Anyone who sketches his mental picture of country
life from Vergil’s Eclogues must plainly re-do its outlines to match real
truth. The shepherd was not his own man but hired to guard someone else’s
flocks, or a slave: and that someone else might be removed from him by immense
distance, physically, as an absentee landlord, socially, by a wealth that spread
its possessions across whole ranges of hills, and administratively, by the
interposition of bailiffs, overseers, and lessees. Rustic swains has indeed nothing
to sing about. Their world was as poverty-stricken and ignored as it was
dangerous. And while Vergil’s Lycidas and Tityrus contested only for priority
as poets, their living models had to confront each other, village or city
officials, outraged farmers, or brigands, in struggles that knew no end.
No one should build his farmhouse near a main road ‘because of the depredations of passing travelers.’ That was the advice of a man who knew Italy well, at the height of its peace; while the advice of a contemporary in Palestine was, if one stopped the night at a wayside inn, to make one’s will. Both warnings came to the same thing. Away from centers of population, one risked being robbed or killed. The risk, though varying in degree, finds mention in written sources of every time and province. Architectural and archeological evidence agrees. Isolated farmhouses had look-out towers and strong walls and gates. The less populated countryside throughout the empire approached the state of endemic warfare, from which only a stout cudgel, a fast horse, or a well-built little fortress gave protection.
That was of course not the case where villages or rich villas dotted the landscape close together. Here, more restrained and covert violence prevailed, of the rich against the poor and of the poor against each other.
Take the rich first. Without trying to decide what percentage of the land was in possession of what percentage of the population, we would expect to discover big landowners in all areas. Commonly their holdings were scattered. Investors bought whatever happened to come on the market, wherever they could, as a few rare lists allow us to see.. . . .Rich Italians at all periods put their money into land the length and breadth of the peninsula, in fact overseas also, to such an extent that the emperors had to remind them of their allegiance to the land of their fathers. But similar patterns of scattered investment governed the provinces. A treatise on surveying tells us that ‘in many regions we find persons holding lands not contiguous but individual lots in various places, separated by several holdings.’. . . [omitted stats page 5]
All of this indicates the extent of absentee ownership, a phenomena as well know and attested as any in the economic history of Rome. A social consequence should follow. Since obviously the master of several estates could not visit them all by himself and administered them perforce through bailiffs and accountants, we would expect to find more irresponsible exploitation on the part of these latter, vis-a-vis slaves, tenants, hired laborers, and neighbors, than if the master himself had been on the scene. It was easy for him to hurt the people he never saw; that he actually did so will appear abundantly in this and the following chapter. In Italy, at least, we can trace a reaction, in the difficulties he encountered in collecting his rents or making a farm pay; sometimes in the heavy losses he suffered.
The landowner tried to consolidate his holdings into
a single enormous economic entity for greater efficiency. Cicero, Horace,
Seneca, and many other writers censure this ruthless drive towards
consolidation so often that one suspects a cliché. It is, however, a phenomena
not peculiar to Italy. The great estates of pasturage in Greece have been noted
above, and Pliny the Elder reports that in his day ‘six landlords owned half of Africa.’
Empire-wide, the unmistakable effect of this drive are visible in the
increasing concentration of rural wealth into fewer hands, a gradual
development that needs more study but is unquestioned fact. The details of its
procedure can be seen at work in many specific cases. More than buyer and
seller on a free market were involved, rather a variety of cruel pressures
exerted by the strong against the weak, the arrogant rich, ‘the powerful,’
against the adjoining farm, villagers, or ‘the poor,’ sometimes by crooked
litigation, sometimes by armed force.
A typical instance involves a citizen of Hadrianoutherai on the coast of the province of Asia, towards the mid second century.
There is an estate, the Laneian, not far from the Zeus temple . . .This estate my kinsmen bought for me while I was away in Egypt; but certain men of Mysia took it wrongfully, at first uttering every kind of threat and then resorting to actions. Being really desperate . . ., they got together as many servants as they could, and laborers, and came on with weapons of all sorts. Some of them then threw their spears and sling-bullets of clods and stones from a distance while others closed hand-to-hand; some advanced on the house and treated whatever was in it as their own. All was chaos and bloodshed. When report was made of these goings-on , at Pergamum, I was barely in a state to draw breath; but there was a trial. I was at a loss to know what to do.
