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Reflections on the Roman author Bryson Arabus

Professor Simon Swain, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for the Arts and Social Sciences talks about his new translation and study of Management of the Estate, an economic treatise penned by the little-known Roman writer Bryson. Words by Gareth B Jenkins.

There are names from Greek and Roman history that you’re no doubt familiar with, be they emperors, philosophers or physicians, but Bryson Arabus is probably not a character you’ve come across. His work is largely forgotten in the Western world and that’s something Professor Simon Swain would like to change.

Colosseum reflected in a puddle

In his most recent book, Economy, Family, and Society from Rome to Islam: A Critical Edition, English Translation, and Study of Bryson's Management of the Estate, Professor Swain offers a new translation of Bryson’s work, taken from a ninth century Arabic translation of the Greek text, and explores the themes and importance of Bryson’s forgotten treatise.

Q) Who was Bryson Arabus?

Nobody knows. Bryson Arabus is a pseudonym and he’s remained anonymous. It’s quite clear that he was well connected though; one of the famous moralists of the time, Musonius Rufus, who wrote at the end of the first century AD, used him heavily.

It’s a fair bet that Bryson was probably working in Rome. He would have known people. If we knew who he actually was, we’d probably already know the name.

Q) How would you describe Management of the Estate?

There’s a little in Greek but most of the surviving text is in Arabic. Bryson's Management of the Estate has four main sections. It begins with a theory of economic production; this is extremely unusual in ancient thought. Bryson talks about the origins of money and why it came about; the reasons for having money as a vehicle for exchange.

Bryson talks about investing, getting a return and also trading. He discusses amassing money and how one would spend it wisely. He discusses what Aristotle referred to as ‘talking properties’ – slaves. He wants us to be nice to our slaves. But this was a standard idea at the time in order to increase their efficiency. Don’t think of him as being progressive; he’s keen on maximising the effectiveness of his labour force!

The third and fourth chapters discuss the wife and the son. In regards to the women of ancient Rome, Bryson was concerned that his readers should find a wife of equal standing, who could understand money and capital. The estates were big concerns; we’re talking multiple locations of many hundreds of acres each, serious businesses. For children, Bryson advises that a child is supervised 24 hours a day, which is a bit scary, but you can do that because you’ve got slaves to do it for you.

"Economy, Family, and Society from Rome to Islam" book imageQ) Bryson’s relatively unknown amongst those studying Latin and Greek texts, why is he important?

Bryson’s work is a legacy of Greek thought which comes to us through what is sometimes called classical Arabic thought, but is more frequently referred to as the Arab Middle Ages. The transference of Greek learning came through a massive state-sponsored exercise by the Islamic caliphs to assimilate the best knowledge from the civilisations of Greece and Rome. A huge amount of scientific, philosophical and agricultural writing was translated into Arabic. Most of the work done so far by modern western classicists focusses on the philosophical thought and medical knowledge of ancient Rome and Greece; Bryson is important because Management of the Estate is a rather unique text in terms of its legacy in antiquity. There are very few treatises which address the issues Bryson addressed; how to spend money, how you get on with your wife and how to raise the perfect child.

His single most important idea concerns the reciprocal, loving relationship between husband and wife, something that goes back, probably, only as far as his day in the first century AD. It represents a complete re-evaluation of emotional relationships and coincides with the beginning of Christian morality, where marriage, of course, is central. It’s very different from Plato’s idea of love where the only proper emotional relationship can be found between two men, which is less about sex and more what can be taken seriously. By the end of the first century BC that had changed. When marriage came to be seen as the ideal and perfect relationship, one condition elevated it to a moral highpoint: no sex before marriage and no sex outside marriage. The very first expression of this in a Greek text or a text of Greek origin is probably in Bryson. That’s why Bryson is so important.

Q) You mentioned that it was translated from Greek into Arabic? How did the early Islamic state view Bryson’s Management of the Estate?

It has an important legacy in Islam; it’s the example of ancient thought on how you organise your property ownership, slaves, wife and your children. Management of the Estate was the basis for Islamic discussion.

If you look at the standard concepts of Islamic marriage and the Islamic family, how Islamic are they? Some would say they just go back to the Qur'an and the hadith. But texts like Bryson’s have a rather important part in forming the concept of what is called the Islamic family. If you look at the Qur’an and the hadith, the wife is sexually subservient; one saying in the hadith is, for example, that the wife should be available to the man, for sex, even on the back of a camel.

Islamic intellectuals read Bryson in the ninth century and noted the difference in his ideas about the inter-spouse relationship. Bryson doesn’t advocate equality between the sexes - that’s a modern idea - but for him the wife is a co-property owner and has a very important role in the household. Suddenly, from the late ninth century onwards, you find Islamic treatises on family life about the wife’s role in running the house. Even amongst the most prominent Islamic thinkers, like Miskawayh and the great al-Ghazālī, that Greek idea is ‘nativised’ and domesticated in Islam. Bryson has a vital role in developing Islamic thought about the family.

Q) Bryson’s not a household name like Aristotle or Plutarch and even in the field of classics and ancient history he’s not well researched by classicists; is this something that needs to be addressed?

It is! A lot of classicists don’t take account of the texts that are in Arabic and that’s probably the reason for Bryson’s neglect. His key thought on marriage has been attributed to Gaius Musonius Rufus. Musonius expresses these ideas word-for-word from Bryson. Hopefully, classicists will, through my research, now know about Bryson and use him a bit more.

The study of Arabic texts amongst classicists isn’t very common, which is strange given that we’re interested in the legacy of antiquity, but the majority of research takes place from the perspective of the Latin Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

It’s rare for Classics and Ancient History departments to have people who are working in Arabic but we’ve had quite a tradition of it at Warwick. We’re very fortunate to have funding from the Leverhulme and Wellcome trusts and the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to do this.

Q) Is Bryson’s work of interest to people who aren’t studying classics and ancient history?

I hope it will enter into the history of economic thought. A number of the books on the subject say that the ancient Greeks and Romans had no idea of the economy but Bryson does. Obviously, the theories are very rudimentary – no one should be in any doubt about that – but the fact he had thoughts about economic structure, especially the interconnectedness of goods and services, is in itself interesting.

Q) What advice would you give to someone entering into the field of Classics and Ancient History?

Classics is an enormously rich area. It encompasses the period from 800 BC to 600 AD and it includes everything from literature to archaeology. It’s got a huge amount to offer and a lot that hasn’t been done before. When students come to university to study classics and ancient history, naturally they want to do the standard things like Greek tragedy. That’s fine, we can provide that, but there’s room around the edges and our Classics Department is very good at delving into that!

Professor Simon SwainProfessor Simon Swain is Pro-Vice-Chancellor for the Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Warwick, providing academic leadership for research and departmental development and improvement. A Professor in Warwick’s Department of Classics and Ancient History, he has also been Chair of the Arts Faculty. His current research is on the recovery from Arabic of lost work of the famous physician Galen, and on the medical historian Ibn Abi Usaybiʿa, thanks to a Senior Investigator Award from the Wellcome Trust.

Image: The Colosseum, Rome. Copyright by Moyan Brenn.