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date: 06 December 2021


Abstract and Keywords

This introductory article begins with a description of the seven parts of this book: Land and State; City, Town, and Chora; People; Religion; Texts and Language; Images and Objects; and Borders, Trade, and Tourism. It then presents a historical overview of Egypt under Roman rule followed by a discussion of Roman Egypt in the twenty-first century.

Keywords: Roman empire, Egypt, Roman rule

Twenty years ago, undergraduate curiosity found me browsing the Brown University library for something to fill the considerable gaps between my classes in Egyptology on the one hand, and in Roman art and archaeology on the other. There was Naphtali Lewis's Life in Egypt under Roman Rule, from 1983, but beyond his readable, papyrology-based account, which had few illustrations, introductory information on Roman Egypt was elusive. Alan Bowman's Egypt after the Pharaohs (first edition 1986) had only just appeared (‘on order’ in the library); the excavation reports from Karanis were perfunctory, and decades old; and in the few exhibition catalogues available in English, visual material was shoe-horned into discussions of ‘late’ or ‘Coptic’ art, whose ‘provincial’ character was remarked and as quickly dismissed. Knowing some German made it possible to tackle the astonishing array of material collected in Klaus Parlasca's Mumienportäts und verwandte Denkmäler (1966), and Günter Grimm's Die römischen Mumienmasken aus Ägypten (1974). But who were these people in plaster and paint, and what factors affected their lives, once Egypt was on the less powerful side of the Mediterranean?

The Oxford Handbook of Roman Egypt is the book I wish I had found in the library back then, but there was a good reason such a work didn’t yet exist. Over the past two decades, scholarship on Roman Egypt has witnessed a remarkable expansion, branching out in terms of the kinds of evidence it considers and the questions it feels confident to pose. The number of researchers working in the area has increased, and with it the diversity of approaches they have adopted. Once the preserve of Greek papyrology, and consigned to the fringes of classical archaeology and Egyptology, the study of Roman Egypt is inherently multidisciplinary. It is often, though by no means always, interdisciplinary, in the sense of fully integrating the methods and results of different academic disciplines. This development parallels a much larger trend in the humanities since the 1980s, whereby many disciplines began to question their own boundaries, foundations, and methodologies. In classics and classical archaeology, topics such as local administration and artistic production were no longer off limits, and in fact became central to fresh considerations of imperialism, colonization, and Romanization in both the western and eastern reaches of the empire (for instance, Millett 1990; Alcock 1993; Woolf 1994; Webster and Cooper 1996; Mattingly 1997; Laurence and Berry 1998; Wiseman 2002; Whitmarsh 2010).

Although a smaller and in some ways less self-reflexive discipline, Egyptology too has broadened the scope of its subject matter, resulting in the growth of object-based studies and (p. 2) archaeological fieldwork addressing the Roman period. At the same time, there has been an increase in focus on Demotic texts from the period, which number in the thousands but have fewer scholars working on them than the Greek papyri. The history of ancient religions is another field where Roman Egyptian evidence has been put to ever more, and better, use, from studies of religious syncretism and the Isis cult in the 1970s (e.g. Dunand and Lévêque 1975) to the adaptation and transformation of religious practices in late antiquity (Frankfurter 1998; Dijkstra 2008). These developments are in part a response to new material becoming available, such as editions of papyri, and excavations at important Roman sites in the Fayum and the Western Oases. They are also due to the increased visibility of objects that had languished in the proverbial cupboard, sometimes for a century of more. Most notably, in the late 1990s a series of museum exhibitions in the United Kingdom and Europe coincided with renewed research on mummy portraits, encouraging scholars to view some of the artistic output of Roman Egypt in a fresh light (see Riggs 2002). In early 2011, with the manuscript for this volume completed, the time certainly seems right not only to present new evidence in detail, but, crucially, to see how these details fit it into a bigger picture. To this end, in The Handbook of Roman Egypt more than forty researchers working in this area have tried to consider what are the right questions to ask right now, and how to go about answering them.

The Structure of the Handbook

The organization of this volume has tried to blur disciplinary boundaries, although it could not claim to have erased them altogether. Such an erasure would, in fact, be counter-productive, because seeing how different scholars approach a subject in different ways, depending on their own training or specialization, is informative in itself. Some of the authors in the Handbook disagree with each other, or with me, but intense debate signals a healthy and thriving research area. It also indicates that researchers are reading and engaging with each other's work, so that the field continues to move forward rather than becoming set in stone. The work of younger scholars is central to this process, and several chapters were commissioned with that in mind.