Still, he managed to represent the matter successfully before the governor’s court, and the trial ended with his principal attacker in jail and his own lands secured to him. As in some of the cases Cicero deals with, the offenders here are rich men, using their slaves and tenants as shock troops and picking on a young man, or a sick, or an absent one, as their victim.
Throughout all our evidence, scattered though it is over several centuries, the methods employed and their openness point to the existence of extralegal kinds of power to a degree quite surprising. However majestic the background of Roman law and imperial administration, behold in the foreground a group of men who could launch a miniature war on their neighbor – and expected to get away with it! If we looked beyond our period to the second half of the fourth century, we would see (for example, in Libanius’s Forty-Seventh Oration or in certain chapters of the Theodosian Code) only the further development of predatory arrogance long latent in the pax Romana. In earlier centuries it was by no means accepted as a fact of life; but it revealed in a physical way certain broad and common disparities in strength among the various conditions of people.
For the aggressor, impunity depended not so much on the absence of law enforcement as on the presence of force above the law: in a word, influence. How did he get this? How did he exercise it? These questions can be easily followed out among the upper classes, especially through the private letters of Cicero, Pliny, and Fronto, and through a vast body of indirect evidence. The key terms are familiar: patron, client, and ‘connections’; with those private individuals who had some hold over witnesses, plaintiffs, clerks, or with jurymen, governors, municipal magistrates – all friends of the aggressor, all ‘cousins whom he reckons up by dozens.’ We need not repeat the investigations of other scholars at this level.
In the lower strata of society, however, Egyptian papyri shed a unique light on aggression. They usually come to us in the form of complaints registered with local authorities, in such a document as this:
To Dioscorus, overseer of the fifth district, from Isodorus, son of Ptolemaeus from the village of Karanis. I possess over eighty arouras, for which, though they are not sown, I have long paid the dues to the treasury, and for this reason I have been reduced to poverty. For I have experienced great difficulty in sowing, with enormous toil and expense, only eight of these in corn and two in grass-seed. So, when at the time of their growth Amonas son of Capeei, Sambathian son of Syrion, Sotas son of Achilles, and Ptolla son of Ariston let their cattle loose on the corn crops and devoured them, on that occasion I sent you a petition on the subject. But later, when the crops has grown and put forth their fruit and reached ripeness, before they were harvested, again the same persons, plotting against me and possessing great influence in the neighborhood and wanting me to desert my home, set the same cattle upon the crop and let it be completely devoured, so that nothing at all could be found there. Further, there was Harpalus the shepherd, too: he let his beasts loose on the grass-crop and the hay that has been cut and lay in the field, and they devoured it. And therefore I am unable to keep silent, since the headmen have frequently given instructions that the beasts caught damaging other people’s crops should be sold and half the proceeds should go to the treasury and the other half to the victim of the damage.
We can pick out the details that will recur elsewhere: herds that make trouble, just as in Italy and Greece, and the influential person who hopes to deprive some poor man of his land.
Another set of documents here pierced together into a single file adds further characteristic elements: the vulnerability of property when its owner was away, the invitation to violence that a physical weakness seemed to offer, and the abuse of their authority by local officials:
To the prefect of Egypt from Gemellus of Antinoe, landholder at Karanis. Some time ago, my lord, our father died, leaving me and my sisters as heir, and we took over his possessions without opposition from anyone. Likewise it came to pass that my uncle died, I entered into his property without hindrance. But now Julius and Sotas wrongfully, with violence and arrogance, entered my fields after I had sown them and hindered me therein through the power which they exercise locally, contemptuous of me on account of my weak vision and wishing to get possession of my property. Then Sotas died and his brother Julius, also acting with the violence characteristic of them, entered the fields that I had sown and carried away a substantial quantity of hay; not only that, but he also cut dried olive shoots and health plants from my olive grove. When I came there at the time of the harvest, I found that he had committed these transgressions. In addition, not content, he again trespassed with his wife and a certain Zenas, intending to hem in my cultivator with malice so that he should abandoned his labor . . . [And, two years later] I appealed, my lord, against Kastor, tax collectors’ assistant of the village of Karanis. This person, who held me in contempt because of my infirmity – for I have only one eye and I do not see with it though it appears to have sight, so that I am utterly worthless in both –first publicly abuse me and my mother, after mistreating her with numerous blow and demolishing all four doors of mine with an ax so that our house is wide open and accessible to every malefactor – although we owe nothing to the fiscus, and for this reason he dared not even produce of receipt, lets he be convicted through it of injustice and extortion.
