Fiscal Administration, Local Politics, and Social Control in Byzantine and Early Islamic Egypt

The PhD project “Fiscal Administration, Local Politics, and Social Control in Byzantine and Early Islamic Egypt” by Matthias Stern set its goal to study public control of local communities by focusing on the pagarchs, who operated on the edge of the realms of the Roman cities on the one hand, and the country villages on the other. Instead of pursuing an analytical model of “public” and “private” capacities that major actors at the local level of Late Antique Egypt acted, the project asked how all these capacities contributed to the creation of fiscal authority of the state and its ability to get the taxes in. This analysis of the “infrastructural power” of the state at the local level revealed much more nuances in the construction of local fiscal authority than previously acknowledged.

At the local level, this study has for the first time laid out in detail the business of the pagarchs on various strata from collection on the ground to aggregation and accounting at the top. Apart from providing a revised, refined, and enhanced understanding of individual procedures and related documents, the results also fit the pagarchs into a more detailed network of the fiscal authority that various actors exercised in the rural hinterlands of the Roman-Egyptian cities. Two points are particularly noteworthy. The first is the continuous influence that the structures of the old curial administration still had in the sixth century, even after aristocratic magnates and imperial officials had taken over much of the local administrative matters. The second is that the project was able to establish a distinction between the fiscal authority exercised by the pagarchs and the fiscal authority exercised by other large landowners who were not pagarchs.

Segregating these authorities had two major consequences for the project. First, the analysis could no longer focus on the pagarchs only, but had to include the careers and fortunes of other important players at the local level (e.g., the Apiones family). This analysis suggests that the pagarchy, as an institution, was quite sensitive to the local elite composition and that pagarchs frequently profited from their service in terms of rank and status. Second, the analysis of the relationship between these two sources of authority entailed that the development of the pagarchy as an institution be analyzed in connection with the much-debated question of the fate of the “large estates” in the last years of Byzantine rule and the early years of the Islamic period. In consequence, the original aim to establish “ideal types” of pagarchs for the Byzantine and the early Islamic period, and then comparing the two, proved to be less promising as expected for the study of public authority networks in the countryside than initially envisioned. Instead, the project refocused to inquire more deeply into the balance of power between different actors in the countryside of the sixth and early seventh centuries. Because the project, with its adjusted analytical focus, separated the pagarchs from other sources of fiscal authority, it was able to draw a clear line of development of the pagarchs from small curial officers in the fourth century to the “nome chiefs” of the early Islamic period. It also found strong evidence that this development was linked to the fate of the nome elites: apparently, the system of administration through the “large estates” was abolished or at least much reduced toward the end of Byzantine rule, and it seems a plausible explanation that this resulted from the increasing incapability of these “large estates” to cope with the necessities of extended tax collection duties. From this resulted the final step of the pagarchs to the sole superior authority in the cities, which to date had been mainly explained by a rationalization process initiated by the Arab invaders. The major structural change at this level, therefore, fell into the period of Byzantine rule immediately preceding the Islamic conquest.