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Greco-Roman Antiquities

Bust of Socrates
© BA Antiquities Museum/C. Gerigk Christoph Gerigk

Presentation of the department

The Hellenistic period started when Alexander the Great entered Egypt in 332 BCE. After the death of Alexander in 323 BCE, Egypt was ruled by Ptolemy I, one of his army generals, then by Ptolemy’s descendants, for about 300 years. This period ended with the death of Cleopatra, the last Ptolemic queen, during 30 BCE. Cleopatra and Marcus Antonius were defeated by the Roman General Octavian who added Egypt to the Roman Empire. Egypt remained under the Roman rule until the Arab conquest in 641 CE.
The largest collection in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Antiquities Museum dates back to the Greco-Roman period. It reflects the Greek and Roman religious concepts, and part of it represents some aspects of the daily life.

Ancient Egyptian Kings' list List of Ptolemaic Rulers (PDF)

Ancient Egyptian Kings' list List of Roman Emperors (PDF)

The Greek Period in Egypt

When Alexander the Great entered Egypt in 332 BCE he met with little resistance from the occupying Persian administration. Persians were hated by the native Egyptians for contemning the Egyptian religion and traditions, and also because of the violence that was exerted to assume control over them, Alexander was therefore welcomed by the Egyptians.

Alexander showed respect and esteem to the Egyptian gods. He visited the Oracle of Amon at the Siwa Oasis, renowned in the Greek world, and it disclosed the information that Alexander was the son of Amon.
 
It is certain that he initiated the foundation of the great city which was to bear his name on the site of the Rhakotis village. Alexander left in 331 BCE, Egypt was only part of the Empire which Alexander had conquered from the Persian king.

When Alexander died in 323, his Generals divided up the Empire. Perdicas, the holder of Alexander’s royal seal, failed to take Egypt, but Ptolemy, son of Lagos, did. Egypt was ruled by Ptolemy’s descendants for three centuries that ended by the suicide of Cleopatra VII in August 30 BCE.

The character of the Ptolemaic monarchy in Egypt set a style for other Hellenistic kingdoms. This style emerged from the Greco-Macedonian political awareness of the need to dominate Egypt and its resources and its people, and at the same time to turn the power of Egypt towards the context of a Mediterranean world to compose a large empire.   

The last century of Ptolemaic rule is usually depicted as a rather gloomy stalemate; a period of decline in which the kings were merely puppets of Rome.

The last and most famous of the Ptolemaic rulers, was Cleopatra VII, she intended to revive of the Ptolemaic Dynasty through the Roman Generals. The first victim of her charm was Julius Caesar, one of the greatest Roman leaders. After he left Egypt, Cleopatra was pregnant with a son whom she named Caesar then to be known as Ptolemy Caesarion.

Following Julius Caesar’s death, came Marcus Antonius, and let us not ignore Cleopatra’s ambitions to make Marcus Antonius help restore the great imperialist days of her ancestors. Marcus Antonius helped Cleopatra set a temporary stability which was ravaged by the Roman leader Octavian or Augustus, when they met at the naval battle at Actium, in western Greece, in September 31 BCE. It proved to be the swan-song of the once great Ptolemaic navy, and the once great Ptolemaic kingdom.

Antonius and Cleopatra fled to Alexandria, and ten months later Alexandria was conquered, and Cleopatra died on 12 August, her son Caesarion too. Then Rome was declared as an Empire and Egypt as a Roman state.
 

Rome

Early references which are depended on in the study of Roman history indicate that the Roman army came to Italy as part of a migration from the city of Troy.  The leader of that migration was 'Aeneas', one of the heroes of Troy.

The story goes that two of Aeneas's grandchildren from the union between his son and the goddess Aphrodite (Greek goddess of beauty) were Romulus and Remus.  They were by the river when the current grabbed them.  They hung on to some fig tree branches that were floating on the water and were saved by a suckling she-wolf who suckled them with her own litter.  They were eventually found by a shepherd who brought them up until they grew strong.  He took them afterwards to the temple god.

The priests at the temple prophesied that one of these boys would become the founder of a city which would become eternal near the mouth of the river Tiber.  The two brothers fought each other and Romulus killed his brother Remus and founded the city of Rome around 753 B.C.

The Roman Era in Egypt

While Hellenistic kingdoms fell one after the other into the hands of the Romans, Egypt managed to remain independent of Rome until 30B.C., after the naval Battle of Actium, when Octavius annexed Egypt after the death of Antony and Cleopatra, thus ending the Ptolemaic Dynasty which lasted three centuries in Egypt.

30 B.C. is considered the end of the Republican era and the beginning of the Imperial era in Rome, when the title of Princeps replaced that of Consul.  This title was given to Emperor Augustus in 23 B.C.

Emperor Augustus (the great-nephew of Julius Caesar) was the first Roman Emperor.  He minted a commemorative coin on the annexation of Egypt which carried the image of a crocodile, the most famous Nilotic creature.  He wrote the words 'Aegypto Capta, meaning the capturing of Egypt, as its capture had always been an economic ambition of Rome.  Rome imposed heavy financial taxes on Egypt and taxes in the form of shipping Egyptian agricultural produce gratis.

Egypt was famous then for its production of papyrus and glass which were also shipped to the entire Roman empire, along with stones and minerals, such as porphyry and granite to be used in Rome in sculpture and in architecture.

The Romans continued their policy of building temples and new cities and Egypt during the Roman era was more open to the rest of the world than heretofore.  Greek was still the official language alongside Latin.

Many emperors reigned from 30B.C. to 396 A.D.  By 300-400 A.D. most Egyptians embraced Christianity.
 

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