Karanis was one of a number of towns established in the Arsinoite nome under Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-247 BC) as part of a scheme to settle Greek mercenaries among the indigenous Egyptians and to exploit the potential of the fertile Fayoum basin. At Karanis periods of prosperity alternated with periods of recession depending in part upon the degree to which the prevailing government maintained the irrigation system that was vital to the productivity of the land. The agricultural richness of the area had long been recognized by Egyptian kings. As early as Dynasty XII (2040-1715 BC) an elaborate system of locks and canals was constructed under the pharaoh Amenemhat III. Lake Moeris, fed by a branch of the Nile, had once filled much of the oasis area; but by Ptolemaic times its level had been lowered so that much land, especially around the northern shore where Karanis is located, could be reclaimed. The early canals of Amenenihat III had long since fallen into decay when, under the early Ptolemies, a new and extensive irrigation system was put into working order.1 By the late Ptolemaic period, however, the canals had silted up and embankments caved in, and the agricultural efficiency of the Fayoum once again declined.

In 31 BC, Octavian (Augustus) conquered the forces of Antony and Cleopatra at Actium, and in the following year Egypt was added to the growing Roman Empire. Augustus, recognizing the rich resources of his newly conquered territory, moved to restore productivity by sending in the Roman army to clean the canals and rebuild the dikes.2 The renewed prosperity engendered is marked at Karanis by an expansion of the original Ptolemaic settlement towards the north.3

The people of Karanis lived within a world of self-sufficiency, concerned largely with providing for their own basic needs. Yet as subjects of the Roman Emperor, they were obliged to participate in the pattern of services that supported the economy of Rome. This participation took the form of compulsory sharing with the state. A tax in kind was levied upon everything grown by the residents in their fields, while a tax in money was assessed upon most occupations and business transactions. Tax rolls surviving from AD 171-175, list in great detail the individual taxpayers and their payments arranged according to the types of assessments levied .4 These documents along with private letters, legal contracts, receipts and census lists, when viewed against the setting in which the people worked and the tools they used to accomplish their tasks, provide a vivid picture of life in a subsistence economy. The peace and political stability brought by Augustus and kept alive by his successors, meant prosperity for generations of landholders at Karanis well into the second century AD. In the late second century, and again in the second quarter of the third, there were notable recessions that mirrored difficulties experienced by the Empire at large; but not until the fourth century did the town experience an irreversible decline.




The dietary needs of the people of Karanis were supplied by crops raised on local farms and in gardens. Actual remains of foodstuffs found during the excavations include wheat, barley, lentils, olives, radishes, dates, figs, peaches, pistachios and walnuts.5 Of these crops durum wheat was by far the most important, both for the town's own subsistence and for the payment of the tithe due to the Roman state.

During the Roman period, farmland in Egypt was owned by temples, private individuals and the state. Temple land was taxed at a fixed rate while private farmers and farmers who had leased state lands were required to pay a portion of their produce to the government. In the case of the state farmer, a rental fee was levied in addition.6 Private farmers, who often subleased their land, were free to make any sort of agreement they wished with their lessees as to the division of tax payments, supplies of seed and tools and cultivation work. A private letter from the end of the first century AD alludes to one such arrangement:

to Terentianus, her brother, greeting, and before all else, good health. I want you to know that since I wrote to you before about my affairs ... I have reduced your brother's rent to the extent of two artabae. Now I receive from him eight artabae of wheat and six artabae of vegetable seed.7

By contrast, the state farmer was closely monitored by the government. He was required to take an oath that he would sow and cultivate specific crops and repay the seed at harvest time into the state granary, and he had to obtain a receipt for each aspect of cultivation which depended upon state supplies, beginning in November with the advance of seed-corn:

the grain collectors of Karanis: I, Kanis, son of Acchophis, have received an advance of seed-corn, hereby acknowledged, of the twenty-second year of Antoninus Caesar, the lord, the 7 arouras of royal land of Patsontis, belonging to the third cleruchy.8

After receiving an allotment of seed, each farmer was responsible for planting and harvesting his own crop. Soil preparation and sowing took place from November through January. Plows, sickles, pitchforks and winnowing shovels, found randomly scattered in houses throughout the town,9 bear witness to the various farming activities which had formed the backbone of daily life in Egypt for millennia. Even the forms of the farmer's tools had not changed appreciably since Dynastic times. The harvesting of wheat began during the month of April, and so did the collection of taxes.10

