Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Roman and Byzantine Egypt - "Bread Basket" of the Empire

Pompey's Pillar, the tallest ancient monument in Alexandria.

700 Years of Roman Rule in Egypt
Egypt was the "Bread Basket" of the Empire for centuries.

The Coming of Rome

An independent Egypt came to an end with the coming together of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Mark Antony and Octavian.

After the death of Caesar, Mark Antony's alliance with Cleopatra angered the Roman elite.  Octavian declared war on the "Foreign Queen" of Egypt. Off the coast of Greece in the Adriatic Sea they met in at Actium, where the forces of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa defeated the Navy of Cleopatra and Antony.  Octavian then arrived in Alexandria and easily defeated Mark Antony.

In 30 BC, following the death of Cleopatra VII, the Roman Empire declared that Egypt was now a province (Aegyptus), and that it was to be governed by a prefect selected by the Emperor from the Equestrian and not a governor from the Senatorial order, to prevent interference by the Roman Senate.

A statue of Augustus as a younger
Octavian, dated ca. 30 BC

The main Roman interest in Egypt was always the reliable delivery of grain to the city of Rome. To this end the Roman administration made no change to the Ptolemaic system of government, although Romans replaced Greeks in the highest offices. But Greeks continued to staff most of the administrative offices and Greek remained the language of government except at the highest levels. Unlike the Greeks, the Romans did not settle in Egypt in large numbers.

Culture, education and civic life largely remained Greek throughout the Roman period. The Romans, like the Ptolemies, respected and protected Egyptian religion and customs, although the cult of the Roman state and of the Emperor was gradually introduced.

Roman Government in Egypt

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.

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 Egypt 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.

The economic resources that this imperial government existed to exploit had not changed since the Ptolemaic period, but the development of a much more complex and sophisticated taxation system was a hallmark of Roman rule. Taxes in both cash and kind were assessed on land, and a bewildering variety of small taxes in cash, as well as customs dues and the like, was collected by appointed officials.
Portrait of a Boy
Roman period, 2nd century
Met Museum.org

A massive amount of Egypt's grain was shipped downriver both to feed the population of Alexandria and for export to the Roman Capitol.

This wealthiest of provinces could be held militarily by a very small force; and the threat implicit in an embargo on the export of grain supplies, vital to the provisioning of the city of Rome and its populace, was obvious. Internal security was guaranteed by the presence of three Roman legions (later reduced to two), each about 6,000 strong, and several cohorts of auxiliaries.

The social structure in Egypt 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 Ptolemies. At the same time, the Romans saw the Greeks in Egypt as “Egyptians”, an idea that both the native Egyptians and Greeks would have rejected.

To further compound the whole situation, Jews, who themselves were very Hellenized overall, had their own communities, separate from both Greeks and native Egyptians.

The Romans began a system of social hierarchy that revolved around ethnicity and place of residence. Other than Roman citizens, a Greek citizen of one of the Greek cities had the highest status, and a rural Egyptian would be in the lowest class. In between those classes was the metropolite, who was almost certainly of Hellenic origin.

Gaining citizenship and moving up in ranks was very difficult and there were not many available options for ascendancy.

Romanized Egyptians
The greatest Roman paintings were produced by Romanized Egyptians, who embalmed their dead, wrapped them as mummies, and painted portraits of the deceased on small wooden panels attached at the head of the shroud wrapped around the mummy wrappings. Sometimes these mummies were put on display before they were buried.
 Mummification was performed on ordinary people but the work was shoddy compared to what was done for pharaohs and noblemen in Pharonic times. The mummification process was done in 40 days instead of 70, there were no canopic jars for organs, and many mummies were buried with coffins or sarcophagi.
 The mummies had Roman hairstyles and held Greek or Roman coins used to bribe the ferryman in the other world the but the iconography on the masks and painted deities that showed the way to the afterlife were clearly Egyptian.
The practice of mummification began to disappear around the A.D. 4th century when Christianity began to flourish.
See more at Factsanddetails.com 

Christianity in Egypt

Little is known about how Christianity entered Egypt.

The ancient religion of Egypt put up surprisingly little resistance to the spread of Christianity. Possibly its long history of collaboration with the Greek and Roman rulers of Egypt had robbed its religious leaders of authority. Alternatively, the life-affirming native religion may have begun to lose its appeal among the lower classes as a burden of taxation and liturgic services instituted by the Roman emperors reduced the quality of life.

