Hippika schools, Egypt, 2nd century AD

Roman Legion against Ptolemaic Egyptian Army

Centurion in Egypt 117-138 AD

The topic of the Roman army in imperial Egypt has two faces. Structurally, the army was certainly one of the most homogeneous organizations in the Roman empire—if not the most homogeneous. Much of what there is to say about it therefore applies equally to the formations stationed in other regions of the empire. For instance, we find in the whole empire the same types of unit with the same strength of numbers and the same structure: the large infantry divisions of the Roman army, the legions, which in the early principate still consisted fundamentally of Roman citizens, and the units recruited originally from non-Romans, namely the auxiliary troop formations (auxilia), whether cavalry (ala), infantry (cohors), or mixed (cohors equitata). There were general, empire-wide rules concerning the length of service for soldiers, their pay, and the privileges that they were entitled to at the end of their service, though the members of different types of unit did receive different benefits (FIRA III 171). Furthermore, their senior officers consistently came from the two small and relatively exclusive leadership classes: the army and legion commanders normally came from the approximately 700 senatorial families of the empire, and the majority of the other senior officers, particularly the commanders of auxiliary units, came from the second rank of the empire, the equestrian order, which numbered about 10,000 men in the whole Roman world. An important factor in preventing the various provincial armies from drifting apart was the fact that these senior officers often originated in other provinces than Egypt and had served in further provinces—something that applied only to some of the middle-ranking officers, the centurions and decurions. The more varied experience of the senior officers helped to enforce consistency across the empire, as did the constant transfer of whole units or major parts of such units from one province to another (from the time of Hadrian only by way of exception in the case of legions).

This chapter concentrates on the characteristics specific to the Roman army in Egypt, providing an overview of the subject and emphasizing the developing insights of scholarship. The first element specific to the province of Aegyptus, as was also the case in every province of the empire, was the composition of the garrison, and in particular the units stationed there and their military engagements. Also specific to the exercitus Aegyptiacus (the Latin designation for the ‘army of Egypt’) were a few institutional regulations dating from Octavian’s conquest and the form he gave to the province’s administration. And finally, two kinds of source, namely the papyri and ostraca, are specific to the province. Although there are bodies of evidence of this kind from other parts of the empire—for instance, from Dura Europos, a few forts in northern Africa, and particularly Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall—there is not nearly as much evidence as for Egypt.


The history of the garrison in the province, and of the military engagements in which it was involved, has been an essential part of research on the Roman army in Egypt since it began (Lesquier 1918: 1–114; Daris 1988, 2000a, b, 2005; Speidel 1988). Papyri tend to come from villages in Middle Egypt, particularly at the peak of the empire, and therefore only rarely reflect political–military events beyond the local level. Thus, our knowledge of military events in this province has increased little beyond the first comprehensive study by Lesquier, despite all the additional papyri published in the course of the last century. Inscriptions, too, rarely give information about such events. Therefore, it is not surprising that even in the case of legions stationed in the province, a number of important questions remain unanswered: for instance, during Augustan times, which legion, apart from the legiones III Cyrenaica (Wolff 2000) and XXII Deiotariana (Daris 2000b), was stationed in the province, at what place, and when was it withdrawn? This is significant, as answers to these questions would make it clear for how long after the administration of the first two prefects, C. Cornelius Gallus and Aelius Gallus, the Romans were thinking of a policy of further expansion, and where, during the early years of the province, the Romans saw the greatest danger.

By 23 CE at the latest, the core of the province’s garrison was reduced to the two legions named above. They were stationed together in Nikopolis near Alexandria. Under Augustus, the three and then two legions had been stationed at Nikopolis, at Babylon (Sheehan 1996), and perhaps Thebes (Maxfield 2009: 66; see in this context I Syringes 1733). At the beginning of the second century, the number of legions stationed in Egypt was further reduced: shortly after August 119, the legio III Cyrenaica was transferred out of the province (BGU I 140), and the same papyrus provides the last piece of evidence for the existence of the legio XXII Deiotariana. No later than 127/8, the legio II Traiana arrived in the province, and constituted the core of the provincial army for the next two centuries (Daris 2000b; Sänger 2009). The reason our knowledge of these legions’ history is so incomplete is that only a few papyri from Alexandria survive. Likewise, we know so little of the archaeology of the legionary and auxiliary camps at the peak of the empire because they were built over or flooded, in addition to the lack of archaeological interest that prevailed for many years with regard to Roman period sites.

