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While the ancient history of Egypt is both rich and well documented, western interest in the nation of pharoes began primarily with the conquests of Alexander the Great. By the time of Alexander, Persian influence had taken control of Egypt and the power of the eastern nation didn't escape his notice.

In order to finance his coming expeditions, Alexander crossed first to Egypt crushing what little Persian resistance there was. Taking control with relative ease, and being welcomed for his deliverance from Persian rule, Alexander abruptly altered Egyptian culture that would last for the next 900 years.

He first founded the city of Alexandria to act as a Greek style seat of government for the Nile nation. Many Macedonian and Hellenistic supporters were appointed to various positions of power and a unique social structure of ethnicities began to develop. Greeks and Macedonians occupied the elite status, of which native Egyptians had little to no ability or interest to joing, while they occupied the common classes. Occupying the lower tiers were other outside cultures such as Jews, Nubians and other neighbors.

After the death of Alexander in 323 BC, his conquests began to crumble into factional kingdoms. In Egypt, the Macedonian general Ptolemy I Soter (Saviour) eventually took the throne. He established a dynasty that would last 300 years, until Cleopatra and the age of Caesar. In this time, a successive line of Ptolemic Kings, of Macedonian descent ruled Egypt with varying degrees of success.

The early Ptolemies exanded Egyptian and Macedonian influence in the region through various conquests of neighboring territories. Immense wealth was accumulated in the process and Egypt was slowly becoming the power it once was. The Ptolemies also wisely adopted many Egyptian customs while encouraging Greek Hellenism to prosper. By the end of the Ptolemy dyansty, the rulers of Egypt were as much Egyptian in culture as they were Macedonian in ethnicity.

Roman contact with the Egyptian state began most likely in the 3rd century BC. Because of Egypts Macedonian ties, there was certainly some diplomacy between the two during the Macedonian Wars against Philip V and his heir Perseus. During the related Syrian War, Philip and the Seleucid King Antiochus III formed an alliance to wrestle away Egyptian concerns in the region. Pressed by this alliance, the Egyptians turned to the growing Mediterranean power of Rome in an alliance of their own. Roman victory assured Egypt its continued independence, but closer ties to Rome would eventually turn against them.

The late Ptolemy dynasty did little to insure Egyptian stability. The rise of several infant kings, with rule by appointed regents, was the source of political and civil strife on a near routine basis. By the 1st century BC, the former great Nile power was becoming more and more a protectorate of Rome. Due to its inability to govern effectively and efficiently, it fell upon Rome to act as mediator on several occasions. By the eastern campaigns of Pompey in the 60's BC, Rome had taken at least nominal control of much of Alexander's former conquests.

Influence in the Hellenistic east belonged to Rome and Egypt's star was waning. In 58 BC, Ptolemy XII Auletes was driven out of his kingdom by the mob in Alexandria and Rome was forced to step in again. The first triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus restored him to power shorly after but in 51 BC the king died. His death left the kingdom to the 10 year old Ptolemy XIII and his 17 year old sister Cleopatra VII. The husband and wife siblings, as was the custom in both ancient and Ptolemic Egypt, ruled jointly, but as rivals. The struggle for Egyptian power would soon bring the direct focus of the now supremely powerful Rome.

The civil wars between Caesar, Pompey and the Republican Senators brought Egypt front and center into the conflict. After the battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, in which Caesar was the victor, Pompey fled to Egypt hoping for safe passage. The rival Egyptian rulers were in the middle of their own pitched effort for ultimate power, and the result would be disastrous for Pompey. Attempting to win favor from Caesar in his own civil efforts, Ptolemy and his regent Potheinus, had Pompey killed and beheaded when he arrived. Knowing little of Caesar's famous clemency towards his enemies, they presented the head to him as a gift. Ancient reports suggest a variety of reactions, but all clearly relate Caesar's anger and disappointment by this act. Unwittingly, Ptolemy XIII pushed Caesar into the camp of Cleopatra and his reign was to be short lived.

Caesar met with Cleopatra and a historic affair blossomed. He soon gave full support to her bid for the throne against her brother and husband and a civil war erupted in the streets of Alexandria. With only a nominal force Caesar was hard pressed against Ptolemy, but eventually prevailed. In the fighting that ensued, Ptolemy XIII was killed and the Great Library of Alexandria sustained considerable, but repairable damage. While Caesar and Cleopatra continued their affair resulting in the birth of a son, Caesarion, Cleopatra's even younger brother Ptolemy XIV rose to rule with Cleopatra. She later accompanied Caesar to Rome where she became more in tune to the political environments and made contact with Caesar's Legate, Marcus Antonius. With Caesar's murder in 44 BC, Cleopatra murdered her brother and elevated her son Caesarion to the position of King. She next attached herself with what appeared to be the next great Roman power in Antony, but it was to be a fateful decision.

Caesar's true heir, Octavian eventually came to prominence and more Roman civil war was to come. First working together with Octavian to eliminate Caesar's assassins, the two eventually split. At the battle of Actium, in 31 BC Octavian defeated the forces of Antonius and would head to Egypt. As victory for Octavian closed in both Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide in 30 BC, and Egypt fell permanently into Roman control for the next 700 years. Octavian had another motive for his invasion of Egypt, however. Cleopatra had propped her son Caesarion up as the true heir of Caesar, and Octavian was forced to react. If there was any doubt over whether the boy was really Caesar's son, Octavian ended the potential trouble by having him killed.

Egypt was next set up as a Roman province with a unique difference from other provinces. With all of its great wealth Octavian, soon to be Augustus, kept the province as personal hereditary property, in which the Senate had no jursidiction at all. While Roman administration would follow in the Imperial period under appointed Prefects, many Greeks continued to staff important administrative funtions. The Romans also followed the Ptolemy example and did little to alter Egyptian customs, and Greek influence continued to flourish. While the Egyptian gods were adopted into Roman culture, the Emperors did gradually introduce Imperial cult worship.

Egypt flourished under Roman rule and the region prospered. Factional dissent between Greeks and Jews was a recurring issue, but relative peace reigned. Trajan suppressed a Jewish revolt, but his successor, Hadrian had retuned the region to a relative calm. Opressive taxation later led to a general revolt of the Egyptian natives that lasted several years, and the revolt of Avidius Cassius under the reign of Aurelius led to general disorder in the east. The emergence of Christianity also played a part in general disturbances from the 2nd century on, but Egypt, for the most part was a peaceful and steady Roman province.

From the beginning of Roman rule, 2 legions occupied the province. Legio II Cyrenaica garrisoned Alexandria until 106 BC when Legio II Traiana Fortis replaced it. Legio XXII Deiotariana also garrisoned Alexandrian until the mid 1st Century AD, but it seems to have been destroyed in the Judaean Revolt of Simon ben Kosiba. Legio II Traiana Fortis garrisoned Alexandria and monitored Egypt at least until the 5th century AD. At this point the administration of the west collapsed and the province continued under Byzantine or Romanion rule until the 7th century AD.

The economy of Egypt was chiefly agricultural as the Nile valley was extremely fertile. Vast amounts of grain and other consumables were regularly exported. Textile manufacturing, especially clothing seems to have been a key industry as well. Additionally, Papyrus and its end products, such as paper, were a key contribution to the Roman world.


Roman Province Index

Roman Egypt - Related Topic: Provincial Government


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