Hello, and welcome to the History of the Copts, Episode 1. Not quite the beginning.
In the beginning, but wait? When is “THE” beginning, and I mean “THE” beginning, not just a beginning. You see, the Copts don’t have a traditional beginning, like the founding of Rome, or the American Revolution. Nope. We may as well start in 3100 BC, 5000 years ago, when the 1st Pharoh unified Egypt as a one country with a central government and that would be the closest thing to “The” beginning. But since I have no plans in doing that and there is a good Podcast already out there discussing Egypt from its founding to Cleopatra , I have to pick a sort of a convenient marker to start “The History of Copts”
My convenient marker is the death of Cleopatra and the annexation of Egypt by Rome in 30 BC, but this event by no means, represents “The” beginning of the Copts, No, it just a beginning. A transition point that is one of many on our road.
The next transition point would probably be St. Mark the apostle coming to Egypt in the 50-60’s AD and the traditional story of the founding of the Coptic Church. That would be, “The” beginning as far as the Coptic church history is concerned and indeed a seminal event for the Coptic identity, but as we will see, the Copts had a long way to go after St. Mark arrival to the formation of their distinct ethno-religious identity
Other contender seminal events that shaped the Copts and could possibly mark the “beginning”? the elevation of Pope Demetrious, the ascension of Diocletian, The Council of Chalcedon, and of course, arrival of the Arabs.
The earliest of these events, the elevation of Pope Demetrious is significant because, in a way, it started the international influence of the Alexandrian church beyond Egypt through Pope Demetrious himself, his successors, and the teachers of the theological school of Alexandria, such as clement of Alexandria and Origen
with that being said, nothing really says "the" beginning, like starting at year one! Yes, you heard right, the Copts have their own calendar and it has a year 1 in it. A pretty nice beginning, right?. The Coptic calendar in an ironic twist starts with the reign of its one of its greatest villains, Diocletian. The reign of Diocletian and especially its immediate aftermath is probably the closest thing to “the” beginning of the Copts. By then, Christianity had made serious headway in rural Egypt, Coptic as a written language was well developed and spreading, and the Alexandrian Church, de facto, and de jure was the Coptic church
So here you have it, I will start with Augustus and end with Diocletian in the first patch of episodes, in between them, native Egyptians became Copts, pagan temples became churches, hierglophyics became Coptic, and Greeks, Jews, and Egyptians were all transformed under the yoke of the Roman rule. After this patch of episodes, I will take a small break and I will release the next patch of episodes which will dive deep into interesting figures such as Constantine the Great, and by far the greatest historical figure on the Coptic conscious. St. Athanasius the apostolic.
Ok, so let’s try this again. In the beginning, there was a great desert, and an even greater river that divided it in half. People started to settle by the river which gave them their sustenance, families became villages, and villages became towns, and towns became cities and regions. The regions became two, and then one legendary king unified the two regions, and founded Egypt sometime around 3100 BC
Through 31 different dynasties following him, an intricate, sophisticated culture developed, it was shaped by both external invasions, and civil wars. Religious sophistication, and superstition, military expansion and later defeat. After close to 3000 years of being ruled by its natives, with the usual interruptions and caveats of course. That all came to an end.
The Persians came first, then the Greeks with Alexander the great, and finally Augustus and the Romans
The last Greek ruler was the famous Cleopatra. Who out-maneuvered her co-ruler, and younger brother in a civil war with the help of a certain Julius Caesar and became the sole-ruler of Egypt, with naturally the protection and the help of Rome’s__ legions.
To her credit, she was actually the only Greek ruler over 300 years who bothered to learn how to speak the native tongue and she tried to add the native Egyptians to her power-base using the religious establishment
But then again, she practically invited the Romans to annex Egypt and if Julius Caesar wasn’t murdeered by the Roman Senate, he would likely did so, _ at the next politically opportune moment
But quickly after her alliance with the Romans, Julius Caesar was assassinated, and Roman civil war ensued, at one side was his general Marc Antony, and his adopted son Octavian and on the other side his assassins, and other members of the Senate
The Marc Antony/Octavian side won, and they divided their spoils of victory. Marc Antony gotten the East, with Egypt, and of course Cleopatra, while Octavian gotten the west, with Rome
But in a typical Roman fashion, when it was politically convenient, another civil war ensued between Marc Anthony and Cleopatra on one side, and Octavian on the other
A naval battle in Actium took place in 31 BC in modern day Greece. Mark Antony and Cleopatra were defeated and fled to Alexandria.
In the Spring of 30 BC, Octavian advanced toward Egypt from Syria, and one of his general Cornelius Gallus, __ later first prefect of Egypt advanced from the west, from Cyrenaica in modern day Libya
Facing defeat, Marc Antony and then Cleopatra commit suicide. The son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar tries to escape, but gets caught and killed by Octavian. He was a Caesar and as Octavian puts it, two Caesars is one too many.
