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History of Greek and Roman Egypt

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Ptolemy I, King of Egypt

The conquests of Alexander the Great brought Egypt within the orbit of the Greek world for the next 900 years. After 300 years of rule by the Macedonian Ptolemies, Egypt was incorporated into the Roman Empire in 30 BC, and was ruled first from Rome and then from Constantinople until the Arab conquest in AD 639.


Table of contents
1 Ptolemaic Egypt
2 Roman Egypt
3 Related articles
4 Reference

Ptolemaic Egypt

In 332 BC Alexander the Great, King of Macedon, conquered Egypt, with little resistance from the Persians. He was welcomed by the Egyptians as a deliverer. He visited Memphis, and went on pilgrimage to the oracle of Amun at the Oasis of Siwa. The oracle had the good sense to declare him to be the son of Amun. He conciliated the Egyptians by the respect which he showed for their religion, but he appointed Greeks to virtually all the senior posts in the country, and founded a new Greek city, Alexandria, to be the new capital. The wealth of Egypt could now be harnessed for Alexander's conquest of the Persian Empire. Early in 331 BC he was ready to depart, and led his forces away to Phoenicia.

After Alexander's death in 323 BC, his empire was divided up among his generals. Ptolemy son of Lagus, one of Alexander's closest companions, was appointed satrap of Egypt, and sson established himself as a ruler in his own right, although he did not take the title of king until 305 BC. As Ptolemy I Soter ("Saviour"), he founded the Ptolemaic dynasty, which was to rule Egypt for 300 years. All the male rulers of the dynasty took the name "Ptolemy". Because the Ptolemaic kings adopted the Egyptian custom of marrying their sisters, many of the kings ruled jointly with their spouses, who were also of the royal house. This custom made Ptolemaic politics confusingly incestuous, and the later Ptolemies were increasingly feeble. The last of the Ptolemies, the famous Cleopatra, was the only Ptolemaic queen to rule on her own, after the death of her brother/husband, Ptolemy XIII.

The early Ptolemies were wiser rulers than the Persians had been. They did not disturb the religion or customs of the Egyptians, and indeed built magnificent new temples for the Egyptian gods and soon adopted the outward display of the Pharaohs of old. During the reign of Ptolemies II and III thousands of Macedonian and Greek veterans were rewarded with grants of farm lands, and Greeks were planted in colonies and garrisons or settled themselves in the villages throughout the country. Upper Egypt, farthest from the centre of government, was less immediately affected, though Ptolemy I established the Greek colony of Ptolemais to be its capital, but within a century Greek influence had spead through the country and intermarriage had produced a large Greco-Egyptian educated class. Nevertheless, the Greeks always remained a privileged minority in Ptolemaic Egypt. They lived under Greek law, received a Greek education, were tried in Greek courts, and were citizens of Greek cities, just as they had been in Greece. The Egyptians were rarely admitted to the higher levels of Greek culture, in which most Egyptians were not in any case interested.

Ptolemy I

The first part of Ptolemy I's reign was dominated by the wars between the various successor states to the empire of Alexander. His first object is to hold his position in Egypt securely, and secondly to increase his domain. Within a few years he had gained control of Libya, Palestine and Cyprus. When Antigonus, ruler of Syria, tried to reunite Alexander's empire, Ptolemy joined the coalition against him. In 312 BC, allied with Seleucus, the ruler of Babylonia, he defeated Demetrius, the son of Antigonus, in the battle of Gaza.

In 311 BC a peace was concluded between the combatants, but in 309 BC war broke out again, and Ptolemy occupied Corinth and other parts of Greece, although he lost Cyprus after a sea-battle in 306 BC. Antigonus then tried invade Egypt but Ptolemy held the frontier against him. When the coalition was renewed against Antigonus in 302 BC, Ptolemy joined it, and when Antigonus was defeated and killed at Ipsus in 301 BC Ptolemy secured Palestine in the resulting settlement. Thereafter Ptolemy tried to stay out of land wars, but he retook Cyprus in 295 BC.