The Handbook is divided into seven themed parts: Land and State; City, Town, and Chora; People; Religion; Texts and Language; Images and Objects; and Borders, Trade, and Tourism. Almost every section includes chapters by authors with different disciplinary profiles and approaches, and throughout the volume, chapters have combined textual, visual, and archaeological evidence wherever it suits the subject matter. Part I, Land and State, considers administrative functions of the Roman state in Egypt, from the ruler cult to the day-to-day running of the province's key source of income, agriculture. Part II, City, Town, and Chora, looks at the evidence for urban life in Roman Egypt, as well as in the countryside and its villages. In Part III, People, the social structure of Roman Egypt comes under scrutiny in complementary chapters by Andrea Jördens and Katelijn Vandorpe. This part also considers family life, patterns of health and life expectancy, and the experience of Egypt's important Jewish communities under Roman rule.

Part IV, devoted to religion, is the largest, reflecting the number of different approaches to this theme, and its wide reach. Starting with a chapter by David Frankfurter, this is a key part for considering issues of identity and the transformation of ideas and images as well. In Part V, (p. 3) Texts and Languages, Mark Depauw discusses the implications of bilingualism in Roman Egypt, and several scholars examine the array of texts and scripts that were in use, as well as the preservation of papyri in the archaeological record. Part VI, Images and Objects, covers types of object (terracottas, pottery) as well as genres of imagery (such as portraits). Images do not ‘reflect’ an ancient view of the world: they helped create it, as Molly Swetnam-Burland's chapter on Roman nilotica demonstrates. In Roman Egypt mummification and funerary art were privileged arenas of display in local communities, and this part also gathers evidence for how these trades were practised. Finally, Part VII, Borders, Trade, and Tourism, looks at activities related to the movement of people within Egypt and around its borderlands: the Western Oases, the Eastern Desert and Red Sea coast, and the southern frontier.

A few words on conventions adopted in the Handbook. Each chapter ends with a paragraph of suggested reading, which points readers to key publications for exploring the subject further; the suggestions place an emphasis on sources available in English, but knowledge of other modern languages, especially German and French, is essential for all higher-level study in the field. To make the chapters as accessible as possible to entry-level readers, the text uses minimal abbreviations and offers English translations of ancient texts. The expression ‘Graeco-Roman’ does not imply that there was no difference between Greek and Roman culture, or between the Hellenistic and Roman periods in Egypt. Instead, it refers to the Greek or Hellenic identity and character of many cultural phenomena in the eastern Roman empire, including Egypt. Similarly, some authors use the adjective ‘Hellenized’ or ‘hellenistic’ to describe Greek influence on social norms and cultural forms. Like the words ‘classical’ (as in classical archaeology) or ‘pharaonic’, ‘hellenistic’ in this sense starts with a lower-case letter. Written with an initial upper case, ‘Hellenistic’ refers to the time period of Alexander and his successors, which in Egypt is identical to the Ptolemaic period, and ‘Pharaonic’ refers to the period of rule by sequential Egyptian dynasties prior to Alexander's conquest in 332 bce.

Historical Overview: Egypt Under Roman Rule

Chronological boundaries can be as arbitrary, and permeable, as any other kind, but the parameters of the Handbook are set roughly between the annexation of Egypt by Octavian in 30 bce and the reign of Diocletian, around 300 ce. Some authors use earlier, Hellenistic developments as a precursor to the Roman material they discuss, and others use late Roman or early Byzantine evidence to illuminate phenomena from the first three centuries of the empire. The cut-off point around the start of the fourth century ce takes into account not only the effects of Diocletian's extensive reforms, but also the ramifications of Christianity, whose adoption and influence gathered pace under Constantine in the 320s. Thus, the chronological spread of this volume approximates the coverage of Roman Egypt in the second edition of The Cambridge Ancient History (Bowman 1996, 2008).

Octavian entered Alexandria in August of 30 bce, ten months after he defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium. Annexing Egypt as a province, Octavian put in place an administrative system that would remain fundamentally unchanged for the next 300 years. He also set in motion a sequence of events that saw the Roman senate award him (p. 4) the titles Augustus and Princeps from 27 bce, when he took sole command of the fledgling empire. Unlike in other provinces, which had governors of senatorial rank, the Roman administration in Egypt was headed by a prefect of equestrian rank; they averaged about three years in post and used the role as a stepping stone in their careers, sometimes advancing to the praetorian prefecture. For all the changes it brought about, Roman rule in Egypt was essentially stable and, given Egypt's sizeable grain output earmarked for Rome, in some respects prosperous, especially during the first and second centuries. The new administration encouraged urban settlements and Hellenic cultural forms by granting certain privileges to the citizens of Greek cities and to a class registered as residents of the district towns, known as metropoleis, hence the metropolite class. Regular censuses and the use of legal documents known as status declarations helped control who was who and, at least in the early empire, put a brake on social mobility, since status was normally based on parentage. In effect, the Romans were probably codifying a stratification that had developed during the Ptolemaic period, as Greeks settled in Egypt and married Egyptians, while Egyptians adopted Greek language and acculturated to advance themselves. The towns of the nome districts were pivotal owing to their close relationship with the chora, or countryside, Egypt's agricultural heart. During the Roman period, private enterprise and landownership increased, with around half of the land estimated to be in private hands in the first and second centuries, rising to almost all of it by the early fourth century. In addition to the yield of wheat produced for export, agriculture supported a population of around 5 million; more generous estimates place it at 7.5 million at its peak, but any estimate should allow for a drop due to the Antonine plague in the mid-second century. Papyrus and flax were also key crops, processed into paper and linen for the market at home and abroad.

