The study of violence and violent behavior is of special sociological import. At moments of conflict, as sociologist Anton Blok has noted, core values are disputed and interpreted; status and position, which on a daily basis are often tacitly assumed and unarticulated, can be highlighted and redefined into positive rights and duties—such as the ability to be free from insult, the duty of others to respect one’s personal territory, or the right to bring offenders to justice and have them punished. When disputes turn violent, the stakes are raised: personal integrity can be threatened, challenged, or violated, and one’s position within a community can be endangered.
From Roman Egypt, we have numerous accounts of violent behavior, especially in the form of petitions for redress by legal authorities. These petitions come from victims of violence within days of the attack, and are directed to a variety of legal authorities and occasionally ecclesiastical authorities at both the local and provincial levels. In these petitions, the offended individual dictates to a scribe a narrative of the events that caused his or her suffering, and through a variety of formulaic addresses and requests asks sources of legal authority to intervene in his or her affairs. To use the term of Natalie Zemon Davis, petitioners create “fictions”—that is, they take care to shape individual instances of violence into narratives.
There is a clear emphasis on the transparency of these Egyptian “fictions” which were free of duplicity both in their rhetorical qualities, but also in the pragmatics of the actual process of accusation. Such an emphasis can only be understood in the context of a social milieu in which all free individuals have access to a certain kind of discourse. It is no accident, therefore, that the emphasis on transparency is also found in legal texts of the day. Despite the scholarly focus in recent years on the role of law in structuring differences in status and hierarchy, the ideology of the Roman legal system in the provinces was that it fundamentally was a system which could be accessible to all citizens, truly a noteworthy feat for the times. This fact was not lost on petitioners. They ignored the role of law in reinforcing hierarchies but used the legal system for redressing grievances. The act of making a legal complaint—and the documentary record that we have as a result of this—was a ritual of redemption through which individuals could save face in the communities within which they lived.
Through retelling the events in question, successful “fictions” presented the information that the petitioners saw as relevant to their case, as well as what they thought would be convincing to legal authorities. The records that preserve these fictions reflect a delicate balance between describing individual suffering and making a formal and specific legal complaint (about violence, theft, or trespassing, for example). Petitioners had to compose their petitions within the bounds of a certain legal genre and had to present legally actionable issues if magistrates were to take their complaints seriously. At the same time, their narratives had to be rhetorically effective, conveying sufficient pathos to substantiate petitioners’ claims that they did, in fact, need immediate legal attention. As such, these petitions offer the scholar a complex and problematic but nonetheless rich and rewarding data set for understanding social life in the Egyptian countryside.
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