Romans in Egypt

At the death of Ptolemy IX in 80 BC, his daughter Berenice III became the sole ruler. But Ptolemy XI, the son of Ptolemy X, was recalled from Rome (where he was a client of Sulla) to be co-regent, thanks to Sulla’s intervention (Appian, Bella Civilia 1.102). This was the first Roman active involvement in Egyptian politics since Popilius Leanas came to Egypt. Yet the reign of Ptolemy XI with his stepmother was short and dramatic, as he murdered her almost immediately. In response, the Alexandrian populace killed him and chose his cousin Ptolemy XII as king of Egypt; Ptolemy XII’s brother became king of Cyprus in order to hinder Rome’s ability to activate Ptolemy X’s will. The first part of Ptolemy XII’s reign, until his banishment by the Alexandrians, who supported his daughter and his sister-wife Cleopatra VI Tryphaena, was mainly devoted to obtaining recognition of his royal title by the Roman Senate. He bribed influential Romans and reinforced his relationship with the Egyptian priestly elite. The army was not involved in many events, except for the soldiers and the military elite in Alexandria, who took part in the riots. Ptolemy XII’s involvement in military affairs translated into financially supporting Pompey’s 8,000 cavalrymen to fight in Judea (Pliny, Naturalis Historia 33.136), rather than sending his own troops. The Ptolemaic army seems to have been reduced to a limited number of men garrisoned within Egypt, since Ptolemy preferred to provide money rather than troops and then had to ask Pompey’s help to put down a revolt; the request was refused. The revolt has often been explained by tax increases that would have allowed the king to bribe the Romans, whereas the state of military organization and the role of the military elite have been overlooked. Heavy taxation has usually been inferred from limited regional evidence from the Heracleopolite nome about inhabitants of villages abandoning their land. But the king may have been able to afford a politics of bribery by saving money on administrative costs, and by lowering military expenses by reducing the number of garrisoned soldiers. Indeed, Ptolemy’s demand to Pompey suggests the lack of a large body of mobilizable soldiers and of support from the military elite in the capital. The economic situation of the population may well have deteriorated due to tax increases, but above all the elite in Alexandria was dissatisfied with Ptolemy XII and had enough military support to oppose him.

In 59 BC the consul Julius Caesar finally recognized Ptolemy XII as king of Egypt, after Ptolemy gave him and Pompey 6,000 talents (e. g. Suetonius, Julius Caesar 54.3). Like many of his predecessors, Ptolemy XII issued an amnesty decree to reassert power. He notably re-stated that cleruchic land could be hereditarily transmitted, as had already been accepted in Ptolemy VIII’s decrees. Everything might have worked well for the king, had not Cyprus been in the process of becoming a Roman province at the same moment. Influential members of the elite criticized Ptolemy’s failure to prevent this loss. Supported by the mob, they expelled him and put his daughter Berenice IV on the throne along with her mother, Cleopatra VI Tryphaena. After having tried for almost three years to obtain Roman military support to regain his position, Ptolemy XII crossed the Egyptian border in 55 BC escorted by Gabinius, the proconsul of Syria, and his troops, with Mark Antony as commander of the cavalry (Plutarch, Antonius 3.4-7). Cicero records Gabinius’ fear of the fleet of Archelaus and the growing number of pirates in the Mediterranean. The promises of 10,000 talents from the king cannot have been entirely unconnected. Gabinius, who led his legions outside his province without official authorization, took the garrison of Pelusium and defeated Archelaos, the queen’s husband. For the first time in Egyptian history, not only did a Roman army enter the country, but Roman troops and Gallic and Germanic cavalrymen, known as the Gabiniani, remained there to protect Ptolemy. They rapidly married local women and became involved in the “defense” of Egypt against Caesar.