Harvested grain was brought to the threshing floor where it was recorded and collected. Monthly tallies, as well as many individual receipts recording multiple payments, indicate that the Karanis taxpayer was allowed to pay what was due in installments.11 From the threshing floor the grain was loaded in sacks and transported to a storage facility. That grain which comprised an individual's payment to the government was taken to one of the many large granaries in the town and exchanged for a receipt from the sitologus, or superintendent. As the following example illustrates, such receipts were formal documents acknowledging, that the farmer had discharged his duties toward the state:

sixteenth year of Lucius Septimius Severus Pius Pertinax and Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Pius, Angusti, . . . We Ptolemaios, son of Ptolemaios and Diskoros, son of Mysthes, and their associates in the allotment of the sitologia of the village of Karanis, have received at the granary of the af oresaid village by leveled public measure ... from the produce of the past 15th year, for catoecic dues of Karanis, from Horion son of Apolinarius, eleven twelfths of an attaba of wheat, equals 11/12 artaba of wheat; on the eleventh likewise from the same through Julius, son of Eudas, one artaba of wheat, equals 1 artaba of wheat.12


Ten large granaries and seven smaller ones revealed by the excavators underscore the dominant role that grain production played in the local economy. These buildings housed the tax-grain but were also leased for private use.13 All of the large granaries at Karanis were constructed along lines similar to Roman military storehouses. Rooms used as offices or living quarters fronted onto the street. Behind them was a central courtyard, three sides of which were lined with storage bins or, more often, chambers with vaulted ceilings that reached a height of about three meters above the floor. The interiors of these chambers were subdivided into four or six bins, each about a meter deep. A small window high in the arch provided ventilation.14 This arrangement conforms remarkably well to the type prescribed by Columella, in his agricultural treatise of the first century AD:

best place for storing grain ... [is] a granary with a vaulted ceiling ... [and] divided into bins to permit the storage of every kind of legume by itsef.15

The transport of revenue grain from the village to Alexandria, Egypt's main port during the Graeco-Roman period, was administered by local officials on behalf of the imperial government. Along with the tax-grain itself, farmers paid supplementary amounts as additional tax, all of which were meticulously recorded by the harbor officials:

Aphrodisios and Pamiton, receivers of the harbor of Leukogion in the fifth pagus. To Aurelios Kasios and Aurelios Isidoros and their associate sitologoi of the village of Karanis and a part of its horiodeiktia greeting.
We have received from you in the same harbor of Leukogion, including the charges of 10% and 2%, for the canon of the 17th and 5th years of ... grain on behalf of the village of Karanis and its horiodeiktia clean barley to the amount of exactly one thousand nine hundred seventy-six artabas, 1976 artabas, anct I have also received one denarius on each modius.
In the consulship of our lords Valerius Licinnianus Licinius Augustus and Flavius Valerius Constantinus, son of the Augusti, on the fifth day before the Kalends of September.
(2nd hand) We, Aurelios Aphrodisios and Aurelios Pamiton, receivers, have the one thousand nine hundred seventy-six artabas of barley as aforesaid. I, Aurelios Ap ... wrote for them since they are illiterate.16

At Alexandria the grain was again stored in granaries to await shipment to Rome. The transport of grain provided a wide range of employment for Alexandrians who organized guilds specifically for these journeys. Their ships, sailing in the spring, made the hazardous journey to Italy, some 1700 miles, in one or two months.17 The excitement sparked by the imminent arrival of the fleet at Puteoli on the Bay of Naples was recorded in the mid-first century AD by Seneca in a letter to a friend:

Suddenly there came into our view to-day the Alexandrianships, - I mean those which are usually sent ahead to announce the coming of the fleet; ...The Campanians are glad to see them; all the rabble of Puteoli stand on the docks.... everybody was bustling about and hurrying to the waterfront...18.

By the third quarter of the first century AD grain from Egypt provided food for the city of Rome for four months of the year, making it, along with Africa, the most important source in the early Empire.19

Other agricultural products were also abundant in the Fayoum. Large tracts of garden land had been preserved by the Ptolemies for the growing of olive trees, vineyards and date palms. As with the grain land, some of these garden lands were owned privately and some by the state. The maintenance of this property was expensive, since it generally occupied higher ground which was troublesome to irrigate. In periods of economic decline the greater part of these holdings fell out of use;20 but during times of prosperity, the investment in their upkeep was compensated for by rich returns. Strabo, describing the geography of the region in which Karanis was located, made these remarks on its productivity:

Nome is the most noteworthy of all in respect to its appearance, its fertility, and its material development, for it alone is planted with olive trees that are large and full-grown and bear fine fruit, . . . and. it produces wine in no small quanity, as well as grain, pulse, and the other seed-plants in very great varieties.21