Finally, a collection of the most common features among some seventy such pleas for justice, ranging from the first to the fourth century but concentrated in the period from the early first to the late second. To begin with, note the recurrence of physical outrage, the beatings, maulings, and murders. They may accompany a robbery (thefts being frequent) or play a part in intimidation. The plaintiff may allege an attempt to drive him clean out of the village; his enemies want his land, or access to water, which was scarce.
To collect a debt, he may ignore the law to take personal action; so may an enemy, to inflict some further hurt after the verdict has gone against him. The accused often acts in a family group, women not excluded. Self-help is invoked by both the righteous and the criminal. That being the case, we expect to find women especially among the victims –widows, wives whose husbands are away, but also orphans and minors. They call attention to their state as ‘weak,’ without resources, with no one to turn to ( aboethetos). And of course they (or for that matter, anyone) will be most exposed to attack when they are away from home, on the road. Inhabitants of other villages are likely to prove hostile.
We would like to know what exactly is meant by the recurrent description of someone as ‘powerful. ’What of an accused, ‘former Exegete of the town of Arsinoe, who possesses a great deal of influence in the villages through his arrogance and violence; and I shall be unable to oppose him before a [local] jury of this kind, for he is very influential.’ Even the son of a gymnasiarch on appeal to the Strategos failed to obtain justice from this man. He ‘relies on the prestige of his office, enjoying great power in the villages.’ And (the plaintiff continues) he is rich, and an extortionate usurer who has already received the principal of the loan and half again as much in interest. A sort of Mafia type emerges, exuberantly formidable, brutal, and threatening. He adds the extra leverage of his wealth, like many other wrongdoers, to his rank among officials, who also figure in our evidence among the oppressors. They apparently conspire to ‘shake down’ the defenseless without excuse or in the name of tax collection.
Brute strength, then, counted for much in the minor quarrels of the village. The only defense lay in one’s family. Had government been more easily reached, had officials cared more, no doubt their subjects would not have taken the law into their own hands. Still, some members of a small community constitute natural centers of disturbance. Ptolemaios of Theadelphia, for example, left behind a rich record of his feuds with men of high station; along with his son, he was charged with robbery, and, along with his brother, died in a fight.
Economic weight counted, too. It is hard to generalize about a whole province over a long span of generations, especially a province presenting such a varied history in so deep a fabric of documentation; for all that, Roman Egypt strikes one as a land of much suffering, in which the only constant element was poverty. True, we know relatively little about Alexandria and the few cities of middling size. Papyri come from and deal with smallish towns and villages. On the other hand, these latter were the Nile Valley. Dirt poor from the cradle to an early grave (their life expectancy being miserably low), fellahin struggled to secure a bare subsistence. Hence the power of those few among them who managed to accumulate some small means, a few fields to lease out, a few jobs to offer at harvest-time, a few rooms or a house to rent, or money to lend at interest.
Although we will never approach an overall estimate of property distribution with any exactness of numbers even in this one area we know best, there are glimpses of poverty to be caught in scattered statistics. The student who first penetrates the thickets of papyri from Roman Egypt will be struck by the use of the most minute fractions in census returns: a sixty-fourth part of the standard unit of land measurement, the aroura, is evidently a possession very well worth recording; the sixth part of a single live tree; the tenth part of an adobe house. And in that tenth part may be living twenty-six people; in another house, a man, his wife, their six children, two daughters-in-law, three grandchildren, a sister-in-law, her two children, a tenant, his wife and child and in-laws, to a total of twenty-four; in a third dwelling, a man, his brother, two sisters, and five cousins. The custom of exposing unwanted children is well attested in Roman Egypt, small wonder! But we should note a further consequence of the most wretched overcrowding: with everybody living on top of each other, the rate of illegitimacy seems to have hovered around 10 percent. Not that an unwanted child always died. Left on the village dung-heap ( and thereafter for life registered to that spot as his birthplace) he might be taken up and reared into servitude by a family that had food to spare. Nothing was wasted in the ancient world: not an abandoned baby, not the cloth that kept the rag-picker in business, not the empty fisherman’s shack on the beach, nor even the grains of barley in horse manure on the streets. There were always people poor enough to fight over another’s leavings.