By 200 it is clear that Alexandria was one of the great Christian centers.

Over the course of the 5th century, paganism was suppressed and lost its following, as the poet Palladius bitterly noted. It lingered underground for many decades: the final edict against paganism was issued in 435, but graffiti at Philae in Upper Egypt proves worship of Isis persisted at its temples into the 6th century.

Many Egyptian Jews also became Christians, but many others refused to do so, leaving them as the only sizable religious minority in a Christian country.

Another religious development in Egypt was the monasticism of the Desert Fathers, who renounced the material world in order to live a life of poverty in devotion to the Church.  Egyptian Christians took up monasticism with such enthusiasm that the Emperor Valens had to restrict the number of men who could become monks. Egypt exported monasticism to the rest of the Christian world.

In 395 AD the Roman Empire is forever divided into two nations
under two Emperors, two Senates and two armies and two navies.

Egypt is fully under the control of Constantinople from this point. 

Egypt Under The Eastern Empire

The reign of the Emperor Constantine (272-337) saw the founding of Constantinople as a new capital for the Roman Empire.

Slowly economic and military power began to shift to the new eastern capital.  Then on January 17, 395 Theodosius I (r. 379-95), the last Emperor of a united Roman Empire died.  The day before on January 16th, Emperor Theodosius commanded Roman troops stationed from Mesopotamia to Morocco to England to Bulgaria.  But at some point on the 17th a sole commander-in-chief of the Roman military and bureaucratic civilian machine died.
Emperor of the Roman Empire
(395 to 408) First of many
eastern emperors ruling Egypt.

The death of the Emperor led to the final split of the Empire into two political entities, the West (Occidentale) and the East (Orientale).

From 395 on Egypt was ruled from Constantinople.  Its taxes and gain shipments increasingly provided wealth and power to the Eastern Roman Empire.
Latin, never well established in Egypt, would play a declining role with Greek continuing to be the dominant language of government and scholarship. During the 5th and 6th centuries the Eastern Roman Empire gradually transformed itself into a thoroughly Christian state whose culture differed significantly from its pagan past.

The fall of the Western Empire in the 5th century further isolated the Egyptian Romans from Rome's culture and hastened the growth of Christianity. The triumph of Christianity led to a virtual abandonment of pharaonic traditions: with the disappearance of the Egyptian priests and priestesses who officiated at the temples, no-one could read the hieroglyphs of Pharaonic Egypt, and its temples were converted to churches or abandoned to the desert.

The old Græco-Roman world faded. The Greek system of local government by citizens had now entirely disappeared. Offices, with new Byzantine names, were almost hereditary in the wealthy land-owning families. Alexandria, the second city of the empire, continued to be a center of religious controversy and violence.

Egypt nevertheless continued to be an important economic center for the Empire supplying much of its agriculture and manufacturing needs as well as continuing to be an important center of scholarship. It would supply the needs of Byzantine Empire and the Mediterranean as a whole.

The reign of Justinian (482–565) saw the Empire recapture Rome and much of Italy from the barbarians, but these successes left the empire's eastern flank exposed. The Empire's "bread basket" now lacked for protection.

Byzantine-era gold coins found in Luxor
Twenty-nine gold coins discovered in Draa Abul Naga on Luxor's west bank.  During a routine excavation carried out inside a tomb at an ancient Egyptian necropolis in the Deir Beikhit area of Draa Abul Naga, German excavators unearthed the collection of golden coins.
Antiquities Minister Mohamed Ibrahim said the coins were found wrapped in linen inside a hole found on one of the tomb's decorative columns.
Early studies, he went on, reveal the coins date from the fifth and sixth centuries AD.

The Persian Conquest of Egypt
In a three year long struggle with Roman forces the
armies of Persia conquered Egypt.

The Persian Invasion of Egypt (617 or 618 AD)

The Roman–Sasanian War of 602–628 was the final and most devastating of the series of wars fought between the Roman Empire and the Sasanian Empire of Persia.

The previous war between the two powers had ended in 591 after Emperor Maurice helped the Sasanian king Khosrau II regain his throne. In 602 Maurice was murdered by his political rival Phocas. Khosrau proceeded to declare war, ostensibly to avenge the death of Maurice.

