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Roman and Byzantine Egypt: background Information

In 30 BC Egypt became a Roman province with a special status. Egypt was directly under the authority of the emperor and was ruled by a prefect. Senators or eques illustris (knights) could only enter the country with a special permission of the emperor. The country was divided into three districts (Thebais, Middle Egypt and the Delta). Head of these districts was the 'epistrategos' who had administrative, but no military power. Each of the districts was divided into several nomes, which were ruled by a strategos. The Egyptian were 'subjects' (dediticii), who had to pay a poll tax. Only people of the Greek cities (Naukratis, Alexandria, Ptolemaios, Antinooupolis) and the descendants of the Greek settlers in the Fayum were exempt. In AD 212 (Constitutio Antoniana) all people of the Roman Empire became Roman citizens. Under Diocletian, who reorganised the whole Roman Empire, the previously single province of Egypt was divided into three provinces: Aegyptus Jovia (with Alexandria), Aegyptus Herculia and Thebais.

In AD 395 the Roman empire was divided into two halves. Egypt became part of the East Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire), which was now a Christian empire. AD 539 the Egyptian provinces were directly under the 'praefectus praetorio per Orientem'. He had civil, but also military power. In AD 619 Egypt was conquered by the (Sassanidian) Iranians, and their occupation of the land lasted till AD 629. In AD 639 Amr ibn el-As invaded Egypt. In AD 641 he conquered the fortification of Babylon (today Old Cairo) and in AD 642 Alexandria. A Byzantine fleet reconquered the city in AD 645, but it was lost again in AD 646.

Egypt seems to have been in many ways a special province of the Roman empire. However, there are also many signs that it was a quite 'normal' province. Each province of the Roman Empire had its own character. Egypt was now part of the Mediterranean world more than ever before. Products from Egypt (papyrus, grain) were sold across the whole Roman Empire. Products of other parts of the Empire were imported into Egypt. The Ptolemies had represented themselves as true Pharaohs, especially in performing Egyptian rituals of kingship: Roman Emperors were also shown on Egyptian temple reliefs as pharaohs, but few of them ever visited Egypt. The Ptolemies tried to co-operate with the Egyptians and their structures, whereas the Romans deleted powerful offices (such as the high priest of Ptah, which was indiscontinued under the Romans). Only Greek writing was used in administration: the Egyptian demotic script (which had also never been the main administrative script under the Ptolemies) was now only used in religious contexts, and otherwise only occasionally for private transactions or lowest level records such as tax receipts on ostraca in Upper Egypt.

Material culture in Roman Egypt is fully Hellenised. Within a few generations Egyptian motifs disappeared in many areas: for example, the production of private statuary in Egyptian style stops in the first century AD. Ancient Egyptian formal art only survived for a longer time in certain religious contexts. Temples and their decoration were still in Egyptian style till the third century AD. Egyptian motifs also survived longer in funerary contexts. Mummy masks which were produced in the Ptolemaic Period in a more Egyptian style were increasingly produced in a more classical Greek/Roman style, but sometimes decorated with Egyptian motifs.

The archaeology of Roman Egypt seems very different to the archaeology of Ptolemaic Egypt. Ptolemaic settlements were often still occupied in Roman times. Therefore the Ptolemaic levels of these towns are only badly recorded, with relatively few diagnostic objects of daily use known. Roman levels are at many settlement sites the highest levels. They are easy to excavate and therefore there are plenty of daily life objects from the Roman (and Coptic) Period. Furthermore, burial customs changed in the Roman Period. Throughout the Late and Ptolemaic Period (about 1000 - 30 BC) objects of daily life were rarely placed in tombs, but under the Romans they were placed into the tombs. For these two reasons there is an amazingly high number of daily life objects from Roman Egypt, offering a unique detailed view of a Roman province not known to the same extent from any other parts of the Roman empire, including thousands of written texts, also on a scale not paralleled from other parts of the empire.

The history of the archaeology of Roman Egypt is a rather sad story. Excavations in Egypt have focussed most often on earlier periods, destroying without recording Roman levels. Excavations concentrating on Roman sites and levels were often only interested in single aspects, such as finding papyri and painted mummy portraits. Oxyrhynchus is well-known for its thousands of papyri. The life of the inhabitants is the best known of any ancient city. However, the excavators did not record the houses or any finds, although the houses and buildings are described in passing as well preserved.

Further reading:

Lewis 1983 (summary on Roman Egypt, mainly based on the written sources)


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