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Roman History of Egypt

With the death of Cleopatra VII and Mark Antonio, and with the fall of Alexandria in the hands of Augustus Octavius in 30 BC, Augustus became the legitimate heir of the government of Egypt. Octavius celebrated his victory achieved in the Battle of Actium coining a memorial currency with the Crocodile Sobek (Socha) on one side and the phrase “Aegyptus Capta” on the other. Fearing Augustus’ power and tired of wars, the Alexandrians did not show any resistance; rather, they offered him the coffin of Alexander the Great. On his part, Augustus also showed great respect to Alexandria venerating its people and culture. In addition, he respected Alexander’s body by placing his golden crown over it. But when offered to pay a visit to the tombs of the Ptolemaic Kings, he refused totally with a very obvious contempt towards those kings. Although he gave orders to his soldiers not to commit robberies, he plundered the treasury of Alexandria, filled up with Cleopatra’s gold, spending it on his soldiers, then later, on public projects until he went back to Rome bearing with him pills of treasures and monuments. Later, Octavius refused the Alexandrians’ request of reestablishing the city council (known at that time as ‘Boule’), because he realized that with the Boule, the Alexandrians would feel more patriotic and will realize that the Romans were only intruders. What most incited the Alexandrians’ rage was his favoritism towards the Jews. Octavious favored them because they helped him against Cleopatra VII, in his conquest over Alexandria. He also wanted to make a balance between both the Alexandrians and the Jews with the aim of maintaining stability, thus, he followed the famous Roman proverb “divide and conquer”. The Jews were forming a minority consisting of strangers and therefore nothing was to be feared from them and they could also work as agents for the Romans.

  • Augutus Octavius   

Octavius began a new organization of the Roman Empire, creating two kinds of provinces: provinces under the administration of the Senate (they were calm provinces) and others under the personal administration of the Emperor, represented by strategic provinces such as Egypt, Spain, Syria and the Gauls. Realizing the strategic situation of Egypt, Augustus recognized that any ambitious general or Senate member, who would take the control of Egypt, would think of separating the country and defending it easily or would cause famine to Rome just by preventing wheat from being sent to the Romans. So he issued a decree banning members of the Senate from entering Egypt without his permission. To eliminate any temptation of separation, Augustus divided Egypt into three administrative regions: The Delta, Central Egypt and El Fayoum and Thebes, each headed by an Epistrategos, without any military power. The Greek spirit continued to influence many aspects of the Egyptians’ life: Augustus maintained the Greek monetary system represented by the Alexandrian Coinage and the Tetradrachma appeared in this era. Augustus concentrated power in the hands of a Roman governor in Egypt (known as the Praefectus). The Praefectus was the supreme leader of the Roman troops, the head of the administrative apparatus and the supervisor of senior officials. Realizing the strategic importance of Egypt together with the danger of Egyptians’ riots, Augustus left agreat number of Roman Soldiers in Alexandria, Babylon (Near Memphis), and Thebes. He also left several garrisons at strategic sites like Aswan, Philadelphia (Al-Fayoum) and Magna Hermopolis (Alashmonein). Not only was the Roman army assigned military tasks, but it also undertook security operations, taxes collection, public services, as well as canal paving and cleaning.

 

– Egypt under Octavius Rule

Since there were few purely-Greek cities throughout Egypt (namely Alexandria, Necratis and Ptoloemea), Greek emigrants dispersed along the Egyptian countryside, then they tried to group themselves, not in polises but clans in the gymnasium . Octavius gave these gymnasiums an official status and created some posts. And this is how the local administration started. Like the Greeks, the Romans considered Egypt their own barn, but unlike the Ptolemies, the resources of Egypt went out of the country, mainly to Rome. There were many taxes, the most famous of which was the “laographia”. The total taxes paid by an Egyptian farmer ascended to 48 drachmas annually, while the Greeks belonging to a gymnasium paid almost a quarter of this amount, and the Alexandrians were exempted. The Romans also imposed compulsory service (munera Serdar), which consisted of five days of service annually in which the Egyptian peasants had to serve forcibly the country in works such as cleaning canals and building dams. The office of tax collector was honorary and obligatory, and paying taxes represented a collective responsibility: if a person could not pay the due taxes, his family had to pay for him and if the family could not pay, the neighbors must pay them, and so forth. As a result, in times of drought, people escaped from villages and moved to towns and cities or joined gangs of bandits so as to avoid the abusing taxes.