Important as it was in the founding of the empire, Egypt also played a role in imperial politics on other occasions, and several emperors visited the province. Under the prefect Tiberius Julius Alexander, who was from one of the leading Jewish families of Alexandria, the Roman army in Egypt proclaimed Vespasian emperor in 69, and he spent several months in the country before returning to Rome. The Jewish revolt in 115–17 affected not just Alexandria but the whole province, sparked off by pressures in the Alexandrian Jewish community and the influx of Jews into Egypt after the Roman sack of Jerusalem in 70 ce. Hadrian made an extended tour of Egypt in 130–1, when the death of his companion Antinoos led to the founding of a fourth polis in the province, Antinoopolis, often shortened to Antinoe. Avidius Cassius, a leading general and the son of a past prefect, was responsible for suppressing an uprising in 172, known as the revolt of the Boukoloi, and in 175 he briefly ruled Egypt after proclaiming himself emperor while Marcus Aurelius was still in power. Septimius Severus visited Egypt in 199/200, and finally granted town councils to Alexandria and the other cities, as well as the metropoleis; the absence of such councils had been an anomaly in Egypt, although the cities had a degree of self-governance through the system of magistrate offices known as archai. After Septimius Severus’ death in 211, his son and successor Caracalla granted Roman citizenship to free men and women throughout the empire, in an edict of 212 known as the Constitutio Antoniniana. This marked a considerable change for Egypt, where previously few people had qualified as Roman citizens. But there are hints that some communities in Egypt, notably the citizens of Alexandria, were sometimes dissatisfied with imperial power. When the Alexandrians produced a satire implicating Caracalla in his brother Geta's death, the emperor used his visit to Egypt in 215 to retaliate, removing the prefect from office and ordering the city's youth to be slaughtered. Caracalla was also said to have been the (p. 5) last Roman emperor to visit the embalmed corpse of Alexander, just as Octavian-Augustus had done more than two centuries earlier.

The mid-third century witnessed further unrest in Egypt and elsewhere, and in the 260s and 270s the eastern Mediterranean was caught up in conflicts between the Sassanid rulers of Persia and the wealthy city of Palmyra in Syria, which in turn rebelled against Rome. The Palmyrene queen Zenobia and her son Vaballathus occupied Alexandria from 270 to 272, until the emperor Aurelian reasserted Roman rule. At the end of the third century, Egypt was also the base for an unsuccessful revolt by the Roman general Lucius Domitius Domitianus, which was put down by Diocletian. Diocletian recaptured Alexandria in 298 and travelled up the Nile to the southern border at Philae. Diocletian introduced economic reforms such as the Maximum Price Edict (in 301) and changed the administrative structure of the province, and eventually the empire as a whole, with the aim of restoring stability and securing tax revenue. In a similar vein, however, he issued repressive edicts against Christians, leading to such persecutions that the Egyptian Church referred to his reign as the Era of the Martyrs (Anno Martyri) and began counting calendrical years from his accession in 284. The successors of Diocletian continued to adapt his reforms and institute further changes, most likely, as Bowman (2008) observes, in response to long-standing issues rather than the ‘crisis’ conjectured in earlier scholarship. The financial burden of the liturgical system, which required individuals to perform, and pay for, civic offices; the practicalities of tax collection, which in Egypt seems to have been made the responsibility of the town councils; and the logistics of supplying the army across such vast territories, were three such issues that were crucial in the third century but had much earlier origins. Egyptian towns and cities witnessed the emergence of an expanded urban elite during the third century as well (Tacoma 2006), and although later than the formation of similar elites in Asia Minor, for instance, this too was the continuation of the trend instigated in the early empire (see Bowman and Rathbone 1992). With the extensive information offered by documentary papyri, Egypt is a unique source for financial transactions, population data, and legal and administrative matters during the Roman period. Current opinion rejects the view of early twentieth-century scholarship that Egypt held a special, anomalous position in the Roman empire, but at the same time cautions that the documentation available for Egypt is distinct to Egypt, and not necessarily applicable to other imperial provinces. The history of Roman Egypt has been just as subject to fresh interpretations as any other area, revising the conclusions of earlier research and developing alternative perspectives on the social, political, and economic life of Augustus’ prize catch.

