What did Augustus do to Egypt?

Egypt was under Roman rule since the wars Alexander waged. After the brutal death of Caesar, Mark Anthony was chosen in the last war of the Roman Republic over Octavian to rule Egypt. Octavian, now under the title of Augustus, along with his army marched towards Alexandria, the capital of Egypt in 32 BCE  after his relations with Mark Anthony deteriorated after he had defeated his brother Lucius. He defeated Mark Anthony and Cleopatra VII in the Battle of Actium in 32 BCE and established himself as the first emperor of Rome and naturally the first Roman Emperor of Egypt. He had tried to defeat Octavian once more after the Battle of Actium but when he failed he stabbed himself to death and legend has it that he was taken to his lover and Queen of Egypt Cleopatra on whose lap he breathed his last. After this Cleopatra was captured and placed in the prison.

ancient egypt augustus

The beautiful Queen Cleopatra tried to persuade Augustus but failed in doing so. She was kept alive so that she could be paraded on the streets of Egypt as a mark of victory for the Roman Emperor who started treating Egypt as his personal province. But Cleopatra, proud and dignified a ruler as she was, when she came to know of this plot she sneaked a basket of fruits into her prison cell in which was hidden a deadly Asp snake which she used to commit suicide in 32 BC. With the conquest of Egypt, Emperor Augustus was successful in further expanding the Roman territory and marking and end to the Ptolemaic period in Egypt.

Egypt Under Roman Rule

After Augustus ascended the throne of Egypt, its interesting to note that he didn’t make an effort to have himself as the king of Egypt. He appointed a prefect, who was a governor of Egypt for a limited time. This was done to prevent the rise of any local sentiments against him and also to end the internal struggle between powerful Romans to gain control Egypt. However the image that Dio Cassius provides us of Augustus as being indifferent of the sentiments of the Egyptians needs scrutiny and should not be accepted without criticism. This formed a common trend of anti-Egyptianism that pervaded the minds of the Greek and Roman writers. They considered Egyptians as inhospitable to foreign rule and hence the idea that Dio Cassius gives us of Augustus’s Egyptian sentiments might as well be his own.

During the reign of the Ptolemaic dynasty, Egypt was an essential Greek learning hub. As Egypt was now a part of Roman province, it soon became a center where Christian faith began to grow. The Coptic Christian sect is also believed to have originated in Egypt. Augustus was considerably tolerant to the Egyptian religion. He had allowed the worship of other gods beyond the pomerium, i.e, the city of Rome. He had also ordered the restoration of the temple of Isis and Serapis. The opposition that he had displayed towards Egyptian culture during his Triumviral period was more an outcome of his opposition towards Antony and  Cleopatra. However, his emphasis on the concept of pomerium and his support and propaganda of the cult of Apollo was a symbol of his intention to mark a distinction between the Roman and non-Roman religion. His refusal to visit the temple of Apis was also pointing towards this, i.e., out of a reverence to the refusal of Roman religion to follow a zoomorphic religion and their practice of anthromorphic  religion.

Under the Roman Rule, the Egyptian government was replaced by the Roman government, although many of the laws of the previous Ptolemaic Kingdom continued. However, the language of the Roman government continued to be Greek. Apart from the Egyptians, the other people settled in Egypt were the Romans, the Greeks, and the Jews. As Christianity began to spread throughout Egypt, even Christians began to settle here.

The new ruler of Ancient Egypt Augustus had appointed a viceroy in Egypt for a specified time. With the employment of a viceroy, the political influence in Egypt came to an end and a new system began. The viceroy  ranked at the top of the hierarchy that was followed by the administration of justice. The first Roman viceroy was Gaius Cornelius Gallus. The internal administration was maintained by three Roman legions. Known as the “epistrategos,” Three or four Roman officials were in charge of the regional subdivisions. The country was divided  into three districts- Thebes, Middle Egypt and the Delta.  Roman law governed the business matters. The Romans introduced the liturgic system in which it was necessary for the owner of a property to perform public service. Also, an officer was appointed to find out about the property when no one claimed ownership.