The tax records show that almost half the population of Karanis paid rental on garden lands. Within the houses were found many objects and installations connected with the cultivation of olive groves and vineyards and the processing of their fruits. Large crushing stones and olive presses were found in several courtyards, along with propping sticks for grape vines, and a cultivator's knife. The knife of Greek rather than native Egyptian design, was used to cut the grape clusters from the vine, thus avoiding damage caused by hand picking.22

In spite of all the local production evidenced by the material remains, the people of Karanis occasionally supplemented their provisions with imported goods. Large numbers of amphoras, used to store and ship wine and oil, were recovered at the site. Many of these containers had been imported from Africa, and one had come from Brindisi in Italy. Their contents, more costly than the local product, were presumably of a higher quality. A comment by Strabo might explain why imports were desirable even when local produce was at hand:

[The] olive trees ... would also produce good olive oil if the olives were carefully gathered. But since they (i.e. the residents] neglect this matter, although they make much oil, it has a bad smell . . . .23.

Another important aspect of the rural economy was the raising of pigeons. Portions of six dovecotes were found at Karanis, but it is likely that there were many more. Since dove- cotes were commonly built in the upper story of a house or tower, they would have been the first part of a structure to collapse. Often, they were built directly above or adjacent to a granary. Their walls of sun-dried brick were lined with horizontally placed pots - each pot serving as the nesting place for one bird.24 Many of these pots were found still in place, but others were scattered throughout the site.25 The advantages of raising pigeons were enumerated by Columella:

... the keeping of animals at the farm ... brings no small profit to farmers, since they use the dung of fowls to doctor ... every kind of soil, and with the fowls themselves they enrich the family kitchen and table by providing rich fare; and, lastly, with the price which they obtain by selling ... they increase the revenue of the farm.26

A private farmer working on a small scale could obtain enough manure and food for his own needs, but to turn a profit a larger operation have been necessary. In fact, two of the excavated dovecotes contained space for at least 250 birds, suggesting that they were commerial establishments. The tax rolls show that dovecote assessments were collected at Karanis from twelve people in the period from AD 173-175. Throughout the Fayoum, this tax was evied annually as a licensing fee.27

In addition to pigeons, a number of different animals were raised for food, transport, and work on the land. The faunal remains recovered during the excavations include horses, mules, cows, sheep, pigs, dogs and gazelles, and the tax rolls add camels and donkeys to this group. Assessments were levied in particular on camels, donkeys, and pigs, whose owners were organized in guilds which produced annual lists of individual members and their holdings. One such declaration was made by a camel-keeper in AD 134:

I, Dioskoros, . . . from the village of Karanis, camelherd of the same village, swear by the Fortune of Emperor Caesar Traian Hadrian Augustus that I declare fifty-five full-grown camels in the village, that is 55, and 16 colts, making altogether 72 camels.28

These lists were made in part to provide accurate information for taxation and in part because owners were required to lend certain animals (e.g., camels and donkeys) to the state, either for the transport of grain or for work on canal embankments.

Another levy assessed by the state was a meat tax, payed to a special official and used to feed troops stationed in the area. Since farmers generally had little hard currency, the tax was often paid in kind. A receipt from AD 313 shows that large quantities of meat were collected:

The Aurelioi, Dioskoros and Son of Di..., and Ptolemaios, son of Herakleos, and Eudaimon, son of Doulos, collectors of meat for the village of Karanis and its district, to Isidoros, son of Ptolemaios, greeting.29
We have received from you for meat of the eighth, sixth and fourth year, thirty and one-half pounds of pork, and on behalf of ... son of Palemon, thirteen pounds, and ... nineteen pounds, making in all sixty-two and one-half pounds.
In the second consulship of our Lords Constantine and Licinius, Phaophi 23.30

In addition to the faunal remains and the written documents, equipment such as ox halters, donkey and camel saddles, muzzles and tethering stakes found in and around many homes indicate the constant presence of animals in the environment. Many terracotta figurines of environment. Many terracotta figurines of camels, cows, boars, birds, horses and dogs vividly reinforce our impression of the importance of these animals in daily life at Karanis. Some of these figurines may have been children's toys, but others must surely have had votive significance.




The textile industry was second only to agriculture as the most extensively taxed in Roman Egypt. It was also a highly specialized occupation, with at least eighteen categories of employment.31 Four of these specialties appear in the Karanis tax rolls - wool shearers, weavers, fullers and wool sellers. At Karanis the sheep shearers were taxed as a guild associated with the temple. The shearers and sellers themselves apparently did not engage in the raising of sheep, as the tax receipts document payment by other persons for the rental of pastureland.32

An extraordinary number of textiles, approximately 3500 pieces, were recovered in the excavations. Of these, more than ninety percent were either wool or linen, and wool was by far the more prevalent.33 Both the availability of wool at Karanis and the many spinning and weaving tools found in the excavations make it likely that much weaving was done in the town. The mention in the tax rolls of a weaver, and a fuller to dye the threads or cloth, implies the same.

