At Home in Roman Egypt: A Social Archaeology

At Home in Roman Egypt offers the first full-scale investigation of life as experienced by the ordinary people of Roman Egypt in the 1st to 4th centuries AD. It approaches the subject by looking at the life course, following people’s experiences throughout the various stages of their existence, from conception to death. This approach is exemplified by two fictional characters, the married couple Pamoun and Tabes, who make their appearance at the beginning of each chapter to offer a brief insight into life as was most likely experienced by a large majority of the Romano-Egyptian population.

Using a combination of social theory, such as practice theory (a body of studies focused on how ordinary people can be viewed as active agents in history, not just passive objects; see the excellent discussion in Chapter 1), and primary evidence, including papyri, the archaeological record, and visual art, Anna Lucille Boozer reconstructs a history of ordinary people and the ways in which they contributed to shape wider historical processes and cultural changes. This approach is in line with the current trend of decolonising history and giving voice to those individuals and groups who are traditionally silent in the writing of history. The result is an engaging and vivid account that brings us closer to the life experiences of the people of Roman Egypt, including playtime as children, education, personal relations and all associated issues (such as marriage, divorce, and contraception), care for the body, religion as part of homelife, and illnesses.

Of particular interest is the discussion of practices involving conception, termination of a pregnancy, or behaviour during pregnancy and how those practices were viewed by the Romano-Egyptian people, as well as by the Catholic Church later on, shedding light on the development of prejudices about women’s behaviour and responsibility. For instance, women were deemed responsible for defects in children, as explored in Chapter 3. Using archaeological evidence from the cemeteries of Kellis and other Egyptian sites, Boozer convincingly demonstrates that, contrary to previous orthodoxies, not only Christian parents, but also parents who followed traditional religion, formed close emotional ties with their children (Chapter 9).

Clarity of argument is a key feature of this book. Despite the use of social theory and of a complex array of primary evidence, the book is beautifully written and easily accessible to everyone, thanks also to the inclusion of an English translation of numerous papyri that exemplify key life events. Both goals of the book, the descriptive one and the interpretive one, are successfully achieved, demonstrating how a study of ordinary people can offer a fuller and more reliable picture of life in antiquity and beyond.
Micaela Langellotti

At Home in Roman Egypt: A Social Archaeology, Anna Lucille Boozer, Cambridge University Press, £75, Hardback, ISBN 978-1108830928.