- This article is about the country "Egypt" and its people. For a list of Egyptian characters, see Egyptians (category list).
Egypt is the site of one of the most ancient civilizations in the world, and one of the first great empires known to history. By the time of the Third Servile War, though, Egypt was in decline, having passed through centuries of foreign rule, having been subjected first to the Assyrians, then the Persians, and finally the Macedonians and Greeks led by Alexander the Great. After conquest by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C., Egypt was ruled by one of Alexander's generals, Ptolemy, who founded a Macedonian dynasty which ruled Egypt until the final conquest of Egypt by Octavian. Each of Ptolemy's male successors also ruled under the name Ptolemy, and the period of Egyptian history from the time of Alexander's conquest to the death of Cleopatra VII, the last descendant of Ptolemy, is known as Ptolemaic Egypt.
Egyptian society at the time of the Third Servile War was thus a hybrid of indigenous Egyptian culture and numerous minority groups, the most notable being the Macedonians and Greeks who formed most of the ruling class. Egypt under the Ptolemies became one of the centers of Greek culture, and the Egyptian city of Alexandria, founded by and named for Alexander the Great, was the site of such marvels of the ancient world as the Lighthouse of Pharos outside the harbor of Alexandria, and the great Library of Alexandria, at which the Ptolemies attempted to preserve a copy of every work of science or literature which entered Egypt.
Other ethnic groups present in Ptolemaic Egypt include the immigrant Jewish community from Judaea, most of which resided the city of Alexandria. The Judeans had inhabited Egypt since before the Maccabean Revolt (167-160 BCE), and many second or third-generation Jews would adopt the Greek language. Celts from eastern Europe and Galatia in central Anatolia, along with some Thracians, serzved as mercenanies and military-settlers in Egypt. A cemetary in Hadra, south of Alexandria, contains a number of Celtic names. And the Fayyum region of Egypt was known for the high number of Celtic military-settlers. These would intermarry with the native Egyptian population, and their offspring, according to Polybius, were known as Epigovoi. Ethiopians and Nubians also served in the Egyptian forces of the Ptolemaic era, many of which were given land in Upper Egypt in the south. Horwennefer, or Hugronaphor in Greek, whom led the secession of Upper Egypt from Ptolemaic rule in 205 BCE and ruled until 186 BCE, was of Nubian origin.
The Greek historian Herodotus famously observed that Egypt was "the gift of the Nile." The seasonal flooding and retreat of the Nile River provided for consistent crop seasons and guaranteed the fertility of the soil of the Nile valley. This agricultural wealth gave rise to great cities and cultural achievements, and the wealth of Egypt was among the greatest in the ancient Mediterranean. This wealth, though, made it the object of foreign ambition, and the Ptolemaic dynasty was weakened over the centuries by foreign wars and internal corruption, leaving it dependent upon an alliance with the Roman Republic for its continued independence by the time of the Third Servile War.
Access to cheap grain from Egypt was essential to the maintenance of control by the ruling families of Rome over the dispossessed poor who flocked to the Roman cities. The keys to political power for the ambitious lay, in the words of the Roman poet Juvenal, in providing the poor voters with panem et circenses--free or cheap bread made from Egyptian and Sicilian grain, and the spectacles of the gladiatorial games founded on conquest and slavery.
In the course of the civil wars which wracked Rome after the Third Servile War, control of the wealth of Egypt and Egyptian grain became a key prize in the struggles between first Pompey and Julius Caesar, and then between Mark Anthony and Octavian for political supremacy. Mark Anthony famously made alliance with the last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt, Cleopatra VII, hoping to harness the wealth of that kingdom to his military experience to carve out an empire in the eastern Mediterranean from which he could crush Octavian and assume dictatorial control of Rome. His plans disintegrated, though, after the Egyptian forces of Cleopatra abandoned him at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. under circumstances which remain mysterious. Mark Anthony retreated to Egypt and was reconciled with Cleopatra, but his plans lay in ruins. Octavian and his legions arrived in Egypt in 30 B.C., and swiftly defeated the remnants of Mark Anthony's and Cleopatra's forces. Mark Anthony and Cleopatra committed suicide, and Egypt was annexed as a Roman province.
Egypt, after the Roman conquest by Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus in 30 BCE, served as the primary agricultural base of Rome. The new province would become the personal property of Augustus, and all his subsequent heirs. And this this unique province would be governed, in the stead of Augustus, by a Praefectus Augustalis. Appointees to this office, such as Gaius Cornelius Gallus, were selected from the Equestrian order of Roman society. No one holding Senatorial rank was permitted entry into the province. As the top exporter of grain throughout the Mediterranean basin, this would help ensure Caesar Augustus' influence over the people of Rome. Two legions were permanently kept in Egypt as the main garrison force.