The taxation policy in Roman Egypt again can be seen from a variety of conflicting perspectives. On land, taxes were collected either in form of cash or kind. Apart from this, there were other small taxes that were paid in cash. Some say the Roman taxes on the Egyptians were exorbitantly high but there is nothing to support this officially. There was widespread privatization of land and private enterprises in trade and commerce flourished. Poor people worked in the lands of the wealthy and the emperor and bore the main brunt of the taxation. Another major tax that the Egyptians had to pay was the poll tax known as “laographia,” an element of “tributum capitis.” The Greek citizens of Naukratis, Alexandria, Ptolemaios, Antinooupolis and descendents of Greek settlers in Fayuum were exempted from it.

Roman Egypt Art & Trade

Egypt under the Roman Empire was a flourishing province in the first few years. Romans acquired huge sums of revenue from Egypt as Egypt was plentiful in resources. Egypt was an important source of food for the Romans so it was transported from Egypt to Rome. Augustus, as concerned as he was about the grain supply of the Romans, ensured that Egypt’s resources were put to the best of its capabilities to supply the same. He ensured that all the canals were the Nile river drained and had been covered in silt was cleaned so as to guarantee proper good quality grain supply. There is a debate over who was the prefect in Egypt during these changes- Besides food, Egypt produced glass, papyrus or paper which were sent to the Roman Empire. Resources like minerals, ores, and stones like granite and porphyry that were found in Egypt in abundance were exported to Rome. With these, the Romans made architectural structures and sculptures.

Ancient Egypt Augustus Roman Egypt Art & Trade

This period was significant as trade activities between Egypt and central Africa or India had increased during this time. Trade was not only carried out on land, as in the case of Egypt the desert but also sea routes were explored. Red Sea was a major trading route and often goods passed through Alexandria. Even Nile was very important in the development and increase of Trade activities in Rome. Under Augustus, the number of ships leaving the ports of Egypt to India increased to a massive hundred and twenty a year. The Romans had discovered the use of monsoon winds to easily reach the coast of India, much to the displeasure of the Arabs and hence they made every effort to jeopardize the Egyptian ships on their journey. The Romans traded with different parts of the world in a whole wide variety of objects, like pepper from India, silk from China, incense from Arabia and ivory from East Africa. Myos Hormos was a major Red sea port of Egypt u der Augustus and definitely a lucrative one. During Augustus’s reign, Egypt provided a major hinterland for goods exported to and imported from East Africa, India and Arabia mainly. The Romans adopted a lot of cultural aspects from the Egyptians. The Romans influenced by Egyptian religion had absorbed into their culture the cult of Isis, the Egyptian goddess. In the same manner, Egypt was also influenced by the Roman art and religion.

Both Egypt and Rome were rich in their art and culture, religion and had influenced one another in many ways. It was the Romans who had established the system of a precise government machinery to carry out the administrative functions. Egypt was under the Roman control for a long period of almost 700 years. Egypt had prospered during the Roman regime until the Romans were ousted from Egypt. Greek culture flourished in Alexandria while outside the city Egyptian culture was widely practiced. Although court patronage was now no longer popular, Greek culture continued to flourish. Though Augustus was vehemently against the worship of animals, animal cults continued. The Roman emperors can also be seen to be depicted as Egyptian kings on temple reliefs. Roman emperors started having their own cults from the time of Augustus, one of the best examples of which could be seen in the Caesera or the Temple of Caesar. Egyptian priests still enjoyed a special status in the society although now the state became dependent on the government for its survival. However, in general the socio-political elites comprised of the Hellenized population. The “Breadbasket” and the “Jewel of the Emperor’s crown,” Augustus had taken complete control over Roman Egypt. The people of Egypt also were not very resistant of the Roman Rule, although there were occassional revolts by different communities like the Jews.