Roman Egypt

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]

Roman Egypt
Latin: Aegyptus
Koinē Greek: Αἴγυπτος Aígyptos
Province of the Roman Empire
30 BC – 641 AD
(Sasanian-occupied 619–628)

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

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.

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