A last statistic; annual unearned income qualifying a man for the high office of Elder. In different villages the sum varied from 200 to 800 drachmai, the number of appointees from four to twelve. Minimum required to stay alive per annum: about 250 drachmai. But even so, there were times and places in which qualified candidates could not be found. However these figures are added, they point to wretched deprivation.
Before moving on to a discussion of the structure of rural communities, however, it might be useful to glance at some quite modern and therefore much better studied villages lying within our chosen geographical area, from Sardinia to Syria. Compressed into a composite form, they suggest the details that our ancient evidence only allows us to guess at. Analogies, to be sure, prove nothing, but they comfort conjecture.
As an economic unit of a few hundreds up to as many as ten thousand, the central and eastern Mediterranean village has nothing to offer but its land. A small minority of the population can take care of basic trades and crafts, but the more proficient among them drift off to the better markets of the city; a few complex but necessary skills reach the village through traveling artisans, as do certain goods. The adjoining village, however, yields the same crops and has the same needs and surpluses. Most buying and selling is therefor done in the city, in frequent short visits.
Among the peasants there is little differentiation in earning power. The rudimentary task of the fields are easily mastered by all. Only the goatherds and shepherds constitute a separate and lower class. Land itself, at the moment when a new community came into being, lay under private ownership, all except common pasturage (or common ponds, streams, and copses). Individual successes and failures, however, tend towards towards its concentration in the hands of a few. A farmer after a bad year of illness or crop destruction by animals, or after the bursting of his irrigation ditches in a spring flood, borrows at usurious rates, and he and his family are soon obliged to sell out and become tenants or sharecroppers. A bailiff is now their master since, more often than not, the new owner lives in the city. A villager who ‘makes it” aspires to a life of urban idleness, and emigrates; the city man with money to invest buys into one of the villages nearby, comes to own it entire, or owns pieces of property in a number of villages.
Economic ties between urban and rural centers are thus of the closest. They are not friendly. The two worlds regard each other as, on the one side, clumsy, brutish, ignorant, uncivilized; on the other side, as baffling, extortionate, arrogant. Peasants who move to a town feel overwhelmed by its manners and dangers and seek relatives or previous emigrants from the same village to settle among. Rent- or tax-collectors who come out to the country face a hostile reception and can expect attempts to cheat and resist them, even by force. They respond with their own brutality. It is just such confrontations with an external enemy – government officials, landlords’ agents, crop damage by herds, or a quarrel over land or water with people of another locality – that unite a village.
Internally, the village is by no means united. While
the majority of inhabitants trace their descent to a handful of original lines,
are thus attached in a vague way to numerous kin, and choose a wife within the
community, the nuclear families are forever bickering with each other,
fighting, and competing for advantage. Their houses’ blank walls and the
twisting streets allow some privacy; but everyone keeps as close an eye as he
can on his neighbors. Gossip is perpetual, and the market in the center or the
unavoidable use of common water fountains, baking ovens and thrashing flours,
or oil presses encourages a kind of jealous nosiness.
Poorer families may crowd together in a single dwelling, embracing married sons and daughters and occasionally cousins in larger units. A typical household will however consist of no more than a half-dozen people under a clearly marked head, the father. They work in the fields together. To this unit as to traditional village customs everyone owes the strongest loyalty. Deviation and individualism finds little scope. Heads of households in a vey small community constitute a ruling body of elders. In larger ones, it is a combination of strong personality and strong clan support that produce a leader. He prefers to keep communal affairs in his own control, not to defer them to city authorities.
Our ‘model village,’ as it emerges from the shared features of a score of modern examples, shared features also with the Egyptian. Some of the analogies with what has already been described are too obvious to need any signpost. Others will suggest themselves as we return to the sketch of our proper subject, the Roman period.