For the history of the auxiliary units stationed in Egypt, the key sources are documents that scholars refer to as military diplomas. These are inscriptions on bronze recording the award granted to auxiliary soldiers after their period of service of twenty-five or twenty-six years, whereby they received Roman citizenship and the so-called connubium, the right to a form of marriage that gave children of the union the status of Roman citizens. The wording of the diplomas includes a list of all the units whose soldiers were entitled to privileges, which was usually all or almost all the auxiliary units in a province (sometimes there were no soldiers with twenty-five or twenty-six years of service in a unit). Six such documents concerning soldiers of the Egyptian army have been published, covering the period between 83 and 206 CE (in chronological order: CIL XVI 29; RMD I 9; CIL XVI 184; Eck 2011; see further the very fragmentary diplomata RMD III 185; V 341). These documents show that in the late first and the second century, the total number of auxilia stationed in the province remained fairly constant, though it was perhaps raised slightly in the last quarter of the second century: there were three to four alae (cavalry units with a full strength of approximately 500 men) and about seven to ten cohortes (units of about 500 infantry, or, in the case of the so-called cohortes equitatae, about 600 men, of which about 120 were cavalry). On the basis of all the relevant documentation, it is evident that a number of units were part of the garrison of the province for decades, or even centuries (see also Stoll 2009: 424). Thus, for instance, we can trace the ala Apriana from the years 37/40 CE (P Lips. II 133) until 268/70 (SPP XX 71), and the cohors II Ituraerorum equitata from 39 CE (ILS 8899) up to the Notitia Dignitatum, an administrative handbook of the late fourth or fifth century (Eastern part: XXVII 44).

Such an unchanging composition of the auxiliary garrison is not found in the first decades of the principate, when some of the auxiliary units had not even been firmly established and troops were moved in the course of the conquest of large areas. After the first decades of Roman rule, however, there is relative consistency in military concentration, with Nikopolis near Alexandria (Stoll 2009: 421) taking prime place. At first two legions were garrisoned there, then one, together with auxiliary units, mostly alae; in addition, there was the Alexandrian fleet, the classis Alexandrina. The choice of this centre appears to have had two aims (Alston 1995: 36–7). On the one hand, it meant that the prefect had a reserve at his main place of residence, ready to be put into action; cavalry in particular could be sent out quite easily in all directions. On the other hand, it meant that troops were available to suppress uprisings in the city of Alexandria, which was regarded with suspicion, and with good reason (Haensch 1997: 219–21). When seen in this context, the 8,000 soldiers stationed at such a megalopolis in the second and third centuries were not a large force.

A second important centre, though by no means so heavily guarded, was the southern entry point to Egypt, the region of the First Cataract around Syene and Philae. It appears that at least three auxiliary units were permanently stationed in this region (Speidel 1988; see also Locher 1999: 280–1; Maxfield 2000, 2009: 67–9; primary sources: especially Strabo 17.1.12, 53; ILS 8907). In addition to protecting Egypt from enemy attack from the south, they were probably also intended to prevent possible uprisings in the Thebaid.

We have little precise information about where the remaining units were stationed (Alston 1995: 33–6; Maxfield 2009). We cannot even tell whether all the units were actually garrisoned in specific military installations. It is in any case clear that a significant number of the soldiers from these units were detailed for service in smaller outposts. How far such outposts were sent has recently been shown by an inscription found on the island of Farasan at the outlet of the Red Sea (AE 2004: 1643 = 2005: 1639; most recently Speidel 2009c: 633–49). The life of these soldiers in their outposts (praesidia) has been greatly elucidated through the numerous finds and the publication of ostraca by Hélène Cuvigny (2003, 2005 in particular). These finds are the result of surveys and excavations on the road from Koptos to Myos Hormos and the Red Sea, and in the quarries of Mons Claudianus, carried out by Cuvigny and her team (Fig. 5.2). The ostraca illustrate very clearly the daily life of these soldiers, who were charged with protecting the road from attacks by nomads, and with controlling the quarry labourers and giving them technical help. We know less about the soldiers, particularly the beneficiarii and the centuriones, whose task it was to maintain peace and order in the settlements of the Nile Valley. From the beginning of the second century, they were additional representatives of state authority alongside the competent officials of the civil administration, in particular the strategos, who governed each nome or district (see particularly Rankov 1994; Nelis-Clément 2000: 214–17, 227–43, 413–14; Palme 2006, 2008).


