Roman Egypt (30 BC to AD 395)

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Roman Egypt (30 BC to AD 395)

The Roman province of Egypt (Aegyptus) was established in 30 BC after Octavian (the future emperor Augustus) defeated his rival Mark Antony, deposed his lover Queen Cleopatra VII and annexed the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt to the Roman Empire. The province encompassed most of modern-day Egypt except for the Sinai Peninsula (which would later be conquered by Trajan).

As a province, Aegyptus was ruled by a prefect instead of the traditional senatorial governor of other Roman provinces. The prefect was a man of equestrian rank and was appointed by the Emperor. The first prefect of Aegyptus, Gaius Cornelius Gallus, brought Upper Egypt under Roman control by force of arms, established a protectorate over the southern frontier district, which had been abandoned by the later Ptolemies.

From the reign of Nero onward, Aegyptus enjoyed an era of prosperity which lasted a century. Much trouble was caused by religious conflicts between the Greeks and the Jews, particularly in Alexandria, which after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 became the world centre of Jewish religion and culture. Under Trajan a Jewish revolt occurred, resulting in the suppression of the Jews of Alexandria and the loss of all their privileges, although they soon returned. Hadrian, who twice visited Aegyptus, founded Antinoöpolis in memory of his drowned lover Antinous. From his reign onward buildings in the Greco-Roman style were erected throughout the country.

Under Antoninus Pius, however, oppressive taxation led to a revolt in 139, of the native Egyptians, which was suppressed only after several years of fighting.

Caracalla (211-217) granted Roman citizenship to all Egyptians, in common with the other provincials, but this was mainly to extort more taxes, which grew increasingly onerous as the needs of the emperors for more revenue grew more desperate.

There was a series of revolts, both military and civilian, through the 3rd century. Under Decius, in 250, the Christians again suffered from persecution, but their religion continued to spread.

Zenobia, queen of Palmyra, took the country away from the Romans when she conquered Aegyptus in 269, declaring herself the Queen of Egypt also. This warrior queen claimed that Egypt was an ancestral home of hers through a familial tie to Cleopatra VII.

Two generals based in Egypt, Probus and Domitius Domitianus, led successful revolts and made themselves emperors. Diocletian captured Alexandria from Domitius in 298 and reorganised the whole province. His edict of 303 against the Christians began a new era of persecution. This was the last serious attempt to stem the steady growth of Christianity in Egypt, however.

Just as under the Ptolemies, Alexandria and its citizens had their own special designations. The capital city enjoyed a higher status and more privileges than the rest of Egypt. Just as it was under the Ptolemies, the primary way of becoming a citizen of Roman Alexandria was through showing when registering for a deme that both parents were Alexandrian citizens. Alexandrians were the only Egyptians that could obtain Roman citizenship. If a common Egyptian wanted to become a Roman citizen he would first have to become an Alexandrian citizen.

Egyptian Christians believe that the Patriarchate of Alexandria was founded by Mark the Evangelist around 33, but little is known about how Christianity entered Egypt. The historian Helmut Koester has suggested, with some evidence, that originally the Christians in Egypt were predominantly influenced by gnosticism until the efforts of Demetrius of Alexandria gradually brought the beliefs of the majority into harmony with the rest of Christianity.

By 200 it is clear that Alexandria was one of the great Christian centres. The Christian apologists Clement of Alexandria and Origen both lived part or all of their lives in that city, where they wrote, taught, and debated.

No sooner had the Egyptian Church achieved freedom and supremacy, however, than it became subject to schism and prolonged conflict which at times descended into civil war. Alexandria became the centre of the first great split in the Christian world, between the Arians, named for the Alexandrian priest Arius, and their opponents, represented by Athanasius, who became Archbishop of Alexandria in 326 after the First Council of Nicaea rejected Arius's views. The Arian controversy caused years of riots and rebellions throughout most of the 4th century. In the course of one of these, the great temple of Serapis, the stronghold of paganism, was destroyed. Athanasius was alternately expelled from Alexandria and reinstated as its Archbishop between five and seven times.