This became a decades-long conflict and the longest war in the series and was fought throughout the Middle East and eastern Europe.

The Romans were being pressed on multiple fronts at the same time.  The Avars and Slavs invaded the Balkans.  The Persian armies defeated the Roman forces conquering Mesopotamia, the Caucasus, much of Anatolia, the Levant and finally Egypt itself.
Sassanid Persian Cavalry

The lowest point came in 626 when the Avar and Persians laid siege to Constantinople itself.  The Roman Empire almost ceased to exist.

Also see our article The Sack of Jerusalem by a Jewish - Persian Army.

EGYPT  -  With the empire in almost total collapse the Persian armies invaded Egypt in either 617 or 618 AD.

Invasion was something Egypt had not seen sense the days of Caesar and Octavian over 600 years before.  Egypt was used to being the bread basket of the Empire, not being on the front lines of war.

Little is known about the particulars of this campaign, since the province was practically cut off from the remaining Roman territories and records are few.

We can suspect that the Emperor pulled as many troops and ships out of Egypt as possible in order to reinforce other parts of the empire.

On the other hand, we do know that the conquest was completed in 621.  For the war in this province to last for 3 or 4 years implies that there was some level of resistance to the Persians from Roman forces, the local population or both.

The Persian army headed for Alexandria.  There Nicetas, Heraclius' cousin and local governor, withstood year-long siege.   Resistance in Alexandria collapsed, supposedly after a traitor told the Persians of an unused canal, allowing them to storm the city.

The fact that the siege lasted for a year tells us that there were enough Roman troops on hand to successfully resist the Persians.

Records say Nicetas fled to Cyprus along with Patriarch John the Almsgiver, who was a major supporter of Nicetas in Egypt. The fate of Nicetas is unclear, since he disappears from records after this, but the Emperor Heraclius was presumably deprived of a trusted commander.

The loss of Egypt was a severe blow to the Roman Empire, as Constantinople relied on grain shipments from fertile Egypt to feed the multitudes in the capital. The free grain ration in Constantinople, which echoed the earlier grain dole in Rome, was abolished in 618

After the fall of Alexandria, the Persians gradually extended their rule southwards along the Nile. Sporadic resistance required some mopping-up operations, but by 621, the province was securely in Persian hands.

Egypt would remain in Persian hands for 10 years, run by general Shahrbaraz from Alexandria. As the new Roman Emperor Heraclius reversed the tide and defeated Khosrau, Shahrbaraz was ordered to evacuate the province, but refused. In the end, Heraclius, trying both to recover Egypt and to sow disunion amongst the Persians, offered to help Shahrbaraz seize the Persian throne for himself.

An agreement was reached, and in the summer of 629, the Persian troops began leaving Egypt.

The Diocese of Egypt c. 400 AD
Egypt under the Eastern Roman Empire.  The capital of the province was at Alexandria, and its governor had the unique title of praefectus augustalis. The diocese was initially part of the Diocese of the East, but in ca. 380, it became a separate entity, which lasted until its territories were finally overrun by the Muslim conquest of Egypt in the 640s.

Islam and the End of Roman Rule

In 629 AD the Persians withdrew from their ten year control of Egypt.

While there would have been joy that a Christian army was replacing the pagan Persian government, that was tempered by religious bigotry between Greeks and Egyptian Copts.  The Greeks held to Chalcedonian Christianity and the Egyptian Christians held the position of Miaphysitism.

The growing conflict between Christian sects would undermine Byzantine rule in Egypt.  Freedom of religion did not exist as we know it.  Many Copts may have looked at the 10 years of Persian rule as a golden age where they could worship as they pleased without edicts from Constantinople telling them what to do. 

With the Persians gone Egypt was again governed by the East Roman civil service and military, both of which were filled by the Greek-speaking ruling class to the general exclusion of the native Coptic-speaking Egyptians. Locally, the Romans ruled Egypt from the capital of Alexandria, and from the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis, with its great bulwark, the fortress of Babylon, on the eastern bank of the Nile. A chain of fortress towns ran across the country from which the Romans kept order and collected taxes.

Mailed Arab Archer

Peace would not last long.  Only ten years after the Persians left came a new invader - Arab Muslims.

