Roman Egypt

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Roman Egypt
Latin: Aegyptus
Koinē Greek: Αἴγυπτος Aígyptos
Roman Empire - Aegyptus (125 AD).svg
Province of Aegyptus in AD 125
• 1st century AD
4 to 8 million.[1]
Historical eraClassical antiquity
Late antiquity
• Conquest of Ptolemaic Kingdom
30 BC
• Formation of the Diocese
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Ptolemaic Kingdom
Sasanian Egypt
Rashidun Caliphate
Today part ofEgypt

Egypt (Latin: Aegyptus [ae̯ˈɡʏptʊs]; Koinē Greek: Αἴγυπτος Aígyptos [ɛ́ːɡyptos]) was a subdivision of the Roman Empire from Rome's annexation of the Ptolemaic Kingdom in 30 BC to its loss by the Byzantine Empire to the Islamic conquests in AD 641. The province encompassed most of modern-day Egypt except for the Sinai, and was bordered by the provinces of Crete and Cyrenaica to the west and Judea, later Arabia Petraea, to the East. Egypt came to serve as a major producer of grain for the empire and had a highly developed urban economy. Aegyptus was by far the wealthiest Eastern Roman province,[2][3] and by far the wealthiest Roman province outside of Italy.[4] The population of Roman Egypt is unknown; although estimates vary from 4 to 8 million.[1] In Alexandria, its capital, it possessed the largest port, and was the second largest city of the Roman Empire. [5][6]

After the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, the Ptolemaic Kingdom (r. 305–30 BC), which had ruled Egypt since the Wars of Alexander the Great brought an end to Achaemenid Egypt (the Thirty-first Dynasty), took the side of Mark Antony in the last war of the Roman Republic, against the eventual victor Octavian, who as Augustus became the first Roman emperor in 27 BC, having defeated Mark Antony and the pharaoh, Cleopatra VII, at the naval Battle of Actium.[7] After the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra, the Roman Republic annexed the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt.[7] Augustus and many subsequent emperors ruled Egypt as the Roman pharaohs.[7] The Ptolemaic institutions were dismantled, and though some bureaucratic elements were maintained the government administration was wholly reformed along with the social structure.[7] The Graeco-Egyptian legal system of the Hellenistic period continued in use, but within the bounds of Roman law.[7] The tetradrachm coinage minted at the Ptolemaic capital of Alexandria continued to be the currency of an increasingly monetized economy, but its value was made equal to the Roman denarius.[7] The priesthoods of the Ancient Egyptian deities and Hellenistic religions of Egypt kept most of their temples and privileges, and in turn the priests also served the Roman imperial cult of the deified emperors and their families.[7]

From the 1st century BC, the Roman governor of Egypt was appointed by the emperor for a multi-year term and given the rank of prefect (Latin: praefectus).[7] Both the governor and the major officials were of equestrian rank (rather than of senatorial rank).[7] Three Roman legions garrisoned Egypt in the early Roman imperial period, with the garrison later reduced to two, alongside auxilia formations of the Roman army.[7] Augustus introduced land reforms that enabled wider entitlement to private ownership of land (previously rare under the Ptolemaic cleruchy system of allotments under royal ownership) and the local administration reformed into a Roman liturgical system, in which land-owners were required to serve in local government.[7] The status of Egypt's cities were increased, particularly the major towns of each nome (administrative region), known as a mētropolis (Koinē Greek: μητρόπολις, lit.'mother city').[7] The mētropoleis were governed by magistrates drawn from the liturgy system; these magistrates, as in other Roman cities, practised euergetism and built public buildings. In 200/201, the emperor Septimius Severus (r. 193–211) allowed to each metropolis, and to the city of Alexandria, a boulē (a Hellenistic town council).[7]

The Antonine Plague struck in the latter 2nd century, but Roman Egypt recovered by the 3rd century.[7] Having escaped much of the Crisis of the Third Century, Roman Egypt fell under the control of the breakaway Palmyrene Empire after the invasion of Egypt by Zenobia in 269.[8] The emperor Aurelian (r. 270–275) successfully besieged Alexandria and recovered Egypt, as did Diocletian (r. 284–305) in his 297–298 campaign against the usurpers Domitius Domitianus and Achilleus.[8]