Arius is notable primarily because of his role in the Arian controversy, a great fourth-century theological conflict that rocked the Christian world and led to the calling of the first ecumenical council of the Church. This controversy centered upon the nature of the Son of God, and his precise relationship to God the Father. Arius ignited the controversy that bears his name when St. Alexander of Alexandria, who had succeeded Achillas as the Bishop of Alexandria, gave a sermon on the similarity of the Son to the Father. Arius interpreted Alexander's speech as being a revival of Sabellianism, condemned it, and then argued that "if the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence: and from this it is evident, that there was a time when the Son was not. It therefore necessarily follows, that he [the Son] had his substance from nothing." This quote describes the essence of Arius' doctrine.

At this First Council of Nicaea in 325 (celebrated at Bithynia, present Turkey) twenty-two bishops, led by Eusebius of Nicomedia, came as supporters of Arius. But when some of Arius's writings were read aloud, they are reported to have been denounced as blasphemous by most participants. For about two months, the two sides argued and debated, with each appealing to Scripture to justify their respective positions. Anthonius is quoted to have said "Jesus that I know as my Redeemer cannot be less than God" . Under Constantine's influence, the majority of the bishops ultimately agreed upon a creed, known thereafter as the Nicene creed. It included the word homoousios, meaning "consubstantial", or "one in essence", which was incompatible with Arius' beliefs

On June 19, 325, council and emperor issued a circular to the churches in and around Alexandria: Arius and two of his unyielding partisans (Theonas and Secundus) were deposed and exiled to Illyricum, while three other supporters—Theognis of Nicaea, Eusebius of Nicomedia and Maris of Chalcedon—affixed their signatures solely out of deference to the emperor. In the course of one of these, the great temple of Serapis, the stronghold of paganism, was destroyed. Athanasius was alternately expelled from Alexandria and reinstated as its Archbishop between five and seven times.

Though he never repudiated the council or its decrees, the emperor ultimately permitted Arius (who had taken refuge in Palestine) and many of his adherents to return to their homes, once Arius had reformulated his Christology to mute the ideas found most objectionable by his critics. As it turned out—for whatever reason—one day before the Sunday appointed for Arius to be formally readmitted to communion, Arius suddenly died. Many Nicene Christians asserted that Arius's death was miraculous—a consequence of his allegedly heretical views.

Constantius II, who succeeded Constantine, was an Arian sympathizer who openly encouraged the Arians by appointing Eusebius of Nicomedia, another sympathizer to Arianism, as Bishop ("Patriarch", in the Eastern Church) of Constantinople. However, Theodosius I effectively wiped out Arianism once and for all among the elites of the Eastern Empire through a combination of imperial decree, persecution, and the calling of the Second Ecumenical Council in 381, which condemned Arius anew while reaffirming and expanding the Nicene Creed: One of the projects undertaken by the Council was the creation of the Nicene Creed, a declaration and summary of the Christian faith.

Egypt had an ancient tradition of religious speculation, enabling a variety of controversial religious views to thrive there. Not only did Arianism flourish, but other doctrines, such as Gnosticism and Manichaeism, either native or imported, found many followers. Another religious development in Egypt was the monasticism of the Desert Fathers, who renounced the material world in order to live a life of poverty in devotion to the Church. The Desert Fathers were hermits, ascetics, monks, and nuns (Desert Mothers) who lived mainly in the Scetes desert of Egypt beginning around the third century AD. The most well known was Anthony the Great, who moved to the desert in 270–271 and became known as both the father and founder of desert monasticism. By the time Anthony died in 356, thousands of monks and nuns had been drawn to living in the desert following Anthony's example — his biographer, Athanasius of Alexandria, wrote that "the desert had become a city".

