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Full text of "The Legacy Of Egypt"

296                          Egypt and Rome
was the maintenance of irrigation works; and even to-day the
government of Egypt is entitled to call out every able-bodied
man to guard the banks of the Nile in flood.
Nevertheless the right of the government to the labour of
its subjects remained latent, and on emergency the Ptolemies
did not hesitate to use it. Thus when they failed to lease royal
land at a rent agreeable to their ideas they are known on
occasions to have conscripted the peasants to cultivate it. Such
measures were rare under the Ptolemaic regime, but under
Roman rule they became about normal. The Ptolemies squeezed
the last penny of revenue out of Egypt, it is true, but they did
allow a sufficient margin of profit to their subjects to make
them willing to work for them. The Romans were more exact-
ing: whether they over-estimated the productivity of Egypt or
whether its prosperity declined for other reasons under their
rule, the demands of the Roman government often left so small
a balance to their subjects that they had no incentive to work.
Undeterred, the Romans, instead of adjusting their demands,
resorted to compulsion. In agriculture this took two main
forms. Public land for which no tenant would bid the rent
demanded by the government might be compulsorily allocated
to the village community, which sublet it on the best terms it
could get and shared out the deficit. Alternatively it might be
allocated to a private landowner, who had to pay its rent out
of the profits of his own more lightly taxed land. Both methods
were in the Byzantine age applied extensively throughout the
empire to the problems of collecting the rent on imperial
estates and the tribute on private land: and as economic decline
and the consequent difficulty of keeping land under cultivation,
or rather of extracting the revenue due from uncultivated land,
began far earlier in Egypt than elsewhere, it is a reasonable pre-
sumption that the imperial officials of the Byzantine age were
inspired by the precedents set by the Roman administration
in Egypt.