Small Town Life in Late Antiquity

Written by: Giovanni Ruffini


Giovanni Ruffini, author of Life in an Egyptian Village in Late Antiquity, reminds us that the Roman World was so much more than emperors, senators, and gladiators.


I always wanted to know what life was like in the Roman Empire. I thought this meant learning about emperors, about senators, about gladiators. I didn’t realize it was possible to learn about the lives of normal people, until I learned about papyri from Roman Egypt. The papyri show us everything: personal letters, loans, lawsuits, love potions, land surveys, the range of documents surviving from life in the ancient world. Thousands of texts survive from Roman Egypt. But even this level of detail is too thin to learn much about any given person or place at any given time.

Aphrodito is the exception. This village in southern Egypt still survives today. Over a hundred years ago, renovations in the village uncovered hundreds of papyri describing the lives of thousands of Aphrodito villagers in the eastern Roman Empire in the sixth century AD. The detail these texts give about daily life is unparalleled anywhere in the Roman world. Many people have written about these texts, particularly about the poetry and petitions by Dioskoros of Aphrodito, one of the village headmen. But no one has ever written a full-length book about what life was like in this village, and what it tells us about the Roman world.

Life in an Egyptian Village in Late Antiquity is my attempt to do just that. It starts with Aphrodito’s scariest stories: its murder mysteries, its kidnappings, its rapes, its home invasions. I try to make sense of this violence by seeing how it fits into village politics, into the competition between the factions vying to control Aphrodito. But most of the evidence from Aphrodito shows a peaceful place with tried and trusted ways of solving social disputes. In a small town, in a face-to-face society, the people know who to trust, and who can help with their problems. Class and status are not always the answer, and the village big-men not always the most powerful: shepherds, blacksmiths and low-level priests are sometimes more influential than the richest landlord.

What does this tell us about the Roman world? First, it makes us rethink some preconceptions about the ancient world. Class warfare and hostility between the local elites and the central government are nowhere in sight. Second, the secrets of village life – the life lived by the vast majority of the inhabitants of the Roman world – are invisible in the literary evidence of the traditional historiography of the later Roman Empire. There are no Christian holy men in Aphrodito, no barbarian invasions, no emperors or generals engaged in great wars or building great buildings. Ancient villagers had no interest in modern scholarly questions. They were concerned with how to deal with the shepherd trampling their crops; whether to boo the priest in their local church; how to punish the boy who had stolen their cheese. The Roman Empire is hardly ever the answer to these questions. All of the answers are local.


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About the Author: Giovanni Ruffini

Giovanni R. Ruffini is a Professor in the Department of History at Fairfield University, Connecticut. He is the co-founder and editor of Dotawo: A Journal of Nubian Studies and is the author of numerous articles and several books on Byzantine Egypt and medieval Nubia. These books include Social Networks in Byzantine Egypt (Cambridge, 2008) and Medi...

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