Egypt has always claimed a special place and accordingly received special scholarly treatment in studies of the ancient world. This is not exclusively or even primarily due to the extraordinary distinctiveness of its ancient pharaonic culture, which cast an increasingly pale shadow over later periods, but to its geographical uniqueness. Egypt, in cultural, political, and above all economic terms can be defined as the Nile valley, rarely more than twenty kilometers wide but flowing for over 1,200 kilometers from the lower cataracts at Syene (Aswan) in the south to the mouth of the Delta where the river reached the Mediterranean. Until the completion of the Aswan Dam in 1970, the river flooded annually between late July and November, when excess water bringing with it richly fertile silt from the headwaters of the Blue and White Nile inundated much of the flood plain. Crops were sown in the valley between November and March, and harvested between April and June. The height of the flood, which was carefully monitored throughout antiquity by Nilometers, might vary from year to year, and the flood waters were managed by dikes and canals, the latter especially in the outlying Fayoum, delivered by organized corvée labour. The conditions generated by the Nile flood yielded unparalleled economic benefits. Crop yields (at up to 12 : 1) were predictably three times as high as those in dry-farming areas.50 Egypt's agricultural surplus supported higher urban populations than elsewhere in the Mediterranean and the Near East – around one Egyptian in three lived in its cities or nome centers – and Egyptian grain, through the imperial annona system, fed the population of Constantinople. The Nile also provided a universally accessible mans of cheap transportation, enabling both agricultural and manufactured goods to be moved up and downstream between its towns and villages. Egypt accordingly was economically the most productive region of the Roman Empire. Its agricultural products, above all of course grain, were commandeered to provide for the huge populations in the early empire of Rome, and in the late empire of Constantinople. Securing these provisions, the annona, was an inescapable priority for the Roman state.
Classical and post-classical Egypt was always subjected to a high degree of central control, whether exercised by its Hellenistic Ptolemaic rulers or by Roman government in Rome or Constantinople. These ruling authorities developed and imposed highly pervasive bureaucratic structures to organize the collective labor which Nilotic conditions required, and to extract maximum benefit to the state through forms of taxation. This complex bureaucracy is fortunately accessible to modern analysis thanks to the survival of documentary papyri.
Egypt is often treated as an exceptional case in regional or provincial studies of the Roman Empire. This is due to the nature of the documentation. Study of the society and economy of Egypt is mostly based on the documentary papyri, which present a huge scholarly challenge. These documents are almost always fragmentary, and require a very high level of technical analysis before they can be placed in a wider context that transforms them from being anecdotal fragments into pieces within an intelligible structure of administrative communication. Arguments that Egypt was unique, a world of its own, “serve in many cases mainly as an apology for scholarly unwillingness to come to terms with the quantity and difficulty of the papyrological evidence.”51 The converse of this argument is extremely important. Egypt is the one part of the Roman world where we can compare two categories of evidence for Roman rule in action: the information about legislation and administrative procedures in the law codes, and their actual application as revealed by the papyri. Where the two types of evidence point in the same direction there is a double historical gain. Firstly, we may have some confidence that they indicate how procedures actually worked. Secondly, we may reasonably suppose that the indications of the papyrological documentation should be broadly applicable to the rest of the east Roman world.52 Egypt ought to provide important keys to wider questions, especially concerning the role of the state and the impact of tax demands on the development of provincial society and the regional economy.
However, it is also essential to recognize the limitations of the documentary data. The several Egyptian provinces, numbering from two to four according to changing Roman administrative arrangements, had been divided since pre-Ptolemaic times into districts called nomes, and almost all the papyri have been recovered from the administrative centers of the nomes, which acquired the title of metropoleis by the late Roman period.53 The largest groups of documentary papyri come from the nome capitals of Oxyrhynchus, Arsinoe, Hermopolis, and Antinoopolis, all in the Heptanomia south of the Delta and north of the Thebaid, from Panopolis in the Thebaid, and from the villages of Theadelphia and Karanis, which were dependent on Arsinoe. They contain evidence for the organization of the census, tax collection, and the workings of the legal system at a middle range in the power spectrum. Out of picture at the top end is the center of Roman authority in Egypt, Alexandria. At the other extreme there is little to be heard from inhabitants of most village communities, especially those who did not speak or write in Greek, but used the vernacular language of everyday life, Coptic.
