Roman period, overview (Archaeology of Ancient Egypt)

The Roman period in Egypt is conventionally defined as extending from the conquest of Egypt by Augustus in 30 BC to the reorganization of the administration of Egypt by Diocletian in the late third century AD. Identification of these three centuries as forming a distinct period in Egyptian history is relatively recent. Nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century scholars tended to treat Roman Egypt as little more than a phase in the history of an entity they called Graeco-Roman Egypt. Contemporary historians of ancient Egypt, however, increasingly recognize the establishment of Roman rule in Egypt as marking a fundamental break with many of the cultural and institutional traditions of Ptolemaic Egypt.

Augustus’s triumphal entry into Alexandria in 30 BC was the climax to almost three centuries of growing Roman influence over Ptolemaic Egypt. An embassy sent by Ptolemy II in 273 BC to congratulate Rome on the city’s victory over Pyrrhus had begun the process. By the mid-second century BC, however, the initiative had passed to Rome, and Egypt had become a virtual Roman protectorate, whose fortunes varied with the whims of the Senate. Egypt was saved from annexation by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV in 168 BC by Roman intervention, but suffered the loss of Cyrene, on the Libyan coast, and Cyprus a few years later as a result of Senatorial arbitration of the conflicting claims to the throne of Ptolemy VI and his brother Ptolemy VIII. A century later, Roman protection had hardened into domination. Cyrene and Cyprus were both annexed by Rome, and Ptolemy XI, the father of Cleopatra VII, owed his throne to successful bribery of Roman politicians and the support of a Roman army. The attempt by Cleopatra VII to reverse the process of Egypt’s decline and regain at least a part of her kingdom’s empire in North Africa and the Near East, through cultivation of Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, failed disastrously at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. With her suicide the following year, three centuries of Macedonian rule in Egypt ended.

Roman annexation of Egypt not only marked the end of Macedonian rule in Egypt. It also meant the end of the history of Egypt as an independent state in antiquity. The emperor Augustus disingenuously claimed in his autobiographical obituary, the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, that he had added Egypt to the empire of the Roman people. The reality was different. Egypt had become a province of the Roman empire, but it was a special kind of province. Augustus and his successors ruled Egypt as successors of the Ptolemies and treated Egypt and its great wealth as their personal property, a relationship that was symbolized by the extended ceremonial visits to Egypt made by several reigning emperors during this period. The integration of Egypt into the Roman imperial system meant, however, that it also quickly felt the effects of problems elsewhere in the Roman empire. Thus, Egypt’s agricultural wealth drew it into the imperial succession crises of AD 68-70 and 193-7, while the collapse of Roman power in the Near East following the defeat in AD 260 of the emperor Valerian by the Sassanid Persian ruler Shapur I resulted in the temporary subjection of Egypt to Palmyrene rule (AD 269-71).

Rome’s interest in Egypt was primarily fiscal. The Ptolemies had been the wealthiest of the Hellenistic kings, and maintaining the economic system that had produced that wealth with its numerous monopolies and taxes was one of the chief priorities of Augustus and his successors. Above all, however, the Roman government was concerned with the successful functioning of Egyptian agriculture and the collection of the grain tax, which was paid in kind and supplied fully one-third of the grain consumed annually in Rome.

To accomplish these goals, Augustus imposed a centralized administration on Egypt that was headed by an equestrian prefect appointed by the emperor and supported by a military force of almost three legions (later reduced to two). Access to Egypt was strictly controlled. Senators were forbidden to enter the country without the permission of the emperor, nor did the Senate exercise jurisdiction in Egypt, where imperial decrees were the ultimate source of new law and policy. The prefect was the official ultimately responsible for the implementation of imperial policy and the resolution of legal disputes. At the local level there was superficial continuity with Ptolemaic Egypt—indeed, even with pharaonic Egypt—since the basis of local administration remained the division of the country into nomes (thirty-six in the time of Augustus). Beneath the surface, however, there was a fundamental redistribution of power. The nome governors, the strategoi (generals), who were recruited from the local population and had had both military and civilian functions in the Ptolemaic period, became strictly civilian officials. Henceforth, military authority in Egypt was exercised only by the Roman garrison commanders. The situation was similar with regard to social and cultural life in Roman Egypt.

