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Script


  • Hello, and Welcome to the History of the Copts. Episode 5. The Bucolic war.
  • Last time, we started to see the power of the empire reaching its peak with Antonious pious and after his 22 years long reign, he was followed by his adoptive son, Marcus Aurelius
  • Marcus did all what anyone can, to keep the empire together, but unsustainable policies that predated him kept coming back to haunt the empire
  • What follows is the story of how an oppressed, and exploited people rose up under a charismatic leader against Roman rule
  • If the story of Spartacus, the soldier, turned slave, turned gladiator, turned repel have captivated and inspired many works of arts, then the story of Isidore, the Egyptian priest, turned repel would be its literary brother
  • Only if we have a little bit more solid historical information, but nonetheless, the story is fascinating despite the gaps in our knowledge
  • The rebellion started under Marcus Aurelius, but in fairness to Marcus, the embers of resistance were always there, since the time of Augustus
  • At first they were directed at the Jews, who were seen as Rome enablers until the time of their decimation in 117 AD, after that, resistance were directed at Rome itself
  • During the reign of Antonios Pious, The prefect of Egypt was murdered, an event, so obscure in history, that it seems that the Roman administration actively tried to suppress it
  • Was it a mob riot? Was it a coup attempt? Or was it a rebellion? We don’t know. What we do know is, that supposedly during Antonious Pious long peaceful reign, things were not so peaceful in Egypt
  • We also do know is that the event required the personal intervention of the Emperor and was serious enough to disrupt the grain supply to Rome from Egypt, implying that it was a wide spread rebellion
  • It was the prelude of the bucolic war
  • Before we go to the Bucolic rebellion as the Roman historian Dio Cassius called it, it is worth looking into why did the Egyptians rose up against Roman Rule
  • While it may seems obvious to us now why would a nation reject foreign rulers in the name of nationalistic pride, modern historians usually agree that the concept of nationalism was a 19th century product and wasn’t much of a factor in the ancient world
  • It does seem however, that due to Egypt long history as a centralized political unit long before the Romans, that there was a hint of nationalism as observed with the Acts of Pagan Martyrs of Alexandria discussed already in previous episodes and an interesting purely Egyptian apocalyptic literature given the name – The prophesy of the potter-
  • Interestingly, the prophesy of the potter was directed against Greek elements as well as Roman, perhaps giving us a peek into the thinking of the rural farmers yearning for the golden age of Pharonic Egypt, but that maybe reading too much into it
  • In addition to nascent nationalism, the Roman administration pillars of governance took a heavy toll on the average Egyptians, which heavily factored into fermenting resistance
  • Those pillars of governance were social segregation as discussed in the prior episodes, tax farming and what is called, liturgies
  • Taxes under the Romans were an intricate system that had no match in the ancient world, and could even rival in complexity modern governments
  • Taxes were assessed on the person, the land, virtually all occupations, sales, movement of goods and people, and even a property tax
  • And those various taxes weren’t really the problem, the real problem laid in the collection method, known as Tax Farming
  • Tax farming was the practice that the Emperor or the Prefect depending on which tax is in question, would sell the right to collect taxes to the highest bidder, who would pay the amount he bid as a lump sum to the government
  • The winner of the auction would then go on, and collect taxes from the population using all means necessary including using the army and armed guards to recoup his investment and make a profit
  • Now as you can imagine, that system was an invite to corruption, as the more cruel, and vicious the tax collector is, the more profit he will make
  • The system was so despised and reached all the social classes, that even Philo, a highly influential and powerful Jewish philosopher complained about it
  • But unlike Philo, the average Egyptian had no recourse or an avenue to seek relief
  • The Egyptians farmers resorted to abandoning their homes, farms, and families to escape the oppressive policy and either moving to a large city and hoping to get by under the radar or becoming an outlaw and living in hide-outs in the deserts
  • But even then, they didn’t completely escape, as the tax collectors would often use violence against their families to force them to return and confiscate their property if they had any
  • Now, the immediate consequence was that large tracts of lands were left uncultivated and many towns lost a significant portion of its population
  • Which led to a decrease in tax revenues leading to even more oppressive policies and more farmers abandoning their homes, continuing the vicious cycle
  • From time to time, the numbers of outlaws and the depopulation of villages was so severe, that the prefect offered an amnesty and forgiveness of prior taxes for a brief period of time to induce the farmers to return home, but as this didn’t deal with root cause of the problem, the cycle continued
  • The most important of these taxes were the grain tax, which was used to feed the Roman citizens in Rome free of charge
  • To ensure the grain was collected, refined and transported with no issues, a complicated system of unpaid work requirements was developed, those unpaid work requirements were called liturgies
  • For example, there was a liturgy for grain collectors in each town, who was responsible for the quality of the grain and its transportation to Alexandria.