At the very outset of their rule over Egypt, the emperors raised village officials to a position directly responsible for their local taxes and corvees, displacing the Ptolemaic bureaucracy at that level, and eventually made the same officials answerable for the entire territory within their boundaries, thus displacing the Ptolemaic categories of centrally administered non-private land. Successive changes this encouraged the development of community, principally in an economic sense. It was as a Farmers’ Collective that the village found tenants to work the vacant fields, labor to clear the irrigation system, guards to watch the crops, or shepherds to lease common pasturage.. Herders, like other groups engaged in one in the same business, for their part spontaneously formed themselves into associations headed by Elders or by similar officers bearing other titles; so also the Fishermen or the Carpenters of the village So-and-So under their Elders, the Tenants of imperial estates with their Secretary, the Weavers under their President. As we might expect, only occupations involving the most people gave rise to associations – and, incidentally, to personal names, just as today we know persons called Carpenter, Taylor, Coward ( Cow-herd), or Weaver; sections of villages told where they lived: Goose farmers’ Quarters, or Shepherds, or Linen-Weavers. In the small rural centers, a single urge is discovered at many levels, drawing together the whole or its most prominent and ubiquitous crafts or pursuits into social union.
The institutional shape assumed by strong shared interests at first sight seems to invite an economic interpretation Peasants are corporately responsible for the delivery of certain goods and services to the provincial government, and leave the clearest surviving trace of their existence in receipted delivery of taxes or approved nominations to some burdensome duty. Over the course centuries, in fact, pressure from the state slowly compacted peasants into tighter and tighter corporations for a purely economic reasons, to wring from them an increasing tribute. Similarly, subgroup like shepherds or sharecroppers show themselves to us through agreements to extract a yield from village resources or to pay license fees for the exercise of a craft. Appearances, however, are misleading. The associative principle looks like an economic one simply because a barely literate society naturally put on paper only things like contracts and receipts. Exact obligations had to be set down in writing. But the dominance of business matters among papyri distorts the total record. Actually, unions were not formed for an economic end, they were merely handy to that purpose once formed. It was almost unheard of for the Shepherds’ Association or any other to control admission to their ranks or their rate of pay, or to deal with some similar problem by joint action. An analogy with a medieval guild or modern labor union is wholly mistaken.
Rather, their purpose is social in the broadest sense. The same few hundreds or thousands that the state looked on as a single whole to yield it taxes, looked on themselves as the Village Society that celebrated the two-day festival of Isis or the ten-day festival of Bacchus. Their president, who hired entertainers and ordered the supplies, sometimes bore a title that further expressed his duties. He was the klinarch, ‘in charge of the table.’ Even in Rome, Juvenal knew of
the happy, merry day, at festal times, and the joy of great banquets, the tables spread in the temple precincts and street crossings, the couches set out for the whole night, and the sun of seven days rising and setting on them. Egypt is no doubt a repellent country but, as I myself have noted, the self-indulgence of its barbarous throngs [in the villages] equals that of the notorious [city of] Canopus.
The party mood spread downward from the community to its parts. Associations of some single crafts were guests of a rich benefactor or tapped their members for dues to buy beer and food and to secure from the nearest town the services, for a week, of traveling troupes of castanet dancers, trumpeters, flute-players, tumblers, or clowns. Torches lit up the nocturnal scene, daylight saw it still in motion. Presents were exchanged, altars and friends wreathed in roses, the diners beautifully drunk and dizzy with noise and dancing. Nor did Isis or Bacchus yield to the regular routine of the harvest. That was suspended, on a landowner’s fields, while the organizations of his laborers celebrated the day. He bought their wine, he paid the piper. But the flutist hired to play at vintage worked for him, since music speeded the treading of the grapes.
Against the evidence of jealousy, violence, feuds and conspiracies that divided an Egyptian village, and the clustering of various parts of its population into clubs and corporations for social purposes, we must set the contrary evidence of a community as a whole joining in gigantic parties. When the tension relaxed, when there was something to think about beyond the often desperate scramble for too little space, too little food, or too little water, nearness gave rise to fraternity. Men’s very deficiencies contributed to the same effect. They were likely to set apart only one threshing floor that they all used, and to build only one great storage barn for the grain taxes. Individual resources would not stretch to these facilities. And they needed each other for company and the exchange of small goods and small items of news. That brought them into the streets. There they would find a scribe to supply their lack of schooling, ready to write contracts, letters, and receipts for his illiterate neighbors. Those who sought his help in the afternoon doubtless learned all they wanted to know about the affairs of his morning customers.
