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Script


  • Hello, and welcome to the History of The Copts. Bonus Episode 3. Life in Byzantine Egypt.
  • Last time we looked into everyday life in Egypt was all the way back in the 1st century when the Country was transitioned from Greek local rulers, the last of whom is Cleopatra to being a part of a vast Roman Empire
  • The Romans worked hard to improve trade, as well as generally, make the land as productive as possible
  • Farmers received the label Egyptian, and essentially, were stuck on their farms from generation to generation with very limited social mobility
  • City councils and administrative positions with filled with those who identified as Greek, or Romans, with, Jews playing a role, at least, initially
  • This was generally the case up until the Crisis of the Third Century.. In the social and military upheaval that came with the slipping of Roman power, things start to change
  • Diocletian played his part, Constantine played his part, and Christianity played its part
  • What follows is essentially what life in Egypt was like from Constantine to Islam
  • Now, this about 300 years’ worth of action, and as you can imagine, there were many changes in the life of an average Egyptian over this period
  • So, in essence, there are going to be lots of generalizations here, and rather than spent 30 minutes on all the administrative changes that happened within those years, it will be more of a big picture account with an emphasis on the life of Egyptians in a society that is stuck between assimilation and resistance to the Byzantine world order
  • First on the list, is governing. How did the Byzantines govern Egypt and how did the Egyptians respond?
  • Diocletian’s time was full of Egyptians revolts, and Egypt may have easily slipped from the empire
  • As result of this, he took the step of dividing the country up into smaller pieces administratively; this wasn’t only in Egypt, but throughout the empire. It made sense, if governors, and generals are constantly rebelling, then break up their power into smaller units
  • As such, Egypt was split into 3 provinces, and the Prefect in Alexandria, in theory had an 2 equals in the rest of Egypt
  • Egypt was a pretty unique province in the empire though, It has been a stable united political unit for a long time and dividing it was unnatural, so once Diocletian died and the problem with concentrating power forgotten about
  • The Prefect of Alexandria got the title Augustalis, and became the de facto head of Egypt regardless of how many provinces it was fashionable to divide Egypt into
  • His power was not absolute though, at some point in the sixth century, the Civil and Military branches were formally divided. So, basically, there was an independent military hierarchy that answers directly to the Emperor independent of the Prefect
  • By the 7th Century, when there was heightened military conflict with both the Persians and then the Arabs, the Position was combined again into one overall all supreme leader in Egypt
  • Cyrus, the Prefect of Alexandria on the eve of the Islamic conquest combined the three positions of bishop, prefect, and a general  
  • Speaking of the bishop of Alexandria, he was obviously a very influential figure in governing Egypt. Although, their political peak was with Pope Theophilus and Pope Cyril
  • After this, the bishops of Alexandria and the rest of the bishops in Egypt played a role in governing, but none reached the all-powerful figures of Theophilus or Cyril
  • In a local level, problems were solved either by the bishops of the area, or by a position named the Pega-arch, who was basically responsible for collecting the taxes of his city
  • In this part, The governing of Egypt was integrated in larger byzantine world, but there was also much resistance
  • Egypt has expressed its identity through religion since time immemorial, and under the byzantine government that has not changed
  • At a future point in the narrative, rival church hierarchies would form in Egypt, and generally speaking, the Byzantine administration would favor the one side and the Egyptians will side with the other
  • The miaphysite position that the Egyptians will favor, and the religious hierarchy of that position will in time form an alternative governing body than the official one in Alexandria
  • Another aspect of the tension between assimilation and resistance shows its head is language
  • The usage of Coptic versus Greek or Latin can shed lots of light on that tension
  • By the time of Diocletian, Coptic was in the final stages of development as a written language and it reached peak usage in the period we are discussing
  • Coptic, based on what survived, seems to have been purely a religious language
  • Sermons, life of saints, homilies, gospels, and hymns was mostly all what Coptic being used for
  • So, we can’t really talk about written Coptic, emphasis here on written, not spoken - being used in everyday life nor can we speak of mature Coptic literature such as novels, original theological works, histories or anything that is secular in nature
  • One notable exception is how Shenouta the Archmendrite used Coptic. Shenouta knew Greek, but he essentially refused to use it
  • As both a hermit and the leader of a monastery, he found himself writing letter after letter to his monastery on every day issues and problems
