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Theses Doctoral

Contract Norms and Contract Enforcement in Graeco-Roman Egypt

Ratzan, David Martyn

This dissertation explores the ethics and norms associated with contracting in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt as a contribution to the institutional study of ancient contract and its relationship to the economic history of the Roman world. Although ancient contracts in the Hellenistic tradition (i.e., non-Roman law contracts) have been studied rigorously from a legal perspective, there has been no systematic study of contract as an economic institution in the eastern half of the ancient Mediterranean. The first three chapters argue that such a study is a historical desideratum and seek to establish the theoretical and methodological basis and scope of such a project. Theoretically, the most decisive factor in determining the nature, extent, and success of contract as an economic institution is actual enforcement, as opposed to mere legal "enforceability." While the modern (Western) state has been justly credited with having had a transformative effect on contract by publishing clear rules (i.e., contract law) and providing effective "third-party" enforcement, even modern contracts depend on the enforcement activities of the individual parties and the power of social norms. Historically, there is no question that the ancient state, Rome included, was less invested and less effective in its support and promotion of private contracting than its modern counterparts. Ethics and norms therefore played a larger and more important role in ancient contracting than they have in the last century and as such need to be studied in their own right. The nature of the project also argues for Egypt being the primary locus of study, since the papyri afford us the most complete access to ancient individuals and organizations using contracts to organize transactions. After the theoretical and methodological discussion, there follow explorations of several important social values and norms with respect to contracting in Graeco-Roman Egypt, including trust (pistis), "respect" (eugnōmosynē), and "breach." The results show how "personal" contracting was and reveal some of the ways in which individuals bridged the inevitable "trust gaps" in their efforts to build credible commitments with those outside the immediate circle of their trusted intimates. It also illuminates the discourse of reputation, a key lever in ancient contract formation and enforcement. Finally, the notion of breach is shown to have become both more common and to have evolved conceptually in written contracts over time. It is argued that these changes in the idea and drafting of breach should be interpreted in light of a larger pattern of historical and legal development spanning the second century BCE to the second century CE, a period which witnessed an increasing "moralization" of contract, itself an adaptation to an enforcement regime heavily dependent on ethics and norms. The last chapter offers a synthesis of the findings and a prospectus of the next phase of the project, which turns to the role of the state, arguing that it was generally more effective and activist than the current opinion allows.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Bagnall, Roger S.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 28, 2013