At the same time, the community was penetrated by outsiders. Real wealth in Egypt was centered in the vast city of Alexandria, from which it reached out in the form of investments and leases to the back-country – to little Theadelphia ( population about 2,500), for example, where in the first century more than two-thirds of the vineyard and garden land belonged to ten Roman citizens and eighty-seven Alexandrians. A further substantial part of village lands would be held, and some temporarily rented by citizens of the district capitals. These owners occasionally visited the local scene to find new tenants or check up on their holdings, but generally their bailiffs did all this for them. Absentee landlordism had its tides and changes, which is not our job to describe; but throughout our period it is always true to say that the bulk of real property belonged not to the peasant but to someone that did not work himself and who, more often than not, lived elsewhere. When he did appear, it was as a master; when he took up residence, local office was his natural due.
Another representative village, Philadelphia, is well enough known to provide statistics about outsiders of a different sort. With a population of a few thousand and a taxpayer roll of about twelve hundred, 10 percent of the latter were in the first century drawn from other points of residence: some, small artisans, shepherds, donkey-drivers, and peddlers; others, laborers and lessees. In exchange, 5 percent of Philadelphia folk were off on business of one kind or another in Alexandria, not permanently, and an additional 20 percent at other villages or district capitals.
Peasants tended to remain peasants down the generations, but in bad times a proportion varying according to the degree of famine, inadequate Nile flooding, or tax pressure wandered off into vagabondage and laborer status, and there was of course some village industry, above all weaving. Migrant and harvest labor we will come to later.
While it is hard to generalize about mobility in rural Egypt, it is at least clear that those who would deny it altogether are wrong. It is an out-of-date, city-dwellers’ view that sees life of farming hamlets as absolutely static. On the other hand, we should distinguish between what biologist would call Brownian movement, carrying the small farmer from place to place on short trips, short contracts, and short business errands, without changing his fundamental condition, and opposed to this the more significant movement of perhaps a tenth of the rural population. That would include people mobile both socially and physically: petty traders, the owners of petty workshops in basic industries, craftsmen, entertainers, and begging poor (for mobility may be downward as well as upward). What prevented mobility from offering much hope was the concentration of rural wealth in the hands of absentee landlords, who drew off from the land whatever surplus it afforded. Some went to taxes, some to the urban market. A peasant boy had small chance at it, however he changed the work he did or the place where he lived.
I have now described very sketchily the kind of life and relations to be found in nineteenth – and twentieth-century villages of the Mediterranean – the most readily studied – and the data from papyri, which for the ancient world are relatively abundant but far less satisfactory, of course, than data from more modern period. Finally, we turn to the most scattered sources of all, those that tell us a little about villages in the Near East.
Their formal structure, considered from the outside, recalls that of Greek cities, their envied and prestigious models. Inscriptions of the eastern Roman provinces reveal a sort of chief magistrate or magistrates, a council, and a body of inhabitants expressing their will in assembly. Candidates for office, just as in cities, might be required to contribute a minimum sum, to the year’s expenses of the community, a few examples of this practice representing what would be in local terms a sizable sum: 250 denarii in 213-4, 1000 denarii sixty years later, as a result of galloping inflation; but a more common variant was the understanding, likewise typical of cities, that whoever was voted into office should show his sense of the honor by paying for some needed facility or resource. In effect, he bought the title of Arbiter, First Villager, Overseer, Local Leader, or however he might be styled. In territories owned by the crown he might be an imperial slave or freedman set up as bailiff. Otherwise he was one of the absentee landowners often distinguished as a special category.
The Council of Elders, sometimes call Senators in imitation of their grander urban models, in some villages dispensed with magistrates and ran things themselves. A representative text from second-century Lydia shows them in action:
In the village of Kastollos of [the city] Philadelphia, at a public meeting presided over by the Board of Elders and with all the other villagers, they considered how to divide up their land in individual lots, in the location called Agathon’s Sheepfolds, where it is hilly, as to which villagers . . .
which we may compare with a still more fragmentary inscription from southern Syria:
Resolved by the people of Korinos village, with their consent, that no villager . . . in the common land, that is on Mount Danaba, neither a threshing floor nor anything (planted?) . . . according to our usage; and if anyone . . .
