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Egypt Under Roman Rule

Roman Emperor Augustus.

Cleopatra VII Philopator was the last Queen of Egypt and its last pharaoh. Her death in 30 BCE brought to an end over 3,000 years of an often glorious and creative Egyptian culture. Following Cleopatra VII’s suicide, the Ptolemaic dynasty that had ruled Egypt since 323BCE was extinguished, Egypt became a Roman province and Rome’s “breadbasket.”

Facts About Egypt Under Roman Rule

  • Caesar Augustus annexed Egypt for Rome in 30 B.C.
  • Province of Egypt was renamed Aegyptus by Caesar Augustus
  • Three Roman legions were stationed in Egypt to protect Roman rule
  • A Prefect appointed by the Emperor governed Aegyptus
  • Prefects were responsible for administering the province and for its finances and defence
  • Egypt was divided into smaller provinces each reporting directly to the Prefect
  • Social status, taxation and presiding court system was based upon a person’s ethnicity and their city of residence
  • Social classes comprised: Roman citizen, Greek, Metropolite, Jew and Egyptian.
  • Military service was the most common means of improving your social status
  • Under Roman supervision, Egypt became Rome’s bread basket
  • Aegyptus’ economy initially improved under Roman rule before being undermined by corruption.

Rome’s Complicated Early Involvement In Egyptian Politics

Rome had been dabbling in Egypt’s political affairs since Ptolemy VI’s reign in the 2nd century BCE. In the years following Alexander The Great’s victory over the Persians, Egypt had experienced significant conflict and turmoil. The Greek Ptolemy dynasty ruled Egypt from their capital Alexandria, effectively a Greek city in an ocean of Egyptians. The Ptolemys rarely ventured beyond Alexandria’s walls and never bothered to master the native Egyptian language.

Ptolemy VI ruled with Cleopatra I, his mother until her death in 176 BCE. During his troubled reign, the Seleucids under their king Antiochus IV twice invaded Egypt during 169 and 164 BCE. Rome intervened and assisted Ptolemy VI to regain some measure of control over his kingdom.

Rome’s next foray into Egyptian politics came in 88 BCE when a youthful Ptolemy XI followed his exiled father, Ptolemy X to claim the throne. After ceding Rome Egypt and Cyprus, the Roman general Cornelius Sulla installed Ptolemy XI as king of Egypt. His uncle Ptolemy IX Lathryos died in 81 BC leaving his daughter Cleopatra Berenice on the throne. However, Sulla schemed to set a pro-Roman king on Egypt’s throne. He dispatched the soon to be Ptolemy XI to Egypt. Sulla paraded Ptolemy Alexander’s will in Rome as justification for his intervention. The will also stipulated Ptolemy XI should marry Bernice III, who happened to be his cousin, stepmother, and possibly his half-sister. Nineteen days after they were married, Ptolemy murdered Bernice. This proved unwise, as Bernice was very popular. An Alexandrian mob subsequently lynched Ptolemy XI and his cousin Ptolemy XII succeeded him on the throne.

Many of Ptolemy XII’s Alexandrian subjects despised his close ties to Rome and he was expelled from Alexandria in 58 BCE. He fled to Rome, heavily in debt to Roman creditors. There, Pompey housed the exiled monarch and helped return Ptolemy to power. Ptolemy XII paid Aulus Gabinius10,000 talents to invade Egypt in 55 BC. Gabinius defeated Egypt’s frontier army, marched on Alexandria, and assaulted the palace, where the palace guards surrendered without a fight. Despite Egyptian Kings embodying the Gods themselves on earth, Ptolemy XII had made Egypt subservient to the whims of Rome.

Following his defeat in 48 BCE by Caesar at the Battle of Pharsalus the Roman statesman and General, Pompey fled in disguise to Egypt and sought refuge there. However, Ptolemy VIII assassinated Pompey on September 29, 48 BC to win Caesar’s favour. When Caesar arrived, he was presented with Pompey’s severed head. Cleopatra VII won Caesar over, becoming his lover. Caesar paved the way for Cleopatra VII to return to the throne. An Egyptian civil war ensured. With the arrival of Roman reinforcements, the decisive Battle of the Nile in 47 BC saw Ptolemy XIII forced to flee the city and victory for Caesar and Cleopatra.

The defeat of Ptolemy XIII, saw the Ptolemaic kingdom reduced to the status of a Roman client state. After Caesar’s assassination, Cleopatra aligned Egypt with Mark Antony against Octavian’s forces. However, they were defeated and Octavian had Cleopatra’s son with Caesar, Caesarion executed.

Egypt As A Province Of Rome

Following the termination of Rome’s protected civil war, Octavian returned to Rome in 29 BCE. During his victorious procession through Rome, Octavian displayed his spoils of war. An effigy of Cleopatra posed lying on a couch, was exhibited for public ridicule. The queen’s surviving children, Alexander Helios, Cleopatra Selene, and Ptolemy Philadelphus were exhibited in the triumphant parade.

A Roman prefect answerable only to Octavian now governed Egypt. Even Roman senators were forbidden from entering Egypt without the Emperor’s permission. Rome also garrisoned three of its legions in Egypt.