At the beginning of Ptolemy rule in Egypt, the manistay of the army were often Greek and Macedonian settlers, most of which were Klerouchoi or 'lot-holders', who were permitted to own land in Egypt in return for military service. This dominant Graeco-Macedonian ethnic element would make up most of the infantry and cavalry in the Ptolemaic armies. The Indigenous Egyptian soldiers, known as Machimoi, were at first largely relegated to local police duties and served as marines in the Ptolemaic navy. Although, they would become more prominent as Phalangites after the important Egyptian victory at Raphia against the Seleucids of Syria in 217 BCE.
The Basilikon Agema, meaning 'king's guards', were composed of three thousand infanty and seven hundred cavalry. The cavalry were recruited from the uppercrust of the colonial Macedonian-descended nobility of Egypt who were often armed and eqipped in the style of the Hetairioi or 'Companions' of Alexander the Great. The infantry element were trained in the fashion of Phalangites, or in the manner elite Hypaspists of Macedon. Though initially staffed by Macedonian settlers in Egypt, the Ptolemaic kings would soon add various nationalities, such as Cretan archers and Celtic swordsmen from Galatia or Thrace, to the ranks of their Royal Guard. After the Battle of Raphia, Ptolemy IV Philopater would add a hand-picked unit of phalanx-trained native Egyptians called the Machimoi Epilektoi to the Agema. And Egypt's last ruler of the House of Ptolemy, Cleopatra VII, reportedly employed both Celtic Galatians and axe-bearing Ethiopian warriors as bodyguards.
Egypt, under the Ptolemies, was an absolute monarchy. The king was known as the Basileus to his Greek-speaking subjects, and the Pharoah to his native Egyptian subjects.
The highest official of the royal court under the Ptolemies was the Dioiketes Basilikon (treasurer of the king), who was directly in charge of the treasury and the administration of the Nomoi (provincial districts) of Egypt, and was in charge of a group of officials who reported to him, called Hypodioiketai (sub-dioiketes). And a Hypodioiketes, in turn was assisted by a Eklogistes (accountant). Other offices close to the king were the Basilikon Grammateus (royal scribe), Epistolographos (letter-writer) and the Hypomnematographos (memoranda writer), who were the king's secretaries. The administrative offices of the Ptolemaic king's army were the Grammateus ton Dynameon (quartermaster-general) and the Archyperetes (chief paymaster).
Chora (Lower Egypt) and Thebiad (Upper Egypt) were both governed by officials known as Epistrategoi (over-generals), whom were viceroys of the king. Each official governed both halfs of Egypt from the cities of Memphis and Thebes respectively. Both Epistrategoi had a deputy, known as a Hypostrategos (sub-general).
These were further sub-divided into Nomoi or Nomes (districts), being governed by a Nomarch. The tax-collectors of the king in the Nomoi were referred to as Oikonomoi (managers). Nomes were themselves further subdivided into Topai, which were administrated by Toparchs, and theses smaller Topai districts contained a number of Komai or villages, individually run by a Komarch. Toparchs and Komarchs each were assisted by Topogrammateus (district scribe) and a Komogrammateus (village scribe) respectively. Likewise, both Toparch and Komarch would have a Oikonomos of their own. In addition to the Komogrammateus and the Oikonomos, the village's police constable was called the Epistates Komes.
Certain districts regarded as exceptional, such as the Fayum region, were designated as a Meris, and Merides (plural) standing in status between a Nome and Toparchy were administered accordingly by an official known as a Meridarch.
Known to the Romans as Alexandria ad Aegyptum, the city was the seat of the Ptolemaic dynasty and the centre of Greek culture in Egypt. Alexandria was, technically, a distinct city-state from Egypt, within Egypt, rather than the capital of Egypt per se. Lower and Upper Egypt were administratively divided into the Chora and Thebiad provinces. Chora was governed from the ancient city of Memphis (Men-nefer in native Egyptian), and Thebiad was named for its capital of Thebes (native name being Waset), also known at the time as Diospolis Megale, which meant the 'Great City of God' referring to Zeus Amun. Alexandria, along with Neucratis and Ptolemiou Hermiou, had their assemblies (Gymnasia and Ekklesia), ruling councils (Boule) and their political constitutions. Alexandria, built on the orders of the Macedonian king Alexander III Megas, was the traditional home of the ruling Macedonian dynasty and the capital of their Mediterranean empire.
The high council of Alexandria was the Synedrion, which had oversight of the Chrematistai (lawcourts). The chief officials in the administration of the city were the Exegetes (municipal magistrate), followed by the Archdikastes (chief judge) and the Nukterinos Strategos (nightwatch commander), whom may have worked in tandem with, or was an additional title pertaining to the Strategos tes Poleos (commander of the city). The Greek citizen-body of Alexandria was represented in the person of the Gymnasiarch, who supervised the Gymnasia and the public games and athletic events of the city-state. There may have been one Gymnasiarch for every Deme (voting-tribe) in the city.