Conclusion: Roman Egypt in the Twenty-First Century

The questioning of old assumptions and incorporation of new information characterize all the chapters in the Handbook, and to conclude this Introduction, it is worth highlighting some of the core issues and debates that recur throughout the volume. One issue is the question of personal and communal identity, and social mobility. The legal and administrative regimes sketched above, and discussed in more detail in the Handbook, affected how people (p. 6) lived their lives, from the language they used to whom they married, and from their standard of living to their status within their local community, which are not intrinsically the same thing. Those who were already ahead, or wanted to get or stay there, had recourse to the Greek heritage inculcated in the Ptolemaic period, speaking Greek, attending the gymnasium, and reading Homer (see Cribiore 2001). This did not preclude a self-conscious conservatism, however, as some groups emphasized a connection to the Egyptian past, creating a distinctive identity that both complemented and countered pressures from the Roman regime.

Developments in religious beliefs, practices, and cult organizations are important throughout the Roman period, especially in light of the interactions between Egyptian, Greek, and Roman religion, and the presence of other religions in Egypt, like Mithraism, Judaism, and nascent Christianity. As Jacco Dieleman points out in his chapter for Part IV, most people in Roman Egypt lived precariously, whether through financial and social disadvantages or the ever-present threat of ill health and difficult life transitions. ‘Magic’ was once a pejorative term in scholarship, but the use of magic, oracles, and astrology is now better understood as a rational response to such life experiences. Christianity may have changed some of the forms such practices took, but not their underlying aims.

The juxtaposition of continuity and change is a theme that recurs throughout the Handbook, especially among authors approaching the Roman period from an Egyptological background. What needs to be borne in mind, though, is that ‘continuity’ is not a foregone conclusion. To borrow the expression of Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983), traditions are invented. ‘Traditional’ practices and cultural forms are made, not born, whether by ancient actors who selected something from the past to preserve or revive, or by researchers who see an unbroken line rather than a series of meaningful dots and dashes. Mummification is a case in point. While it was a distinctive Egyptian practice, and had been applied to a wider spectrum of the population over time, it was never the only process used to treat corpses, and was performed selectively. In Roman Egypt the extraordinary care taken over mummification and the decoration of mummies suggests a purposeful emphasis on the Egyptian past, affirming local roles and ranks in the process. At some point in the Roman period, if not before, the time came when the old temples, the masked mummies, and the conventional images of the Egyptian gods looked ‘old-fashioned’, which fit certain uses but could not fulfil every requirement. Visuality, which is the acculturated experience of vision, had some shared similarities in Egyptian, Greek, and Roman society, for instance in terms of imbuing images with sacred power (compare Elsner 2000). But there were crucial differences as well, for instance in the apprehension of space, the quality of mimesis, and the social context of seeing an image. The old gods needed new tricks, or at least new visual manifestations, and that is one reason why the terracotta figures produced for boisterous and popular religious festivals, and repurposed for domestic use, almost exclusively show Egyptian deities like Isis and Harpocrates in contemporary, Graeco-Roman form.

The scope of the Handbook encompasses these debates, and more, not to offer the final word on any subject but to provide a critical look at where scholarship stands in the early twenty-first century, and where it might go from here. There will always be new material to study, but there is also more to do in terms of framing and reframing the questions asked of the material. Moreover, it would be illusory to think that the editing of texts, publication of excavations, or presentation of museum objects is ever a straightforward account of ‘facts’ or data. Every approach to the past is an interpretation of the past, mediated through current (p. 7) scholarship and informed by the concerns of the present. The Roman Egypt readers will encounter in this volume is not the Roman Egypt that I encountered as an undergraduate, and, as its editor, I hope that this Handbook helps create yet another Roman Egypt, which I look forward to encountering at some future date.


Alan Bowman, whose work was my own introduction to Roman Egypt, offered invaluable guidance at the planning stages of this volume, and I am grateful for his encouragement and advice. Martina Minas-Nerpel gave helpful feedback and suggested possible topics and authors to include, as did the late Traianos Gagos, whose impact on the field can be seen in the number of contributors connected to the University of Michigan.

At the University of East Anglia, Nick Warr was indispensable in producing several of the figures. The work of translators Tomas Derikovsky, Maria Cannata, and Helen Strudwick, with input from Susanne Bickel, has made several of the chapters available to an English-speaking audience.


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