A term of Greek origin denoting an ecclesiastical or monastic functionary who is involved in economic activity, a steward. As a rule, although not necessarily, he was a presbyter or deacon.
In churches, the oikonomos is well attested already by the fourth century. Mention is made of an oikonomos in the episcopal church in Tentyra; such functionaries appear also in literary texts and documents (Wipszycka, 1972). In the middle of the fifth century, the Council of CHALCEDON, sanctioning an already existing practice, made it obligatory for the bishop to have an oikonomos. The existence of an oikonomos in lower-ranking churches depended upon the local conditions—the composition of clergy, the church property that had to be administered, et cetera. The oikonomos was always nominated by a bishop also for the nonepiscopal churches. He was responsible to the bishop, and his personal belongings served as a guarantee for repaying eventual losses.
The oikonomos of episcopal churches was considerably independent; this was inevitable in view of the enormous scale of his functions and the size of church property. J. Gascou proved (see MONASTERIES, ECONOMIC ACTIVITY OF) that the organization of tax collecting in a given area was sometimes part of the tasks of the oikonomos of the episcopal church. The church was able to retain some of the collected sums, although this was by no means the rule. An oikonomos of an episcopal church was helped by numerous personnel, whose functions and titles we know but scantily.
The oikonomos is found in all monastic communities regardless of their size and type. The need to establish such a function was dictated by life itself: by handing over to one particular monk all the work necessary for the existence of the community and demanding contacts with the world, the other monks could withdraw from worldly matters. Hence the very institution of the oikonomos, although not necessarily the title itself, dates back to the beginnings of Egyptian monasticism.
The title oikonomos occurs in the oldest Pachomian monasteries during the life of their founder, that is, in the first half of the fourth century. In monastic centers of a complex structure there were usually oikonomoi of various levels—one must also take into account the possibility of different titles. This was the case in the Pachomian congregation, in Nitria, the Kellia, the Apa Apollo monastery in Bawit, and in Enaton. It is worth noting that the small group of ascetics gathered around the Pambo mentioned by Palladius (Historia lausiaca 10.1) had an oikonomos slightly before 370. There were also oikonomoi who organized the economic existence of the laura in Balayzah and Wadi Sarjah. Monasteries were able to have simultaneously more than one oikonomos.
There is no information on how the oikonomos was nominated in the monasteries, with the exception of the Pachomian communities, where the decision was made by the superior of the whole congregation. We must therefore presume that this was one of the privileges of the superior. We also do not know to what extent the oikonomos had the right to independent decision. The fact that there is a great number of documents signed by him is not satisfactory proof, since such signatures could have been the result of special delegation from the superior. In larger communities, with well- developed economic services, the oikonomos headed the DIACONIA.
Another special case concerns a Pachomian monastery in Tabennese, where the monks employed in the kitchen and refectory were called “small oikonomoi,” in contrast to the oikonomos who administered the monastery, or “the great oikonomos,” whose functions were concerned with the whole congregation.
An ensemble of documents pertaining to DAYR APA PHOIBAMMON in Dayr al-Bahri reflects a shift in the meaning of the term. Oikonomos is used here interchangeably with PROESTOS, in order to describe the superior. This process is attested also in other places, and indubitably proves the growing importance of economic matters in monastic life since the introduction of capitation taxes for the monks at the beginning of the eighth century. The existence of the monasteries began to depend primarily upon the ability to collect appropriate sums, and this presented a problem for the smaller and poorer communities. The new meaning of the term survived later on, as is shown, for example, by the colophons of manuscripts dating from the ninth and tenth centuries (Lantschoot, 1929).
- Barison, P. “Ricerche sui monasteri dell’Egitto bizantino ed arabo.” Aegyptus 18 (1938):46-48.
- Godlewski, W. Deir el-Bahari V. Le monastère de St. Phoibammon. Warsaw, 1986.
- Lantschoot, A. van. Recueil des colophons des manuscrits chrétiens d’Egypte. Louvain, 1959.
- Wipszycka, E. Les ressources et les activités économiques des églises en Egypte, pp. 135-41. Brussels, 1972.