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Roger Bagnall Delivers Prentice Lecture

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Published Date

November 24, 2019


Roger Bagnall, distinguished papyrologist and Emeritus Professor of History at NYU, delivered a lucid and thought-provoking Prentice Lecture in Princeton on Thursday, November 21st, entitled 'Roman Names and Roman Citizenship in Egypt.’

Following a warm introduction by Professor Caroline Cheung, Professor Bagnall began his talk by observing that the potential of onomastics – the study of personal names – as a source for exploring the expansion of Roman citizenship in the eastern part of the Roman empire has generally been neglected. Bagnall observed that the under-utilization of this evidence is part of a broader lack of interest in studying the expansion of citizenship in the eastern part of the Roman empire before it was universally extended under the Constitutio Antoniniana, a state of affairs attested to by A.N. Sherwin-White's judgment that the topic is not in itself sufficiently interesting to be "remunerative" of the effort involved.

Professor Bagnall argued persuasively that the expansion of citizenship in the eastern provinces is of inherent interest to social historians because of what it reveals about the history of power relations in the region. A major stumbling block even to those interested in studying this issue has been the challenge of devising a reasonable methodology for answering the questions this line of inquiry poses. To do so now is more possible than ever, thanks in large part to the increasing sophistication of digital tools — particularly the Trismegistos database, which makes onomastic evidence drawn from Egyptian documentary papyri available for analysis in ways that would have been unfeasible in the past.

Professor Bagnall used the bulk of his talk to share preliminary findings from a trailblazing attempt to use this Trismegistos data to develop observations about how Egypt became as "Roman" and the role that nomenclature played in this process.

Rather than focusing on all three parts of the name that Roman citizen males would typically have held, Bagnall limited his inquiry to the nomen, usually a family name, as the most reliable marker of citizenship or quasi-citizenship status. First, Bagnall assembled a dataset of all the nomina found in Egyptian documentary papyri in the Trismegistos database. Then, he cleaned the data by eliminating names associated with high officials and persons who were obviously in Egypt for limited periods. He then produced an analysis of which nomina were most prominent in the dataset. While his results were presented with due caution considering the statistically imprecision yielded by the complicated body of evidence, he was nonetheless able to present some compelling and sometimes surprising conclusions while posing difficult questions for future research.

The usual assumption is that any enfranchised person in the Roman empire would take the nomen of the person responsible for their enfranchisement. Slaves that had been freed by Roman citizens would become citizens themselves and normally adopt the nomen of their former owner, whether that was the emperor or a private individual. Freedmen were only one possible group of Roman citizens residing in Egypt, however. If citizenship were granted to a free individual they would also take the nomen of the person granting citizenship. Often, this would have been the Emperor, or perhaps a provincial governor. Under the empire, however, Egypt was governed directly by the Emperor himself, through the assistance of an appointed prefect. It has been argued that the prefect may also have been able to grant citizenship to free individuals in the province, thus conferring his nomen upon them.

Bagnall's analysis of nomina in the data suggests, unsurprisingly, that the emperors did lend their nomina to many in Egypt, and this is presumably traceable both to their manumission of large numbers of slaves and to their granting of citizenship to free individuals. The remaining nomina, those not associated with emperors, proved more resistant to explanation. Bagnall failed to observe a convincing correlation between the nomina of prefects and the trends observed in his data, suggesting that the prefect did not in fact play a major role in creating new citizens through manumission or grants to free individuals. The source of the other nomina must then be sought elsewhere. Many of the more unusual nomina observed in a relatively small number of cases can be explained due to the presence of Roman citizen merchants and their freedmen in Egypt. However, several nomina showed a high prominence in the data which can not obviously be explained with reference to any of these groups. Most notably, Valerius was the second most prominent name in the data set, a fact which remains difficult to account for.

The answer may lie with a last group of men with Roman names, the most perplexing from an onomastic perspective. There is good documentary evidence that when non-citizen men joined the Roman army, they were given a Roman name upon enlistment, well before they received citizenship status. The nomina granted in these cases seem not to have been selected by the individuals themselves, nor based on the nomen of the emperor, the prefect, or the commanding officer. The selection criteria for these names remains unsolved, but this group may well account for the prominence of Valerius and some other nomina. C.P. Jones, in the question and answer period, suggested that the association between Valerius and valor may have made this a popular name for soldiers.

In his conclusion, Bagnall reiterated that, in light of the sheer variety of individuals who may have used Roman names in Egypt, this nomenclature is not evidence of citizenship per se. He further suggested that the study of these names cannot be limited to questions of citizenship. Future study should focus broadly on how Roman names were used in self-representation in this province, and how they fit into the complex process of “Romanization” in the East.


The author of this article is William Dingee, a PhD candidate in the Department of Classics.