The history of Egypt in the early Roman Empire differed in one important respect from the normal pattern of the eastern provinces. Cities, defined as self-governing municipal units on the Greek model of the polis, were not created in most of Egypt before the beginning of the third century, when Septimius Severus permitted the nome capitals to appoint city councils for the first time. The purpose of this was doubtless in part to make the landowning classes responsible for the organization and payment of taxes to the Roman authorities, but the Severan reform also created a relatively cohesive urban elite, with common interests, which played a key role in Egyptian society for the following two centuries.54 Councilors were generally rural landowners, whose powerbase now visibly shifted from their country estates to the urban centers. Towns thus began to acquire political dominance over the countryside.55 A parallel development, tending in the same direction, was the decline of village-based pagan shrines, which preserved Egyptian religious traditions. By the fourth century there was a vacuum of culture and local leadership at village level, which seems rapidly to have been filled by the institutions of the church and Christianity. These conditions favored the Christianization of much of the Egyptian countryside even before the conversion of Constantine.56 The towns meanwhile became centers of economic power and home to a Hellenized elite, which became the driving force of late Roman society.57 The archaeological evidence for the urban settlements of late antiquity is now being taken seriously alongside the discussion of the papyri.58 One of the consequences of the development of the nome metropoleis was that the overall culture of the inhabitants of the Nile Valley became closely assimilated to that of the east Roman world for the first time. Wine and olive production superseded the earlier reliance on the local staples of beer and beans as Egypt became part of Mediterranean society. Another product of this civic development was the extraordinary late flowering of Greek literature in Egypt, particularly at the city of Panopolis, the home of the poet Nonnus, in the fifth century.59
From the middle of the fourth century another crucial shift began to take place. The monetary economy of the Roman Empire rested on a gold standard, the introduction of the gold solidus by Constantine. This gold coinage was now used for the assessment and payment of taxes, for the remuneration of the growing numbers of imperial civil servants, soldiers, and other employees, and also for an increasing proportion of commercial transactions in the empire.60 The classes of the imperial population who had readiest access to the currency were those paid in state gold, and they rapidly emerge as the nouveaux riches of late antiquity, using their wealth to acquire land, thus building up large estate holdings at the expense of earlier proprietors. The outcome of this process is best documented in fifth- and sixth-century Egypt, whose economy was increasingly dominated by large estate holders, who also held prominent positions in imperial service. The most famous example of this process is represented by the family of the Apions, which flourished from the late fifth to the seventh century and is attested as owning extensive property in at least three separate nomes. Flavius Apion, the first recorded member of the dynasty, was in charge of the commissariat which supplied Anastasius' forces at Edessa for the war in Mesopotamia in 504, and became praetorian prefect of the East under Justin in 518. His son Strategius was praefectus Augustalis, the highest imperial official in Egypt, in 523 and, like his father, reached the patriciate in Constantinople. His son, Flavius Apion II, was dux (military commander) of the Thebaid around the middle years of the sixth century and continued to hold high government positions in the area until his death in the late 570s. The last papyrus which explicitly refers to the family property dates to 625, during the period of Sassanian rule in Egypt. The size of the family holdings may be judged from the fact that it was responsible for two-fifths of the taxable revenue of Oxyrhynchus in the sixth century.61
The survival of papyrus documents has turned Egypt into a laboratory case, which allows deeper analysis of social and economic relationships than is feasible in other parts of the Roman Empire. This applies especially to the topics of landownership and taxation. The Egyptian evidence relating to the estate management of the Apion family throws important light on the tax régime of the empire in the sixth century, and in particular the growing autonomy of wealthy, high-status families, who occupied key positions in the provinces and in the state hierarchy. The Apion family was the largest landowner in the nome of Oxyrhynchus, as well as owning properties elsewhere in Egypt, and its members organized and drew income from their estates with a view to maximizing their own revenue. Although the successive heads of the family were based in Constantinople, the family exercised close control over a tight network of estate managers and administrators, and themselves often served as local pagarchs, directly responsible for collecting taxes and administering justice in the region. The papyri, including four sets of general estate accounts dating between AD 556 and 590, indicate that their properties were divided into parcels of land that were leased to tenants, ktemata, and so-called autourgiai, which were directly farmed. In the later sixth century their properties yielded at least a third of the tax revenue derived from the land in the Oxyrhynchite