Coins of Roman Egypt
Greek Dates





In a recent review of Professor A. C. Johnson's Roman Egypt to the Reign of Diocletian,* Dr. J. G. Milne, after issuing a very apposite warning against too implicit reliance on the evidence of papyri and inscriptions, remarks :

'The well-known rescript of Tiberius Julius Alexander is often quoted as proof of the misgovernment of Egypt under Nero and the reform under Galba : but the date of its issue, when news of the death of Nero could only have reached Alexandria by exceptionally speedy transmission…and certainly no communication could have been received from Galba, makes it probable that the rescript was really a manifesto of the anti-Neronian party at Alexandria, headed by the prefect, which was designed to paint the administration of Nero as black as possible and to hold out bright hopes for the future; and its value as economic evidence is about that of a modern election address.'

This verdict is so contrary to the impression I had formed when preparing my chapter for volume x of the Cambridge Ancient History that I felt bound to re-examine the evidence; and this Congress offered a convenient opportunity for presenting my conclusions. I must confess that, apart from one unpublished papyrus, I have no new evidence to submit; but a re-statement of existing knowledge may be useful.

I may remark by way of preface, and as a warning of possible bias, that Dr. Milne's final characterisation of the edict of Tiberius Julius Alexander seemed to me a priori improbable. Whatever be thought of Professor Reinmuth's view* that this document was really the prefect's provincial edict (and personally, though I recognise the force of some of Reinmuth's arguments, I am not entirely convinced, we may agree that it was issued not wholly without reference to the political situation, as Wilcken also has suggested*; and, if so, we may be sure that the prefect was not disposed to understate the evils for which he was promising a remedy; that is a technique well known to modern governments also. So much may be readily conceded; but it is going a great deal further than I at least, without very good evidence, am prepared to go, to suppose that a responsible official, one too of admitted capacity and experience, would deliberately reply to complaints never made and remedy evils which did not exist. But this, in effect, is what we are asked to believe if we discount the evidence of his edict as to economic conditions. For the statements he makes are definite and explicit.

In the first place, it is clear, if any reliance at all can be placed on Alexander's words, that the edict was not issued, so to say, gratuitously but in response to actual representations. This is stated generally in the preamble*: 'whereas, almost from the moment of my entry in the city, I am entreated by petitioners both from the wealthiest classes here and from the country farmers not only in small delegations but also in large groups complaining about recent abuses,' and again 'I have strictly prescribed that which lay in my power to determine and do in regard to each of your petitions while the weightier matters requiring the authority and dignity of the Emperor I shall report to him with all accuracy.'* it is quite clear from this that the prefect was dealing with a considerable mass of complaints and requests; and it is not surprising therefore to find him, in the body of the edict, taking up particular points and giving his decision on them. For example: 'First of all I have decided that your petition is most reasonable in protesting that you should not be compelled against your will to take over the farming of taxes contrary to the general practice of the prefects' (§ 1);* 'it has often been reported to me that some have already tried to cancel mortgages legally made' (§ 3)*; concerning privileges of immunity…I have had petitions' (§ 4);* 'this privilege that Alexandrians should be exempt from λειτουργιαι χωριχαι], which you have often demanded' (§ 6);* 'for often the cultivators throughout the whole land have appealed to me'(§ 10);* and so on.

Moreover, though it is clear that the edict was addressed primarily to the Alexandrians' it is equally certain that many of its provisions were of universal application; for example, section 7 relating to the appointments of strategi, section 9 on the Idiologus, sections 10 to 12.

Now, the mere rectification of an abuse is no proof of either misgovernment or the existence of an economic crisis. Anomalies and inequities may creep into the most enlightened administrative system; official corruption may defeat excellent intentions in the government and co-exist with a fairly general level of prosperity— and corruption has ever been the bane of oriental states, as it was of most ancient politics. Some of the abuses which Alexander remedies are of this kind. Such are the misuse of official powers in the case of private debts mentioned in section 2, possibly the practices condemned in section 3, the re-opening of a res judicata, forbidden in section 8, and the misdoings of the accountants, dealt with in section 11. Irregularities of these kinds, if very prevalent, as they appear to have been, are not a healthy sign, but they cannot in themselves be treated as evidence of special economic stringency. There are, however, some abuses which speak an unambiguous language. In section I the prefect prohibits compulsion to undertake tax-farming and leases; from section 4 we learn that privileges of immunity and abatements of taxation were being infringed; from section 5 that purchasers of land from the Fiscus were compelled to pay rent for it; in section 6 Alexandrians are exempted from country liturgies, to which, it must be inferred, they were being irregularly forced; in section 9 the prefect makes drastic provisions to remedy abuses in the department of the Idiologus' declaring, with obvious exaggeration, that 'the city is almost uninhabitable because of the multitude of informers and every household is disrupted';* in section 10 we hear of cultivators, throughout the whole of Egypt, burdened with new and irregular assessments; and in section 12 the practice of 'average assessment' is condemned, the implication clearly being that if taxes were assessed, as they should have been, on actual yields the tax-payers would be less heavily burdened.

