- History of Roman Egypt
:"Ægyptus redirects here. See Egypt Province for the province of the Ottoman Empire."
The History of Roman Egypt begins with the conquest of
Egyptin 30 BC by Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus), following the defeat of Marc Antonyand Ptolemaic Queen Cleopatra VIIin the Battle of Actium. Subsequently, Aegyptus became a province of the Roman Empire, encompassing most of modern-day Egyptexcept for the Sinai Peninsula. Both the provinces of Cyrenaicato the west and Arabia to the east bordered Aegyptus. Egypt would come to serve as a major producer of grainfor the empire.
Roman rule in Egypt
The first prefect of Aegyptus,
Gaius Cornelius Gallus, brought Upper Egypt under Roman control by force of arms, established a protectorate over the southern frontier district, which had been abandoned by the later Ptolemies. The second prefect, Aelius Gallus, made an unsuccessful expedition to conquer Arabia Petraeaand even Arabia Felix; however, the Red Seacoast of Egypt was not brought under Roman control until the reign of Claudius. The third prefect, Gaius Petronius, cleared the neglected canals for irrigation, stimulating a revival of agriculture.
From the reign of
Neroonward, Aegyptus enjoyed an era of prosperity which lasted a century. Much trouble was caused by religious conflicts between the Greeks and the Jews, particularly in Alexandria, which after the destruction of Jerusalemin 70become the world centre of Jewish religion and culture. Under Trajana Jewish revolt occurred, resulting in the suppression of the Jews of Alexandria and the loss of all their privileges, although they soon returned. Hadrian, who twice visited Aegyptus, founded Antinoöpolis in memory of his drowned lover Antinous. From his reign onward buildings in the Greco-Roman style were erected throughout the country.
Antoninus Pius, however, oppressive taxation led to a revolt in 139, of the native Egyptians, which was suppressed only after several years of fighting. This Bucolic Warcaused great damage to the economy and marked the beginning of Aegyptus's economic decline. Avidius Cassius, who led the Roman forces in the war, declared himself emperor, and was acknowledged by the armies of Syria and Aegyptus. On the approach of Marcus Aurelius, however, he was deposed and killed and the clemency of the emperor restored peace. A similar revolt broke out in 193, when Pescennius Nigerwas proclaimed emperor on the death of Pertinax. The Emperor Septimius Severusgave a constitution to Alexandria and the provincial capitals in 202. Caracalla( 211- 217) granted Roman citizenship to all Egyptians, in common with the other provincials, but this was mainly to extort more taxes, which grew increasingly onerous as the needs of the emperors for more revenue grew more desperate.
There was a series of revolts, both military and civilian, through the third century. Under
Decius, in 250, the Christians again suffered from persecution, but their religion continued to spread. The prefect of Aegyptus in 260, Mussius Aemilianus, first supported the Macriani, Gallienus usurpers, and later, in 261, become a usurper himself, but was defeated by Gallienus. Zenobia, queen of Palmyra, took the country away from the Romans when she conquered Aegyptus in 269, declaring herself the Queen of Egyptalso. This warrior queen claimed that Egypt was an ancestral home of hers through a familial tie to Cleopatra VII. She was well educated and familiar with the culture of Egypt, its religion, and its language. She lost it later when the Roman emperor, Aurelian, severed amicable relations between the two countries and retook Egypt in 274—following an unsuccessful four month siege of the defenses of Zenobia—and only by waiting until her food supplies became exhausted.
Two generals based in Egypt,
Probusand Domitius Domitianus, led successful revolts and made themselves emperors. Diocletiancaptured Alexandria from Domitius in 298and reorganised the whole province. His edict of 303against the Christians began a new era of persecution. This was the last serious attempt to stem the steady growth of Christianity in Egypt, however.
Roman government in Egypt
Egypt under Roman control managed to keep much of the government under the Ptolemies. The Romans introduced important changes in the administrative system, aimed at achieving a high level of efficiency and maximizing
revenue. The duties of the prefect of Egypt combined responsibility for military security through command of the legionsand cohorts, for the organization of finance and taxation, and for the administration of justice.
The reforms of the early fourth century had established the basis for another 250 years of comparative prosperity in
Egypt, at a cost of perhaps greater rigidity and more oppressive state control. Egypt was subdivided for administrative purposes into a number of smaller provinces, and separate civil and military officials were established; the praesesand the dux. By the middle of the sixth century the emperor Justinian was eventually forced to recognize the failure of this policy and to combine civil and military power in the hands of the duxwith a civil deputy (the praeses) as a counterweight to the power of the church authorities. All pretense of local autonomyhad by then vanished. The presence of the soldiery was more noticeable, its power and influence more pervasive in the routine of town and village life.