  • If the grain was adulterated or lost during transportation, then the grain collector would have make up the difference from his own personal property
  • Other liturgies included hard physical labor either in the mines or clearing irrigation canals
  • They were also widely despised, as the nominations process of who did what liturgy was corrupt, and a well placed bribe would usually lead to avoiding doing liturgies
  • So, naturally those who were poor and couldn’t afford taking time from their farms and doing unpaid work, ended up doing the most unpaid work
  • By the reign of Trajan, Tax Farming was being replaced by liturgical appointments, essentially turning the leading citizens of the cities into tax farmers, and if they didn’t collect the expected taxes, then their personal fortune would be confiscated and used to fill the gap in the tax collected
  • So not only the peasant farmers had a grudge against the Romans, but also the leading, rich members of the society
  • Couple all of these factors, plus a plague ravaging the army, and an intense war being waged again Germanic tribes taking experienced troops from Egypt, and you get the perfect storm for a serious revolt
  • In 172 AD, in the 11th year of Marcus Aurelius, the Egyptians rose up in rebellion
  • The only ancient account that survived was the one of Dio Cassius, a Roman Senator with a clear anti-Egyptian bias, nonetheless, from his writing, we can glean sufficient information to a get picture of what have happened
  • The name of the rebellion given by Dio is the bucolic rebellion, which literally means, the Cow herders rebellion
  • Bucolia is a special area in our story
  • It was an east of Alexandria occupied mostly by shepherds,
  • It is special because it was there that St. Mark was martyred, as well as where Arian started his heresy which we will talk in details about in the future
  • Despite the name, the rebellion was led by an Egyptian pagan priest, and mostly compromised by farmers, implying that the name was given based on where the rebels were broken, rather than where it started
  • This is the account as given literally by Dio:
  • The people called the Bucoli began a disturbance in Egypt and under the leadership of one Isidorus, a priest, caused the rest of the Egyptians to revolt.
  • At first, arrayed in women's garments, they had deceived the Roman centurion, causing him to believe that they were women of the Bucoli and were going to give him gold as ransom for their husbands, and had then struck him down when he approached them.
  • They also sacrificed his companion, and after swearing an oath over his entrails, they devoured them.
  • Isidorus surpassed all his contemporaries in bravery. Next, having conquered the Romans in Egypt in a pitched battle, they came near capturing Alexandria, too, and would have succeeded, had not Cassius been sent against them from Syria.
  • He contrived to destroy their mutual accord and to separate them from one another (for because of their desperation as well as of their numbers he had not ventured to attack them while they were united), and thus, when they fell to quarrelling, he subdued them.
  • Now in his account we see several holes, for one, the sacrificial cannibalism is a typical Roman propaganda to describe enemies, it was also used to describe the Jews in the 117 AD revolt, thus it can dismissed as Dio emphasizing the barbarity of Roman foes
  • Second, the account of women cloth and trickery, goes against the defeat of Roman forces in a pitched battle and Isidorus bravery, thus I am inclined to dismiss it as lessening the sting of defeat
  • Third, based on the description of their superior numbers, the rebels must of have been mostly farmers from the whole of Egypt, since the area of Bucolia is a small suburb of Alexandria and shepherds were a minority in Egypt
  • Lastly, being led by a priest implies an origin from one of the declining, but still powerful religious establishment centers deep from Egypt’s heartland
  • The more likely sequence of events is that Isidorus, a charismatic priest, tapped into the vast resentment of the Egyptians and formed an organized native rebellion
  • The rebellion then went on and defeated a smaller local garrison – perhaps via trickery as Dio describes, then they met the proper legion in battle in Nikopolis, 4 miles away from Alexandria and won a conclusive victor
  • The remnants of the legion retreated then to Alexandria, where the walls of city gave them a temporary reprieve until the Syrian troops arrive
  • When the Syrian governor, also named Cassius, arrived with his troops, he concluded that a pitched battle with the repels is a risky proposition
  • So he took a defensive position, and the rebels were stuck between the walls of Alexandria and a well-positioned Roman legion probably in the area of Bucolia
  • I have posted a map of Alexandria in the facebook page to help orient you to the locations
  • Given their shaky position, many repels likely abandoned the cause, with Cassius doing his part in sowing dissention via various means
  • And with their numbers dwindling, Cassius gained the upper hand and secured Egypt suppressing the rebellion.
  • Don’t worry though, the story doesn’t end there, as Cassius will get in trouble and lose his head shortly, but I want to pause for a moment and explore the emerging theological school of Alexandria which started forming shortly after the rebellion.
  • In 180 AD, 8 years after the events of the bucolic rebellion, we get the first solid mention of the famous theological school of Alexandria
  • Alexandria was, by far, the cultural center of the empire. It was a hub of scholars from all over the Mediterranean , and students of philosophy flocked to it throughout the Ptolmies and the Roman rule
  • It is then no wonder, that the Alexandrian Christian scholars from the 2nd century will go on and shape early Christianity like no other ancient city would
  • The first of these scholar was Pan-taenus, who was a well-known stoic philosopher, of the same school of thought as the emperor Marcus Aurelius’ but later converted to Christianity and formed a circle of students that eventually culminated with a formal highly influential theological school
  • Now to be clear, it’s not like Pan-taenus came with this model of teaching overnight, Philosophers have formed circles of students or followers from hundreds of years prior to him.