  • Thus his hundreds of letters and monastery rules that survived are the only written Coptic that we can confidently say that it was being used in everyday life
  • The Egyptians have essentially completely accepted Greek as the language of governing and literature
  • Even deep in the heartland of Egypt, in a city called Panopolis, modern day Akhmim and not too far away from Shenouta’s monastery, a literary school flourished that produced many poets and writers who wrote in Greek
  • One of the school graduates, a man named Nonnus, wrote a massive epic novel that were larger than both the Illiad and the Odyssey combined
  • Nonnus clearly aspired to be the new Homer and have he wrote in a different time, he may have succeeded
  • The Egypt that Nonnus was living in was transforming quickly though. Monasteries were spreading everywhere, and Christianity dominated everyday life
  • Nonnus, who was a Christian, was forgotten about with his epic tale of Greek gods. What the history remembers from this period, if anything, the Theological legacy and writings of Pope Cyril and other bishops
  • Those theological works were also written in Greek, as well as, basically all official business between the bishops
  • The liturgy was also prayed in Greek, even though, many of simple farmers were more comfortable with Coptic
  • Curiously though, in the upcoming Council of Chalcedon, we hear of one bishop who needed a translator, because he only knew Coptic and couldn’t follow the Greek proceedings of the Council
  • I also have no doubt that at least starting with St. Athanasius, the bishops of Alexandria knew Coptic.. Although, this is a point of academic debate
  • Cultivating monastic support was very important to be successful as a bishop, and most of the monks were more comfortable with Coptic
  • So, the picture we get is a pretty complex one. Monasteries were definitely where Coptic reigned supreme. Official government business was exclusively Greek or Latin. Everything else was contested. Education with mainly Greek, with some Coptic in there. Sermons were mostly Coptic, with some Greek here and there.
  • Not to add further to the complexities, but among the very top government communication and the Army. Latin still played a role. You can usually find a man in each city or the bigger villages who can at least understand written Latin. Communicating in it is a whole different story though and basically was never done in Egypt
  • The next subject we will touch is economy
  • Before Diocletian, taxes were mainly collected by a system of liturgies, I.E, a system of obligatory requirements on the local population
  • Also, inflation was rampant and the roman currency has essentially become worthless
  • Alexandria minted its own coins, which played a factor in the rebellions and their mint was closed under Diocletian
  • By the end of Constantine’s rule, liturgies were essentially done away with and replaced with a large beaucratic class that were paid a salary for services to the state
  • The empire economic system was unified and new gold coins, called the solidi formed the basis of currency and checked inflation
  • The emergence of this beaucratic class had two main effects
    1. One, working for the state became a very attractive option, and it became a legitimate way to improve one’s social and economic status
    2. Second, it essentially, concentrated land owner ship in the hands of a few individuals
  • With much of what formed the upper middle class either pulled toward the Church hierarchy or the government, what was left is a super rich land-owning elite and a mass of poor farmers who worked the lands of those super-rich elite
  • To illustrate, consider the example of a man named Cyrus, also from Panopolis
  • Born from a well-to family, he went to the School of Panopolis, probably the same one, that produced Nonnus
  • He was a good poet and generally, an excellent writer. His works caught the attention of the Empress Eudocia, the wife of Theodosius the 2nd and he managed to get a position in the Palace in Constantinople
  • In there, he worked the beaucratic ladder, until he reached its highest position. The Pratorian Prefect of the East. Essentially, the 2nd man of the Empire after The Emperor himself
  • His wealth and power didn’t come from accumulating lands, rather, he moved from the upper middle class to the elite class of the Empire via working for the State
  • Another example, is Shenouta epic struggle with one of the elite land-owners around his monastery
  • Shenouta’s nemesis, Gessius, was a former governor of Thebes and had an immense amount of wealth
  • He owned numerous homes, storehouses, boats, gardens, and fields
  • Shenouta’s criticized him repeatedly in a very modern notion of economic equality
  • In one of Shenout’s sermons which I am slightly paraphrasing,
    1. the rich are wearing fancy cloths, living in summer and winter houses, sleeping in ivory beds on soft pillows and mattresses, and holding lavish banquets
    2. The rich, have a large staff at their disposal: cooks, bathing and dressing helpers, singers, and musicians
    3. The rich, are forcing the common folks to construct their houses and baths, build ships for them and to serve as the crew for their ships.
