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Abstract–Matters of Trust: Associations and Social Capital in Roman Egypt

Concerns regarding the untrustworthy nature of merchants and craftsmen commonly expressed by classical authors, who instead championed agriculture for its security and as a pursuit conducive to developing proper decorum, have helped frame our understanding of the ancient economy. Cicero’s often quoted opinions on craftsmen, merchants, and acceptable economic activity outlined in the first book of his De Officiis have proven particularly influential. Moses Finley considered the elite ideology espoused in these texts as the correct framework through which to understand and interpret economic activity at all levels of society. Comments Cicero made in the second book of De Officiis that acknowledged the fact that despite stereotypes, members of lowly trades, and even thieves and pirates, understood that a sense of justice, equity, and establishing trust with colleagues was necessary, have received somewhat less attention. Trust, reputation, and esteem are vital to economic activity. Brennan and Pettit have dubbed esteem the “intangible hand” in transactions. Establishing a trustworthy reputation, and gaining reputation based information about others, helps deal with asymmetric information between (and about) buyers, sellers, and the goods and services exchanged. It is this sense of “honor among thieves” and the ways craftsmen and merchants approached economic activity that will provide the focus for this paper. Craftsmen and merchants themselves realized the importance of trust, reputation, and esteem. They affirmed it in the charters that governed the operations of their craft and merchant associations. I maintain that membership in such organizations was one strategy craftsmen and merchants employed to overcome asymmetric information and manage risk and uncertainty in their economic undertakings. By examining charters of associations of craftsmen and merchants written in Greek during the first century in Egypt (P. Mich. V 243-245), I hope to explore the ways that non-elites established a trustworthy reputation, acquired information about potential trading partners and colleagues, and approached economic activities within their own circles and beyond.

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