Sometime around the year 270 AD, Anthony heard a Sunday sermon stating that perfection could be achieved by selling all of one's possessions, giving the proceeds to the poor, and following Christ.(Matt. 19.21, part of the Evangelical counsels) He took the message to heart and made the further step of moving deep into the desert to seek complete solitude. Over time, the model of Anthony and other hermits attracted many followers, who lived alone in the desert or in small groups. They chose a life of extreme asceticism, renouncing all the pleasures of the senses, rich food, baths, rest, and anything that made them comfortable.

Hesychasm (from the Greek for "stillness, rest, quiet, silence") is a mystical tradition and movement that originated with the Desert Fathers and was central to their practice of prayer.  Hesychasm for the Desert Fathers was primarily the practice of "interior silence and continual prayer". It didn't become a formal movement of specific practices until the fourteenth century Byzantine meditative prayer techniques, when it was more closely identified with the Prayer of the Heart, or "Jesus Prayer".

The emphasis of the Desert Fathers was on living and practicing the teachings of Christ, much more than mere theoretical knowledge. Their efforts to live the commandments were not seen as being easy — many of the stories from that time recount the struggle to overcome negative emotions such as anger and judgment of others.  Anthony himself is said to have faced a series of supernatural temptations during his pilgrimage to the desert. Some of the stories included in Saint Anthony's biography are perpetuated now mostly in paintings, where they give an opportunity for artists to depict their more lurid or bizarre interpretations. Many artists, including Martin Schongauer, Hieronymus Bosch, Dorothea Tanning, Max Ernst, and Salvador Dalí, have depicted these incidents from the life of Anthony.

The Temptation St. Anthony by Salvador Dali

The desert monastic communities that grew out of the informal gathering of hermit monks became the model for Christian monasticism. The eastern monastic tradition at Mt. Athos and the western Rule of St. Benedict both were strongly influenced by the traditions that began in the desert.

Egyptian Christians took up monasticism with such enthusiasm that the Emperor Valens had to restrict the number of men who could become monks. Egypt exported monasticism to the rest of the Christian world. Another development of this period was the development of Coptic, a form of the Ancient Egyptian language written with the Greek alphabet supplemented by several signs to represent sounds present in Egyptian which were not present in Greek. Coptic is invented as a means to ensure correct pronunciation of magical words and names in "pagan" texts, the so-called Greek Magical.



The fall of the Western Empire in the 5th century further isolated the Egyptian Romans from Rome's culture and hastened the growth of Christianity. The triumph of Christianity led to a virtual abandonment of pharaonic traditions: with the disappearance of the Egyptian priests and priestesses who officiated at the temples, no-one could read the hieroglyphs of Pharaonic Egypt, and its temples were converted to churches or abandoned to the desert.

The Eastern Empire became increasingly "oriental" in style as its links with the old Græco-Roman world faded. The Greek system of local government by citizens had now entirely disappeared. Offices, with new Byzantine names, were almost hereditary in the wealthy land-owning families. Alexandria, the second city of the empire, continued to be a centre of religious controversy and violence. Cyril, the patriarch of Alexandria, convinced the city's governor to expel the Jews from the city in 415 with the aid of the mob, in response to the Jews' alleged nighttime massacre of many Christians.The murder of the philosopher Hypatia marked the final end of classical Hellenic culture in Egypt. Hypatia (ca. AD 350–370–March 415)  was a Greek Neoplatonist philosopher in Roman Egypt who was the first notable woman in mathematics. As head of the Platonist school at Alexandria, she also taught philosophy and astronomy.

Modern studies represent Hypatia's death as the result of a struggle between two Christian factions, the moderate Orestes, who was the Praefectus augustalis -gobernor- of the Diocese of Egypt (province of Rome) and supported by Hypatia, and the more rigid Cyril.

