Hello, and welcome to the History of the Copts. Episode 2. Conquest 101.
Last time, we stopped with Augustus efforts to establish his control over Alexandria, and his management of Memphis religious establishment.
To get a full pictures of what I am about to talk about, I have posted a map on the podcast facebook page. It has the ancient names and the location of cities we will talk about. It will be helpful to you throughout the podcast, so keep it handy
Anyway, back to our story, Augustus started out by carving 3 cities and giving them a special status and privileges.
The 3 cities were Alexandria, as discussed in the prior episode, Naukritis in the Delta, and Ptolmaies-hermious in Upper Egypt.
Those cities were special because they were founded in a strictly Greek fashion, with a senate and the usual Greek office holders.
But, realistically on the ground, they were no more special that the rest of nomes capital, who also by this point were inhabited by folks who called themselves Greek and generally adopted a Greek models of governance.
In a matter of fact, the most Greek area, other than Alexandria, was probably the Fayoom, which was earmarked and developed by the ptolmies specifically for Greek settlers.
Nonetheless, whether out of ignorance of facts on the ground or a colonization master plan, Octavian marked out those 3 cities with the distinction “Greek”
The next step was to divided the population of Egypt into 3 distinct legal groups.
The first, is Roman Citizens, who were exempt from the poll tax and had many other legal privileges and tax benefits.
The second –, the Greeks, but crucially, the Roman definition of who is a Greeks was restricted to only the citizens of those 3 cities, who as you would expect, were only a small minority of those who self-identified themselves as Greek, I.E as I already discussed, the urban educated Hellenized Egyptians.---
Like Romans citizens, the Greek citizens of the 3 cities were exempt from the poll tax, and with the exception of Alexandria, they were allowed, the privilege self-governance.
The third and last group, were the Egyptians, who basically had no legal rights, were required to pay the Poll tax plus a slew of other various taxes, and were not allowed self-governance.
Under the Egyptians legal class, were the Jews – who got some extra benefits if they resided in Alexandria, the priests, and most of the urban elites residing in the Nomes capitals.
However, In a testament to administrative might of the Romans, the urban elites and the priests were enticed to cooperate via essentially lower, different tax rates than the rural population.
So if you lived in a nome capital, you only payed half of the poll tax required of your rural neighbor and temple land were either exempt from taxes altogether or taxed at a lower rate.
Those changes marked a significant transition to the Egyptian social fabric,
Where before Greek or Egyptian was more indicative of social status, and therefore dynamic and fluid. It became a legal, rigid, definition that couldn’t be traversed.
So even if you can speak and write Greek, know Homer by heart, and well acquainted with the Greek way of living, you were still marked as legally as an Egyptian by the roman administration, and relegated to the lowest social class.
Marriage between classes was restricted; and as citizenship to the Greek cities was hereditary, gradually all avenues for social mobility were closed.
In addition, in order to stop all the rural population from moving to the cities or at least claiming that they did on their tax paperwork, around 72 AD the rules were tightened for who qualifies for the lower tax rate of the urban elites, and that too became hereditary, regardless of where you actually lived - as you had to prove that both your father and maternal grandfather were paying the lower tax.
Finally, in order to mark themselves from the uncivilized masses, the very same urban elite who paid the lower tax rate created a gym-nasial class, a sort of exclusive, hereditary club where they socialized and competed with each other in various ways emphasizing their Greek identity
So to bring it altogether, Egypt was transformed from a multi-ethnic, multi-cultured society where identities were fluid and could be traversed and social mobility was possible, at least if you were willing to be Hellenized, - to a rigid, legalistic, hereditary social classes that had little in common in their way of life
Now to be fair to the Romans, they were excellent administrators, they privatized land ownership, irrigation canals were cleared, infrastructure projects were built, and trade flourished.
For the next century, Egypt as a whole grew wealthier. Also, I may have been too hard on Octavian, as it is hard to tell if these changes was driven by him personally or the Roman administration in general
But what we do know - is that he made sure to make Egypt as his own personal property, a sort of a big land estate owned by him and his heirs.
What that means practically, is that the Roman Senate wasn’t involved whatsoever in the administration of Egypt. No senator was even allowed to visit Egypt without the express permission of the emperor
But that wasn’t a necessarily a bad thing, it’s not like the Senate had any moral qualms about exploiting the masses for their own enrichment, but I digress
After Octavian left Egypt, he appointed one of generals as the first prefect of Egypt, Gallus Cornelius.
The first order of business for the prefect was to confront the Egyptians around Thebes who have risen up in revolt when they realized they have to actually pay taxes and submit to the Romans, instead of giving them lip-service as they have done as far as they can remember with the Ptolmies
Thebes, modern day Luxor in southern or upper Egypt was a significant seat of the Egyptian religious establishment similar to the structure in Memphis. But unlike the Memphis priests, they were not close to the Ptolemy’s and rebelled several times, the most successful being around 200 BC, where they crowned successfully their own native Pharoh, who arguably was the last native pharoh to be crowned.
They were eventually brought back, but the Ptolemy’s grip was loose to say the least and Gallus Cornelius soon found out.