The economic resources that this imperial government existed to exploit had not changed since the
Ptolemaic period, but the development of a much more complex and sophisticated taxation system was a hallmark of Roman rule. Taxes in both cash and kind were assessed on land, and a bewildering variety of small taxes in cash, as well as customs dues and the like, was collected by appointed officials. A massive amount of Egypt's grain was shipped downriver both to feed the population of Alexandriaand for export to Rome. Despite frequent complaints of oppression and extortion from the taxpayers, it is not obvious that official tax rates were very high. In fact the Roman governmenthad actively encouraged the privatizationof land and the increase of private enterprise in manufacture, commerce, and trade, and low tax rates favoured private owners and entrepreneurs. The poorer people gained their livelihood as tenants of state-owned land or of property belonging to the emperor or to wealthy private landlords, and they were relatively much more heavily burdened by rentals, which tended to remain at a fairly high level.
Overall, the degree of monetarization and complexity in the economy, even at the
villagelevel, was intense. Goods were moved around and exchanged through the medium of coin on a large scale and, in the towns and the larger villages, a high level of industrial and commercial activity developed in close conjunction with the exploitation of the predominant agricultural base. The volume of trade, both internal and external, reached its peak in the first and second centuries. But by the end of the third century, major problems were evident. A series of debasements of the imperial currency had undermined confidence in the coinage, and even the government itself was contributing to this by demanding more and more irregular tax payments in kind, which it channeled directly to the main consumers, the army personnel. Local administration by the councilswas careless, recalcitrant, and inefficient; the evident need for firm and purposeful reform had to be squarely faced in the reigns of Diocletianand Constantine I.
This wealthiest of provinces could be held militarily by a very small force; and the threat implicit in an embargo on the export of grain supplies, vital to the provisioning of the city of Rome and its populace, was obvious. Internal security was guaranteed by the presence of three Roman legions (later reduced to two), each about 6,000 strong, and several cohorts of auxiliaries. In the first decade of Roman rule the spirit of Augustan imperialism looked farther afield, attempting expansion to the east and to the south. Most of the early Roman troops stationed there were Greco-Macedonians and native Egyptians once part of the dissolved Ptolemaic army finding service for Rome. Eventually Romans were a majority.
Egyptian Christians believe that the Patriarchate of Alexandria was founded by
Mark the Evangelistaround 33, but little is known about how Christianity entered Egypt. The historian Helmut Koesterhas suggested, with some evidence, that originally the Christians in Egypt were predominantly influenced by gnosticismuntil the efforts of Demetrius of Alexandriagradually brought the beliefs of the majority into harmony with the rest of Christianity. While the collective embarrassment over their heretical origins would explain the lack of details for the first centuries of Christianity in Egypt, there are too many gaps in the history of Roman times to claim that our ignorance in this situation is a special case.
The ancient religion of Egypt put up surprisingly little resistance to the spread of Christianity. Possibly its long history of collaboration with the Greek and Roman rulers of Egypt had robbed its religious leaders of authority. Alternatively, the life-affirming native religion may have begun to lose its appeal among the lower classes as a burden of taxation and liturgic services instituted by the Roman emperors reduced the quality of life. In a religious system which views earthly life as eternal, when earthly life becomes strained and miserable, the desire for such an everlasting life loses its appeal. Thus, the focus on poverty and meekness found a vacuum among the Egyptian population. In addition, many Christian tenets such as the concept of the trinity, a resurrection of deity and union with the deity after death had close similarities with the native religion of ancient Egypt. Fact|date=February 2008
By 200 it is clear that Alexandria was one of the great Christian centres. The Christian
apologists Clement of Alexandriaand Origenboth lived part or all of their lives in that city, where they wrote, taught, and debated.
Edict of Milanin 312, Constantine I ended the persecution of Christians. Over the course of the fourth century, paganism was suppressed and lost its following, as the poet Palladius bitterly noted. It lingered underground for many decades: the final edict against paganism was issued in 390, but graffiti at Philaein Upper Egypt proves worship of Isispersisted at its temples into the fifth century. Many Egyptian Jews also became Christians, but many others refused to do so, leaving them as the only sizable religious minority in a Christian country.
No sooner had the Egyptian Church achieved freedom and supremacy, however, than it became subject to schism and prolonged conflict which at times descended into civil war. Alexandria became the centre of the first great split in the Christian world, between the
Arians, named for the Alexandrian priest Arius, and orthodoxy, represented by Athanasius, who became Archbishop of Alexandria in 326after the First Council of Nicaearejected Arius's views. The Arian controversy caused years of riots and rebellions throughout most of the fourth century. In the course of one of these, the great temple of Serapis, the stronghold of paganism, was destroyed. Athanasius was alternately expelled from Alexandria and reinstated as its Archbishop between five and seven times.
It was never easy to impose religious orthodoxy on Egypt, a country with an ancient tradition of religious speculation. Not only did Arianism flourish there, but other doctrines, such as
Gnosticismand Manichaeism, either native or imported, found many followers. Another religious development in Egypt was the monasticismof the Desert Fathers, who renounced the material world in order to live a life of poverty in devotion to the Church.
Egyptian Christians took up monasticism with such enthusiasm that the Emperor
Valenshad to restrict the number of men who could become monks. Egypt exported monasticism to the rest of the Christian world. Another development of this period was the development of Coptic, a form of the Ancient Egyptian language written with the Greek alphabet supplemented by several signs to represent sounds present in Egyptian which were not present in Greek. Coptic is invented as a means to ensure correct pronunciation of magical words and names in "pagan" texts, the so-called Greek Magical Papyri. Coptic was soon adopted by early Christians to spread the word of the gospel to native Egyptians and it became the liturgical language of Egyptian Christianity and remains so to this day.
