Roman Egypt

Roman Egypt


Egypt became Roman by right of conquest.  The great travails of the Roman world were finally resolved in 31 BC at the Battle of Actium when Augustus, then known as Octavian, finally defeated Mark Anthony and became the sole ruler of the Roman world.   During the battle, Cleopatra, who was present with the Egyptian fleet,  fled to Egypt; Anthony followed her,  and Octavian pursued them.  Mark Anthony committed suicide followed by Cleopatra, and Octavian found himself ruler of Egypt.



And here Augustus showed his genius, for instead of making Egypt into a Roman province, he took it as his own private property.  All rulers need to have their own private property, their own source of funding, and Egypt was ideal.  It was therefore put in charge of a Prefect,  who was always of an equestrian rank; that is not a senator.  A province was always in charge of a senator, normally someone who had just been a consul who was appointed at least theoretically by the senate and responsible to the senate.  Augustus reversed this:  Senators were forbidden to go to Egypt except by special permission, and Egypt and all its riches belonged to the emperor alone.  It was a system that lasted until the end of the Roman Empire.


In the Roman period, mummies were often fronted by painted cartonage masks such as this one of the early second century. Note the elaborate necklace at the bottom of which is a scarab jewellery supporting the lower dress.One would like to know whether the lady appeared to like this in her lifetime or whether her husband had this painted after her death. It is one of the most popular items in the British Museum

The purpose of Egypt to Augustus was to provide money, and in particular to provide grain.  When Rome acquired the vice of bread and circuses, the bread came in large part from Egypt.  The Ptolemies had already set up a superb system for enabling the economy to produce a huge surplus and the Romans simply took this over.  There was a small Roman contingent at the top: the prefect and under him his legal adviser, a financial officer and very important, the chief priest who looked after the temples and kept the priests happy, and ensured that the profits from all the temple lands came to the emperor.  And of course there were the military commanders: three legions were stationed in Egypt; one at Alexandria, one at a place confusingly named Babylon but which is now part of modern Cairo, while the third was at Thebes where the temple at Luxor was converted  into the military headquarters.

The Romans made considerable efforts to support the Egyptian religion. The best example of this is the Temple of Dendera, 50 miles north of Luxor. Here we see the facade (above) the Hypostyle hall (right) built at the time of Tiberius,  and (left) depictions of Cleopatra left and her son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion.


Though the top-level administration was run by Romans, the lower level administration was run by Greeks or Egyptians. The country was divided up into the thirty nomes that had existed since the beginning of the Egyptian state, and at this level it was run by Greeks or Egyptians.  Each nome was divided into districts and then villages, each with their own scribe who kept the innumerable records.

The records are particularly well known from one site in particular: Oxyrhynchus.  Oxyrhynchus is an otherwise undistinguished town 100 miles south of Cairo on the branch of the River Nile which leads to the very fertile oasis known as the Fayum.  Little remains of the town which has been quarried away, but it was surrounded by a rubbish heaps and these have proved to be one of Egypt’s greatest treasures, for they contain huge quantities of papyrus documents.  These were discovered or exploited in 1896 when two young scholars, Grenfell and Hunt, hearing that it was a source of papyri, went out to investigate. Almost immediately they hit treasure: a new gospel, the gospel of St Thomas together with pages from St Matthew.

In late Victorian England this was a huge success and finance poured in for six further seasons yielding 700 boxes, containing an estimated half a million scraps  of papyri which were taken back to Oxford.  So far 70 volumes of text and translation have been published and the project is only halfway through.  Reading them still continues.

Euclid''s geometry from Oxyrhnchus, Wikipedia

Fragment of Euclid’s Elements found at Oxyrhynchus. Note the geometric diagram bottom right

Apart from the Christian writings, there has been a substantial addition to classical texts.  Foremost among them are some songs of the early poets, Pindar, Sappho and Alcaeus. There is also a substantial part of a satyr play of Sophocles, who is normally considered to be one of the more austere classical playwrights and there are also a number of fragments of Menander, said to be the greatest writer of the New comedy of the fourth century BC, whose works were mostly lost in the Middle Ages, but are gradually being recovered from the papyri.

But these only form 10% of the papyri, the rest are to the modern scholar far more important because they represent the bits and pieces of everyday life – bills, legal documents, letters and other trivia which enable the whole life of Oxyrhynchus to be recovered.  Peter Parsons, the Professor of Greek at Oxford has devoted his life to Oxyrhynchus, and has written a book called ‘The City of Sharp Nosed Fish’ which is what Oxyrhynchus means, in which he describes the city and its people as reconstructed from the papyri.


The Porphyry quarries

Porphyry quarries in Egypt

Mona Claudianus, the site of the second great porphyry quarry in the eastern desert. The Roman camp can be seen near the centre, while to the right are  the white tents of the excavation team.