Feeling the kingdom was now secure, Ptolemy abdicated in 285 BC in favour of one of his younger sons by Queen Berenice. He devoted his retirement to writing a history of the campaigns of Alexander, which is unfortunately lost but was the principal source for the later work of Arrian. Ptolemy I died in 283 BC at the age of 84. He left a stable and well-governed kingdom to his son.

Ptolemy II

Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who succeeded his father as King of Egypt in 283 BC, was a peaceable and cultured king, and no great warrior. He did not need to be, because his father had left Egypt strong and prosperous. Three years of campaigning at the start of his reign left Ptolemy the master of the eastern Mediterranean, controlling the Aegean islands and the coastal districts of Cilicia, Pamphylia, Lycia and Caria.

Ptolemy's first wife, ArsinoŽ I, daughter of Lysimachus, was the mother of his legitimate children. After her repudiation he followed Egypytian custom and married his sister, ArsinoŽ II, beginning a practice which, while pleasing to the Egyptian population, was to have serious consequences in later reigns. The material and literary splendour of the Alexandrian court was at its height under Ptolemy II. Callimachus, keeper of the Library of Alexandria, Theocritus and a host of other poets, glorified the Ptolemaic family. Ptolemy himself was eager to increase the library and to patronise scientific research. He spent lavishly on making Alexandria the economic, artistic and intellectual capital of the Greek world. It is to the academies and libraries of Alexandria that we owe the preservation of so much of the literary heritage of Ancient Greece.

Ptolemy III

Ptolemy III Euergetes ("the benefactor") succeeded his father in 246 BC. He abandoned his predecessors' policy of keeping out of the wars of the other Greek kingdoms, and plunged into a war with the Seceucids of Syria, when his sister, Queen Berenice, and her son were murdered in a dynastic dispute. Ptolemy marched triumphantly into the heart of the Seleucid realm, as far at any rate as Babylonia, while his fleets in the Aegean made fresh conquests as far north as Thrace.

This victory marked the zenith of the Ptolemaic power. Seleucus II Callinicus kept his throne, but Egyptian fleets controlled most of the coasts of Asia Minor and Greece. After this triumph Ptolemy no longer engaged actively in war, although he supported the enemies of Macedonia in Greek politics. His domestic policy differed from his father's in that he patronised the native Egyptian religion more liberally: he has left larger traces at any rate among the Egyptian monuments. In this his reign marks the gradual "Egyptianisation" of the Ptolemies.

The decline of the Ptolemies

In 221 BC Ptolemy III died and was succeeded by his son Ptolemy IV Philopater, a weak and corrupt king under whom the decline of the Ptolemaic kingdom began. His reign was inaugurated by the murder of his mother, and he was always under the influence of favorites, male and female, who controlled the government. Nevertheless his ministers were able to make serious preparations to meet the attacks of Antiochus III the Great on Palestine, and the great Egyptian victory of Raphia in 217 BC secured the kingdom. A sign of the domestic weakness of his reign was rebellions by the native Egyptians. Philopator was devoted to orgiastic religions and to literature. He married his sister ArsinoŽ, but was ruled by his mistress Agathoclea.

Ptolemy V Epiphanes, son of Philopator and ArsinoŽ, was a child when he came to the throne, and a series of regents ran the kingdom. Antiochus III and Philip V of Macedon made a compact to seize the Ptolemaic possessions. Philip seized several islands and places in Caria and Thrace, while the battle of Panium in 198 BC transferred Palestine from Egypt to Syria. After this defeat Egypt formed an alliance with the rising power in the Mediterranean, Rome. Once he reached adulthood Epiphanes became a tyrant, before his early death in 180 BC. He was succeeded by his infant son Ptolemy VI Philometor.

In 170 BC Antiochus IV Epiphanes invaded Egypt and deposed Philometor, and his younger brother (later Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II) was installed as a puppet king. When Antiochus withdrew, the brothers agreed to reign jointly with their sister Cleopatra II. They soon fell out, however, and quarrels between the two brothers allowed Rome to interfere and to steadily increase its influence in Egypt. Eventually Philometor regained the throne. In 145 BC he was killed in the battle of Oenoparas near Antioch.