    4. The rich corrupt justice, and abuse their powers forcing the poor to give their supply of milk and meat for their pets and dogs
  • And finally, he makes the connection between the existence of those rich land owners and abusive tax collection, to quote him directly “if you do not pay them more than their taxes in the form of presents you will not escape becoming their laughing stock”
  • Thus, here also we see Shenouta and monasteries in general as a social force that checks and denounces the vast economic disparity
  • Now to be fair, the Church and Monasteries came in time to be one of largest land holders in Egypt
  • In one analysis from the city of Oxyrhynchus and its rural surrounding in the sixth century, The Church owned 9% of the land. A significant amount to be sure, but much less than the richest family in the City
  • That family, was the family of Apion, whose influence reached all the way to Constantinople, they owned about 30% of land Oxyrhynchus
  • All in all, 7 families in Oxyrrhunchus essentially owned all the land and everybody else worked for them
  • So, as you can imagine, when the Arabs came, it wasn’t really that difficult to collect taxes from a land of over a million soul, the vast majority of taxes came from few families
  • Crucially though, this wasn’t the classic European feudalism with the farmers stuck between being free and being a slave and tied down to the lands
  • No, in Byzantine Egypt, the most prevalent mode of labor was via yearly contracts mixed with renting the land to farmers
  • There were of course a certain level of coercion to make sure that the farmers came back year after year
  • But, there was also, in demand professions, where the holder of said profession can have plenty of leverage in contract negotiation
  • Not to mention, a middle class of teachers, doctors, and merchants existed
  • There is enough Papyrous that survived that allows historians to be able to reconstruct the career of one of those middle class businessmen, a man named Dioskoros
  • He was based in a large village named Aphrodito, about 50 Km north of Panopolis
  • Diskoros basically took land in lease from all kinds of landowners, such as the local elites, bureaucrats, lawyers as well as churches and monasteries.
  • Then he subleased the property to farmers , or arranged work-contracts with day-labourers
  • His made profit by essentially, working as a middle man between absentee landowners and farmers
  • After a life time of work, he basically moved from being a village farmer, to a wealthy upper middle class Egyptian
  • Before he died, he travelled on business all the way to Constantinople, founded a monastery, and became a monk, presumably once his wife died
  • His family continued to flourish for several generation as the local aristocracy of the area
  • All in all, in Byzantine Egypt, despite the vast economic inequality, social mobility was quite possible for the talented and educated and Egypt as a province was completely integrated in the larger Meditreanean economy
  • Lastly, we should get to how one can be educated enough for that social advancement
  • Education in Byzantine Egypt and really since Augustus annexed Egypt was entirely a private enterprise
  • It was geared toward teaching to read and produce literature, with very basic math and science background
  • It was divided into three stages, Primary school, Secondary school, and Rhetoric for the last traditional stage
  • After that, one can go on and study Law, Philosophy, or more advances mathematics
  • That last stage can’t be done locally, but one has to travel to Alexandria, or another cultural center of the Empire to get that sort of education
  • Now, as you can imagine, paying a teacher for private instruction wasn’t cheap, and to pay for travel and lodging for the really advanced stage was beyond the means of most
  • Bishops, at least initially, needed to have finished the secondary stage of Education, but with the split in the Church Hierarchy, Miaphysite bishops, I.E the one who looked to the affairs of the majority of Egyptians were recruited almost exclusively from the monastic community based on their piety
  • There was no formal Christian education, and the theological school of Alexandria has essentially disappeared from the records after Didymus the blind and St. Athanasius
  • Which sort of makes sense, the School was made to attract the intellectual pagans and offer Christian education to aspiring Christians
  • As Egypt became essentially a Christian land, the need for the School disappeared
  • In the Monasteries, the bible, books from the fathers of the Church, and life of saints were available for reading, but nothing formalized ever developed
  • So as you can imagine, gradually there was a loss of the classical knowledge and Alexandria was losing its academic luster
  • When Islam comes in the 7th century, it would the final blow for Alexandria as a cultural center
  • Which gets to me to a very popular question about this period, what happened to the library of Alexandria?
  • Now, the question is a bit misleading that it implies that one big event happened and destroyed the books, then knowledge was lost and the world slipped into the dark ages
  • The reality is more complicated though. The true value of the library was that essentially it was a government sponsored learning institution
  • Knowledge wasn’t only preserved, which is pretty good, but new knowledge was being produced, which is even better
  • The loss of the financial patronage of the Ptolemys when the Romans annexed Egypt was the first, and a major hit in that respect
  • But, the library still survived, as interest from students still existed and that brought financial resources
  • Then, came the gradual loss of Classical knowledge we talked about earlier, and this, slowly killed off the library as a scientific institution
  • That trend, finally culminated with this possibly legendary story
  • The conquering General of the Arab Amrou Ibn El As when he took Alexandria wrote to his Caliph Omar asking what to do with the remains of the library and received this reply:
  • “If their content is in accordance with the book of Allah, we may do without them, for in that case the book of Allah more than suffices. If, on the other hand, they contain matter not in accordance with the book of Allah, there can be no need to preserve them. Proceed, then and destroy them.”
