CHAPTER XXIV, from the third volume of the Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ, A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from their beginnings to A.D. 325

Copyright by Will Durant. See the book at Amazon


EGYPT should have been the happiest of lands, for not only was the earth freely nourished by the Nile, but the country was the most self-sufficient in the whole Mediterranean basin- rich in cereals and fruits, cutting three crops a year, unexcelled in its industries, exporting to a hundred nations, and seldom disturbed by foreign or civil war. And yet- perhaps for these reasons- “The Egyptians,” Josephus notes, “appear never in all their history to have enjoyed one day of freedom.” Their wealth tempted, their semitropical lassitude suffered, one despot or conqueror after another through fifty centuries.

Rome classed Egypt not as a province but as the property of the emperor, and ruled it through a prefect responsible only to him. Native Greek officials administered the three divisions- Lower, Middle, and Upper Egypt, and the thirty-six “nomes” or counties; and the official language remained Greek. No attempt was made to urbanize the population, for Egypt’s imperial function was to be the granary of Rome. Large tracts of land were taken from the priests and turned over to Roman or Alexandrian capitalists to be worked as latifundia by fellaheen accustomed to merciless exploitation. The state capitalism of the Ptolemies was continued in reduced form. Every step in the agricultural process was planned and controlled by the state: proliferating bureaucrats determined what crops should be sown and in what quantities, annually allotted the requisite seed, received the product into government warehouses ( thesauroi, treasuries), exported Rome’s quota, took out taxes in kind, and sold the rest to the market. Corn and flax were state monopolies from seed to sale; so, at least in the Fayum, was the production of bricks, perfumes, and sesame oil. Private enterprise was permitted in other fields, but under ubiquitous regulation. All mineral resources were owned by the state, and the quarrying of marble and precious stones was a governmental privilege.

Domestic industry, already old in Egypt, now expanded in the towns- Ptolemais, Memphis, Thebes, Oxyrhynchus, Sais, Bubastis, Naucratis, Heliopolis; in Alexandria it was half the life of the vibrant capital. Apparently the paper industry had reached the capitalist stage, for Strabo tells how the owners of the papyrus plantations limited production to lift the price. Priests used the temple precincts as factories and turned out fine linens for their own use and for the market. Slaves outside of domestic service were few in Egypt, since “free” workers were paid only a notch above nudity and starvation. Sometimes the workers went on strike ( anachoresis, secession)- they left their tasks and took sanctuary on temple grounds, whence they were coaxed by hunger or fair words. Occasionally wages were raised, prices went up, and all was as before. Guilds were permitted, but they were mostly of tradesmen and managers; the government used them as agents for the collection of taxes and for the organization of forced labor on dikes, canals, and other public works.

Internal trade was active but slow. Roads were poor, and land transport moved on men, donkeys, or camels- which now replaced horses as draft animals in Africa. Much traffic went by inland waterways. A great canal, 150 feet wide, completed in Trajan’s reign, bound the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean through the Nile and the Red Sea, from whose ports at Arsinoe, Myos Hormos, and Berenice ships left daily for Africa or India. The banking system that financed production and trade was under full governmental control. Each nome capital had a state bank, which acted as a receiver of taxes and repository of public funds. Loans were made to farmers, industry, and business by the government, by priests from temple treasuries, and by private lending associations. Taxes were laid upon every product, process, sale, export, or import, even upon graves and burials; and additional assessments were levied from time to time, in kind from the poor, in liturgies from the rich. From Augustus to Trajan the country- or its masters- prospered; after that zenith it succumbed to the discouragement and exhaustion of endless tribute and taxation and the lethargy of a regimented economy.