The Greco-Roman Period of Egypt

Previous to Roman rule, Egypt was ruled by the pharaohs. The last line of pharaohs was of the Ptolemaic line that began with Ptolemy I in 305 BC. The Ptolemaic Dynasty ended with Queen Cleopatra VII’s death and the Roman invasion in 30 BC. The rulers of Egypt were no longer pharaohs, but instead considered prefects (department heads). The Emperor of Rome designated the prefects who would govern Egypt; the first prefect being Gaius Cornelius Gallus. The election of prefects, who were to govern Egypt as a province of Rome, was vastly different from the rule of Egypt previous to the Roman invasion.

It is important to note prefects were elected officials, whereas pharaohs operated under the divine right to rule and under the belief that pharaohs were selected by the gods to reign. Children of the pharaohs were to pick up the mantle of monarchy upon the death of their predecessors or fathers; whereas, prefects were of the equestrian caste, meaning they were of the lower Roman aristocratic class. The first few prefects focused more on issues which the previous pharaohs had neglected, such as paying more attention to ignored frontiers and clearing neglected irrigation canals to bring about a revival of Egyptian agriculture. These mended deficits brought about a century in which Egypt flourished.

The Government in Egypt

At first, the government in Egypt under Roman rule was positive for the land in comparison to the Ptolemaic Dynasty. While prefects differed from pharaohs in their election, their duties also changed. The prefect’s duties were to administrate the justice system, see after military defense and organize the division of taxation and finance. It was set to further the lines of finance. One of the larger changes made to Egyptian administration was the focus on maximizing efficiency to increase revenue. The Romans divided Egypt up into smaller provinces, each with their own military and civil representatives. The separate provinces enjoyed a form of autonomy for a period of time. While these administrative delegations led to positive results, the consequence was that Egypt was then under a tightly controlled and rigid administrative structure. The ultimate result for the first couple of hundred years of Roman rule was that Egypt was significantly more prosperous. Eventually, however, this system fell apart as the militia proved to wield more influence in the provinces, thus throwing off the administrative balance.

The Economy


Eventually Roman rule proved to be just as oppressive as the former Ptolemaic rule; the only difference being that Roman rule had superior financial results. Roman rule, after all, was still an imperialistic rule, much like that of the pharaohs. Roman government proved to be rigid and exploitative through the levying of high taxes, which placed a heavy burden on the average Egyptian citizen.

While the Romans were indeed unfair, their taxation system was incredibly advanced in its effectiveness and complexity. Egyptian provinces were made up of privately wealthy landlords and the poorer vassals who worked the land and paid a percentage to the landowners. Entrepreneurship of the wealthier classes was encouraged by low taxation from the government. A downside was that these freedoms for the wealthier classes did not make financial mobility easier for the agricultural workers who were often at a disadvantage. While the wealthier landlords put a large strain on their workers, Egyptian economy was booming under its new rule. A vast array of goods was traded, making wide circulations throughout many parts of the land as well as countries outside of Egypt. The profiteering from the agricultural vassals enabled the beginnings of an industrial and commercial revolution. Unfortunately, as with the delegated province representatives, this system of uneven taxation threw off economical balance and eventually caused things to fall through. The financial administration of local committees fell to corruption and proved ultimately to be ineffective and unequal.

The Military

Along with a new financial administration came Rome’s distinguished and elite military system. At first, many Egyptian soldiers were absorbed into the Roman military. Eventually, most of the original Egyptian military was phased out, making Roman military officials the majority. The most productive of the new Egyptian provinces each boasted of a small army to protect the province’s monopolized and valuable trading assets. Over all, Egyptian security was increased with the Roman invasion, which initially came with three legions. Each legion was comprised of over 6,000 Roman soldiers.

Social Structure in Early Roman Egypt

The new Roman administration brought along a social structure which was rather complex, yet in the end all not very different from Ptolemaic social structure. Now, it was just that Rome had influence over the whole economy of Egypt. Since there were several markedly different races within the “new” Egypt, Roman administrators decided to structure the new social organization based on race affiliation.

The four categorized races were Egyptians, Greeks, Jews and Romans. Not only were races different in terms of social equality, they were physically separated. Each race had its own portion of land. The Romans viewed Egyptians and Greeks as roughly the same and often grouped them together in terms of spatial distance and social hierarchy. Romans were, of course, given the highest caste; Egyptians being the lowest caste. The rest of the positions in the social hierarchy depended upon location. For instance, in a Greek city, a Greek citizen would hold the highest position; Egyptians living in rural areas would be lower. Regardless of location, however, a Roman citizen would trump any Greek, Egyptian or Jew. Since Greeks inhabiting the cities were more likely to be wealthy merchants, and the Egyptians were more the agricultural workers, the middle class between these two polarities were people of Hellenic roots.

The importance of location in Egypt’s social hierarchy was most prevalent in Egypt’s major cities. Egypt’s capital, Alexandria, reaped the benefits of higher social caste and prosperity en masse. In essence, the cities with the highest mobility and productivity rates had the most social advantages. In Alexandria specifically, Egyptians (generally viewed as “low-born”) could eventually be recognized as Roman citizens. Even the Greek city of Antinoopolis enjoyed many benefits similar to Alexandria because of its immense economical productivity. This was despite the fact that Greeks were viewed as similar to Egyptians in terms of hierarchy.

All in all, since caste was largely based off of race, social mobility was extremely difficult. Classes which were on the lower scale had little chance for ascension in the social structure. One of the few routes for social mobility was through enlistment in Egypt’s armed forces, but by this time, Rome had phased out nearly all of the previous Egyptian and Greek military officials. There were a few instances where a Greek citizen was allowed into one of the Roman legions while Egyptians were rarely allowed into the legions, if at all. In some instances, however, some Egyptians were able to enlist with the smaller Roman armies and used this as a stepping stone for social mobility.

With the fruition of city life, a new class emerged during the Augustan period – the elites. These elites came from urban communities and were landowners who had rights to self-administrate and also paid lower taxes than working-class Egyptians. A council of elders soon emerged as well. These new elites had large access to education and became the new municipal delegates.

With these changes taking place in the “new” Egypt, it slowly began to transgress and take on a Roman devised system with new government structures being formalized and given to those having Greek backgrounds. The first century, under Roman conquest brought many changes to the society. Rome became even wealthier through Egypt’s largely agricultural riches, which enhanced Roman society by supplying massive amounts of grain to the citizens of Rome. In addition to the grain, Egyptian culture supplied glass, produced papyrus, and many finely crafted artifacts exported to Roman cities. Along the Nile, the trade with central Africa, India, and the Arabian Peninsula flourished. A community of accomplished writers, scientists, and great philosophers quickly developed and thus became known throughout the ancient world.

The exposure and conquest of Egypt brought a fascination of this ancient culture to the many citizens of Rome.  Obelisks and various Egyptian style structural designs became noticeable alongside Roman forms. Eventually, even Egyptian funerary art objects took on a new creative direction and became accessorized with a more contemporary Greco-Roman look and fashion. Into the second century, the Roman Empire begins to move into what is known as the Byzantine Period which is more oriented towards the Greek influence and culture.