were “Alexandrian magistrates” and 10 were “local magistrates” and “persons of archon rank,” who Schubert very plausibly suggests should be understood as not living in Philadelphia itself, but in the nearby metropolis—namely, in Arsinoë. See the map in Figure 1 for the locations of Philadelphia, Arsinoë, and Alexandria.

ASOR Blog 2015 Figure 1
Over 92% of the private-land holdings (176 out of 191), however, belonged to villagers residing in Philadelphia itself. Including entries for which the data are incomplete and also recalling that a few of the holdings were jointly owned, Schubert notes that there were a total of 181 villagers who owned private land mentioned in the register (Schubert 2001: 22).

Figure 2 is a bar chart, indicating the distribution of the grain-land holdings near the village among male and female urbanites and male and female villagers, ranked from smallest to largest. As this figure shows, these holdings were not distributed according to a polarized pattern, wherein a few absentee urbanite owners monopolized the vast majority of the land.

ASOR Blog 2015 Figure 2In fact, 85% of this land was in the hands of villagers. While it is true that the largest grain-land holding was that of an urbanite and was 204 times the size of the smallest grain-land holdings, it was a villager who owned the second largest grain-land holding, which was 188 times the size of the smallest. In addition, the rather romantic, neo-Populist notion that, in contrast to urbanites, villagers all owned roughly equal subsistence-level portions of land, is also not supported by this register. There were quite a few “middling”-sized holdings, ranging along a spectrum, and many of the smaller ones were far from sufficient to provide a standard “nuclear family” with its subsistence requirements. Tiny holdings of the latter kind are often designated “infra- subsistence.”

Figure 3 singles out the orchard-land holdings. As this figure shows, the distribution of orchard land among urbanites versus villagers was markedly different from that of private grain land among the two groups.

ASOR Blog 2015 Figure 3Of the urbanites, 9 owned orchard land, or 60%; whereas only 34% of villagers owned orchard land. It is also clear that, unlike in the case of grain land, in the case of orchard land the urbanites did monopolize at least a substantial minority of this land—the 9 urbanite holdings represent over 40% of it; while the 60 villagers who owned orchard land held less than 60% of it. These 60 villagers, however, by no means shared this land equally among themselves. As Figure 3 shows, this land was also distributed among them along a spectrum, with the largest holding having been 68 times as large as the smallest.

The olive-orchard land complicates the situation for the owners of private land near Philadelphia in another important respect because the value of this land was almost certainly a lot higher than that of grain land. The editor of the register, Paul Schubert, quite plausibly suggests that orchard land should be weighted at roughly double the value of grain land (Schubert 2001: 25). Thus, for instance, one villager, Artemis, owned only 3 arouras of grain land; but he also owned 31 arouras of orchard land, setting him quite apart from most of the smaller grain-land holders. Not surprisingly, some owners with larger grain-land holdings also owned large orchard holdings.

Schubert’s proposed weighting for orchard land has been incorporated into my calculations for Figure 4. This figure represents, for the villagers only, the net average return to the individual owners (joint-owners have each been assigned a one-half share of their jointly- owned holding) in artabas of wheat-equivalent, after taxes and seed grain were deducted.ASOR Blog 2015 Figure 4 We know from multiple other sources from the Fayum and the Nile Valley in this period that private grain land was most often taxed at one artaba per aroura (this rate was so common that this land was frequently designated monartabos); seed grain also typically consisted of one artaba per aroura; and the most common conservative estimate for average yields at this time is 10 artabas per aroura (Rowlandson 1996: 35–37, 247–252; Monson 2012: 172). In fact, land varied in productivity, so these calculations over-simplify what was surely a more complex reality; but they still offer a rough estimate of the landed wealth of each village owner.

The situation of women with regard to the private land owned near the village is also of considerable interest. 16% of the grain-land owners were women, but these women held 23% of the total grain land; and likewise 15% of the orchard-land owners were women, but these women held 24% of the orchard land (Schubert 2001: 20). It would appear that those women who did own land were generally more well-to-do than average.

In sum, the private landed wealth of the owners of land near Philadelphia was distributed along a spectrum, that included villagers as well as urbanites, and women as well as men. It must, of course, be recalled that it is very likely that most, if not all, of the urbanites mentioned in this register owned additional and perhaps considerable land elsewhere. So, overall, most of the Alexandrians and Arsinoites were probably larger landowners than their villager counterparts, although it cannot be assumed that all were. At least some of the villagers mentioned in the register also very probably owned land elsewhere. In the Egyptian data, we often find even relatively modest-sized estates owned by villagers, which were scattered among several other villages; the fragmentation of land-holdings in the ancient world is a well-known phenomenon, amply attested in the Egyptian data (Rowlandson 1996:124–139; Kehoe 1992), but also corroborated elsewhere in the Empire (Kehoe 2007; Garnsey 2000: 695–699).

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Garnsey, P. 2000. The Land. In The Cambridge Ancient History. 2nd ed. Volume 11. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kehoe, D. P. 1992. Management and Investment on Estates in Roman Egypt During the Early Empire. Bonn: Dr. Rudolf Habelt GMBH.

—— 2007. The Early Roman Empire: Production. In The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mattila, S. L. 2010. Jesus and the “Middle Peasants”? Problematizing a Social-Scientific Concept. Catholic Biblical Quarterly 72, 291-313.

—— 2013. Revisiting Jesus’ Capernaum: A Village of Only Subsistence-Level Fishers and Farmers? In The Galilean Economy in the Time of Jesus. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.

—— 2014a. Inner Village Life in Galilee: A Diverse and Complex Phenomenon. In Galilee in the Late Second Temple and Mishnaic Periods. Volume 1. Life, Culture, and Society. Minneapolis: Fortress.

—— 2014b. Towards Doffing a Methodological Straightjacket in the Study of Ancient Economies. In City Set on a Hill: Essays in Honor of James F. Strange. Mountain Home, AZ: BorderStone Press, LLC.

Monson, A. 2012. From the Ptolemies to the Pharaohs: Political and Economic Change in Egypt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rowlandson, J. 1996. Landowners and Tenants in Roman Egypt: The Social Relations of Agriculture in the Oxyrhynchite Nome. Oxford: Clarendon.

Schubert, P. 2001. A Yale Papyrus (P Yale III 137) in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library III. Oakville, Connecticut: American Society of Papyrologists.

Schwartz, J. J. 2006. The Material Realities of Jewish Life in the Land of Israel, c. 235-638. In The Cambridge History of Judaism. Volume Four. The Late Roman–Rabbinic Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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