  • It’s very likely, that the gnostic teachers Valentinus and Basiledes also used circles of students to spread their teachings
  • It’s also very likely, that there was other orthodox teachers and study groups active beside Pan-taenus’ group, including ones led by or closely affiliated with the bishop of Alexandria himself
  • Which would explain the Coptic tradition, that the School was founded by St. Mark and was led by the bishops after him until the time of Pope Demetrious -- who will appear in our narrative shortly and will formally put the school under the bishop, thereby consolidating Christian teaching into one institution  
  • Therefore, the picture we get from Alexandria at this point is that of a competitive arena of ideas, with the intellectually fittest and the most eloquent leading the teaching of the faithful, rather than a single, unified institution under direct church control
  • The most famous of Pan-taenus students, Clement of Alexandria, was very eloquent and highly influential teacher of the time, which made this particular group, the spiritual parent of the formal school of Alexandria when it will appear with Origen and Pope Demetrious next week.
  • As an interesting side note to Pantaenus role in the School of Alexandria, he also supposedly went to India and converted many Christian there and found the Gospel of St. Matthew already existing in Aramaic, taken there by the apostle Bartholomew
  • A trip to India would be completely realistic, as there was a well-developed, significant maritime trade route with India at this point of history
  • The evidence and the magnitude of this trading route is observed in what is called, the ‘Muziris’ papyrus which records the return cargo of one ship from India from around this time that had in cargo what amounts to be 1% of the productive land of Egypt in tradable goods
  • In addition, to the value of the cargo, the numbers of ships travelling back and forth was significant, as one of the ancient historian, Strabo, mentions that there was 120 ships sailing yearly between Egypt to India
  • Therefore, a strong case can be made for the influence of the Coptic church reaching not only throughout the empire as we will in the coming episodes, but also beyond it and as far as India
  • Not much else is known about Pan-taenus, and none of his work had survived which is in stark contrast to his student, Clement of Alexandria, who we know much more about
  • Taytus Flavius Clemens or CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA as he was known was born at Athens about 150 AD
  • He was well-traveled in the cultural centers of the Roman empire, and eventually, meeting pan-taenus where he received his Christian education and eventually followed in his teacher foot-step as a teacher of the developing theological school of Alexandria
  • Clement was also a convert to Christianity, and due to his extensive travels and prior education, he was extremely well-versed in Greek Philosophy and eastern religions
  • His greatest contribution to early Christianity and the Coptic church is his strikingly modern outlook on the interaction between faith and knowledge
  • Clement held the belief that Faith and knowledge were not opposed but complementary, and Christians who were afraid of philosophy were as he puts it "like children who are afraid of ghosts."
  • His writings and leadership essentially shaped the culture of early Coptic church to embrace formalized education to those who seek to join it, not shy away for philosophy and in the process making an effort to state Christian concepts in philosophical terms, as well as Christianize philosophy to appeal to the intellectual circles of Alexandria
  • The result was a highly academic institution that produced an immense volume of Christian writings and for the next 300 years or so until the Council of Chalcedon was the de facto intellectual leader of the universal church
  • Clement died in the year 215 AD in Jerusalem or Asia Minor after moving from Alexandria when the Emperor Septimius Severus stopped by Egypt and initiated the first known government sponsored prosecution of Christians in Egypt
  • But before we get to Severus and his prosecution, let’s finish our story with Marcus Aurelius and Cassius, the Syrian governor
  • Shortly after the bucolic rebellion, Marcus Aurelius gotten sick and came close to dying, probably from the plague that was ravaging the empire at that time
  • Cassius, perhaps getting the wrong information that the emperor is dead, decided to allow his troops to claim him as emperor
  • But Marcus Aurelius recovered, and Cassius, having already committed treason, decided that the best course of action is to finish the job and hope for the best
  • He left his son, Maecianus in Egypt to take charge of the situation, and went to Syria to consolidate his power over the Eastern half of the Empire
  • But, Alas, all who take the sword shall perish by the sword. One of Cassius officers killed him in Syria, and sent his head to Marcus Aurelius and the troops of Egypt dispatched of his Son in the same way
  • Thus his rebellion ended as quickly as it started, but Marcu Aurelius was already on his way to Syria when Cassius was killed, and he decided to finish his trip and visit Syria and Egypt
  • His visit for Egypt was marked for his clemency to those who supported Cassius, but nothing substantive changed policy-wise
  • Marcus died in 180 AD, a few years after the rebellion, and in the very same year that Clement settled in Alexandria as one of Pantenous students
  • And as if the fates were intertwined, Commodus, the natural son of Marcus Aurelius and the next emperor will begin a century of decline for the Romans, while Pope Demetrious will start in his long reign forming a unified, strong church that will reach and eventually represent all of Egypt    
  • But that will be for next week, when also a much discussed, and a controversial teacher of the church, Origen, will make his appearance
  • Farewell, and until next week

References


  • 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
  • The Coptic Encyclopedia by" Aziz S. Atiya (editor)
  • Statius: Dio Cassius: Roman History, Volume IX, Books 71-80 by" Dio Cassius
  • Alexandria in Late Antiquity: Topography and Social Conflict by" Christopher Haas
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