The reign of Constantine also saw the founding of
Constantinopleas a new capital for the Roman Empire, and in the course of the fourth centurythe Empire was divided in two, with Egypt finding itself in the Eastern Empire with its capital at Constantinople. Latin, never well established in Egypt, would play a declining role with Greek continuing to be the dominant language of government and scholarship. During the fifth and sixth centuries the Eastern Roman Empire, today known as the Byzantine Empire, gradually transformed itself into thoroughly Christian state whose culture differed significantly from its pagan past. The fall of the Western Empire in the fifth century further isolated the Egyptian Romans from Rome's culture and hastened the growth of Christianity. One consequence of the triumph of Christianity was the final oppression and demise of the Egypt's indigenous culture: with the disappearance of the Egyptian priests and priestesses who officiated at the temples, no-one could read the hieroglyphics of Pharaonic Egypt, and its temples were converted to churches or abandoned to the desert.
The Eastern Empire became increasingly "oriental" in style as its links with the old Græco-Roman world faded. The Greek system of local government by citizens had now entirely disappeared. Offices, with new Byzantine names, were almost hereditary in the wealthy land-owning families. Alexandria, the second city of the empire, continued to be a centre of religious controversy and violence. Cyril, the
patriarch of Alexandria, convinced the city's governor to expel the Jews from the city in 415with the aid of the mob, in response to the Jews' alleged nighttime massacre of many Christians. Fact|date=February 2008 The murder of the philosopher Hypatiamarked the final end of classical Hellenic culture in Egypt. Another schism in the Church produced a prolonged civil war and alienated Egypt from the Empire.
The new religious controversy was over the nature of
Jesus of Nazareth. The issue was whether he had two natures, human and divine, or one. This may seem an arcane distinction, but in an intensely religious age it was enough to divide an empire. The Monophysitecontroversy arose after the First Council of Constantinoplein 381and continued until the Council of Chalcedonin 451, which ruled in favour of the position that Jesus was "In two natures". This belief was not held by the monophysites as they stated that Jesus was out of two natures in one nature called, the "Incarnate Logos of God". Many of the monophysites claimed that they were misunderstood, that there was really no difference between their position and the orthodox position, and that the Council of Chalcedon ruled against them because of political motivations alone. But Egypt and Syria remained hotbeds of Monophysite sentiment, and organised resistance to the orthodox view was not suppressed until the 570s.
Egypt nevertheless continued to be an important economic center for the Empire supplying much of its agriculture and manufacturing needs as well as continuing to be an important center of scholarship. It would supply the needs of Byzantine Empire and the Mediterranean as a whole. The reign of Justinian (
482– 565) saw the Empire recapture Romeand much of Italyfrom the barbarians, but these successes left the empire's eastern flank exposed. The Empire's "bread basket" now lacked for protection.
The Persian conquest allowed Monophysitism to resurface in Egypt, and when imperial rule was restored by Emperor Heraclius in
629, the Monophysites were persecuted and their patriarch expelled. Egypt was thus in a state of both religious and political alienation from the Empire when a new invader appeared.
. Thus ended 975 years of Græco-Roman rule over Egypt.
*Angold, Michael. 2001. "Byzantium : the bridge from antiquity to the Middle Ages". 1st US Edition. New York : St. Martin's Press
*Bowman, Alan Keir. 1996. "Egypt After the Pharaohs: 332 BC–AD 642; From Alexander to the Arab Conquest". 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press
*Chauveau, Michel. 2000. "Egypt in the Age of Cleopatra: History and Society under the Ptolemies". Translated by David Lorton. Ithaca: Cornell University Press
*Ellis, Simon P. 1992. "Graeco-Roman Egypt". Shire Egyptology 17, ser. ed. Barbara G. Adams. Aylesbury: Shire Publications Ltd.
* Hill, John E. 2003. "Annotated Translation of the Chapter on the Western Regions according to the "Hou Hanshu"." 2nd Draft Edition. [http://depts.washington.edu/uwch/silkroad/texts/hhshu/hou_han_shu.html]
*Hill, John E. 2004. "The Peoples of the West from the Weilue" 魏略 "by Yu Huan" 魚豢": A Third Century Chinese Account Composed between 239 and 265 CE" Draft annotated English translation. [http://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/weilue/weilue.html]
*Hölbl, Günther. 2001. "A History of the Ptolemaic Empire". Translated by Tina Saavedra. London: Routledge Ltd.
*Lloyd, Alan Brian. 2000. "The Ptolemaic Period (332–30 BC)". In "The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt", edited by Ian Shaw. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. 395–421
*Peacock, David. 2000. "The Roman Period (30 BC–AD 311)". In "The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt", edited by Ian Shaw. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. 422–445
* [http://www.annourbis.com/maps/map000.html Detailed Map of Aegyptus]
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