All these phenomena are evidence of a definite tightening up of the technique of financial administration, a steady increase of the pressure on the tax-payers; and (since they were aimed, at least ostensibly, not at supplementing the perquisites of the officials but at increasing the total yield of taxes and public rents) they are clear evidence that for some reason it had grown more difficult to satisfy the requirements of the Roman government. Under the system of administration adopted by it in Egypt a tax-collector or tax-farmer or local official was responsible with person and property for the due collection of all revenues which fell within his sphere of competence. If, therefore, the proceeds of collection fell short of the quota, he was always tempted to increase them by illegal practices; and conversely the widespread existence of such practices is proof of at least some degree of economic depression.

Let us now turn to other evidence, in particular to any which has a bearing on the abuses mentioned above. First, I must cite one document which might be taken as testimony in the opposite direction. It is the well-known inscription (Dittenberger, Orientis Graeci Inscriptiones Selectæ 666) set up by the people of Busiris in honour of Balbillus, who was prefect early in the reign of Nero. The preamble to this speaks of a succession of years in which the Nile rose satisfactorily, crowned now by a particularly favourable inundation, and of Egypt as 'full of all prosperity.' This evidence must, however, be used with caution. Balbillus, on a visit to Busiris, had made himself very agreeable to the inhabitants, had suitably admired the pyramids, and had apparently ordered the removal of an accumulation of sand. Moreover, this was in the early years of Nero's reign and after a series of high Niles, which always meant some increase of prosperity for Egypt. This one inscription has therefore little weight against the evidence which makes in the opposite direction. We can indeed hardly reckon as proof of economic crisis the practices censured in the edict of Capito* practices which were the subject also of one of the edicts of Germanicus, for such abuses were of a kind to which bureaucratic administration is liable at any time but the edict of Lusius Geta* is another matter. This prefect, in April A.D. 54, accedes to a petition of the priests of Socnopaeus in the Arsinoite nome, who complained that they were being forced to undertake leases of land. It will be remembered that this was one of the abuses forbidden by Alexander. For such compulsion there can be but one reason. If tax-farming or the leasing of land can be made to yield a reasonable profit, there will always be a sufficiency of voluntary offers. If such voluntary offers are not forthcoming, the conclusion must be either that the economic condition of the country is bad or that the government's terms are inequitable; and since no government with any practical sense (and nobody will deny this quality to the Romans) is likely without grave reason to offer terms so hard as to frighten applicants, the latter supposition really implies the former.

Again, I have pointed out that the principle of responsibility for collection of the quota* tempted the officials to strain the law whenever collection became difficult; and the responsibility was collective, passing in case of default from one official to his colleague or superior. In two passages of Philo's De Specialibus Legibus, first quoted in this connexion, so far as I am aware, by Professor Rostovtzeff,* the terrible effects of this principle are shown. In one,* Philo speaks of tax-collectors who spared not even the dead but outraged the corpse of a defaulting tax-payer in order to force his relatives to pay ransom. The second is more explicit and must be quoted: 'Recently a man appointed tax-collector among us, when some of those who were supposed to owe taxes had fled owing to poverty, through fear of intolerable punishments, violently carried off their wives, children, parents and other relatives, beating and insulting them and applying all sorts of tortures, in order that they should either reveal the fugitive or discharge his liabilities, though they could do neither, the one because they did not know his whereabouts, the other because they were just as poor as he; and he did not release them until, torturing them with racks and wheels, he had killed them with the most novel devices of death.' Philo describes some of these and then proceeds : 'Those who did not anticipate the end by suicide…were led away by turns, first those nearest in kin, then those of the second and third degrees, until the last and when nobody belonging to the family was left the trouble fell on the neighbours also, sometimes indeed on whole villages and cities, which soon became deserted and empty of their inhabitants, who migrated and dispersed to places where they thought they could lie hid.'*

There may be some exaggeration here (though we shall see presently that such depopulation did actually occur), but it is clear that Philo is writing from actual experience.

Practices such as these were irregular enough, even when only the just amount of taxes was claimed; but the frequent difficulty of obtaining payment led the collectors to exact, from those who could pay, more than the legal quota. In Part ii of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri there are, for example, several petitions in which complaint is made of extortion by tax-collectors. They all belong to the same period, about the year 50. In two, nos. 284 and 285, the same collector, a certain Apollophanes, is accused; in another, 393, the collector is named Damis; and in a third, 394, the name does not appear to be preserved. The similarity of formulae in these documents and their nearness to each other in date suggest that conditions were at this time particularly bad at Oxyrhynchus, and possibly even that the petitions were connected with some official enquiry into tax irregularities then proceeding. Several years earlier, in A.D. 37, we find a village scribe taking an oath, in P. Oxy. 240, that he was not privy to any extortion on the part of a certain soldier or his agents. Extortion by a soldier might be practised in the requisition of military supplies or the enforcement of services, but it seems more likely that the soldier here concerned was collecting taxes. The use of soldiers in tax-collection was usual enough in Byzantine times, and there is evidence that it occurred also under Roman rule. Professor Martin has called attention to this fact in a paper read to the third Papyrological Congress at Munich;* and to the references given by him may be added the yet more significant evidence of one of the Princeton papyri, which seems to be the account of a taxation official written about A.D. 35.* Here, among expenses, occurs the entry 'to soldiers' 24 drachmae.' Again, in P. Graux I (=SB. 7461), in A.D. 45 Dionysodorus writes to the Strategus of the Heracleopolite nome, that the collector of poll-tax for Philadelphia reports the presence in his correspondent's nome of men from Philadelphia who are in default with their tax payments, and he asks him 'to send men with him to collect what is owing to him.' These men may of course have been the local officials, but it seems likelier that they were soldiers or armed guards.