– Agriculture during the Reign of Ocatvius

The Romans had to make many urgent reforms to improve the agricultural production. To achieve this aim, Augustus ordered to dig and clean canals and to distribute land to farmers at low prices devoting his attention to reusing the old irrigation system. Besides, he provided water cisterns in trade channels and Red Sea ports. And with these efforts, an era of prosperity and peace for a non-fixed period was built.

– Trade during the Reign of Ocatvius

In an attempt to control trade roads in the Red Sea and the east of the Mediterranean, Augustus launched several campaigns at the neighboring sites to secure the trade roads with India and Middle Africa countries. The Romans desired to occupy Yemen, Nubia and Somalia to take hold of gold, spices, perfumes, ivory, diamonds and incense.

– Religion during the Reign of Octavius

Religion The Roman Empire showed respect to the Egyptian gods and temples and they contributed to the restoration and construction of some of them, trying to convince the Egyptians that the Romans were the legitimate Pharaohs of the country. But deep inside Augustus was contempt towards the Egyptian deities as he refused to visit Apis-Bull because he was accustomed to worship gods and not cattle. Aware of the power of priests and Egyptian temples, Augustus confiscated lands of the temples, giving the priests salaries instead. He also annulled the right of asylum in temples.

– Relations with Nubia during the Reign of Octavious

Religion The Roman Empire showed respect to the Egyptian gods and temples and they contributed to the restoration and construction of some of them, trying to convince the Egyptians that the Romans were the legitimate Pharaohs of the country. But deep inside Augustus was contempt towards the Egyptian deities as he refused to visit Apis-Bull because he was accustomed to worship gods and not cattle. Aware of the power of priests and Egyptian temples, Augustus confiscated lands of the temples, giving the priests salaries instead. He also annulled the right of asylum in temples.

 

 

Tiberius (14-37 AD)

 

 

During the time of Tiberius, Egypt lived a peaceful era when Rome withdrew one of the legions, leaving only 16700 soldiers in the country. Tiberius was interested in avoiding any action that would provoke the Greeks or Egyptians: he gave orders to investigate any complaint against the governors and he even blamed Governor Aemelius Rectus for collecting too many taxes. During his reign, his heir Germanicus visited Egypt, thus breaking Octavius’ order that prohibited members of the Senate from visiting Egypt without the Emperor’s permission. During his visit, Germanicus adopted a series of measures which increased his popularity: he lowered prices and opened wheat silos to put an end to hunger caused by the low flood. All these actions upset Tiberius who criticized him publicly in the Senate and Germanicus had to abandon Egypt immediately. He went to Syria where he fell ill and died. The widow of Germanicus accused Tiberius of murdering her husband. Then Tiberius killed the entire family of Germanicus except (Gaius – Caligula) who became his heir.

 

Gaius – Caligula 

Caligula, son of Germanikus, commenced his reign with moderation in an attempt to be fair, but soon fell sick. His sickness caused him a mental disorder. Caligula believed that he was a human-shaped god and that he represented law, therefore all had but to obey him. He was assassinated in the 24th of January, 41 AC.

 

 

Alexandrians and Jews Civil War

 

 

The Alexandrians accused the Jews of treason for having helped the Roman troops to conquer Egypt so as to gain privileges from them. Also the Alexandrians accused the Jews of practicing usury (it even amounted to the extent that the Roman emperors owed them money). The Alexandrians’ hatred towards them was also because the Jews lived in isolation, bearing a heavy hatred towards the Pagan Deity. The Jews began to denounce to the Roman governors that the Alexandrians were collecting and storing weapons in their houses and that they were preparing for a riot against Rome. As a response, the governors effectively confiscated a large quantity of weapons. The civil war between the two sides began with the visit of Agrippa, a grandson of Herod, to Alexandria. Agrippa was a friend of Caligula and he benefited from his friendship with the Emperor in increasing the privileges enjoyed by the Jews. The Alexandrians ridiculed Agrippa and complained to the Emperor that the Jews disobeyed his order of worshiping him as a god. With this excuse, the Alexandrians broke into the Jewish neighborhood and placed statues of the Emperor in their temples. Caligula issued a decree nullifying the privileges of the Jews. Seizing such an opportunity, the Alexandrians looted the Jews’ homes and businesses and killed many of them. Since then, delegations of Jews and Alexandrians began to visit Rome to explain their case before the Emperor, who was angry with the former because they denied his divinity. After the assassination of Caligula, both the Jews and Alexandrians continued sending their delegations to Claudius who tried to appease both sides warning them of serious consequences that were to take place. But delegations continued and, in one of the audiences, the Alexandrians, Isidoros and Lambon believed that the Emperor favored the Jews and insulted him. Claudius ordered their execution and they were considered, by the Alexandrians, the first martyrs.