The prefect, with his 3 legions left the delta and moved south, the rebels were organized enough to offer the Romans, two pitched battles, but the Roman army at this point of history was an unstoppable juggernaut
Three or five cities depending on the source were sacked and a Roman legion was stationed on Thebes
From this point forward, Thebes lost any political or economic importance it had. The administrative center of the region became the city of Koptos, which became very wealthy, but not on account of being a religious center as Thebes was, but on account of the red sea trade with India and the East
This was another blow to the Egyptians old gods.
The roman legions continued south until, the Egyptian border at this point, the 1st cataract of the Nile, a natural and a cultural border with the southern Nubian kingdom of Meroe
Probably diplomatically or possibly through inconclusive military campaigns, The Roman and Nubians came to an agreement to designate “the 30 miles land” between the 1st cataract and 2nd cataract of the Nile as a Roman protectorate with a vassal prince. The 30 miles land was actually much larger than 30 miles, more like 300 miles
Cornelius Gallus then went ahead and celebrated his victories a little bit too excessively, by having statues set up in his honor, and inscriptions to be carved on public buildings of his glorious deeds
Augustus acutely aware of the problem of having an ambitious man in charge of his wealthiest province, went ahead and replaced Cornelius after which, the former perfect committed suicide, perhaps as his preferred choice to execution
Augustus then appointed the 2nd prefect of Egypt, Lucius Aellius Gallus, -- his special mandate was to use the Egyptians legions to occupy Arabia Felix, modern day Yemen.
Arabia Felix was an important stop in the maritime Indian trading route, and either the Roman thought that the wealth came from there and coveted it, or they knew it was coming from India and just wanted to better control the route, either way it was a strategic goal for the empire
The prefect then took 8,000 out of the 17,000 men in the three legions and all of the 5,500 in the auxiliary forces. And the expedition was set forth in 26 BC
After sailing and landing in northern Arabia, the army marched in the Arabian Desert for 6 months, where it was decimated by disease and lack of supplies.
The prefect finally reached their capital, Ma’rib, besieged it for a week, gave up and then went back, with the greater part of his forces lost.
In addition to the expedition being a complete failure, the client kingdom at border of upper Egypt, with the help of the Kingdom of Meroe, seized the opportunity, and launched an attack on upper Egypt sacking Elephantine and Syene – at modern day Aswan - Further weakening the economic wealth of upper Egypt
By this point, Lucius the Prefect was dismissed, and was replaced with Publious Petronius, the third prefect of Egypt, who then met the numerically superior, but unorganized, ill-armored Nubians and defeated them and restored Roman rule until the 2nd cataract
He tried to go further and wasn’t really defeated in a pitched battle, but couldn’t hold any territory beyond the 2nd cataract possibly due to guerrilla attacks and populace resistance
By 20 BC, the Queen of Meroe sent envoys to Augustus personally and a peace was negotiated and agreed to. The new borders would be 125km beyond the first cataract, but before the 2nd cataract and the client kingdom was split and absorbed by the Romans and the Kingdom of Meroe
The peace treaty secured Egypt southern border for the next 300 years until the time of Diocletian
The next big, and perhaps the biggest event as far as the Copts are concerned would be of course the birth of Jesus and his flight to Egypt somewhere between 4 BC – 1 AD
While the details of Jesus visit to Egypt, doesn’t exactly meet the academic rigor to be included now, the Copts maintain a rich narrative and a tradition, and their pride at being the place and the people whom Jesus went to for refuge, is one of the pillars of their identity.
I plan to make a bonus episode at some point later on, and include the details as told from the Coptic Church perspective.
In 14 AD, at the age of 75, and after close to 41 years being the most powerful man in the world, Augustus dies from natural causes and is followed by his step-son, and son in law, and also his adoptive son Tiberius.
And, Yes, he was all three, and no, that’s not even close to the weirdest family in the ancient world. The Ptolemey’s were even more messed up, but that’s for another day
Tiberious, according to the ancient, mostly biased historians, had a bad rep as someone who wasn’t really into governing, but as far as the facts go, he presumably reprimanded a prefect of Egypt for exacting too much taxes, as he puts it, “you are supposed to shear the sheep, not flay them”
and he also, for the most part, left the Augustus governance machinery alone, which functioned like clock work, so that, by the time Tiberius died, the imperial treasurery had 2.7 billion sesterces (sisters)
To wrap your head around this number, the Prefect of Egypt, who was one of the highest paid positions in imperial Rome, had a yearly salary of about 200,000 sesterces.
The whole administration of Egypt expenses, was probably no more than half a million sesterces including games, and public building expenses
Other than a visit from Tiberius adopted son, Germanicus, who due to the complex power dynamics of the imperial family, was more of a threat and a rival to Tiberius rather than a beloved heir, not much is recorded in the History about the affairs of Egypt
Germanicus was poisoned shortly after his visit, so in the big scheme of things, the visit was in-consequential.