Ptolemy XII celebrated his return with his daughter Berenice IV’s death and other murders. His ability to fulfil his financial promises seems to have been somewhat limited. In Rome Gabinius was tried, fined the sum which had been promised him and went bankrupt. In Egypt Rabirius Postumus was appointed by the king to the chief financial post of the country, that of dioiketes, but in spite of abandoning his toga and adopting Greek dress he failed to recover the money owed to Pompey and other Romans; he was driven ignominiously from the country. The Alexandrians who earlier had shown ‘all zeal in looking after those visiting from Italy, keen, in their fear, to give no cause for complaint or war’ now had little time for Roman interference. Two sons of Bibulus, now governor of Syria, who in 50 were sent to recall the Gabiniani from the attractions of Alexandria in order to fight the Parthians were summarily put to death in the city. 34 Slaughter in the streets and in the gymnasium had become regular features of life in the capital city

In the final year of his life Ptolemy XII made his elder daughter Cleopatra VII co-regent. Shortly after his death, in 51 BC, she expelled her twelve-year-old brother, whom she should have married according to tradition and probably according to Ptolemy XII’s will. But the difficult economic situation engendered by a bad flood turned the population and influential men in the court against her.

In 48 BCE Cleopatra incurred the wrath of the Gabiniani; when they killed the sons of the Roman governor of Syria, Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, she handed the murderers over to Bibulus. This led to Cleopatra’s fall from power: she fled Egypt with her sister, Arsinoe, while Ptolemy XIII assumed sole rule. Pompey ingratiated himself with Ptolemy.

She had to leave the capital and then Egypt. When Caesar arrived in Egypt after Pompey’s murder by Ptolemy XIII’s men, Cleopatra’s troops and those of her brother and the eunuch Pothinus were opposing one another around Pelusium. We know almost nothing about the composition and number of Caesar’s troops. Some Gabiniani probably fought on Ptolemy’s side, while 500 Gallic and Germanic cavalry had been sent to Pompey’s son in 49 BC with fifty warships (Caesar, Bellum Civile 3.4.4, 3.40; Dio Cassius 42.12; Appian, Bella Civilia 2.49). Caesar decided to solve the conflict between the siblings, doubtless hoping to use Egyptian resources to strengthen his power in Rome. He chose to support Cleopatra but may have misjudged the strength of her position.

Soon Caesar was trapped in Alexandria with only two small legions and 800 cavalry (Caesar, Bellum Civile 3.106), whereas Pothinus attacked the city in the name of Ptolemy XIII with 22,000 men under the command of Achillas (Bellum Civile 3.110.1-2). Caesar described these events as the Alexandrian War (48/7 BC), which he won thanks to reinforcement from Asia Minor and Judea. Since Ptolemy XIII died in the encounter, Caesar settled the dynastic conflict by marrying Cleopatra to her younger brother Ptolemy XIV, following his own interests but also their father’s will, and establishing the pair as queen and king of Egypt. The final piece of evidence about the overall composition of the army in Egypt is found in Bellum Civile 3.110 and Bellum Alexandrinum 2.1. In the first passage Caesar divides the army fighting on the side of Ptolemy XIII and led by Achillas – 20,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry – into three groups: the Gabiniani, the mercenaries from Cilicia and Syria, whom he calls “thieves,” and the condemned and exiled people (capitis damnati exulesque) and slaves. It is noticeable that the two cohorts of Gabiniani seem to have quickly played a central role in the Ptolemaic army. It is unclear if the mercenaries who joined them, according to Caesar, were recent additions or already belonged to the army. Yet the mobilization of slaves suggests that Ptolemy did not consider his army strong enough to oppose Caesar’s two legions. The author of Bellum Alexandrinum 2.1 explains that Ptolemy and the Alexandrians had also levied men in Egypt and on its frontier, which suggests that there were still professional soldiers and officers stationed in garrisons. But there is no clear evidence that the cleruchs were active in this period.

Finally, a watershed in the history of the Ptolemaic army occurred when Caesar left three additional legions in Egypt in 47 BC. By then the troops in garrison in the Delta were probably predominantly Roman, with soldiers recruited primarily from Italy or the Greek-speaking provinces. Their movement into the rest of the country, like their integration with existing troops, must have been gradual. The extent to which changes attested in the documentary evidence were representative of the entire army is difficult to estimate, but groups of soldiers with Roman names or even with Roman, Greek and Egyptian names appear here and there, along with dedications by soldiers with Latin ranks translated into Greek. Roman military terminology in Greek translation also gradually comes to be used, until it is completely standardized under Augustus. Military developments between 55 BC and 30 BC can be sketched as follows: the Roman legions became the main source of military power other than a few “Ptolemaic” soldiers in garrisons, while the cleruchic army was no longer active militarily. This is not to say that men born in Egypt played no role in the army, but they were reduced to a small number or were increasingly integrated into the Roman system.  The existence of Ptolemaic hipparchies used as auxiliaries to the Roman army as late as AD 12 convincingly shows that “some Ptolemaic forces survived the Roman conquest.”

