Triangular Landscapes: Environment, Society, and the State in the Nile Delta under Roman Rule.

Author:Ruffini, Giovanni
Position:Book review
 
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Triangular Landscapes: Environment, Society, and the State in the Nile Delta under Roman Rule. By KATHERINE BLOUIN. Oxford Studies on the Roman Economy. Oxford: OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2014. Pp. xxv + 429, illus. $150.

This book is a revision of the author's Ph.D. dissertation. It begins by noting the "major reorganization of the Nile Delta" (p. 1) from seven branches to two over the course of the first millennium of this era. The major research questions--how did humans contribute to this process? how did it happen, and why did it happen when it did? how did it impact the Delta communities?--prepare us for a mere hydrographical study.

But Blouin delivers more. Her focus is on the Mendesian Nome, which is, as she notes, "one of the few Deltaic zones documented by a significant papyrological corpus" (p. 4). The center of this corpus is the carbonized archives from Thmuis (CAT). The archives fit her research agenda perfectly, documenting the transfer of the nome capital from Mendes to Thmuis; the depopulation of regional villages; and the revolt of the so-called boukoloi in the late second century AD. To my mind, the result is a sophisticated papyrological social history. In her words, it is a work of new environmental history, a field characterizing "relationships between humankind and its surroundings in terms of reciprocity" (p. 7).

She divides the book into four major sections. The first section places the Mendesian nome in its wider hydrological and historical context. Blouin summarizes the nature of risk stemming from the Nile flood and the various risk management strategies used in response since the beginning of Egypt's known history. In the Delta, human response to local conditions gave rise to a "more dense and complex hydrological network than has traditionally been assumed" (p. 27). Blouin argues that this is important context for what she calls the "gradual bipolarization of the Delta's hydrography under Roman rule" (p. 28).

A chapter on the evidence includes a survey of 1) the Mendesian archaeological remains: meager, in my opinion, but still forthcoming, including through an excavation under Blouin's direction; and 2) the papyrological evidence, including the CAT, "the only group of papyri ever found in the ruins of a Roman metropolis' public archive" (p. 45). The contents are fiscal reports, land surveys, and tax registers from the late second to the early third century AD. A chapter on the nome in the pre-Roman period...

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