In many respects, what can be said about the Roman army in the province of Egypt is only a local adaptation of what was typical of the Roman army in general. But the army in this province did quite clearly exhibit certain individual features: while the highest military commanders throughout the empire—that is, the governors and the commanders of the largest military units, the legions—came from the senatorial class, in Egypt these commanders, were members of the second rank of the empire, the equestrian order. As with the office of prefect, Octavian, who feared a power challenge or usurpation, decided that the government of this province would fall to men of the equestrian order and not, as was customary, the senatorial class. He probably saw in this ruling, promulgated in the most formal way as a lex, an additional guarantee that Egypt could not once again be made into a centre of resistance to him—and for a time, this was undoubtedly correct (Eich 2007: 382–3; Jördens 2009: 46–51). But it would have gone against all notions of the relations between ranks, on the part of both ordines, if he had put senatorial legion commanders under an equestrian governor. Thus, the legion commanders could only come from the ordo equester.

This provision caused differences not only in rank and prestige among these high-ranking commanders, but also in the extent of their experience. These legion commanders had had very different military careers from those of the senatorial legion commanders, who could appeal at best to experience which they had obtained during their very short tours of duty as military tribunes, when they were frequently not in sole command. But the equestrian commanders of the legions in Egypt were raised to equestrian rank apparently only after lengthy careers as centurio and primipilus II, the highest centurion rank (for an early example, see AE 1978: 286; cf. AE 1954: 163). It remains an open question whether this difference in social origin and military experience caused differences in military leadership of the large units, because neither in Egypt nor in other provinces do we have insight into everyday military leadership, in the narrow sense. In these questions, Egypt does not offer more insight into everyday reality than other provinces, because the legions were soon concentrated in Nikopolis and were thus in a part of the province for which we have papyri only in exceptional cases. We therefore know almost nothing about the ways in which the prefect and the high-ranking equestrian officers under him went about their military functions—to what extent, for instance, they carried out manoeuvres.

We do, however, know that the army in this province had a more Greek-speaking character than those in other provinces: in the first century, when two legions were still stationed in Egypt, at least one of the commanders in charge of both legions, and also presumably of all the auxiliary formations in the province, was designated in an official Latin inscription as praefectus stratopedarches, Latinizing the Greek term for the head of the camp (AE 1954: 163; cf. P Wisc. II 48). The same function could apparently also be designated praef(ectus) ex [er] citu qui est in Aegypto (CIL III 6809 = ILS 2696).

We also find two other cases where the titles of officers in this provincial army mix Greek and Latin. In Egypt, as in other provinces, the prefect relied on soldiers detailed from the army as an essential part of his staff. In the second century there was an equestrian official with the title archistrator at the head of the stratores, those responsible for the horses of the prefect’s staff (AE 1929: 125 = TAM III 52). We also find a very similar title for the head of another department of the prefect’s office, at this same time: there was an equestrian commander titled archistator in charge of a formation of apparently several hundred men, so-called statores– soldiers who, on the basis of their designation, were prepared to take on tasks of all kinds (AE 1958: 156; cf. P Oxy. II 294; XXXVI 2754). We know of no parallels for such Latin–Greek titles elsewhere in the Roman army. It is of fundamental importance that we find these titles in memorial inscriptions erected in provinces other than Egypt. Documentation specific to this individual province therefore has no relevance, and thus one cannot argue that we find no comparable peculiarities merely on account of the poorer state of preservation in other provinces. Titles where Greek and Latin are mixed can probably only be explained by the fact that in the exercitus Aegyptiacus, and especially in the staff of the praefectus Aegypti, Greek was significantly more common than in other provinces, even eastern ones (Haensch 2008).

The statores were an exceptional institution in another respect as well. Only the praefectus Aegypti, among all the governors of the principate, had at his disposal a body of soldiers of this kind. In the Republican period, one does find statores, but under quite different officials. In the imperial army they only survived either as a unit of the troops of the city of Rome, in which case they were commanded by the praetorian prefects, or as individual functionaries (there may have been two or three of them) assisting equestrian auxiliary commanders, that is, commanders of smaller units in the Roman army. Clearly the fact that the functions of prefect of Egypt and of praetorian prefect originated from the middle equestrian officer corps meant that these functionaries retained conditions typical of equestrian officers, although they had become much more important than them. The equestrian rank of archistrator (and archistator) is equally exceptional and may be explained only in terms applicable to the province of Egypt and to the city of Alexandria. In all other provinces the head of a governor’s stratores was only a centurio. Presumably the great number of equestrian officials in Egypt and the many Alexandrian notables of equestrian rank meant that it was felt necessary to raise the rank of important officiales serving under the prefect. A third unique institution—the existence of an agrimensor (land surveyor) praefecti Aegypti (SB III 7183 = FIRA III 142), for whom there was no known parallel in any other provincial governor’s staff—may be explained by the need for a surveyor of this type in a province where the arable land changed with each flooding of the Nile.


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