The inhabitants of Roman Egypt were divided by social class along ethnic and cultural lines.[7] Roman citizens and citizens of Alexandria were exempted from the poll tax paid by the other inhabitants, the "Egyptians", and had other defined legal distinctions.[7] Egyptians legally resident in the metropolis of the nomoi paid a reduced poll tax and had more privileges than other Egyptians, and within these mētropoleis there were the Hellenic socio-political élite, who as an urban, land-owning aristocracy dominated Egypt by the 2nd and throughout the 3rd centuries through their large private estates.[7] Most inhabitants were peasants, many working as tenant-farmers for high rents in kind, cultivating sacred land belonging to temples or public land formerly belonging to the Egyptian monarchy.[7] The division between the rural life of the villages, where the Egyptian language was spoken, and the metropolis, where the citizens spoke Koine Greek and frequented the Hellenistic gymnasia, was the most significant cultural division in Roman Egypt, and was not dissolved by the Constitutio Antoniniana of 212, which made all free Egyptians Roman citizens.[7] There was considerable social mobility however, accompanying mass urbanization, and participation in the monetized economy and literacy in Greek by the peasant population was widespread.[7]

In Late Antiquity, the administrative and economic reforms of Diocletian (r. 284–305) coincided with the Christianization of the Roman Empire, especially the growth of Christianity in Egypt.[8] After Constantine the Great gained control of Egypt from his erstwhile co-augustus Licinius (r. 308–324), the emperors promoted Christianity.[8] The latest stage of Egyptian language, Coptic, emerged as literary language among the Christians of Roman Egypt.[7] Under Diocletian the frontier was moved downriver to the First Cataract of the Nile at Syene (Aswan), withdrawing from the Dodekaschoinos region.[8] This southern frontier was largely peaceful for many centuries, as attested by serving military documents from the late 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries from garrisons at Syene, Philae, and Elephantine.[8] These soldiers of the Late Roman army were likely limitanei, but regular units also served in Egypt, including the Scythae Iustiniani of Justinian the Great (r. 527–565), known to have been stationed in the Thebaid. Constantine's currency reforms, including the introduction of the gold solidus, stabilized the economy and ensured Roman Egypt remained a monetized system, even in the rural economy.[8] The trend towards private ownership of land became more pronounced in the 5th century and peaked in the 6th century, with large estates built up from many individual plots.[8] Some large estates were owned by Christian churches, and smaller land-holders included those who were themselves both tenant farmers on larger estates and landlords of tenant-farmers working their own land.[8]

The First Plague Pandemic arrived in the Mediterranean Basin with the emergence of the Justinianic Plague at Pelusium in Roman Egypt in 541.

Egypt ceased to be a part of the Roman Empire in 641, when it became part of the Rashidun Caliphate following the Muslim conquest of Egypt.

Roman government in Egypt

As Rome overtook the Ptolemaic system in place for areas of Egypt, they made many changes. The effect of the Roman conquest was at first to strengthen the position of the Greeks and of Hellenism against Egyptian influences. Some of the previous offices and names of offices under the Hellenistic Ptolemaic rule were kept, some were changed, and some names would have remained but the function and administration would have changed.

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 Aegyptus combined responsibility for military security through command of the legions and cohorts, for the organization of finance and taxation, and for the administration of justice.

A 1st-century AD Roman emperor wearing nemes with a uraeus, as pharaoh (Louvre

The Egyptian provinces of the Ptolemaic Kingdom remained wholly under Roman rule until the administrative reforms of the augustus Diocletian (r. 284–305).[9]: 57  In these first three centuries of Roman Egypt, the whole country came under the central Roman control of single governor, officially called in Latin: praefectus Alexandreae et Aegypti, lit.'prefect of Alexandria and Egypt' and more usually referred to as the Latin: praefectus Aegypti, lit.'prefect of Egypt' or the Koinē Greek: ἔπαρχος Αἰγύπτου, romanized: eparchos Aigyptou, lit.'Eparch of Egypt'.[9]: 57  The double title of the governor as prefect "of Alexandria and Egypt" reflects the distinctions between Upper and Lower Egypt and Alexandria, since Alexandria, outside the Nile Delta, was not within the then-prevailing traditional geographic boundaries of Egypt.[9]: 57 