Another event in his reign worth noting is the tension developing between the Romans and the Jews culminating in the expulsion of the Jews from Rome in 19 AD
Perhaps due to that tensions, and the weakening of the Jewish position, relationship between the Jews and the Greeks of Alexandria starts to deteriorate rabidly and as we will see next week, Alexandria becomes a battlefield where much blood is shed
Toward the end of Tiberius reign, a Jewish man claiming to be the son of God and the “messiah” was arrested and crucified in Judea, his followers, prosecuted by the Jews in Judea, start fanning out throughout the empire and started a cascade of events, that will forever change the world
Perhaps, in Tiberius 22 years long reign, his greatest achievement was that he for the most part left the Augustus governance model intact, which kept the peace, and the taxes flowing.
So, how did exactly the Romans govern Egypt?
When Augustus annexed Egypt, he found a developed system of governance which evolved over thousands of years.
Therefore, he presumably left some parts of it intact – such as the Nomes for example - but he also, set about reforming its affairs and without a doubt, the Roman administration for the next century, far surpassed the Ptolmy’s in efficiency, administration of Justice, and of course, collection of taxes
Among all the major provinces of the Roman empire, Egypt was the only one that was administered by a governor who was not a senator and who was appointed directly by the emperor with no involvement whatsoever for the Senate at Rome
Basically, the Roman society was socially divided into classes, the richest and most powerful were the Senate.
Mike Duncan, History of Rome podcast does a great job explaining how all these classes worked and how they originated for those interested further.
But in Egypt, the governor or the prefect, In terms of authority, had basically the same powers as governors from the senatorial class, his initial command included three legions, and later, in the time of Tiberius, two, something that was normally restricted to senators alone.
The prefect also had unlimited power in the civilian sector. So, he could make laws and edicts.
Similarly, he also had supreme judicial powers in the country. His judicial power only checked by the right of appeal from a Roman citizen to the emperor, but Greeks and Egyptians didn’t have that option
A focal point of the prefect’s duties was in levying taxes, as well as for grain deliveries from Egypt. The Emperor of course was involved in determining, the overall amount to be extracted, but the prefect was left to hash out the details
It was customary for the Prefect to travel throughout Egypt from January – April to administer justice and assess the administrative practices of his sub-ordinates
He held office at the will of the emperor, and was not, apparently, appointed for any definite period ; the longest recorded tenure of the office was close to sixteen years
In the judicial branch, under the prefect was the office of di-kaio-dotes, a law expert and a judge, who meant to assist the prefect. He also, was a Roman, and appointed by emperor himself
There was also, a local Alexandrian judge, who also was in charge of the legal archives, he didn’t have to be a Roman, but often as a leading citizen of the city, was.
In the civil branch of government, Egypt was divided in 3 parts, The Delta, Middle Egypt, and Upper Egypt.
Each part was the responsibility of an epistratgos who answered directly to the prefect and was almost always, a Roman. The epistratgos, were the lowest of the imperial officials appointed from Rome and their salary was 20,000 sesterces (sisters), 1/10 of that of the prefect
The epistratgos were charged with the task of choosing on behalf of the government, from each nome under them, men to fill the rest of the administration offices from the native population,
Those various position were unpaid and in many instances, their personal property were liable for confiscation if the needed amount of taxes wasn’t collected, or if the job that was assigned to them wasn’t done in the manner expected by the epistratgos
These offices were, the startegos, the men who were responsible for overall governance of each nome.
The royal scribes, who assisted the staregos and maintained records, the nomarchs, who was responsible for the collections of tolls and various transportation taxes
The records of the nome were kept by the bibliophylakes, with whom copies of all official documents were deposited and who received notice of all changes in the ownership of land together with periodical returns from the landholders of the nome describing their property
Informally, of course, there were village elders, who solved most of the day to day problems
Other local officers include those responsible for the census, those responsible for the registrations of contracts, and even the equivalent of police officers who were responsible for the custody of persons required to show up in court
And there were of course, the Army, who answered to the prefect and was sometimes used to maintain the peace.
Egyptians were allowed to join the auxiliary forces, and after 25 years of service, they were discharged and became Roman citizens.
Most of those who joined didn’t make it to 25 years, and even if they did, they were not allowed to marry during service, and therefore any children they have before their discharge were considered illegitimate in the eyes of state and didn’t become Roman citizen.
So, the army was somewhat limited as social mobility vehicle.
All in all, the Romans essentially ran the whole country with a skeleton crew of paid Roman officials, and then either scared or enticed the local elites to cooperate and govern and collect taxes on their behalf
The system worked well for close to a 100 years, but then it started to break down and eventually was reformed by Severus and his sons, and then completely revamped under Diocletian
Next time, Caligula, our next emperor will make us appreciate the efficient exploitation of Augstus, and the lack of interest from Tiberius, ---- The Jews and the Greeks of Alexandria will go to all-out war, and St. Mark, the Apostle, will visit Alexandria and perish there, becoming the seed, that died, and brought fourth many fruits.
Farewell, and until next week
The Oxford Handbook of Roman Egypt by" Christina Riggs (Editor)
A History of Egypt under Roman Rule by" Joseph Grafton Milne