The later Ptolemies

Philometor was succeeded by yet another infant, his son Ptolemy VII Neos Philopater. But Euergetes soon returned, killed his young nephew, seized the throne and as Ptolemy VIII soon proved himself a cruel tyrant. On his death in 116 BC he left the kingdom to his wife Cleopatra III and her son Ptolemy IX Philometor Soter II. The young king was driven out by his mother in 107 BC, who reigned jointly with Euergetes's younger brother Ptolemy X Alexander. In 88 BC Ptolemy IX again returned to the throne, and retained it until his death in 80 BC. He was succeeded by Ptolemy XI Alexander II, the son of Ptolemy X. He was lynched by the Alexandria mob after murdering his mother. These sordid dynastic quarrels left Egypt so weakened that the country became a de facto protectorate of Rome, which had by now absorbed most of the Greek world.

Cleopatra VII, last Queen of Egypt

Ptolemy XI was succeeded by a son of Ptolemy IX, Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos, nicknamed Auletes, the flute-player. By now Rome was the arbiter of Egyptian affairs, and annexed both Libya and Cyprus. In 58 BC Auletes was driven out by the Alexandrian mob, but the Romans restored him to power three years later. He died in 51 BC, leaving the kingdom to his ten-year-old son, Ptolemy XIII, who reigned jointly with his 17-year-old sister and wife, Cleopatra VII.

During Cleopatra's reign Egyptian history merged with the general history of the Roman world, owing to the murder of Pompey in Egypt in 48 BC and the appearance in the country of Julius Caesar in 47 BC. In the wars of that period the young king perished and his younger brother, Ptolemy XIV Philopator, was nominally king with Cleopatra till 44 BC, when she had him murdered. From then till her death in 30 BC, Cleopatra's nominal co-ruler was her infant son by Caesar, Ptolemy XV Philopator Philometor Caesar, known as Caesarion. Cleopatra then made her last fatal alliance with Marcus Antonius, and when he was defeated by Octavius, she killed herself.

Roman Egypt

In 30 BC, following the death of Cleopatra, Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire, under the personal control of the Emperor, free from any interference by the Roman Senate. The main Roman interest in Egypt was always the reliable delivery of grain to the city of Rome. To this end the Roman administration made no change to the Ptolemaic system of government, although Romans replaced Greeks in the highest offices. But Greeks continued to staff most of the administrative offices and Greek remained the language of government except at the highest levels. Unlike the Greeks, the Romans did not settle in Egypt in large numbers. Culture, education and civic life largely remained Greek throughout the Roman period. The Romans, like the Ptolemies, respected and protected Egyptian religion and customs, although the cult of the Roman state and of the Emperor was gradually introduced.

Roman rule in Egypt

The first prefect of Egypt, 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: the Red Sea coast 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 Nero onwards, Egypt 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 Jerusalem in AD 70 become the world centre of Jewish religion and culture. Under Trajan a 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 Egypt, founded Antinoöpolis in memory of his drowned lover Antinous. From his reign onwards buildings in the Greco-Roman style were erected throughout the country.

Under Marcus Aurelius, however, oppressive taxation led to a revolt (139) of the native Egyptians, which was suppressed only after several years of fighting. This Bucolic War caused great damage to the economy and marked the beginning of Egypt'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 Egypt. 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 Niger was proclaimed emperor on the death of Pertinax. The Emperor Septimius Severus gave a constitution to Alexandria and the provincial capitals in 202.

The most revolutionary event in the history of Roman Egypt was the introduction of Christianity in the 2nd century. It was at first vigorously persecuted by the Roman authorities, who feared religious discord more than anything else in a country where religion had always been paramount. But it soon gained adherents among the Jews of Alexandria. From them it rapidly passed to the Greeks, and then to the native Egyptians, who found its promise of personal salvation and its teachings of social equality appealing. 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 it of its authority.

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 3rd century. Under Decius, in 250, the Christians again suffered from persecution, but their religion continued to spread. In 272 Zenobia, queen of Palmyra, briefly conquered Egypt, but lost it when Aurelian crushed her rebellion against Rome. Two generals based in Egypt, Probus and Domitius Domitianus, led successful revolts and made themselves Emperor. Diocletian captured Alexandria from Domitius in 296 and reorganised the whole province. His edict of 303 against the Christians began a new era of persecution. But this was the last serious attempt to stem the steady growth of Christianity in Egypt.