The employment of soldiers for this purpose is certainly not a healthy sign. A populace which refuses payment of taxes except under threat of armed force is either very intractable (an accusation which can hardly be brought against the Egyptians in normal circumstances) or economically distressed. That the state of Egypt gave cause for uneasiness even as early as the later years of Tiberius is shown by the edict of the prefect Flaccus* forbidding the bearing of arms under pain of death. In the main, however, it was not so much active opposition that the government had to fear as that passive resistance which took the form of flight (αυαχωρησις). This was of course endemic in Egypt, in all epochs the last resort of the peasant when his position became intolerable; but there is an unusual number of instances from this period. From as early as A.D. 19-20 we have examples of returns from Oxyrhynchus,* constructed according to a regular formula, testifying to the flight of tax-payers. Philo's statement will be remembered, that whole villages became depopulated in this way. That this statement is no mere rhetorical exaggeration is shown by actual documents. Thus, in one papyrus the collectors of poll-tax of six villages in the Arsinoite nome report, some time between A.D. 55 and 60 : 'The population in the foregoing villages, once numerous, has now shrunk to a few persons, because some have fled, having no means, and some have died without leaving relatives.'* This statement in turn finds confirmation in even less questionable evidence. P. Cornell 24, dated in A.D. 56, is a list, drawn up by the tax-collector of Philadelphia, of no less than 44 αποροι ανευρετοι (that is, destitute persons who had disappeared), who in the month of Epeiph of the second year of Nero were in arrear with their poll and dyke-taxes for the first year.

It is in connexion with this document that I am enabled to produce a new piece of evidence. Mr. C. H. Roberts informed me that there was in the John Rylands Library a similar and longer list;* and Mr. E. G. Turner had the great kindness, on two recent visits to Manchester, to copy for me a large part of this document; a third visit has produced a revised text. It was drawn up in the year 57 by Nemesion, collector of poll-tax for Philadelphia.* Like Cornell 24 this document is a list of defaulting tax-payers, in this case for the month of Neos Sebastos (Hathyr) of the fourth year of Nero. The taxes are poll-tax, total deficit 4728 drachmas, 3 obols; pig-tax, total 121 drachmas, 1 obol; dyke-tax, total 1100 drachmas (I may here interject that it is apparently impossible to make these totals square exactly with the single items.)

The document begins with a list of 43 persons described as αναχεχορηχοτες απορι ευ απο του (προτου) ετους.* Now of these 43 persons 29 are certainly, two or three others are doubtfully, identical with persons who appear in the list of 44 given in Cornell 24. Some of the names not paralleled in the latter may be the corrected names of persons there mentioned; or possibly, while certain persons noted as missing in the first year had returned to their homes, others had fled. 'At all events, the deficit of 44 tax-payers recorded for the first year of Nero was substantially maintained in the fourth year, 43 being still in hiding.

After this list comes, however, a second headed 'others who have fled, from Pauni of the aforementioned year, to unknown localities.' This contains 54 names. This is followed by a third list, the heading of which neither Mr. Turner nor Mr. Roberts has yet succeeded in reading, containing seven names. The total is stated as 105, which should properly be 104. In col. vii are four persons returned as having died in the month of Sebastos of the second year, whose taxes were still unpaid, and then comes another list of defaulters who fled in the first year, perhaps in Pauni; the heading is at present not very certainly read, but perhaps means that they still owed the pig tax and dyke-tax but had paid poll-tax, and that 'afterwards they were released (from their obligations) by the royal scribe.' These number 47.*

This account proves conclusively the substantial truth of the statements made by the tax-collectors of P. Graux 2 and by Philo. No doubt the evidence is fortuitous and fragmentary, and there are other documents of the period which give no indication of an economic crisis and might even, in themselves, be taken as testifying to a fair degree of prosperity. Nevertheless the combined effect of Alexander's edict, directed primarily to Alexandria but containing evidence on the state of Egypt as a whole, of Lusius Geta's edict revealing attempts to infringe the immunity enjoyed by the priests of Socnopaeus, of the documents from the Fayum, and of the Oxyrhynchus papyri to which I have referred is, I submit, to indicate unmistakably that the general condition was at this time grave; that the financial officials were experiencing great difficulty in raising the tax-quota and were, in consequence, resorting to most questionable practices; and that the edict of Tiberius Julius Alexander, whatever allowance be made for propagandist and rhetorical exaggeration, must be treated as a serious historical document.*




Collection | Topics | Resources | Library | Contact | Home
© Copyright 2001-2006 Michael J. Covili. All rights reserved.