The city lies north-west of the Nile Delta on a narrow strip of land between the Mediterranean coast and Lake Mareotis, the source of the city's freshwater.
The streets of the city were laid out in a grid-pattern, which would later serve as a model for many new cities throughout the Roman Empire, after the city and Egypt was annexed by the Roman Empire in 31 BCE. Alexandria became the second-important city in the empire after Rome itself.
The maximum extent of the city's population is believed to have been 500,000 during the Roman period.
The northern district of the city, located near the Gate of the Moon was called the Broucheion/Brucheum (the Royal Quarter), was the location of the royal palace, as well as the Museion, the Library, the Serapeum (Temple of Serapis) and the Pharos lighthouse, and was home to much of the ethnic Graeco-Macedonian citizenry of the city. The Pharos lighthouse was built on a small island from the coast, connected to the mainland by the Heptastadion causeway. The royal palace was built upon the Lochias promontory on the seafront of the city. Another palace was located at Antirrhodus Island, which had its own harbour for private use by the Ptolemies.
The Rhakotis Quarter, named for the former Greek colony and city of that name, lay at the western part of the city and was the home of the native Egyptian population. This district was the poorest part of Alexandria.
The Delta Quarter, located in the north-eastern section of Alexandria near the Gate of the Sun, was home to some 10,000 or more Judaioi, or Judeans. Since the reign of Ptolemy I Soter, Judaea was a contended region between Egypt and the Seleucids of Syria and Mesopotamia. Many second or third generation Jewish colonists would adopt the language and material culture of their Greek hosts, though, most would retain their belief in the monotheistic Hebrew god, Yahweh. In the reign of Ptolemy II Philadephus, Jewish scribes would write the first Greek language version of the Torah, which would become known as the Septuagint. The Jewish community in Alexandria were governed by an official appointed from among their number called the Ethnarch and a council of elders called the Presbyteroi.
In the centre of the city, lay the Soma/Sema (meaning 'the body'), there was the tomb which housed the embalmed body of Alexander Megas, and was also the place of burial for the Ptolemy family.
Alexandria was visited by all manner of people from different cultures far and wide. Aksumites from Ethiopia, Sabaeans from southern Arabia, Indian merchants, along with Buddhist missionaries called 'Therapeutae' in written sources, Punic sailors from Carthage and her territories, as well as Celt and Thracian mercenaries would appear in the port of Alexandria.
The ancient city of Memphis, or Men-nefer in native Egyptian, was the capital and administrative centre of Lower Egypt in the north of the country. The city was renowned for its large temple-complex devoted to the God Ptah (known to the Greeks as Hephaistos). While the Greek Epistrategos (governor) of Lower Egypt had his residence in the city, the dynasty of High Priests of Ptah governed over the Egyptian population in the Memphis. By the time of the Third Servile War, the High Priest Psherenptah III ruled the city (76-39 BCE). There was also a residential population of Greeks whom formed a Politeuma (self-governing enclave) within the city, as well as a residential quarter each for Syrians, Idumeans, Persians and Phoenicians who had made their home in Memphis.
Thebes, the capital of Upper Egypt in the south, was a Greek exonym for the city known as Waset to the native Egyptian people. Though during the Ptolemaic era, the Greek colonial poulation would call Thebes Megale Diospolis or 'the great city of God'. 'God' in this context referring to Zeus, who was syncretized with the native sun deity of Amun Ra, who was the traditional patron god of the city. As such, the Priesthood of Amun would govern over the native population of the city and the outlying towns and villages of the province, cooperating with the Greek Epistrategos of Upper Egypt and the Nomarchoi. The Chrematistai, a board of assize judges, served to administrate over the Greek population as well as to collect revenue for the Ptolemaic kings.
Naukratis was a Greek colony that was situated on the banks of the Canopic branch of the Nile Delta. The city, which had its own political constitution, was founded prior to the Ptolemaic period during the 7th century BCE, as a settlement founded by Ionian Greeks and Carians serving as mercenaries to the Pharaoh Psammetichus I. It was the first Greek colony in Egypt prior to the Achaemenid Persian occupation and the conquests of Alexander the Great of Macedon. As it began as an Emporion (trading post) it was not a colony for any particular city-state, so its political autonomy was assured from the beginning, something which the Ptolemies respected in theory. Naukratis was known to have issued its own coinage.
Ptolemais Hermiou was established on the site of an old Egyptian village named Psoi, located on the western banks of the Nile in Thebiad, Upper Egypt, on the orders of it's namesake, Ptolemy I Soter of Egypt, who intended it to replace Thebes as the capital of Upper Egypt. The city had its own political constitution and and Syndrion (senate) and was the centre for the cult of Ptolemy I, as well as temples devoted to Zeus and Dionysus. While it did not have its own coinage, people could seek asylum in the city.