Roman Egypt was the only Roman province whose governor was of equestrian rank in the Roman social order; all others were of the senatorial class and served as Roman senators, including former Roman consuls, but the prefect of Egypt had more or less equivalent civil and military powers (imperium) to a proconsul, since a Roman law (a lex) granted him "proconsular imperium" (Latin: imperium ad similitudinem proconsulis).[9]: 57  Unlike in senatorially-governed provinces, the prefect was responsible for the collection of certain taxes and for the organization of the all-important grain shipments from Egypt (including the annona).[9]: 58  Because of these financial responsibilities, the governor's administration had to be closely controlled and organized.[9]: 58  The governorship of Egypt was the second-highest office available to the equestrian class on the cursus honorum (after that of the praetorian prefect (Latin: praefectus praetorio), the commander of the imperial Praetorian Guard) and one of the highest-paid, receiving an annual salary of 200,000 sesterces (a "ducenarian" post).[9]: 58  The prefect was appointed at the emperor's discretion; officially the governors' status and responsibilities mirrored those of the augustus himself: his fairness (aequitas, 'equality') and his foresight (providentia, 'providence').[9]: 58  From the early 2nd century, service as the governor of Egypt was frequently the penultimate stage in the career of a praetorian prefect.[9]: 58 

The first generations of the imperial Severan dynasty depicted on the "Severan Tondo" from Egypt (Antikensammlung Berlin

The governor's powers as prefect, which included the rights to make edicts (ius edicendi) and, as the supreme judicial authority, to order capital punishment (ius gladii, 'right of swords'), expired as soon as his successor arrived in the provincial capital at Alexandria, who then also took up overall command of the Roman legions of the Egyptian garrison.[9]: 58  (Initially, three legions were stationed in Egypt, with only two from the reign of Tiberius (r. 14–37 AD).)[9]: 58  The official duties of the praefectus Aegypti are well known because enough records survive to reconstruct a mostly complete official calendar (fasti) of the governors' engagements.[9]: 57  Yearly in Lower Egypt, and once every two years in Upper Egypt, the praefectus Aegypti held a conventus (Koinē Greek: διαλογισμός, romanized: dialogismos, lit.'dialogue'), during which legal trials were conducted and administrative officials' practices were examined, usually between January (Ianuarius) and April (Aprilis) in the Roman calendar.[9]: 58  Evidence exists of more than 60 edicts issued by the Roman governors of Egypt.[9]: 58 

To the government at Alexandria besides the prefect of Egypt, the Roman emperors appointed several other subordinate procurators for the province, all of equestrian rank and, at least from the reign of Commodus (r. 176–192) of similar, "ducenarian" salary bracket.[9]: 58  The administrator of the Idios Logos, responsible for special revenues like the proceeds of bona caduca property, and the iuridicus (Koinē Greek: δικαιοδότης, romanized: dikaiodotes, lit.'giver of laws'), the senior legal official, were both imperially appointed.[9]: 58  From the reign of Hadrian (r. 117–138), the financial powers of the prefect and the control of the Egyptian temples and priesthoods was devolved to other procurators, a dioiketes (διοικητής), the chief financial officer, and an archiereus (ἀρχιερεύς, 'archpriest').[9]: 58  A procurator could deputize as the prefect's representative where necessary.[9]: 58 

Statue of an orator, wearing a himation, from Heracleopolis Magna, in Middle Egypt (Egyptian Museum
, Cairo)

Procurators were also appointed from among the freedmen (manumitted slaves) of the imperial household, including the powerful procurator usiacus, responsible for state property in the province.[9]: 58  Other procurators were responsible for revenue farming of state monopolies (the procurator ad Mercurium), oversight of farm lands (the procurator episkepseos), of the warehouses of Alexandria (the procurator Neaspoleos), and of exports and emigration (the procurator Phari, 'procurator of the Pharos').[9]: 58  These roles are poorly attested, with often the only surviving information beyond the names of the offices is a few names of the incumbents. In general, the central provincial administration of Egypt is no better-known than the Roman governments of other provinces, since, unlike in the rest of Egypt, the conditions for the preservation of official papyri were very unfavourable at Alexandria.[9]: 58 