Roman Egypt was a multi-ethnic society that included not only the native Egyptian population, but also a much smaller immigrant population of Macedonians, Greeks, Jews and other non-Egyptians, most of whom had settled in Egypt during the Ptolemaic period. Under the Ptolemies these various groups had coexisted with relatively little social interaction. This situation had been facilitated by the fact that the vast majority of the Egyptians lived in agricultural villages scattered along the Nile under their own law and officials, while the bulk of the immigrant population was concentrated in the three Greek cities of Egypt—the old Greek colony of Naukratis and the new foundations of Alexandria and Ptolemais—and a number of settlements that had been founded by the Ptolemies on reclaimed land in the Fayum. Although outbreaks of ethnic violence occurred throughout the Ptolemaic period, overall social peace was maintained by two factors: extensive Ptolemaic subsidization of Egyptian religion and the Egyptian priestly elite, and toleration of the usurpation of the privileges of Greek status by Hellenized Jews and Egyptians by the later Ptolemies, who needed the support of such groups to counter their unpopularity with the Greek population of Alexandria. Except for the foundation of a fourth Greek city, Antinoopolis, by the emperor Hadrian in the second century AD, the substitution of Roman for Ptolemaic rule brought little change in the outward organization of Egyptian society. The tone of the society of Roman Egypt, however, was significantly different from that of Ptolemaic Egypt.

The Roman government recognized four principal ethnic groups in Egypt: Romans, Greeks, Jews, and Egyptians. Greek status, however, was limited to the citizens of the four Greek cities. All residents of the Egyptian countryside, whatever their origin, were Egyptians. Change of status was difficult as intermarriage between Greeks and non-Greeks was generally forbidden, as was admission of non-Greeks to the gymnasia, the principal institutional centers of Hellenization. Even the adoption of a Greek name by an Egyptian required the permission of the Roman government of Egypt. The result of these changes was a hardening of the divisions between the various ethnic groups in Egypt. In the cities a rigid social hierarchy emerged with the privileges of citizenship being limited to Romans and Greeks and Egyptians being treated as resident aliens, while Jews occupied an uneasy and unstable intermediate status. In the nome capitals and villages, the descendants of Ptolemaic Greek settlers lost their privileged status. Poor Greeks tended increasingly to disappear into the mass of the rural Egyptian population; wealthy Greeks sought to avoid a similar fate by vigorously cultivating their Greek identity through education and support of Greek cultural institutions such as the gymnasia. At the same time, the combination of the heavy and regressive burden, represented by taxes such as the grain and poll taxes, and a decline in the level of government subsidization of Egyptian religion led to a general worsening of the social and economic situation of the Egyptian priestly elite in particular, and the Egyptian peasantry in general. Clear evidence of this decline in the welfare of the native Egyptian population can be found in the sharp reduction in the number of wealthy native burials, the numerous references in the documentary sources for Roman Egypt to the abandonment of villages and agricultural land, and the growth of banditry.

Roman Egypt was not only ethnically diverse, it was also culturally diverse. Three written languages—Egyptian in its various forms, Greek and Latin—were in common use throughout the period, and speakers of many more languages could be encountered in its more cosmopolitan urban centers, such as Alexandria and Memphis. There was, therefore, no single Roman Egyptian culture, but rather several sub-cultures in Roman Egypt, whose vigor varied with the state of the ethnic groups that produced them. A good example is provided by Judaeo-Greek literature, which had flourished in Ptolemaic and early Roman Egypt, but later disappeared as a result of the decimation of the Egyptian Jewish community following the Jewish uprisings in North Africa and Egypt in AD 11517. Greek culture, however, flourished in Roman Egypt.