According to Christian sources, the Jews of Alexandria schemed against the Christians and killed many of them. Cyril reacted and expelled either all of the Jews, or else only the murderers, from Alexandria, actually exerting a power that belonged to the civil officer, Orestes. Orestes was powerless, but nonetheless rejected Cyril's gesture of offering him a Bible, which would mean that the religious authority of Cyril would require Orestes' acquiescence in the bishop's policy

Nitrian monks came from the desert and instigated a riot against Orestes among the population of Alexandria. These monks' violence had already been used, 15 years before, by Theophilus against the "Tall Brothers"; furthermore, it is said that Cyril had spent five years among them in ascetic training.

Prefect Orestes enjoyed the political backing of Hypatia, a philosopher and scientist who had considerable moral authority in the city of Alexandria, and who had extensive influence.

Several Christians thought that Hypatia's influence had caused Orestes to reject all reconciliatory offerings by Cyril. Modern historians think that Orestes had cultivated his relationship with Hypatia to strengthen a bond with the pagan community of Alexandria, as he had done with the Jewish one, to handle better the difficult political life of the Egyptian capital. A Christian mob possibly led by Nitrian monks, however, grabbed Hypatia out of her chariot and brutally murdered her, hacking her body apart and burning the pieces outside the city walls.

This political assassination eliminated an important and powerful supporter of the Imperial Prefect, and led Orestes to give up his struggle against Patriarch Cyril and leave Alexandria.

In 396, Emperor Theodosius I, age 48, dies after a disease involving severe edema, at Milan. The Roman Empire is re-divided into an eastern and a western half. The Eastern Roman Empire is centered in Constantinople under Arcadius, son of Theodosius, and the Western Roman Empire in Mediolanum under Honorius, his brother. Egypt is under the Eastern Roman Empire.


The new religious controversy was over the nature of Jesus of Nazareth. The issue was whether he had two natures, human and divine, or a combined one (from His humanity and divinity). This may seem an arcane distinction, but in an intensely religious age it was enough to divide an empire. The Miaphysite controversy arose after the First Council of Constantinople in 381 (The Council confirmed the teachings of Saint Athanasius and confirmed the title of Mary as "Mother of God".) and continued until the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which ruled in favour of the position that Jesus was "In two natures" due to confusing Miaphytism (combined) with Monophystism (single). The Council of Chalcedon was a church council held from October 8 to November 1, 451 AD, at Chalcedon (a city of Bithynia in Asia Minor), on the Asian side of the Bosporus. The council marked a significant turning point in the Christological debates that led to the separation of the church of the Eastern Roman Empire in the 5th century. It is the last council which many Anglicans and most Protestants consider ecumenical. The Church of Alexandria split from the Churches of Rome and Constantinople over this issue, creating what would become the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, which remains a major force in Egyptian religious life today. In terms of Christology, the Oriental Orthodox (Non-Chalcedonians) understanding is that Christ is "One Nature--the Logos Incarnate" of the full humanity and full divinity.

Egypt nevertheless continued to be an important economic center for the Empire supplying much of its agriculture and manufacturing needs as well as continuing to be an important center of scholarship. It would supply the needs of Byzantine Empire and the Mediterranean as a whole. The reign of Justinian (482–565) saw the Empire recapture Rome and much of Italy from the barbarians, but these successes left the empire's eastern flank exposed. The Empire's "bread basket" now lacked for protection.

The Persian conquest of Egypt, beginning in 619 or 618, was one of the last Sassanid triumphs in the Roman-Persian Wars against Byzantium. Khosrow II Parvêz had begun this war in retaliation for the assassination of Emperor Maurice (582-602) and had achieved a series of early successes, culminating in the conquests of Jerusalem (614) and Alexandria (619). The Persian conquest allowed Miaphysitism to resurface in the open in Egypt, and when imperial rule was restored by Emperor Heraclius in 629, the Miaphysites were persecuted and their patriarch expelled. Egypt was thus in a state of both religious and political alienation from the Empire when a new invader appeared.


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