At Home in Roman Egypt: a social archaeology

Review by Barbara E Borg

‘The real essence of an age is better revealed among trivial and commonplace things than among prominent monuments and great leaders.’ The opening sentence of this book captures succinctly its underlying principles. Following two chapters outlining the approach and the wider social and topographical context of life in Roman Egypt, the book’s seven main chapters on domestic life follow the journey from conception and childbirth through to adulthood, old age, death, and commemoration. They explore an impressively wide range of different aspects, from medicine to the most intimate details of personal hygiene, and from mundane daily household activities to religion and magic. To bring the reader as close to Egyptian life as possible, Chapters 2-9 each start with a brief fictional narrative. The author draws on papyri as well as archaeological evidence, and has mastered an enormous amount of scholarship. A decent number of illustrations support the text; one only wishes slightly more attention had been paid to their quality and size. The result is an eminently readable, remarkably detailed introduction to (domestic) life in Roman Egypt that is accessible to a wider public as well as to undergraduate students.

The pursuit of comprehensiveness comes at a cost, however. While all claims and re-imaginations are supported by evidence and published research, controversies and alternative interpretations are mostly glossed over in favour of an easy-to-read, coherent narrative. The fascinating but difficult question of ethnicity could have been explored with more methodological rigour: the author sometimes operates with an outdated essentialist concept (looking for an individual’s ‘real’ ethnic identity) and does not differentiate sufficiently between racially distinguished groups (as far as they still existed at the time), legal status, and cultural affinities. It is also not clear what defines ‘ordinary’ people as opposed to the ‘elite’, concepts that will have varied from place to place. The ambition to demonstrate how the lives and life choices of ‘ordinary people’ contributed to social change is thwarted by a text that is largely descriptive with little analysis and attention to chronological differences. The resulting picture is thus more one of continuity than of change. While this differs from the author’s intentions, it is not a bad thing at all, and the richness of detail and range of aspects of human life addressed in this volume offer a more comprehensive idea than we ever had before of what domestic life in Roman Egypt was like.

At Home in Roman Egypt: a social archaeology, Anna Lucille Boozer, Cambridge University Press, £75 ISBN 978-1108830928.