Local government in the hinterland (Koinē Greek: χώρα, romanized: khṓrā, lit.'countryside') outside Alexandria was divided into traditional regions known as nomoi.[9]: 58  To each nome the prefect appointed a strategos (Koinē Greek: στρατηγός, romanized: stratēgós, lit.'general'); the strategoi were civilian administrators, without military functions, who performed much of the government of the country in the prefect's name and were themselves drawn from the Egyptian upper classes.[9]: 58  The strategoi in each of the mētropoleis were the senior local officials, served as intermediaries between the prefect and the villages, and were legally responsible for the administration and their own conduct while in office for several years.[9]: 58  Each strategos was supplemented by a royal scribe (βασιλικός γραμματεύς, basilikós grammateús, 'royal secretary').[9]: 58  These scribes were responsible for their nome's financial affairs, including administration of all property, land, land revenues, and temples, and what remains of their record-keeping is unparalleled in the ancient world for its completeness and complexity.[9]: 58  The royal scribes could act as proxy for the strategoi, but each reported directly to Alexandria, where dedicated financial secretaries – appointed for each individual nome – oversaw the accounts: an eklogistes and a graphon ton nomon.[9]: 58  The eklogistes was responsible for general financial affairs while the graphon ton nomon likely dealt with matters relating to the Idios Logos.[9]: 58–59 

Bronze statue of a nude youth, from Athribis in Lower Egypt (British Museum
, London)

The nomoi were grouped traditionally into those of Upper and Lower Egypt, the two divisions each being known as an "epistrategy" after the chief officer, the epistrategos (ἐπιστράτηγος, epistratēgós, 'over-general'), each of whom was also a Roman procurator. Soon after the Roman annexation, a new epistrategy was formed, encompassing the area just south of Memphis and the Faiyum region and named "the Heptanomia and the Arsinoite nome".[9]: 58  In the Nile Delta however, power was wielded by two of the epistrategoi.[9]: 58  The epistrategos's role was mainly to mediate between the prefect in Alexandria and the strategoi in the mētropoleis, and they had few specific administrative duties, performing a more general function.[9]: 58  Their salary was sexagenarian – 60,000 sesterces annually.[9]: 58 

Each village or kome (κώμη, kṓmē) was served by a village scribe (κωμογραμματεύς, kōmogrammateús, 'secretary of the kome'), whose term, possibly paid, was usually held for three years.[9]: 59  Each, to avoid conflicts of interest, was appointed to a community away from their home village, as they were required to inform the strategoi and epistrategoi of the names of persons due to perform unpaid public service as part of the liturgy system.[9]: 59  They were required to be literate and had various duties as official clerks.[9]: 59  Other local officials drawn from the liturgy system served for a year in their home kome; they included the practor (πράκτωρ, práktōr, 'executor'), who collected certain taxes, as well as security officers, granary officials (σιτολόγοι, sitologoi, 'grain collectors'), public cattle drivers (δημόσιοι kτηνοτρόφοι, dēmósioi ktēnotróphoi, 'cattleherds of the demos'), and cargo supervisors (ἐπίπλοοι, epiploöi).[9]: 59  Other liturgical officials were responsible for other specific aspects of the economy: a suite of officials was each responsible for arranging supplies of particular necessity in the course of the prefect's official tours.[9]: 59  The liturgy system extended to most aspects of Roman administration by the reign of Trajan (r. 98–117), though constant efforts were made by people eligible for such duties to escape their imposition.[9]: 59 

A 2nd-century AD Roman emperor wearing nemes, as pharaoh (Museum Carnuntinum [de], Bad Deutsch-Altenburg

The reforms of the early 4th century had established the basis for another 250 years of comparative prosperity in Aegyptus, at a cost of perhaps greater rigidity and more oppressive state control. Aegyptus was subdivided for administrative purposes into a number of smaller provinces, and separate civil and military officials were established; the praeses and the dux. The province was under the supervision of the count of the Orient (i.e. the vicar) of the diocese headquartered in Antioch in Syria.

