Egyptian History Before & During Roman Rule

Egypt has been continuously inhabited for more than 7,000 years, so its history is very long.  The earliest cultures are known to have developed by 5,500 BC in lower Egypt and the Faiyum, a marshy or lake-like region fed by Nile waters.  In fact all of Egypt was a long, thin band of inhabitable territory on either side of the Nile.
upper nomes map
Fig. 3. Dahl, Jeff. Upper Egypt Nomes. 13 October 2008.
Ancient Egypt is usually thought to have begun around 3150 B.C.E. with the consolidation of of the two kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt.  Traditionally this unification was ascribed to Menes, a king who may not actually have lived.  For the next 3,000 years Egyptian history is named for groups of rulers (dynasties) in the Old Kingdom (to about 2,150 BC), the Middle Kingdom (ca. 1895—ca. 1650 BC) and the New Kingdom (1550—1077 BC).  Between these dates were “intermediate” periods of unrest or instability.  The third intermediate (1077—732 BC) and late period (732—30 BC) are usually described as periods of relative decline, although Egypt’s contact with the outside world greatly increased in those times.
The late period was marked by invasions by Nubians (732), Persians (525), and Macedonian Greeks (332 BC).  The last introduced Hellenistic Greek culture, and gave rise to the Ptolemaic period, named after its first major ruler, Ptolemy (one of Alexander the Great’s trusted generals).  During this period Greek became more and more used throughout lower Egypt and the neighboring parts of Upper Egypt (such as Oxyrhynchus).  The last Ptolemaic ruler was the famous Cleopatra, and upon her suicide in 30 BC control of Egypt passed to Octavian, later known as Caesar Augustus, as the Roman province of Aegyptus.

map of ptolemaic egypt
Fig. 4. Lessman, Thomas A. Map of Ptolemic Empire. 13 October 2008.

In the Ptolemaic period a unique mix of Hellenistic Greek and older Egyptian cultural elements arose.  For example, Ptolemaic rulers styled themselves as Pharoahs, and continued support of traditional Egyptian cults, while Alexandria (a city on the Mediterranean coast named for Alexander the Greek) became the premier center of ancient learning and scholarship.  The Romans were less interested in traditional Egyptian culture, and enforced more Roman cultural customs, such as bureaucratic administration in Greek (the common language of the eastern half of the Empire).  During the Roman period Christianity took hold and eventually won official support in the fourth century.  From that point many traditional Egyptian cultural elements went into decline.
Fig. 5. CNG Coins. As-Hadrian-Aegyptus-RIC 0839. 13 October 2008.

When the Roman Empire became more formally divided into eastern and western halves, Egypt was administered in the eastern half, whose capital was Constantinople (modern Istanbul). In Egypt the Latin language, never well established, declined in use.  As the eastern Roman Empire grew towards an identity now described as Byzantine, Egypt became more estranged from its native cultural traditions, but remained economically and militarily important as a source of grain.  Persians again conquered Egypt in 618 or 619 AD, as Egyptians were increasingly alienated from Byzantine Greek rule.  Christian religious conflicts re-surfaced during the brief Persian rule, and when the Byzantine Greeks re-took Egypt in 629 AD, Egypt was both religiously and politically estranged from their empire.  From 639 to 646 AD, Arabs conquered Egypt and consolidated their rule in the cities, ending about 975 years of Greek cultural rule in Egypt.


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