 

 

Nero (54 – 68 AC)   

During the reign of Nero, the Kingdom of Axum increased its power and began to expand its domains at the expense of the Nubian Kingdom of Meroe. Besides, Axum was threatening the Arab allies of Rome and the trade in the Red Sea. Realizing the thread of the Nubian expansion imposed on trade roads and more importantly on Egypt’s borders, Nero had to organize an expedition to Nubia to examine and assist the Kingdom of Meroe. The expedition reported that Nubia was in a deplorable condition and that Rome had to prevent the Kingdom of Axum from taking hold of Meroe. In 66-67 AC, Nero began to organize a military campaign to conquer Nubia and to overpower the thread of Axum. But this expedition never departed because of the outbreak of the revolution of the Jews in Palestine, which was extended to Alexandria. The Romans concentrated their powers on putting it down. In 68 AC, General Galba declared himself emperor and Nero committed suicide.

 

 

 

Vespasian (69-79 AC) 

 

 The 68th year witnessed many of political and military turmoil in the Roman Empire. General Galba declared himself emperor and Nero committed suicide. But Galba was defeated and General Otho succeeded him just for 3 months then Vitellus ascended the throne. The Roman Empire in the East refused to recognize the new emperor and acclaimed Vespasian, who came to Egypt to implement an embargo on wheat to Rome to topple Vitellus. But when Vespasian knew that Vitellus was killed, he abstained from implementing this embargo, so as to win the affection of the Romans. During the reign of Vespasian, another Jewish revolution broke out in Palestine, but it was suppressed by Titus who was welcomed as a hero in Alexandria.

 

 

Titus & Domitian (79 – 96 AC)

 

The reign of Titus was short, but during his government, the Romans’ vision towards the Egyptian religion changed. For the first time, the cult of the founders of the Ptolemaic Dynasty was recognized and the cult of the minor local deities resurfaced. Since the time of Octavius, the temples of the local gods –with the exception of those of the holy trinity of Isis, Serapis and Harpocrates- declined since the Romans despised the worship of animals. In times of Domitian, these divinities were tolerated and a new activity of rebuilding their temples began. Domitian also built temples dedicated to Isis and Serapis in Rome Itself.

 

 

 

 

Nerva (96 – 98) & Trajan (98 – 117)

Domitian was killed and the reign of Nerva was also short as he was an old man. During his reign, Egypt enjoyed a peaceful period. During the reign of Trajan, another revolution of the Jews broke out in Alexandria and very soon became a war of all against all. Rome had to arm the Egyptian peasants to protect towns and cities. Trajan made many changes in administration and built the fortress of Babylon (The Old Cairo today) making it the headquarters of the Roman army. Also, it was in this era that the great temple Dendera was erected.

 

 

 

Hadrian ( 117-138 )

 

During the first years of Hadrian’s reign, another revolution of the Jews broke out and he had to put it down violently. After this revolution, Hadrian ordered the restoration of the destructed buildings and the construction of a new library. He also showed respect to the calf Serapis. Hadrian also ordered the reduction of the rents of the agricultural lands to alleviate the damage caused by war. In the summer of 130 AC, Hadrian arrived to Egypt and spent one month and half in Alexandria, until the flood finished, and then he sailed to the South to Thebes. Hadrian was fond of the Greek Civilization that he decided to build another Greek city in Egypt calling it Antinoupolis (Near Hermolpolis), in commemoration of his servant Anthinoos.

 

 

 

 

Antoninus Pius (138 – 161), Marcus Aurelius (161-180) & Commodus (180 – 192) 

The reign of Pius was prosperous and, in general, peaceful. But surprisingly, during the reign of Aurelius, a revolution of the Egyptians against the tax collectors broke out in the Delta. Led by a priest called Isidoros, the Egyptians were tired of the high taxes and killed the Roman Centurion. When the Roman troops came to repel the revolution, they were faced with fierce resistance and therefore defeated in the Delta, until Avidius Casius came from Syria. Casius resorted to deception to sow division among the Egyptians. His attempt met with success as he managed to make them fight each others and thus he put the revolution down. Avidius Casius declared himself emperor and he was acclaimed by the Roman troops in the East. But his adventure ended when he was assassinated only 3 months later. Marcos Aurelius visited Egypt and forgave the Eastern nations who acclaimed Avidius. To satisfy his desires for avenger, Commodus ordered the assassination of the family of Avidius Casius and many Alexandrians who had supported him. In General, the reign of these emperors was prosperous and both agriculture and trade flourished. It was a time when Alexandria was the greatest port in the world.