In December 639 some 4,000 Muslim Arabs made a march to the border of Egypt.  The Muslim invasion had begun.

From 629 AD to 637 these new invaders of Egypt had just engaged in a series of major battles in Syria and Palaestina against the Romans.  The major cities of the Middle East fell one by one to Islam.

Now the Muslim armies targeted a Christian Egypt still recovering from war and occupation by Persia.

How many Roman troops were garrisoned in Egypt is an open question without an answer.  The massive campaigns in greater Syria may have drawn off a number of the troops in Egypt.  Certainly with the Romans hard pressed in Syria there were not a lot of reinforcements available to sent to Africa.

The Romans resisted the invasion in open battle and in fortified cities with no success.

Cyrus of Alexandria entered into a treaty with the Muslims. By the treaty, Muslim sovereignty over the whole of Egypt, and effectively in the province of Thebaid, was recognized, and the Egyptians agreed to pay Jizya at the rate of 2 diners per male adult. The treaty was subject to the approval of the emperor Heraclius, but Cyrus stipulated that even if the emperor repudiated the treaty, he and the Copts of whom he was the High Priest would honor its terms, recognize the supremacy of the Muslims and pay them Jizya

Though some Copts from personal considerations continued to support the Byzantines, the sympathies of the Copts were now by and large with the Muslims. The Copts were not supposed to fight against the Byzantines on behalf of the Muslims, but they undertook to help the Muslims in the promotion of war effort and in the provision of stores, build roads and bridges for them, and provide them moral support.

Conquest of Alexandria and fall of Egypt

The Muslims laid siege to Alexandria in March 641 AD. The city was heavily fortified: there were walls within walls, and forts within forts. There was no dearth of provisions and food supply in the city. The city also had direct access to the sea, and through the sea route help from Constantinople in the form of men and supplies could come at any time.

The Byzantines had high stakes in Alexandria, and they were determined to offer stiff resistance to the Muslims. They mounted catapults on the walls of the city, and these engines pounded the Muslims with boulders. This caused considerable damage to the Muslims who pulled back beyond the range of the missiles. A see-saw war followed. When the Muslims tried to go close to the city they were hit with missiles. When the Byzantines sallied from the fort, they were invariably beaten back by the Muslims.

It is said that Emperor Heraclius collected a large army at Constantinople. He intended to march at the head of these reinforcements personally to Alexandria. But before he could finalize the arrangements, he died. The troops mustered at Constantinople dispersed, and consequently no help came to Alexandria.

In September, 641 an assault was successful and Alexandria was captured by the Muslims.  Thousands of Byzantine soldiers were killed or taken captive while others managed to flee to Constantinople on ships that had been anchored in the port.

Eastern Roman Troops

Byzantine Counterattack

There were several Byzantine attempts to retake Alexandria. Though none of these were successful for a sustained period of time, Byzantine forces were able to briefly regain control of the city in 645.

Arab chroniclers tell of a massive fleet and army sent by the Byzantines with the goal of retaking Alexandria. The imperial forces were led by a lower ranking imperial official named Manuel. After entering the city without facing much resistance, the Byzantines were able to regain control of both Alexandria and the surrounding Egyptian countryside.

The Muslims retaliated by readying a large force of 15,000 who promptly set out to retake the city under command of the veteran Amr ibn Al-Asi. The Byzantines, following their standard tactical doctrine, advanced out of the city and sought an open battle away from the shelter of their fortifications. Accounts of the battle portray the Muslim forces as relying heavily on their archers before eventually assaulting the Byzantine positions, driving many back and routing the rest in the process. After this, the Byzantines were utterly defeated and withdrew from the region.

In 654, yet another attempt to bring Alexandria back into imperial hands failed when an invasion force sent by Constans II was repulsed.

This marks the end of Byzantine attempts to retake the city.  The permanent loss of Egypt meant a loss of a huge amount of Byzantium's food and money. 

But more important, some 1,000 years of Greek and Roman rule over Egypt had finally ended.

The Arab invasion of Egypt

(Ptolemaic Egypt)      (Roman diocese)      (Diocese of Egypt)

(Egypt Roman province)      (Sassanid conquest)      (Sassanid War)

(Muslim conquest)      (countrystudies)