The other great source of information about life in Roman Egypt comes from the excavations at the porphyry mines.  Porphyry is a form of granite in a wonderful purple colour.  It is only found high up in the mountains of the eastern desert, but Roman emperors fell in love with it and made it their own special stone.  Indeed the later Roman emperors in Constantinople had the best rooms in their palace made from porphyry – hence the phrase ‘born to the purple’, means someone who was born in the porphyry rooms in the palace at Constantinople.

Porphyry column

A column of porphyry in the Temple of Venus in the forum at Rome, showing its distinctive colour.

But getting porphyry was not easy. It was quarried high in the mountains and then had to be dragged down to the plains.  It then had to be dragged 190 kilometres overland to the Nile.  It then had to go down the Nile to Alexandria, and from there it had to be put on a boat to be taken to Rome or to Constantinople – probably the easiest part of the journey. It is a tribute to the organising ability both of the Romans and the Egyptians.

Map to show position of porphyry quarries

Map to show position of porphyry quarries

The workforce was highly literate: they wrote their messages and their commands on pots, thousands of which have survived. These reveal that the workmen were not slaves but highly skilled workmen.  If every scrap of food, every drop of water has to be brought 100 miles from the Nile, you simply cannot afford to waste it on slaves.  Only the use of the most productive workers makes sense.

Roman diversity. This inscription was set up by a Roman official on the 23 July AD 18 to celebrate his discovery of the porphyry quarries. It is written in Greek, in the Egyptian style, dedicated to Pan and Serapis, though Pan is clearly the Egyptian god Min.

Roman Egypt worked with great efficiency for 300 years, with only occasional outbreaks of discontent and revolts.  But then another force began to take over – Christianity.  Egypt had always been a hotbed of religious speculation and when Christianity came along it fell on fertile soil.  Here was a religion that told a good story mixed with intellectual ideals, but which attracted all, whether Egyptian or Greek or even Roman.  It was periodically persecuted which made it even stronger and thus when Constantine issued his edict of toleration in 311, Christianity flourished and soon the Patriarch of Alexandria assumed an importance that in some ways rivalled that of the Prefect.

Egyptian Christianity soon began to acquire its own characteristics; they invented monasticism.  It began around 270 when St Anthony went out into the desert and became a hermit and a saint.  Soon hermits began banding together and in the 340s the first monasteries began to appear in the western desert.  Meanwhile in Alexandria, Christianity was gaining strength and in 391 a mob attacked the Temple of Serapis and destroyed it.  But the Alexandrine church gained strength when the gospels began to be written down for the locals, and were written in the Egyptian language but using the Greek script – and a new ’language’ – Coptic was invented.  The Coptic Church still survives as the second largest religion in Egypt.

Monasteries spread fast in Egypt. This is the White Monastery near Soag, which still operates as a monastery. It formerly possessed an extensive library.

beginning to lose some of its prestige.  Alexandria had long considered itself to be the second city of the Roman world after Rome, but with the foundation of Constantinople in 330,  Constantinople became the second city and soon became the second largest city. And this distinction was felt keenly in Christianity: who was the more important, the patriarch of Constantinople or the patriarch of Alexandria?  The two churches began drifting apart.

The big problem came over the ‘monophysite’ controversy.  This revolved round the question of whether Christ was a man who became god, or a god who became man: though it was somewhat more complicated than that.  It was debated at great length at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, and the Egyptians lost and the Byzantines  won, or at least they were the majority, and the Byzantine Church became the dominant force in the Eastern Empire.  But the Egyptians went their own way and the Coptic Church still survives today.

But the enthusiasm for Christianity meant that the Egyptian religion was swept aside, sometimes forcibly. Egyptian culture however still continued, or rather it was never formally repudiated.  The great monuments were all around them and the great grain ships which had fed the City of Rome still left from Alexandria, though by now they were diverted to Constantinople.  But all this came to an end in 642  when the Moslem forces invaded, and the Arabs took over.  This changed everything.  With this the Egyptian culture came to an end.  The great grain ships vanished causing chaos in Constantinople, and the  great Belgian historian Henri Pirenne in his influential book ‘Mohamed and Charlemagne’ argued that this marked the end of the Roman Empire.  When the great grain ships no longer sailed, pirates moved in and commerce in the Mediterranean ceased.

And in Egypt a new Muslim centre sprang up at Cairo, and Alexandria and Memphis and Thebes gradually declined to become mere villages.  The great Egyptian Empire had come to an end.


This brings to an end my account of the great civilisation of Egypt


Now there are two choices:

Either explore the other great civilisation of China and see how it differed from, and was similar to, Egypt.


on to the very different civilisation that was Greece.



10th September 2019