The final military event indirectly involving the Ptolemaic dynasty is the naval Battle of Actium between Octavian and Mark Antony in 31 BC. The Egyptian contribution was financial as usual but also naval, the central power having been unable to organize and sustain a functioning land army for decades. According to Plutarch (Antonius 56.1-6), Cleopatra gave Mark Antony 20,000 talents in addition to her 200 ships. For the battle, Mark Antony burned the Egyptian fleet except the best sixty warships that transported 20,000 infantry and 2,000 archers (Antonius 64.2). These are the ships with which Cleopatra broke the Roman blockade to sail back to Egypt (Antonius 66). The 22,000 soldiers on board must be counted as Mark Antony’s Roman legions, not Ptolemaic troops. After their defeat, Antony and Cleopatra lost most of their allies but organized the defense of Egypt. One year later, Octavian and his armies took Pelusium and fought outside Alexandria until Antony’s troops switched sides (Antonius 76). Antony and Cleopatra both committed suicide, and Egypt became an official Roman province.

Cleopatra’s contribution to Antony’s war effort was of paramount importance; the Ptolemaic army and navy were still considerable; the latter, or what was left of it after Actium, went to provide the nucleus of the Alexandrian arm of the Roman imperial fleet. Signs of the Roman military presence are noticeable in 5 5 B. C. after the intrusion of the Gabiniani, and with Caesar’s installation of troops in the aftermath of the Alexandrian War. The Greek translation of cohors occurs in a papyrus of the period from Heracleopolis; a Roman praefectus named C. Iulius Papius makes a dedication in the temple of Isis at Philae in the twentieth year of Cleopatra’s reign. After Actium greater care was taken at a higher level. Senators and illustrious equites were forbidden entry to Egypt without permission of the princeps. One of the few people put to death in the aftermath of the royal suicide had been a Roman senator named Q. Ovinius who had disgraced his senatorial stripe by undertaking supervision of the Queen’s textile factories and perhaps provided an admonitory example of the economic power-base available in Egypt.

The number of soldiers in the Roman army in Egypt remained lower than that in the Ptolemaic army in the third and second centuries BC and was about one-quarter of the size of the land army gathered at Raphia. There were three legions of about 5,000 men, and then only two legions left under Tiberius in AD 23, along with auxiliary units.

Egypt as Princips Province

From the first, care was taken in the establishment of the status and administration of a province which yielded almost as much revenue as did the Gallic provinces added to the empire by Augustus’ adoptive father and twelve times as much as the province of Judaea was to provide. The emperor immediately took on the role of a Pharaoh and the familiar cartouches were to appear on temple reliefs until the reign of Decius (A. D. 249-51); the lamplighters of Oxyrhynchus duly adapted their customary oath of office and swore by Caesar, ‘god, son of a god’ (theon ek theou) in 30/29 B. C. But Egypt was to be anomalous in being governed by an equestrian praefectus appointed by and directly responsible to the princeps (though a freedman could also hold the office as did one Hiberus for a brief period in A. D. 32, replacing the deceased Vitrasius Pollio). The first prefect was the poet Cornelius Gallus who had led Octavian’s army into Egypt from the west in the war against Antony and Cleopatra. His first responsibility, to ensure internal security, was met by prompt reduction of rebellious towns in the region of Coptos in the Thebaid but he boasted, perhaps too vaingloriously, of that and of his feat in carrying Roman arms further south than they had hitherto gone. Within a couple of years he was removed from office, banned from entering the princeps’ provinces and finally driven to suicide.