Encaustic and tempera painted mummy portrait of a Roman officer c. 160 – c. 170, with a green sagum, gold fibula, white tunic, and red leather balteus (British Museum


The Roman army was among the most homogenous Roman structures, and the organization of the army in Egypt differed little from its organization elsewhere in the Roman Empire. The Roman legions were recruited from Roman citizens and the Roman auxilia recruited from the non-citizen subjects.[10]: 69 

Egypt was unique in that its garrison was commanded by the praefectus Aegypti, an official of the equestrian order, rather than, as in other provinces, a governor of the senatorial class.[10]: 75  This distinction was stipulated in a law promulgated by Augustus, and, because it was unthinkable that an equestrian should command a senator, the commanders of the legions in Egypt were themselves, uniquely, of equestrian rank.[10]: 75  As a result of these strictures, the governor was rendered unable to build up a rival power base (as Mark Antony had been able to do), while the military legati commanding the legions were career soldiers, formerly centurions with the senior rank of primus pilus, rather than politicians whose military experience was limited to youthful service as a military tribune.[10]: 75  Beneath the praefectus Aegypti, the overall commander of legions and auxilia stationed in Egypt was styled in Latin: praefectus stratopedarches, from the Greek: στρατοπεδάρχης, romanized: stratopedárchēs, lit.'camp commander', or as Latin: praefectus exercitu qui est in Aegypto, lit.'prefect of the army in Egypt'.[10]: 75–76  Collectively, these forces were known as the exercitus Aegyptiacus, 'Army of Egypt'.[10]: 76 

The Roman garrison was concentrated at Nicopolis, a district of Alexandria, rather than at the strategic heart of the country around Memphis and Egyptian Babylon.[11]: 37  Alexandria was the Mediterranean's second city in the early Roman empire, the cultural capital of the Greek East and rival to Rome under Antony and Cleopatra.[11]: 37  Because only a few papyri are preserved from the area, little more is known about the legionaries' everyday life than is known from other provinces of the empire, and little evidence exists of the military practices of the prefect and his officers.[10]: 75  Most papyri have been found in Middle Egypt's villages, and the texts are primarily concerned with local affairs, rarely giving space to high politics and military matters.[10]: 70  Not much is known about the military encampments of the Roman imperial period, since many are underwater or have been built over and because Egyptian archaeology has traditionally taken little interest in Roman sites.[10]: 70  Because they supply a record of soldiers' service history, six bronze Roman military diplomas dating between 83 and 206 are the main source of documentary evidence for the auxilia in Egypt; these inscribed certificates rewarded 25 or 26 years of military service in the auxilia with Roman citizenship and the right of conubium.[10]: 70–71  That the army was more Greek-speaking than in other provinces is certain.[10]: 75 

The heart of the Army of Egypt was the Nicopolis garrison at Alexandria, with at least one legion permanently stationed there, along with a strong force of auxilia cavalry.[10]: 71  These troops would both guard the residence of the praefectus Aegypti against uprisings among the Alexandrians and were poised to march quickly to any point at the prefect's command.[10]: 71–72  At Alexandria too was the Classis Alexandrina, the provincial fleet of the Roman Navy in Egypt.[10]: 71  In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, there were around 8,000 soldiers at Alexandria, a fraction of the megalopolis's huge population.[10]: 72 

Initially, the legionary garrison of Roman Egypt consisted of three legions: the Legio III Cyrenaica, the Legio XXII Deiotariana, and one other legion.[10]: 70  The station and identity of this third legion is not known for sure, and it is not known precisely when it was withdrawn from Egypt, though it was certainly before 23 AD, during the reign of Tiberius (r. 14–37).[10]: 70  In the reign of Tiberius's step-father and predecessor Augustus, the legions had been stationed at Nicopolis and at Egyptian Babylon, and perhaps at Thebes.[10]: 70  After August 119, the III Cyrenaica was ordered out of Egypt; the XXII Deiotariana was transferred sometime afterwards, and before 127/8, the Legio II Traiana arrived, to remain as the main component of the Army of Egypt for two centuries.[10]: 70 

Encaustic painted mummy portrait of a Roman officer c. 130, with a blue sagum, silver fibula, white tunic, and red balteus, with related grave goods (Antikensammlung Berlin