  • Supposedly, the books were distributed to the public baths to feed the fires that warmed the water. A Muslim historian writing almost 500 years later named Ibn al-Kiftiwrote that it took six months to burn all the books
  • Again, the loss of the book was tragic, and probably happened over hundreds of years with rebellions, mob riots, fires, and conquering armies doing their parts. But the more profound loss is the gradual loss of interest in knowledge outside religious spheres    
  • Now, to be clear, Christianity wasn’t necessarily hostile to the Classical Greek Heritage
  • Rather, Byzantine Egypt was stuck between a native Culture with its own brand of Christianity, and a Byzantine/Greek culture with their own brand of Christianity
  • This dynamic gradually weakened the Cultural pull of the Greek education models toward a more piety, monastic based one
  • At least, that’s the big picture
  • Being a teacher, especially, beyond the primary stage was a very respected profession and a solid road to middle class even after the split and for a brief period after the Arabs
  • Indicating that there was still plenty of interest in the Classics regardless of the associated cultural package
  • Also, before the split, Shenouta’s was using the term Hellene, which literally meant Greek, as a catch all phrase to describe pagans, heretics, and generally, all what was wrong in the world
  • Pope Cyril, also famously declared, that quote “Hellenic learning is vain and pointless and requires much effort for no reward”, even though, he owes much of his legacy and eloquence to that Hellenic learning
  • Again, some Christian leaders wanted to pull away from the Greek epics poems and myths to concentrate instead on the biblical truth and Christian piety, not to preserve Egyptian Christianity, but to preserve Christianity period.
  • But generally speaking, the value of the Greek education was recognized by Egyptians and pursued if possible, regardless of any real or perceived threat to the faith, up until the Arabs arrived
  • The final question for this Episode from listeners is about the role of women in Byzantine Egypt
  • This question can be tackled from various perspectives, from a big picture perspective. The Society was male dominated, and there were many taboos on what Women can do, but that’s really the 21st century eyes looking back
  • On the ground, Women in Pharonic Egypt enjoyed equal rights and enjoyed tremendous independence but those days were long gone
  • Romans laws which were particularly unkind to women, have seeped through to Egypt but in the period we are looking at, Byzantine Egypt, those laws were being Christianized and becoming somewhat more egalitarian
  • To women, Byzantine Egypt was actually pretty good compared to what came before, Straight up Roman Misogyny and what came after, Islamic Law
  • The establishment of a law code at the time of emperor Justinian afforded women some basic rights – It was far removed from modern notions of equality, but generally speaking, women can own property and be involved in financial transactions, domestic violence was frowned upon, and Women now could divorce their own husbands
  • In the Church, Women also didn’t do too bad with a solid argument that can be made that they were in a better shape than today
  • In Constantinople, there were ordained female deaconesses that essentially can do whatever a male deacon does.. Including giving communion in special circumstances.. In the sources for the Episode, there is an excellent short scholarly article with some pretty convincing evidence for that practice
  • In Egypt, there is no direct evidence of Deaconesses, but as the Church was united, a good case can be made that whatever was permissible in Constantinople, it also should be permissible in Egypt
  • So all in all, the picture that I am trying to portray of Byzantine Egypt is of a land that was being pulled toward assimilation in a wider meditreanen culture, with a counter-pull to express its unique identity through Christianity, and Specifically, the rejection of the Council of Chalcedon and the embracing of the Miaphysite label
  • Speaking of the Council of Chalcedon that would be the next big event our narrative. Next week, we will built up to it with the introduction of Pope Dioscorus, and then, we should get there in two weeks
  • Farewell, and until next week

References


  • Alexandria in Late Antiquity: Topography and Social Conflict by" Christopher Haas
  • Egypt in the Byzantine World. 300 – 700 AD by" Roger S. Bagnall (editor)
  • A Greek Roman Empire: Power and Belief under Theodosius II by" Fergus Miller
  • Egypt in Late Antiquity by" Roger S. Bagnall
  • The Life of Shenoute by" Besa (author), David N. Bell (translator)
  • Agrarian History and the Labour Organization of Byzantine Large Estates (book chapter) by" Jairus Banaji
  • Shenoute and the women of the White Monastery by" Rebecca Krawiec
  • Female Deacons in the Byzantine Church (Academic paper) by" Valerie Karras
  • Panopolis, a Nome Capital in Egypt in the Roman and Byzantine Period; 200-600 AD (PhD dissertation) by" Karolien Geens
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