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344            Egypt and the Byzantine Empire
Egyptian race. And side by side with purely Christian allusions
we find in his writing a whole galaxy of figures and motives
culled from Greek mythology.
Sixth-century Egypt, as revealed to us in the papyri, bears
indeed, in pre-eminent degree, all the marks of what is called
an age of transition. A Christian country which retains a lively
memory of its pagan past and in which the classics of Greek
paganism still form the essential basis of a liberal education; an
integral part of the bureaucratic empire of East Rome which has
developed a social system exhibiting semi-feudal characteristics
and inclining ever more towards something which might without
great impropriety have been called feudalism; a society medieval
in many of its- aspects, with its monasteries and churches and
hospitals, its serfs and autopract estates and private armies, yet
steeped in the atmosphere of the ancient world—such is the
picture that emerges: a system in equilibrium, uneasily balanced
between the old and the new. And if the economic decay had
already gone far, once populous villages become sand-covered
ruins and fields reclaimed by the Ptolemies for agriculture
relapsed into sterile desert, yet Egypt still made its contribu-
tion to the economy of the empire, and its corn was conveyed
to the granaries, its gold to the treasuries of Constantinople.
So far was it from having lost its importance that when Heraclius
rose against Phocas in 609 his first act was to dispatch against
it a force under Nicetas, just as, five centuries earlier, it was to
Egypt that Vespasian turned as soon as he had resolved on revolt.
The equilibrium was, however, unstable and temporary, the
balance tipping ever more decidedly in favour of the new order.
The power of the landed nobility increased during the sixth
century to a degree dangerous to the stability of the bureau-
cratic machine. The nobles tended to monopolize the office of
pagarch, a single landowner sometimes holding the pagarchy of
two or more nomes simultaneously. It is significant that the
applications for agricultural implements and the like addressed