For the first decade of Roman rule, we have more evidence for the preoccupation with military security than for the development of the civil administration. The history of Egypt in the decade after Actium well illustrates the major features of the Augustan frontier strategy. Cornelius Gallus’ inauspicious foray to the south of the First Cataract was perhaps the first attempt to test the viability of further annexation of territory. In the Arabian expedition of his successor, Aelius Gallus, the security of the Indian trade routes will certainly have been an important consideration, but that need not have been the primary motivation for expansion. In effect, with the Nabataean kingdom to the east left independent until A. D. 106, the trading links maintained with India through the ports of the Red Sea coast and the developing road network of the eastern desert functioned perfectly satisfactorily. The expeditions of the next prefect, P. Petronius, to the south between 2 5 /4 and 22 B. C. brought a short-lived Roman occupation of the region beyond the Dodecaschoenus and a Roman garrison to Primis (Qasr Ibrim), a site which has yielded the earliest Latin literary manuscript, fragments of elegiacs, most probably by Cornelius Gallus. Augustus soon decided, however, to remit tribute, perhaps calculating that the cost of occupation was not justified, and within a few years the formal limit of the province had been set at Hierasykaminos, some 80km to the south of the First Cataract. But the impact of the Roman presence further south, in an area accessible to Rome and to Meroe, was still by no means negligible and served as a reminder of the latent interest and power of Rome. In the southernmost part of the province the most obvious signs of Roman dominion are the great temples, largely constructed in the Augustan period, at Dendur and at Kalabsha (Talmis) where there seem to be two distinct temples of the Augustan period on a site which also shows signs of building in the late Ptolemaic period.

Military sensitivity and the importance of the grain supply help to explain the direct imperial appointment of the prefect and are perhaps sufficient to account for Tacitus’ insistence that the princeps controlled Egypt especially closely. The Senate was thus effectively excluded from any direct responsibility, although even regulations for the administration of the emperor’s Special Account (Idios Lagos) might still be modified or affected by senatorial acts. One factor of obvious importance is that the conquest brought a great deal of land into imperial possession (the patrimonium). There is evidence under Augustus for possession of estates (whether through purchase or gift) by the emperor’s relatives and friends (Livia, Antonia the Younger, Germanicus, Maecenas), though none for direct personal ownership by Augustus. Later emperors did, however, own estates and continued to bestow them on friends and favourites such as Seneca, Narcissus, Pallas, Doryphorus; these latter properties would naturally revert, whether de iure or merely de facto is unclear, to the patrimonium on the death of the individual.

The presence of imperial property, if nothing else, emphasizes that it is very misleading to characterize the whole province as in some sense the ‘personal property’ of the emperor. But Egypt was nevertheless a province with important differences.

The office of prefect of Egypt was to develop, as might have been foreseen, into one of immense latent power, as Tiberius Iulius Alexander was to demonstrate in A.D. 69 with his support of Vespasian’s bid for the imperial throne; Avidius Cassius, the son of a former prefect, was to claim the support of Egypt and its prefect in his unsuccessful attempt at usurpation in A.D. 175.The authority of the prefecture was spelled out in a law, presumably enacted in or very soon after 30 B.C., which gave the incumbent’s acts and decrees the same validity as those of any Roman magistrate. The list of prefects appointed by Augustus and the Julio-Claudian emperors shows some illustrious (and notorious) names: C. Turranius, Seius Strabo, father of Sejanus, Avillius Flaccus, Sutorius Macro. Prefects held office for three years, on average, and in the absence of any specialist Egyptian training relied on their general knowledge of the principles of military and civil administration and law, backed up by readily available local expertise, to cope with the diverse and intricate bureaucratic demands of the job. Promotion from Egypt to the praetorian prefecture is regularly attested in the period A. D. 70-235. Tiberius Iulius Alexander, nephew of Philo and advanced to the prefecture, proceeding later in all probability to the praetorian command; Caecina Tuscus and Claudius Balbillus both held equestrian posts slightly later than Alexander and reached the prefecture earlier. Before them, three examples are known of men who proceeded from the praetorian prefecture to Egypt, namely Seius Strabo, Sutorius Macro and Lusius Geta, all perhaps in circumstances of political sensitivity. member of a prominent Alexandrian Jewish family, is important as the earliest example of an official who held an equestrian post in Egypt (that of epistrategos) and advanced to the prefecture, proceeding later in all probability to the praetorian command; Caecina Tuscus and Claudius Balbillus both held equestrian posts slightly later than Alexander and reached the prefecture earlier. Before them, three examples are known of men who proceeded from the praetorian prefecture to Egypt, namely Seius Strabo, Sutorius Macro and Lusius Geta, all perhaps in circumstances of political sensitivity.


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