The other kids of Cleopatra, from Marc Antony are shipped to Rome where the boys disappear from history, and the girl goes on and becomes a queen of a roman puppet kingdom of what’s modern day morocco/Mauritania.
And thus ends the Macedonian dynastry, and the start of Roman Egypt.
With Octavian firmly in charge of lower Egypt -- I.E, The delta, he takes a tour of his newly acquired territory. He visits the Tomb of Alexander the great, where he supposedly breaks off Alexander’s mummified nose, but he refuses to visit the Ptolemy’s graves, making clear that there is a new dog in town.
Then he goes on and visits Memphis, the capital of the Egyptian religious establishment, where the god Apis, an actual living bull, lives attended to by many priests and a highly influential high priest
That religious establishment, was very close to the Ptolmies, and the Ptolmies used them to legi-ti-mize their rule and deify them as Pharohs, living gods -- and in return the Ptolmies favored them with new temples and a share in Egypt material riches, they even allowed a member of the high priest family to marry into the Ptolmies. By this point, the high priest position was hereditary.
Octavian, flashing his political genius, refuses the coronation and the associated honoring of the god, the official reason given is that he would make offerings to gods, but not to beasts.
However, the actual political reason is that at this point Octavian was creating an image of a merely a successful senator, who is first in honors among his colleagues. Not an all-powerful king, and a living god as the Egyptian priests would have do.
Not to mention, his propaganda machine has rallied against Marc Anonthy for exactly that kind of behavior.
Either way, Octavian, was just coming out of a civil war, and wanted to consolidate his position in Rome, and being crowned as an Egyptian pharaoh would have made his relationship with the Senate difficult.
From the point of the view of the Egyptians, that was a huge change, the religious establishment would have easily spin the annexation, as the creation of a new dynasty and a new Pharoh, therefore, everything is pretty much the same, and since nothing changed, keep showing up to the temple with your offerings and obey the living god.
Complicating the religious establishment position, is that the high priest died, 2 days before the conquest and if they wanted to keep the position in the family, they have to play nice with Octavian, which they tried to do, but Octavian had other plans
Octavian, kept the high priesthood position vacant for 2 ½ years, probably dividing and splitting the priesthood in their quest to compete for the position. When he finally appointed a successor, it was a cousin of the deceased high priest, masterfully a relative, so he won’t completely antagonize the priests, but not his direct successor (presumably his son) to assert his power
In top of that, the new title of the high priest was the prophet of Caesar, and in addition to his services to Apis, he was also responsible for the cult of Caesar.
As By this point Octavian was given the title Augustus by the Senate, and he didn’t need to worry about the political backlash of being worshipped as a god
After this high priest died, no more native high priests are recorded, but rather a new position came about - the High priest of Alexandria and all of Egypt - naturally, occupied by a roman citizen appointed by the emperor, it became an administrative position to regulate the taxation of the Egyptians priests and temples rather than an actual priest
But the Roman administrative apparatus continued to use the native religion establishment in Egypt when he saw it politically convenient, so temples were still updated and new ones were built, but in a way, in hind-sight it was a seminal moment, where the old Egyptians gods started to die
Octavian stayed in Egypt less than a year, and went back to Rome in the Autumn 30 BC, before he left though he instituted a serious of legal changes that fundamentally changed the fabric of Egypt’s society
In order to appreciate the magnitude of the changes Augustus made, we have to take a deep dive down the rabbit hole of identity and how did various people living in Egypt perceive themselves and their neighbors
Egypt, and especially Alexandria at the time of Augustus was a multi-ethnic, multi-cultured society,
in one of the ancient speeches preserved, we see an address to a crowd in Alexandria being made to Greeks, Italians, Syrians, Libyans, Cilicians, Ethiopians, Arabs, Scythians, Persians, and Indians. A kind of ancient New York, or London.
So how did the people living in Egypt perceive themselves? Well, if you were a rural, illiterate farmer, you probably wouldn’t spend too much time dwelling on such questions and maybe every once in a while some government official will pass by and call you a stupid Egyptian thinking he is insulting you, but you just move on and keep working, the irrigation canals needs cleaning, the seeds need sowing, and the ground needs to turned over. You go to the local temple on festivals, you offer your sacrifice to the local Egyptian deity and in a world where the average mortality was between 20-25 years old, you count yourself lucky if you made to 40 and by then you may even see your grandkids.
People like you are all over Egypt, and numerically you are about 80% of a population that is around 5 million. The Romans coming had probably a little effect on you, you still went to the village elders for problems and solved problems according to your customs. There were new taxes, but oh well, there is always new taxes.
But what if you are not? What if you were one of those 20% living in the city and who can read and write? Well, The Romans just upended your world!