The Decline of the Roman Empire in Egypt

After the assassination of Commodus, the Roman legions began to propose their candidates and a state of chaos dominated throughout the Empire, until Septimius Severus beat Pescennius Niger. Severus visited Egypt and ordered the restoration of the city council (Boule), not only in Alexandria but also in all the capitals inside Egypt. Antoninus (Caracalla) continued the calm politics of his father and decided to give the Roman citizenship to all of the Empire’s nations. But when Caracalla visited Egypt, he did not like the fact that the Alexandrians were fans of irony and criticism. Therefore, he ordered his troops to punish them, which in return caused a lot of destruction. Post-Caracalla period witnessed a fighting among the Roman generals over the succession until Diocletian. During this period, Egypt was no longer important to the Roman Empire because of the impoverishment and depletion of it resources. Egypt became even the destination of the repudiated by Rome. Zenobia, the wife of Odenathus (the late governor of Palmyra) invaded Egypt with an army of 70000 soldiers. In Alexandria, her army declared his son, Vaballathus, emperor. Aureliano recognized Vaballathus as a partner, but very soon the war broke out between them and the former was able to conquer Palmyra and captivate Queen Zenobia. In the meantime, a new different threat appeared. The new Christian Religion which predicated fraternity and redemption, spread in Egypt and in many other provinces of the Empire. The Egyptianized Greeks easily adopted the new religion believing that it had much resemblance with their Holy Trinity and its values represented by redemption, salvation, resurrection, passive resistance, and equity between humans.

Diocletian (284 – 305)

In addition to poverty, high taxes and unjust discrimination, Egypt also suffered from the attacks of the Blemmyes who came from the South. The Egyptian people did not show any resistance to these tribes, perhaps because they were tired of the Roman occupation. During the decline, the Roman administration did not find soldiers who wanted to serve in desert sites deprived from any sign of civilization. Diocletian decided to move the defensive line to Aswan and convinced Bedouin tribes to move to the South to defend the Southern border in exchange for financial support. Moreover, Diocletian tried to buy peace through giving the Blemmyes large sums of money on the condition that they abstained from looting and pillaging. In Alexandria, revolutions erupted one after another, the strongest of which was headed by Lucius Domitius Domitianus, who was declared emperor. Diocletian sent a large force that besieged Alexandria for 8 months and then attacked the city causing a great destruction. When Diocletian came to Alexandria, he found it an impoverished destroyed city with diseases and plagues striking its peoples. Diocletian decided to buy the Alexandrians’ loyalty decreeing that part of the city’s wheat reserve was to be donated to satisfy their hunger. In appreciation, the Alexandrians erected a monument in the form of a 26-meter column. Diocletian decided to cancel the Alexandrian currency. Thus Egypt became incorporated with the monetary system of the Empire. Diocletian had to face the danger of the new Christian Religion, which put obstacles in the way of materializing his project to revive the Empire. Christianity had spread in the Delta among the Greco-Egyptians and gradually spread to Alexandria that was evangelized by St. Mark in 60 AC. In 68 AC, he was martyred by an attack of pagans. Diocletian ordered the persecution of Christians and massacred thousands of them, so the year of his coronation is considered the year of the martyrs and the beginning of the Egyptian Coptic Calendar. Diocletian divided the Empire into four regions, each two regions were governed by an emperor.

 

 

Constantine Era (307 – 337)

Constantine had defeated Lucinius in his war for the Eastern Empire and chose the city of Byzantium to be his capital in 323 AC. Constantine recognized Christianity as an official religion of the Empire, in an attempt to appease the Eastern Empire. But very soon, differences among Christians broke out over determining the relationship between members of the Holy Trinity and wars broke out again, this time religious. Constantine held a forum in Nikaia in 325 AC to bridge differences between Arius and Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria. The consequences of the forum were disastrous because, initially Arius went into exile and, then Athanasius. These actions sowed divisions among the Eastern churches and sparked a conflict between the state that wanted to control the church and the church that claimed the old privileges of ancient pagan temples.