Emperor Augustus asserted absolute control over Egypt. While Roman law supplanted traditional Egyptian laws, many of the former Ptolemaic dynasty’s institutions remained in place with albeit with fundamental changes to its social and administrative structures. Augustus adroitly flooded the administration with nominees drawn from Rome’s equestrian class. Despite this turbulent upheaval, little changed in Egypt’s daily religious and cultural life, save for the creation of an imperial cult. Priests retained many of their traditional entitlements.

Rome even looked to expand Egypt’s territory with the prefect Aelius Gallus leading an unsuccessful expedition into Arabia from 26-25 BC. Similarly, his successor the prefect, Petronius organized two expeditions into the Meroitic kingdom around 24 BC. As Egypt’s borders were secured, one legion was withdrawn.

Social And Religious Fracture Lines

While Alexandria had been deeply influenced by Greek culture during the Ptolemy reign it had little influence beyond the city. Egyptian traditions and religions observances continued to prosper across the rest of Egypt. Not until the coming of Christianity in the 4th century did this change. St. Mark is credited with the formation of the traditional Christian church in Egypt, although it is unclear how many Christians lived in Egypt prior to the 4th century.

While Rome permitted each region’s mother-city limited self-government, many of Egypt’s major towns found their status changed under Roman rule. Augustus kept a registry of all “Hellenized” residents in each Egyptian city. Non-Alexandrians found themselves classified as Egyptians. Under Rome, a revised social hierarchy emerged. Hellenic, residents formed the new socio-political elite. Citizens of Alexandria, Naucratis and Ptolemais were exempted from a new poll tax.

The primary cultural divide was, between the Egyptian-speaking villages and Alexandria’s Hellenic culture. Much of the food produced by local tenant farmers was exported to Rome to feed its burgeoning population. The supply route for these food exports, together with spices moved overland from Asia and luxury items ran down the Nile through Alexandria before being shipped to Rome. Enormous private estates run by Greek land-owning aristocratic families dominated in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE.

This rigid social structure increasingly came into question as Egypt, and particularly Alexandria underwent a substantial evolution in its population mix. Greater numbers of Greeks and Jews settling in the city led to inter-communal conflict. Despite Rome’s overwhelming military superiority, insurrections against Roman rule continued to erupt periodically. During Caligula’s (37 – 41 AD) reign, one uprising pitted the Jewish population against Alexandria’s Greek residents. During Emperor Claudius’ (c. 41-54 CE) reign riots again broke out between Alexandria’s Jewish and Greek residents. Again, in Emperor Nero’s (c. 54-68 CE) time, 50,000 people perished when Jew rioters attempted to burn down Alexandria’s amphitheatre. It took two full Roman legions to curb the rioting.

Another revolt began during Trajan’s (c. 98-117 AD) time as Rome’s emperor and another in 172 AD, was suppressed by Avidius Cassius. In 293-94 a revolt broke out in Coptos only to be snuffed out by Galerius’ forces. These revolts continued periodically until Roman rule over Egypt ended.

Egypt continued to be important to Rome. Vespasian was proclaimed Emperor of Rome in Alexandrina in 69 AD.

Diocletian was the last Roman emperor to visit Egypt in 302 AD. Groundbreaking events in Rome had a profound impact on Egypt’s place in the Roman Empire. Constantinople’s founding in 330 AD diminished Alexandria’s traditional status and much of Egypt’s grain ceased being shipped to Rome through Constantinople. Moreover, the Roman Empire’s conversion to Christianity and the subsequent halt to the persecution of Christians opened the floodgates for the religion’s expansion. The Christian church soon dominated much of the Empire’s religious and political life and this extended into Egypt. The patriarch of Alexandria emerged as the most influential political and religious figure in Egypt. Over time, a rivalry between the patriarch of Alexander and the patriarch of Constantinople grew in strength.

Extinguishing Roman Rule In Egypt

During the late 3rd century CE, the Emperor Diocletian’s decision to divide the empire in two with a western capital in Rome, and an eastern capital in Nicomedia, found Egypt in the eastern portion of Rome’s empire. As the power and influence of Constantinople rose, it became the Mediterranean’s economic, political and cultural centre. Over time Rome’s power declined and it eventually fell to an invasion in 476 CE. Egypt continued as a province in the Byzantine half of the Roman Empire until the 7th century when Egypt found itself under constant attack from the east. It fell first to the Sassanids in 616 CE and then to the Arabs in 641 CE.

Reflecting On The Past

Egypt under Roman rule was a deeply divided society. Part Hellenic, part Egyptian, both ruled by Rome. Relegated to the status of a province Egypt’s destiny after Cleopatra VII largely reflected the geopolitical fortunes of the Roman Empire.

Header image courtesy: david__jones  [CC BY 2.0], via flickr

David Rymer BA MBT

David is a freelance writer, non-fiction and fiction author and university lecturer in journalism, marketing and law. He has been based in the Middle East for over a decade travelling extensively in the region, including Egypt indulging in his passion for archaeology. He amuses himself in his down time by writing.

David can be found at @daviddoeswords and www.zaharablu.com

Cite this article

David Rymer BA MBT, "Egypt Under Roman Rule," Give Me History, March 15, 2019, https://givemehistory.com/egypt-under-roman-rule.

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