Ptolemais Theron was an Emporion on the Red Sea coast of Nubia (modern day Sudan). It was founded under the direction of a Greek named Eumedes, who was despatched by Ptolemy II Philadelphus. The main purpose for settlement was to serve as a base to hunt indigenous fauna, particularly elephants, to supply to the Egyptian army. This was the meaning of the name Ptolemais Theron: Ptolemy of the Hunts.
Arsinoe was a city that was situated in the Gulf of Suez, near where the banks of the Pelusaic branch of the Nile Delta, where a major canal connected the Pelusiac with the Bitter Lakes on the coast of the Red Sea, making direct contact and commerce between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean possible. Its position and commercial importance made it the capital of The Heroopolite Nome. As it was named for Queen Arsinoe II, daughter of Ptolemy I Soter and sister-wife of Ptolemy II Philadelphus, The city and the revenues from it were the personal property of successive queens of Egypt throughout the Ptolemaic era.
Berenice, along with the city of Myos Hormos, was one of the principle ports on the Red Sea coast of Egypt and was nearby the emerald mines of Saket and Zabara. Berenice, known to the native Egyptians as Shashirit, was connected to the rest of Egypt by the road leading to the city of Coptos. Berenice received much trade from India, particularly the merchants of Tamilakkam in southern India and Sri Lanka. In Berenice, a number of Buddhist monks of Tamil origin may have made their home.
Myos Hormos, known as Taou in the Egyptian tongue, was a port-city on the Red Sea coast, which received much maritime traffic from Arabia, Ethiopia, India and perhaps even China as well.
Coptos, known in the native language as Gebtu, situated on the eastern bank of the Nile River on the site of modern Qift. The main deities of the city were Min, Horus and Isis. Coptos was the terminus of a land-route which linked the Nile with the Red Sea ports which lay beyond the Eastern Desert.
Elephantine was a town and island in the Nile River in north Nubia, which is now part of modern Aswan. The island of Elephantine was also the centre of the Egyptian cult of Khnum, believed to be responsible for the source of the Nile as well as a protector of children. The island was known as Abu or Yebu to the native Egyptians, but the Greek name was due to it being a centre of the ivory trade. During the reign of the 26th Dynasty ruler Psammetichus I (Psamtik I) of Egypt in the 650's BCE, a military outpost was established on the island to protect Egypt from the Nubians. The island was garrisoned by a force of allied Judean soldiers, sent by King Mannesseh of Judah as part of Psammetichus' campaign to liberate Upper Egypt. The soldiers would form the foundation of a permanent Jewish community, who even built a temple to Yahweh on the island alongside that of Khnum. By the mide 4th century BCE, during final days of Persian rule of Egypt, the Jewish temple in Elephantine had ceased to function as a place of worship, perhaps due to the local Jewish population adopting the beliefs of their Egyptian neighbours.
Leontopolis was a city based in the Heliopolite Nome in the Nile Delta region, on the banks of the Pelusiac branch of the Nile Delta. During the reign of the king Ptolemy VI Philometor, the exiled Jewish high priest Onias IV, who was forced to flee Jerusalem by the pro-Greek members of the priesthood who supported the policy of Hellenization by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, built a temple to the Jewish god Yahweh, the second Jewish temple on Egyptian soil since the temple at Elephantine several centuries earlier, with the intention that attract worship from the Jews of Egypt and those emigrants fleeing from the persecutions of Antiochus IV, and replace the old temple in Jerusalem as the centre of their religion. Though the temple in Leontopolis never quite replaced in importance the temple in Jerusalem, the Leontopolite Temple was still an alternate site of the pilgrimage for the Jews of Egypt and North Africa. The temple was closed down by Roman authorities, due to the fallout of the First Roman-Jewish War in 66-72 CE. The city and the surrounding land was called the Land of Onias, whose family became the hereditary priests of the Leontopolite Temple. The modern Arabic name for the city is Tell el Yehudiye, or 'the hill of the Jews'.
Crocodilopolis was the centre of the cult of Sobek, in whose temples contained crocodiles considered sacred to the inhabitants. The city, named Crocodilopolis by the Greeks, was called Shedyet by the native population, was formally named Ptolemais Euergetes during the Ptolemaic era. The city stood within the Fayyum valley between the western bank of the Nile and Lake Moeris, southwest of Memphis. Fayyum was an important region known for its agriculture, where land grants were received by many foreign Cleruchs, Hellenistic era colonists whom served in the armies of the Ptolemies. Celtic Galatians, due to their service, were known to inhabit the Fayyum district.