Most households undoubtedly engaged in the combing, spinning and weaving of cloth for their own use, but at least one aspect of textile manufacture was not purely domestic - the compulsory supply of clothing for the military. This charge was laid upon small towns as well as large cities throughout Egypt and was well, established by the early second century AD. A document records that the village of Karanis supplied twenty-four tunics and eight cloaks for the years AD 310-311. Because the receipt actually dates from the year AD 314, it has been suggested that it may have taken three years to weave all the garments requisitioned.34 An earlier receipt, dated to AD 298, records the partial fulfillment of the village's annual quota; the amount involved indicates that in the eyes of a compulsive bureaucrat, no number was too low for a preliminary payment:

Aurelii Sempronius and Agathinus and Siloeis, supervisors of cloaks, to Aurelius Ptollarion, komarch of Karanis, greetings. We have received from you on behalf of the same village one cloak, equals 1 cloak, I, Aurelius Sempronius, wrote the entire receipt.35

Pottery vessels of every sort were used by residents of the town. Yet, despite the availability of clay and the relative ease of manufacture, it is difficult to know how much of the pottery found at Karanis was actually made there. That a few people specialized in this craft is, however, clear; the tax rolls of AD 173-175 record the payment of the potter's tax by four persons.36 Many of the utilitarian wares are made from Nile clay, including two dozen pigeon pots that were discovered not far from a large circular structure thought to be a kiln. This structure, made entirely of burnt brick, lacks the adobe and mud plaster casing common for ovens found in homes. Both the construction, which would allow for a more intense heat, and the larger size suggest commercial use. Such a kiln would have made possible the firing of a wide variety of terracotta objects, including lamps and small figurines.37

Glass vessels were found by the hundreds at Karanis, a great many of them intact. More than half of the complete pieces occurred in groups or hoards. The sheer volume of glass discovered, over twice as much as at any other single site in Egypt, has led to the assumption that glass was manufactured at Karanis. It is possible that a glass factory was located near the town's center, which had been completely destroyed by the sebbakhin prior to excavations. No definitive evidence was recovered, however, to prove that these vessels were made locally. Neither a workshop area nor any glass-making tools were identified, and no glass tax appears in the second century AD tax rolls. On the other hand, a majority of the glass from Karanis was found in fourth and fifth century AD levels, corresponding to that period of mass production in the glass industry which was encouraged by Constantine's remittance of the glass tax.38

The greater part of the Karanis glass consists of those common bowls and plates which are not likely to have been imported. However, many finer pieces were recovered which were surely acquired in Alexandria, a city famed for its production of luxury glass in the Roman period. A letter, from a son stationed in Alexandria to his father in Karanis, vividly corroborates this assumption:

Know, father, that I have received the things that you sent me.... I thank you because you considered me worthy and have made me free from care. I have sent you, father ... sets of glassware, two bowls of quinarius size, a dozen goblets....39



Karanis was located advantageously for participation in the larger economic system of the Empire. A gateway into one of Egypt's most densely populated regions, it was both a point of departure for caravans and a station for the desert police.40 About 125 miles to the north, and easily accessible by water, lay Alexandria, one of the great emporia of the Roman Empire. Through her port passed every conceivable luxury item from abroad, and the city itself produced an assortment of material goods matched only by Rome. Dio Chrysostom, writing in the first century AD, describes Alexandria as follows:

... ranked second among all cities beneath the sun. ... The trade, not merely of islands, ports, a few straits and isthmuses, but of practically the whole world is yours. For Alexandria is situated, as it were, at the crossroads of the whole world, of even the most remote nations thereof, as if it were a market serving a single city, a market which brings together into one place all manner of men, displaying them to one another, and, as far as possible, making them a kindred people.41

Many of the luxury objects found at Karanis, such as jewelry, sculpture, ivory combs and inlaid boxes were undoubtedly purchased in Alexandria. Such goods were, however, avail- able elsewhere in the Empire, as a letter from a soldier stationed in Syria to his mother in Karanis implies:

received some money and wanted to send you a gift of Tyrian wares; and since you did not reply, I have not entrusted it to anyone on account of the length of the journey. For fine garments and ebony and pearls and unguents are brought here in abundance. Therefore I ask you, my lady, to be ... and merrily joyful; for this is a good place.42

In addition to the types of luxury items mentioned, much of the ceramic tableware was also imported. It is of the type known as African Red Slip, which was produced in North African factories from the mid-third century until the fifth century AD.43 This pottery, which was the daily tableware throughout much of the Empire, constituted the finer tableware of the typical Karanis household.