You see, when the Ptolemy’s were around, social and material advancement was only possible if you were Greek. But that wasn’t a problem for the enterprising Egyptian, If you were smart enough and was able learn Greek and acted Greek enough, you became Greek and the door of social advancement opened up, and if that was too difficult, well, you can always marry right, and move up.
So in essence, gradually over the 300 years -- the Ptolemy’s were in charge, the elite Egyptian, city-dwellers became to see themselves as Greek and instead of Greek and Egyptian being an ethnic or a national distinction, as we would think of nowadays, it became more or a less a class distinction. If you were an upper class, rich, city dweller you became Greek, and if you were a rural, poor, illiterate farmer, you became Egyptian.
And if that wasn’t complicated enough for you, let’s take it a little further. Culturally those Hellenized Egyptians, or Greeks, were straddling both the Egyptian and the Greek cultures. So, they learned Homer, and received classical Greek education, yet they worshiped Isis, an Egyptian goddess, and Serapis, a combo god of Osiris, the Egyptian God of the underworld, and apis, the Memphis bull mentioned earlier.
They wrote and communicated in Greek, yet except the super-elite among them, they also spoke Egyptian.
So what would happen if you accidentally called a punch of these guys Egyptians? Well, you just incited a mob riot and you better start running because they fully intent on murdering you
This is not by any means an exaggeration, in a typical Greek v. Jews riot of that time, the reason reported for the riot was a Greek insulting the Jews and calling them, wait for it - Egyptians.
So, on account of their strong feelings about the subject, from now on, I will call these Hellenized Egyptians, Greeks.
Now, to go all the way down to the rabbit hole, in addition to the identity labels of Greek, and Egyptian. There were also, the Jews, and the priests. The Jews who will play a part in our story, didn’t see themselves as Greek or Egyptian but they were mainly upper class, city-dwellers.
The Jewish community in Egypt was the largest outside of Judea and highly influential. In Alexandria, the Jews were 20-30% of the population and clashed repeatedly with the Greek residents. We will go back to them multiple times
The priests on the other hand, clearly saw themselves as Egyptians and a significant portion of them could be considered upper class and educated, however, slowly they lost their power and wealth with the Roman less reliant on them to keep the masses quiet and paying taxes starting with Octavian legal changes
So, now we come full circle, Octavian legal changes that rocked the fabric of society.
The first thing Octavian did was to take away the senate or the ruling council from the Greeks in Alexandria. Essentially, taking away the right of self-governance.
And if that wasn’t enough insult, he gave the Jews, the right of self-governance via a council of elders as well as many other benefits that are were traditionally reserved to only the Greek citizens of Alexandria. But crucially, he didn’t give them the right to be citizens.
As a result, the Greeks constantly agitated to get their Senate back, especially that the uncivilized, impious Jews have one, and the Jews constantly agitated to become Alexandrian citizens and to be with equal status with treacherous Greeks
The official reason given is obviously Octavian love and appreciation for the Jews, but as we will see, it was just but a small part of Egypt-wide program of divide, conquer, and collect taxes
From this point on, the City of Alexandria most influential residents were divided and saw each other as enemies, appealing to their neutral masters, the Romans.
They competed with one another, who can exalt and give more honor to their shared master to take their side. The Greeks and the Jews of Alexandria clashed repeatedly and in their enmity to each other, their surrendered the wealth of their city and country to the Romans.
But again, with his typical political brilliance, Octavian doesn’t completely antagonize the Alexandrians and exempt them from the poll tax ordained on mostly the rest of Egypt, gives them free grain, as well as making the Alexandrian citizenship a requirement for any of the residents of Egypt to become Roman citizens
He also tries to found another city, 4 miles away of Alexandria, Nikopolis, perhaps to lessen and weaken the influence of Alexandra, but his project fails and the new city ends up being the Roman military garrison.
For his next changes, he moves to the nomes and the cities of Egypt. The Nome was the administrative districts of Egypt for thousands of years. There was 36-50 nomes depending on the circumstances and the time, but the traditional number is 42 nomes.
Each Nome had a capital that was by the ancient standards, a large city. In addition to the Nomes and their Capitals, there was two additional important cities, plus of course Alexandria that Octavian marked out and gave them a special treatment.
But this will have to wait until next week, when Octavian will further divide the Egyptians, slowly close all avenues for social mobility, and his appointed prefect militarily suppress the upper Egypt rebellion
Thank you for listening, and I will appreciate it if you share and spread the word.
Farewell, and until next week.
The story of Egypt by" Joanne Fletcher
The Early Coptic Papacy: The Egyptian Church and Its Leadership in Late Antiquity by" Stephen J. Davis
The Oxford Handbook of Roman Egypt by" Christina Riggs (Editor)
A History of Egypt under Roman Rule by" Joseph Grafton Milne
Life in Egypt Under Roman Rule by" Naphtali Lewis
Two Thousand years of Coptic Christianity by" Otto F.A. Meinardus