After some fluctuations in the size and positions of the auxilia garrison in the early decades of Roman Egypt, relating to the conquest and pacification of the country, the auxilia contingent was mostly stable during the Principate, increasing somewhat towards the end of the 2nd century, and with some individual formations remaining in Egypt for centuries at a time.[10]: 71  Three or four alae of cavalry were stationed in Egypt, each ala numbering around 500 horsemen.[10]: 71  There were between seven and ten cohortes of auxilia infantry, each cohors about 500 hundred strong, although some were cohortes equitatae – mixed units of 600 men, with infantry and cavalry in a roughly 4:1 ratio.[10]: 71  Besides the auxilia stationed at Alexandria, at least three detachments permanently garrisoned the southern border, on the Nile's First Cataract around Philae and Syene (Aswan), protecting Egypt from enemies to the south and guarding against rebellion in the Thebaid.[10]: 72 

Besides the main garrison at Alexandrian Nicopolis and the southern border force, the disposition of the rest of the Army of Egypt is not clear, though many soldiers are known to have been stationed at various outposts (praesidia), including those defending roads and remote natural resources from attack.[10]: 72  Roman detachments, centuriones, and beneficiarii maintained order in the Nile Valley, but about their duties little is known, as little evidence survives, though they were, in addition to the strategoi of the nomoi, the prime local representatives of the Roman state.[10]: 73  Archaeological work led by Hélène Cuvigny has revealed many ostraca (inscribed ceramic fragments) which give unprecedently detailed information on the lives of soldiers stationed in the Eastern Desert along the CoptosMyos Hormos road and at the imperial granite quarry at Mons Claudianus.[10]: 72  Another Roman outpost, known from an inscription, existed on Farasan, the chief island of the Red Sea's Farasan Islands off the west coast of the Arabian Peninsula.[10]: 72 

Encaustic mummy portrait of a Roman officer c. 100 – c. 150, with a blue sagum, fibula, white tunic with purple angusticlavus, and red balteus (Antikensammlung Berlin

As in other provinces, many of the Roman soldiers in Egypt were recruited locally, not only among the non-citizen auxilia, but among the legionaries as well, who were required to have Roman citizenship.[10]: 73  An increasing proportion of the Army of Egypt was of local origin in the reign of the Flavian dynasty, with an even higher proportion – as many as three quarters of legionaries – under the Severan dynasty.[10]: 73  Of these, around one third were themselves the offspring (Latin: castrenses, lit.'camp-men') of soldiers, raised in the canabae settlements surrounding the army's base at Nicopolis, while only about one eighth were Alexandrian citizens.[10]: 73  Egyptians were given Roman-style Latin names on joining the army; unlike in other provinces, indigenous names are nearly unknown among the local soldiers of the Army of Egypt.[10]: 74 

One of the surviving military diplomas lists the soldier's birthplace as Coptos, while others demonstrate that soldiers and centurions from elsewhere retired to Egypt: auxilia veterans from Chios and Hippo Regius (or Hippos) are named.[10]: 73–74  Evidence from the 2nd century suggests most auxilia came from Egypt, with others drawn from the provinces of Africa and Syria, and from Roman Asia Minor.[10]: 73–74  Auxilia from the Balkans, who served throughout the Roman army, also served in Egypt: many Dacian names are known from ostraca in the Trajanic period, perhaps connected with the recruitment of Dacians during and after Trajan's Dacian Wars; they are predominantly cavalrymen's names, with some infantrymen's.[10]: 74  Thracians, common in the army in other Roman provinces, were also present, and an auxiliary diploma from the Egyptian garrison has been found in Thracia.[10]: 74  Two auxilia diplomas connect Army of Egypt veterans with Syria, including one naming Apamea.[10]: 74  Large numbers of recruits mustered in Asia Minor may have supplemented the garrison after the Kitos War against a Jewish uprising in Egypt and Syria.[10]: 74 


The social structure in Aegyptus under the Romans was both unique and complicated. On the one hand, the Romans continued to use many of the same organizational tactics that were in place under the leaders of the Ptolemaic period. At the same time, the Romans saw the Greeks in Aegyptus as “Egyptians”, an idea that both the native Egyptians and Greeks would have rejected.

1st-century AD mummy excavated by William Flinders Petrie