Despite recurrent outbreaks of violence in Alexandria resulting from Rome’s refusal to accede to the demands of the Alexandrian Greeks for a city council, it was Roman policy to encourage and support Greek culture in Egypt. The great cultural institutions of Ptolemaic Alexandria, the Museum and the Library, continued to function. The city remained a center for research and education in literature, philosophy and the sciences— particularly medicine and mathematics in all its forms—throughout the period. Alexandria was also a center of the arts, and craft goods made in the city’s workshops or reflecting fashions popular there, such as themes drawn from the Egyptian daily life, are found throughout the Roman empire and far beyond its borders. Greek culture in Roman Egypt was not, however, limited to Alexandria. Theaters, schools and gymnasia existed in the Greek settlements and nome capitals of the Fayum and Middle and Upper Egypt, while the papyri document the availability of a wide range of Greek literature to the educated Greek elite of Roman Egypt as a whole. The wide distribution of Greek culture in Egypt is well illustrated by the varied origins of the principal Greek writers of Roman Egypt. So, Alexandria produced the Roman historian Appian and the mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy, Naukratis the grammarian Athenaeus, and Lycopolis the philosopher Plotinus, the founder of Neoplatonism. A firm foundation, therefore, was laid during the first three centuries of the Christian era for the remarkable efflorescence of Greek literature and art that made Byzantine Egypt one of the chief centers of Greek cultural activity in late antiquity.

However, conditions in Roman Egypt were much less favorable for traditional Egyptian culture. The artistic and literary activity that had made the Ptolemaic period one of the great creative periods of ancient Egyptian culture gradually ceased during the Roman period, and the reason is clear. Unlike the Ptolemies, who had needed the support of the temple priesthoods to govern, the Roman emperors, rulers of a vast empire rather than kings of Egypt—no emperor ever underwent a proper Egyptian coronation—did not. Consequently, although Roman building and repair activity is attested at many Egyptian religious sites, including the Great Sphinx at Giza and the Temple of Amon at Karnak, the level of government support for Egyptian religion dropped sharply while government control increased. The temples were put under the direct supervision of the Roman government, which took over the management of their lands and allowed their staffs only an annual allowance for expenses. By the second century AD, Roman control of the temples had been centralized under an equestrian official resident at Alexandria, the High Priest of Egypt. Candidates for the priesthood were required to have all aspects of their candidacy certified by the government, including even their circumcision. The priestly synods that had been so characteristic a feature of Ptolemaic Egypt disappeared, as did the rich burials of the high priests of Memphis and the holders of other major priesthoods. The impact of these changes on Egyptian culture was severe. The priesthood continued to be trained in the old scripts, and hieroglyphic and demotic inscriptions were still being written in late antiquity, but no significant new literary composition can be dated to the Roman period, and even demotic literary papyri cease after the early second century AD. In many respects, therefore, little more remained of traditional Egyptian culture by the early fourth century AD than the great monuments that so impressed the Greek and Roman tourists who covered them with graffiti, and the myth of Egypt as the land of primordial wisdom that dominates accounts of the country in Greek and Latin in late antiquity.

The basic conditions that had governed life in Roman Egypt since the reign of Augustus changed dramatically during the third century AD. The Augustan organization of Egypt gradually broke down during the political and economic upheavals of the middle and late third century AD. This was replaced by Diocletian with a radically different administrative structure in which Egypt was divided into three provinces, each with its own civil governor, while military authority was concentrated in the hands of a single dux (military commander). The social structure of Roman Egypt was also transformed by the extension of Roman citizenship to virtually all inhabitants of the country in AD 212 by the Constitutio Antoniniana, which obliterated the system of hierarchically ranked ethnic groups on which the previous social structure had been based. This was now replaced by a simpler system in which people were divided economically into rich and poor with different and unequal privileges ascribed to each by law, the division into honestiores and humiliores that characterized society everywhere in the late Roman empire. The distinction between Greek and Egyptian culture also gradually disappeared everywhere except in the closed world of the temples, as the spread of the new religion of Christianity led to the appearance of a new cultural division of Egypt into pagans and Christians. In Egypt, as elsewhere in late antiquity, pagan culture increasingly came to be identified with a new cosmopolitan form of Greek culture scholars call "Hellenism," while Egyptian Christians used the new Coptic alphabet to create a Christian literature in Egyptian that would be free both of Hellenism and the millennia-old traditions of pharaonic Egypt. By the beginning of the fourth century AD, therefore, the basic pattern of life in Byzantine Egypt had begun to emerge clearly.

Next post:

Previous post: