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What Was Ancient Egypt Like Under Roman Rule?

Temple of Seti Abydos Egypt
Temple of Seti, Abydos, Egypt. Credit: Vyacheslav Argenberg / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 4.0

The Ptolemaic Dynasty ruled Egypt for nearly three centuries. This Greek dynasty came to an end when the Romans defeated the famous Mark Antony and Cleopatra. What was Egypt like under Roman rule? How was it different or similar to the time the Greeks had ruled?

No more true pharaohs in Roman Egypt

One important and striking difference between Roman Egypt and Ptolemaic Egypt is that the Greeks had continued to rule the country as pharaohs. All the Ptolemaic rulers styled themselves as pharaohs and largely followed the native customs attributed to the role.

In contrast, the Romans did not continue the custom of having a pharaoh rule Egypt. Cleopatra, the last ruler of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, was the last true pharaoh to ever rule Egypt. After her defeat by Octavian (Augustus Caesar), the Romans turned Egypt into a province of the Roman Empire. This occurred in 27 BCE.

While the Egyptians recognized the Roman emperors as pharaohs, this was essentially a formality, since their religion required a pharaoh to act as an intermediary between humanity and the gods. The emperors themselves did not pay any real attention to this role. They did not acknowledge it themselves, nor did they officially adopt any of the official titles.

Ptolemy I Soter
Ptolemy I Soter depicted in the Hellenistic style (left) and Egyptian style (right). Credit: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons (left) Stella / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 (right)

The governor of Egypt

While being viewed as pharaohs by Egyptians, Roman emperors actually hardly spent any time in Egypt. Instead, Roman Egypt was ruled by means of a governor, as were the provinces of the empire in general.

The governor of Egypt was somewhat different to the governors of most other Roman provinces. Instead of being of senatorial rank, the governor of Egypt was of equestrian rank. This literally means “cavalryman,” sometimes translated as “knight,” and it was the class immediately below the senators.

The Roman emperor chose the governor of Egypt himself, since the emperors viewed Egypt more like their own personal possession rather than a normal province. The governor was officially known as a prefect.

Egypt’s role in the Mediterranean

During the Ptolemaic period of Egypt’s history, the country continued to grow in importance within the Mediterranean region, as trade routes continued to expand and become more firmly established. Egypt had plenty of grain to offer, due to the amazingly fertile land.

However, it was still its own country, so it was primarily interested in supporting itself. In contrast, when the Romans ruled the country, Egypt was a province within the wider Roman Empire. Thus, the Romans were keen to use it to support the other provinces as much as possible. They made good use of its excellent grain production.

Due to this, Egypt came to be known as the breadbasket of the Roman Empire. In fact, its production of grain was so substantial it enabled Vespasian to assert his rule over the whole empire after he was made emperor in Egypt during a year of great internal conflict.

Alexandria, the capital of Roman Egypt

Lighthouse of Alexandria
Lighthouse of Alexandria. Credit: Midjourney / Open Domain / Free Use

The city of Alexandria was the capital of Egypt during Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt times. Alexandria has a history stretching back to the time of Alexander the Great. He founded it around 331 BCE. Subsequently, the Ptolemaic pharaohs made it the capital of Egypt.

When the Romans conquered Egypt and turned it into a province, Alexandria continued on as the capital. Both its population and significance in the wider region grew. In fact, it became the second largest city in the Roman Empire, second only to Rome itself. This city was also the largest port in the empire. This was quite appropriate in view of its role as the breadbasket of the empire.

Because of its importance in the Roman Empire, Alexandria was the site of a number of significant conflicts. One example is the Kitos War, which was a massive conflict between the Romans and Jews of the early second century CE.

Religion in Roman Egypt

In many senses, religion in Egypt remained undeterred as it had for centuries. The Egyptians continued worshipping the same ancient gods, generally speaking. The worship of Greek gods also continued, as it had in the Ptolemaic era. However, there were some fundamental differences.

One major difference was the Roman imperial cult that was introduced. Certainly, the Egyptians had been worshipping their rulers as gods since the start of their civilization. However, the rulers in question had been actively involved in that worship. In contrast, the Roman emperor, although viewed by Egyptians as a pharaoh, was not involved in any religious traditions or events of Egypt.

The Roman imperial cult involved the worshipping of the emperor from a distance. Additionally, Roman emperors were usually only worshipped as gods after their death. This was quite different to the way things had previously been. In the Ptolemaic era and earlier, Egyptians worshipped the pharaohs as living gods.

The languages of Roman Egypt

Egyptian hieroglyphs
Egyptian hieroglyphs from the tomb of Seti I. Credit: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

At least four languages were spoken in Roman Egypt. One major language was, of course, Egyptian. There had been little interaction between the natives and the Greek ruling class during the Ptolemaic period, so the Egyptian language was still popular among the natives by the time the Romans conquered the region.

However, during the government of Roman Egypt, Greek became a popular language. Needless to say, this was also the language of the countless Greeks who lived in Egypt, having first settled there in the seventh century BCE. Within the larger cities where there was a significant government presence and the Greeks frequented, Koine Greek was the popular language.

In addition, around 600 BCE, many Jews had fled to Egypt. The Jewish communities that had formed continued through the Ptolemaic and into the Roman period. Thus, Hebrew was another language that was fairly popular in Roman Egypt. Latin, ironically, never became particularly popular there.

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