Christian Egypt

Egyptian Christians believe that the Patriarchate of Alexandria was founded by Mark the Evangelist around AD 33, but little is known about how Christianity entered Egypt. The historian Helmut Koester has suggested, with some evidence, that originally the Christians in Egypt were predominantly influenced by gnosticism until the efforts of Demetrius of Alexandria gradually brought the beliefs of the majority into harmony with the rest of Christianity. While the collective embarassment 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.

With the Edict of Milan in 312, Constantine the Great ended the persecution of Chrstians, and in 324 he made Christianity the religion of the Empire. Alexandria was now one of the great Christian centres, and paganism was eventually suppressed by force, although it lingered underground for many decades: the final edict against paganism was issued in 390. Many Egyptian Jews also became Christians, but many others refused to do so, leaving them as the only sizeable religious minority in a Christian country. They became the object of bitter hostility, and this may be seen as the beginning of anti-Semitism in the modern sense of the word.

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 326 after the Council of Nicaea rejected 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 heresies, such as Gnosticism and Manichaeism, either native or imported, found many followers. Another religious development in Egypt was monasticism, the renunciation of 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 Valens had 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 mutation of the Ancient Egyptian language into Coptic, which became the liturgical language of Egyptian Christianity and remains so to this day.

Byzantine Egypt

The reign of Constantine also saw the founding of Constantinople as a new capital for the Roman Empire, and in the course of the 4th century the Empire was divided in two, with Egypt finding itself in the Eastern Empire with its capital at Constantinople. This meant that within a few years Latin, never well established in Egypt, disappeared, and Greek reasserted itself as the language of government. During the 5th and 6th centuries the Eastern Roman Empire gradually became the Byzantine Empire, a Christian, Greek-speaking state that had little in common with the old Empire of Rome, which disappeared in the face of the barbarian invasions in the 5th century. Another consequence of the triumph of Christianity was the final demise of the old Egyptian culture: with the disappearance of the pagan priesthood, 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 Greco-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. The rule of the Church in alliance with the State grew more oppressive. But 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 415 with the aid of the mob, in response to the Jews' nighttime massacre of many Christians. The murder of the philosopher Hypatia marked 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 the Trinity. The majority of the Christian world supported the orthodox view that God is three persons in one (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), and that Jesus was therefore of the same nature as God. But Egypt was a stronghold of Monophysitism: the belief that God has only one nature, that of God the Father, and that Jesus (God the Son) and the Holy Spirit are of a different nature: they are from God but not of God. This may seem an arcane distinction, but in an intensely religious age it was enough to divide an empire. The Monophysite controversy arose after the First Council of Constantinople in 381 and continued until the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which ruled in favour of the orthodox position. 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. But Egypt and Syria remained hotbeds of Monophysite sentiment, and organised resistance to the orthodox view was not suppressed until the 570s.

The reign of Justinian (482 - 565) saw the Empire recapture Rome and much of Italy from the barbarians, but these successes left the Empire's eastern flank exposed. In 616 a revived Persian Empire under Khosrau II of Persia captured Egypt with little opposition. The Egyptians had no love of the Emperor in Constantinople and put up little resistance. The Persian occupation allowed Monophysitism to resurface in Egypt, and when imperial rule was restored by 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.

This was an army of 4,000 Arabs led by Amr ibn al-As, sent by the Caliph Umar, successor to the Prophet Mohammed, to spread his new faith, Islam, to the west. The Arabs crossed into Egypt from Palestine in December 639, and advanced rapidly into the Nile Delta. The Imperial garrisons retreated into the walled towns, where they successfully held out for a year or more. But the Arabs sent for reinforcements, and in April 641 they captured Alexandria. The Egyptian Christians generally welcomed their new rulers: the fact that Islam was a purely monotheistic religion, and thus had a lot in common with Monophysitism, did not escape notice. Thus ended 973 years of Greco-Roman rule over Egypt.

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