nome.62 The detailed evidence for the Apion estates is complemented by other indications that landownership in the sixth century was increasingly dominated by members of the empire's governing class, based in Constantinople. During the fifth century a new aristocracy had emerged in the capital, had grown wealthy through services to the imperial state, and used its economic power to acquire land in the provinces, especially Egypt.63 The first certainly identifiable member of the Apion dynasty, mentioned in a document of AD 439, was Flavius Strategius, who is attested as a curialis of Oxyrhynchus, a comes sacri consistorii (that is a companion of the imperial court), and curator of estates at Oxyrhynchus owned by Eudocia, wife of Theodosius II (Poxy LXIII 4389). Already before the mid-fifth century the family had a power base both locally and in Constantinople, and was closely linked to imperial interests. A more distant ancestor, another Flavius Strategius, may have been praeses of the Thebaid in AD 349.64
Another important dossier from the sixth century is the archive of Dioscorus (c. AD 520–590), which documents the struggle of the small town of Aphrodito to maintain the right to pay taxes in its own right, and to protect itself against extortion and scams perpetrated by powerful senatorial or imperial officials.65 Against this scenario it is possible to reconstruct a hierarchy and social structure comparable to that of Oxyrhynchus in the sixth century, comprising great, usually absentee, landowners (geouchoi), middle-ranking property owners (ktetores) and leaseholders (misthotai), and a working class of farm laborers and artisans. Members of the first category, designated as megaloprepestatoi (“most magnificent”) or endoxotatoi (“most resplendent”) in the fulsome vocabulary reserved for the top levels of late Roman society, include Ammonius, whose office-holding, as comes sacri consistorii and as praeses of the Thebaid, precisely recalls the social profile of members of the Apion family. Persons of this social rank regularly held the title of pagarch, an office charged with collecting local taxation and delivering it to the imperial treasury.
Dioscorus himself, a highly educated man, emerges as the most energetic member of the local élite. His archive includes documents relating to a petition which his own father, Apollos, had submitted to Justinian in Constantinople, his own visit to the capital to press the case for his community, and the ensuing imperial rescript of AD 551, which revealed that Aphrodito was caught in a pincer between the tax demands of the state and extortion by the powerful landowners:
Apollos was the leading man among the landowners there and collected the tax payments of the whole village, which he paid to the officials of the provincial bureau; but since they suffered the most grievous injustices from those holding office at the time, they submitted (a petition) to our imperial household and placed themselves under its patronage. But the most magnificent Theodosius, profiting by the absence of the petitioner's father, collected the taxes of the village but paid nothing whatever to the public accounts, so that the officials of the provincial office again exacted from the petitioners the taxes to which they were liable. (PCairo Masp. I 67024)
During his stay in Constantinople Dioscorus lobbied officials at court, especially in the entourage of the praetorian prefect. His objectives were to preserve Aphrodito's right to be taxed in its own right, not as a dependent of another community (autopragia), a privilege which had been obtained from the emperor Leo (AD 457–74), and to gain protection from the sort of depredation which had been perpetrated by “the magnificent Theodosius.” Dioscorus was a poet as well as a feisty local patriot, and he addressed flattering compositions to those whose support he was canvassing.
Beneath the colorful surface of the Dioscorus archive we can detect a major struggle for control of the imperial revenues. Over the later fifth and sixth centuries, the responsibility for collecting state taxes had increasingly fallen to members of the wealthiest landowning class. Not only were they themselves usually state office holders, but, in the form of their estate managers and armed retainers responsible for local law and order (bucellarii), they had the personnel required to collect taxation. Inevitably, they profiteered from this revenue, at the expense not only of the local tax-payers but also of the state. This phenomenon has led to the influential theory that the “great houses” of the landowners took legal responsibility for tax-raising as formally organized collectives, in some sense replacing earlier cities in this role.66
Justinian, to judge from his rescript of 551 took the side of Aphrodito against the big landowners. Peter Sarris' fundamental study of economy and society under Justinian, which springs from a fresh and convincing interpretation of the papyrological evidence, shows that this decision is consistent with the central thrust of Justinian's economic policy, to assert control over state revenues and restrict the de facto power which had increasingly been assumed by the landowning magnates. The long-term problem, however, was unavoidable, that the powers of these magnates were irretrievably embedded in the institutions of the state and indispensable to it. The later documentation from the Dioscorus archive, belonging to the period after the death of Justinian, appears to show that the magnates had maintained their domination over local society and revenue-raising, and that the main recourse of the local inhabitants was to try to play one landowner off against another.