 

 

 

The Byzantines

The fourth century witnessed the split of the Roman Empire into two distinct empires: the Eastern Roman Empire (later called the Byzantine Empire) and Western Roman Empire, a split reinforced when Constantine I transferred the capital of the Eastern Empire from Nicomedia (in Anatolia) to Byzantium (the city which inspired his imagination in 330 AD to be rebuilt as Nuova Roma (New Rome) ). After Constantine’s death, Byzantium had been called Constantinople (‘City of Constantine’), until it fell under the Ottoman Empire on May 29, 1453, by then the Turks named it ‘Istanbul’. The Byzantine Empire had an evident character of Greco-Roman civilization. Significantly, when the Byzantines gradually embraced Christianity, during the 5th and 6th centuries, their culture acquired a noticeably distinct character, different from their pagan past. By the 7th century, the empire was channeled into another direction under the rule of Emperor Heraclius, when Greek was made the official language of the empire and improvements were made within the military. When its links with the old Greco-Roman world scattered, the Byzantine Empire finally started to acquire an ‘Oriental’ style, a style considerably strengthened by the 15th century, after the fall of Constantinople under the Ottoman Turks in the wake of a long state of deterioration that had struck the Byzantine Empire in the 12th century. Even when struck with recurrent setbacks, the Byzantine Empire eagerly preserved its economic, cultural and military position inside the continent through providing a military shield against early Muslim expansion; supplying the Mediterranean area with gold currencies; and imposing its influence on the political systems, laws , and customs of Europe, an influence which further spread into North Africa and the Near East for much of the Middle Ages.

 

– Egypt under the Byzantine Rule

What further brought the Egyptian Romans into isolation from Rome’s culture and hastened the dissemination of Christianity was the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century. When Christianity propagated in Egypt, the Egyptian Pharaonic culture began to fade away: no-one could read the hieroglyphics since priests no longer functioned at the temples (which were either transferred into churches or abandoned to the desert). Being the second city of the empire, Alexandria was fraught with religious controversies and rife with rifts. In response to the massacre of many Christians the Jews alleged, Cyril (the Patriarch of Alexandria) urged the city’s governor to deport the Jews from Alexandria in 415. Nevertheless, Egypt continued to supply the Empire and the Mediterranean region as a whole with much of its agricultural production and manufacturing prerequisites continuing to be an important center of scholarship.

– Religious controversies between the Egyptian Church and the Byzantine Empire

Religious controversies between the Egyptian Church and the Byzantine Empire sparked over the nature of Jesus, more specifically, whether he had two natures, human and divine, or merely one. Called for by Constantine I, the First Council of Nicaea was held in Nicaea (in Bithynia) in 325 AD and resulted in the first uniform Christian doctrine, called the ‘Nicene Creed’ which aimed at resolving debates within the Church of Alexandria over the nature of Jesus so as to define unity of beliefs for the whole of Christendom. While St. Alexander of Alexandria and Athanasius took the position that Jesus was of the same substance as God the Father, the popular presbyter Arius took the position that Jesus was merely of similar substance – and the council’s decision was against the latter. Since the Council of Nicaea failed to clarify the divinity of Jesus, in 381, Theodosius I called for the First Council of Constantinople. Being held in the Church of Hagia Irene from May to July 381, the council tackled numerous questions: it denounced Arianism and expanded the third article of the creed (which dealt with the Holy Spirit) in the so-called ‘ the Nicene Creed of 381’. Significantly, it was set that Jesus is of the same being (Ousia) as God the Father. It is worth noting that because Pope Damasus I was not called into the council (or rather refused to be present), this council is sometimes named the ‘Unecumenical Council’, nevertheless, it was considered ecumenical at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The Council of Chalcedon is considered to be the Fourth Ecumenical Council held from 8 October to 1 November. It condemned the idea that the nature of Jesus amounted to nothing, disregarding the findings of 449. As a consequence, the Chalcedonian Creed provided a description of the “full humanity and full divinity” of Jesus. Although the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches (then one church) recognize this council as faultless in its doctrinal definitions, it arose a major schism. That is, those who abstained from accepting its teachings (who are now known as Oriental Orthodoxy) were accused of Monophysitism (believing that Jesus has two natures in one nature called, the “Incarnate Logos of God”). However, the stream of the Monophysite thought continued to take both Egypt and Syria as its center and the opposition of the Orthodox perception was orderly repressed in the 570s.

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