Both resolutions present the inhabitants in the act of reaching joint decisions about important business. They speak with one voice, just as we find them elsewhere calling themselves simply and collectively ‘the farmers,’ ‘the people,’ ‘the commune of such and such a village.’ They jointly own and legally inherit property, and together meet for periodic fairs. In the fourth century a resident of Antioch looked out from his city to the surrounding
large villages, populous no less than many cities, and with crafts such as are in towns, exchanging with each other their goods through festivals, each playing host in turn and being invited and stimulated and delighted and enriched by them through giving of its surplus or filling its needs, setting out some things for sale, buying others, in circumstances far happier than seaboard markets. In the place of the latters’ waves and swells, they transact their business to laughter and handclapping.
The happy sound is echoed from the northwest areas of Asia and Bithynia. Inscription speak of village wine parties there to which inhabitants or their rich patron contributed food and drink and wreaths, hiring a little orchestra and providing lamps and candles to carry the rejoicing through the night. If the costs proved too heavy or the occasion honored a deity of wide cult, several villages would combine. Religious festivals brought the greatest crowds together, of which transfers naturally took advantage. And traders, along with traveling craftsmen, kept even isolated hamlets in touch with each other.
In the western half of our area of study, villages are most easily studied in Africa Proconsularis and in central Italy. The smaller ones had closely crowded houses in Italy just as they did in Egypt; in Africa, they had big central storage barns as they did in Syria or Egypt. Italian peasants, like their equivalents in other provinces, passed in their immemorial drudgery to their children, finding the ties of their indebtedness no less strong than those of habit and attachment to their ancestral acres. Communally regulated lands and water for irrigation are known in Africa. Both there and in Italy, community government leaves its traces on stone, in inscriptions that mention magistracies, Councils, and meetings of various forms. Details need not concern us- only the impulse found universally in the empire to rise to the shape of a fully accredited city. Connections with the richer outside world were kept up by villages through the same means that cities themselves used: influential patrons. Those of villages were of course sometimes the highest authority of all, the emperors, in vast crown estates; but otherwise, decurions of a neighboring municipality, retired army officers, or the like, who could be counted on to pay for some public building or social occasion. The prominence of persons specified as ‘estate-owners,’ their separation as a class by themselves, and sometimes their identification with the village ruling body, all hint at the equivalence of wealth and influencer binding villages to the nearest urban aristocracy. On the whole, however, on patronage as on other matters just reviewed, we are less well informed than in the Greek-speaking areas. At best, isolated glimpses blend into the much clearer landscape of Syria or Egypt, and they in turn into the living scene that meets the traveler there today.
Readers will sense everywhere in the foregoing one obvious deficiency: the peasant too seldom speaks for himself. We would like to hear him say, ‘Here is where I fit in, these are my feelings toward my neighbors or toward outsiders, such-and-such are the groups in which I feel at home, or depend on, or compete against; my prospects, my condition, my social heritage, are thus-and-so.’ Instead, either he has left us only brief mentions of the externals of his life, or appears through the eyes of observers quite alien to him: the literate, or rather the literary, classes. They are not likely to have understood the peasant. Though he supported their own ease and cultivation, he was a silent, motionless, and far below them as the great tortoise on which, in Indian mythology, the whole world ultimately rests.
The hard shell around the peasant community – the fierce dogs, scrutiny of strangers, crop – and field-guards, the sudden stoning of a dangerous outsider by lowering crowds – in fact covered only a pitiful organism. It had no real power to protect itself at all, save against another village or a passing traveler. Any force, economic or administrative, easily penetrated its defenses, abused it, and drained off its resources. Within cowered poverty; as a result, tensions; as a relief from both, superstition mixed with wine, beer, dancing, a total forgetfulness in days and nights of festivities honoring Isis, Cybele, Men, Bacchus, or some other deity.
The basic cells of the organism can have been nothing other than families – so much by conjecture, since even for Egypt we lack a study of that institution and none can be attempted for other provinces. Except where poverty required several generations, cousins, and in-laws to live together, it is a nuclear group of a half-dozen that we find most often. Councils of Elders hint at a community run by heads of clans, but for this there is no direct evidence, and the ubiquity of other groups, arranged according to shared occupations, tells against it. The term Elders does suggest, however, what is amply attested in many indirect ways, a respect for patrilineal customs, authority, and position in life. That returns us to the central characteristic of villages – their conservatism. They and their population hovered so barely above subsistence level that no one dared risk change. Conservatism in its root sense, simply to hang on to what one had, was imposed by force of circumstance. People were too poor, they feared to pay too heavy a price, for experiment of any kind. So the tortoise never moved, it never changed its ways.