For most of the town's residents, dependence on the land and assessments by the state precluded the amassing of great wealth which would have allowed for a luxurious mode of life. While the finds are partly composed of the finer products of larger centers, most of the artifacts, including many of the imported ones, reflect the simple manner in which life was lived in a Roman farming community.




(1) Diodorus I, 61; Kees, 1961, 220-23 and 227-28; Geremek, 41-52.

(2) Wallace, 2.

(3) Peterson in Boak, 1933, 54.

(4) Youtie and Pearl, 1939, viii and ix.

(5) Leighty and Bartlett in Boak, 1933.

(6) Wallace, 1-3; Geremek, 53-70.

(7) Youtie and Winter, 1951, 5 (P.Mich. inv. 6001)

(8) Husselman, 1971, 60, Goodspeed, 8 (# 1, text, p. 18).

(9) Bellah, 4-5.

(10) Packman, 59; Youtie and Pearl, 1944, 41.

(11) The Karanis tax rolls list the following subsidiary charges (Youtie and Pearl, 1944, 24):
-dichoinikia: a crown tax of 1/20th of an artaba per aroura of land, retained from the Ptolemaic period (Johnson, 1936, 508);
-prosmetroumena: a supplementary charge, orinally imposed by Augustus as compensation for differences in the content of local measures used in collecting grain dues and those specified bv the state for accepting tax payments (Boak, 194i, 27; Wallace, 38);
-pentarabia: a 5% tax when payment was made in barley rather than wheat (Johnson, 1936, 511);
-dragmategia: a charge for transporting sheaves from the field to the threshing floor (Johnson, 1936, 508).
The installment system was originally developed under the early Ptolemies and was adopted by the Romans. Packman, 55; Youtie and Pearl, 1944, 23-25, 41.

(12) Youtie and Pearl, 1944, 100 (P Mich. Inv. 2923).

(13) Husselman, 1952,58, 70.

(14) Rickman, 1971, 263; Husselman, 1952, 59-60, 63.

(15) Columella, I.6.12-13.

(16) Boak, 1947,30 (Cairo, Journal d'entrée no. 57394).

(17) Wallace, 45-46; Rickman, 1980, 14.

(18) Seneca, Ep., 77.

(19) Josephus, Bell Iud., 2.386; Rickman, 1980, 231.

(20) Kees, 1961, 228-29.

(21) Strabo, 17.1.35.

(22) Bellah, 6.

(23) Strabo, 17.1.35.

(24) Columella, VIII.8.1; Varro, III.7.1.

(25) Husselman, 1953, 83, n. 4.

(26) Columella, VIII.1.2.

(27) Husselman, 1953, 84, 86, 90; Youtie and Pearl, 1939, 136-37; Wallace, 69.

(28) Husselman, 1971, 55-57 (P.Mich. inv. 5895). The error in addition (15 + 56 = 71, not 72) seems to have been the fault of the scribe.

(29) Wallace, 92.

(30) Boak, 1944-45, 20.

(31) Papyri and ostraka which record the receipts of taxes show the following subdivisions of the weaver's trade (Wallace, 193-202; Johnson, 1936, 538-44): weaver, dyer, weaver of fine linen, web beater, fuller, wool dealer, wool shearer, wool seller, wool/web beater, weaver of striped patterns, master of looms, weaver of heavy garments, vendor of fleece, flax spinner, flax seller, linen weaver, washer and treater of cloth and weaver of tapestries.

(32) Youtie and Pearl, 1939, 140; Shelton, 100.

(33) Wilson, 9. 2800 pieces were identified as wool, 350 as linen.

(34) Jones, 186-87; Boak, 1947, 30-33.

(35) Husselman, 1971, 65 (P.Mich. inv. 5065a).

(36) Youtie and Pearl, 1944, vol. II, 140; Shelton, 100.

(37) Peterson, vol. II, 835-6; Shier, 1978, 5; Allen in Gazda et al., 58-61; Johnson, 1981, 1-3.

(38) Harden, 34-38, 40; Codex Theod., 13.4.2.

(39) Youtie and Winter, 32 (P.Mich. inv. 5390).

(40) Kees, 1961, 228.

(41) Dio Chrysostom, 32.36.40.

(42) Youtie and Winter, 9 (P.Mich. inv. 5888).

(43) Johnson, 1981, 9-10; Hayes, 108.