At Empire's Edge: Exploring Rome`s Egyptian Frontier

At Empire's Edge: Exploring Rome`s Egyptian Frontier

by Robert B. Jackson


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300088564
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 03/11/2002
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

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Copyright © 2002 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-08856-6


For more than five thousand years Egypt has enchanted humankind. In antiquity Mediterranean peoples were fascinated by Egyptian manners and customs, and the mysterious, fabled land inspired countless myths. The Greek historian Herodotus visited Egypt in the fifth century B.C., and his famous description of the land and its people influenced Europeans' opinions about the country for centuries:

Not only is the climate different from that of the rest of the world, and the rivers unlike any other rivers, but the people also, in most of their manners and customs, exactly reverse the common practice of mankind. The women attend the markets and trade, while the men sit at home at the loom; and here, while the rest of the world works the woof up the warp, the Egyptians work it down; the women likewise carry burthens upon their shoulders, while the men carry them upon their heads. They eat their food out of doors in the streets, but retire for private purposes to their houses, giving as a reason that what is unseemly, but necessary, ought to be done in secret, but what has nothing unseemly about it should be done openly. A woman cannot serve the priestly office, either for god or goddess, but men are priests to both; sons need not support their parents unless they choose, but daughters must, whether they choose or no.

Among the most remarkable features of Egypt was the river Nile, which the Egyptians revered as a deity for millennia. Indeed, in a desert land nearly devoid of rain, the Nile played the central role in the magnificent Rowering of Egyptian civilization that began in 3100 B.C. with the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under King Narmer. Flowing north from then unknown sources deep in eastern and central Africa, the mighty river bequeathed to Egypt two life-giving essences, water and sediment. The river's Row was constant, but every year during the late summer months the water level rose as the result of heavy monsoon rains falling nearly 6,000 kilometers to the south. By September the river reached its highest level, inundating agricultural lands in the Nile Valley and Delta. As the waters receded, they left in their wake the precious gift of rich, black silt that enabled the Egyptians to plant two crops per year. The annual inundations, however, were never predictable in their intensity, and in years in which the central African rains were light, the resultant lower-than-average rise in the water level endangered the livelihood of Egyptians. On the other hand, in years of heavy rains, the river thundered through the cataracts of the Sudan and Upper Egypt, overflowing its banks and irrigation ditches along the Nile Valley, destroying dams and villages, and drowning crops and livestock. The Egyptians, however, were masters of agricultural planning, organization, and engineering, and generally the disasters brought on by low or high inundations were infrequent enough to permit them to reap an abundance of grain and produce and to build and maintain a civilization that was among the grandest, most prosperous, and longest-lived in antiquity.

Framing this verdant river valley are the unforgiving deserts that today constitute over 95 percent of Egypt's land area and that in ancient times were often referred to as the Land of Fire. Between the Nile and the Red Sea is the Eastern Desert-rugged, mountainous, and forbidding but nevertheless penetrated since ancient times by narrow trails carved out for conducting commerce and accessing the numerous quarries and mines that for more than three thousand years enriched Egypt's pharaohs and foreign sovereigns. To the west of the Nile lies the vast immensity of sand that constitutes the Western Desert. Here, permanent human habitation is possible only in the remote oases of Kharga, Dakhleh, Farafra, Bahariya, and Siwa. Yet it was the very inhospitability of these two great deserts that helped protect successive dynasties from external invasions and preserve the peace and security of Egyptian civilization.

Despite the protection afforded by its deserts, Egypt's prosperity made it an attractive target for determined invaders. The first successful incursion was made by the Hyksos, a collection of Semitic peoples from Syria and Palestine who swept into Egypt in 1700 B.C. and ruled until their expulsion by the Egyptians in 1575 B.C. From this time onward, Egyptian history was heavily influenced by new groups of people attempting to assert their control over eastern Mediterranean regions: the Hittites, Akkadians, Sumerians, Amorites, Mitannians, and Assyrians. Eventually, even the vast Assyrian empire, which included Egypt, was defeated by Persians in the sixth century B.C. Under successive kings-Cyrus the Great, Cambyses, Darius, and Xerxes-the Persians created an empire that stretched from India to Egypt to Asia Minor before the combined armies of Greek states halted their expansion at the battles of Salamis, Plataea, and Samos. Despite the grand blossoming of Greek classical culture that followed these victories, however, the Greek states were weakened by generations of political disputes and were collectively defeated by Philip II of Macedonia in 338 B.C. Although it was Philip who decided to expand further, attacking the Persians and liberating all the regions under their control, his assassination in 336 B.C. left the challenge of that grand campaign to his extraordinary twenty-year-old son, Alexander III.

In a series of spectacular victories, young Alexander defeated the Persians in battle after battle, securing all the major port cities along the coast of Asia Minor and those of Byblos, Sidon, and Tyre in 333 B.C. From there he continued into Egypt, where, after founding the city of Alexandria, he visited the famous oracle of Siwa Oasis deep in the Libyan desert. He went on to become one of the greatest generals in history, founding approximately seventy cities and a multinational empire that encouraged commerce and introduced Hellenic civilization into some of the most remote regions of central Asia. His incandescent career, however, ended abruptly when he died at age thirty-three of a fever-compounded perhaps by a heavy bout of drinking-in Babylon in 323 B.C. There being no royal heir to the Macedonian throne, conspiracies and civil wars characterized the years immediately following Alexander's death as his ambitious o<cers fought for control of the empire. Ultimately, the Hellenistic world was divided into three regions ruled by Alexander's generals: Ptolemy I, Seleucus I, and Antigonus I.

Ptolemy I laid claim to Egypt and founded the thirty-first Egyptian dynasty, the Ptolemies. Under the autocratic rule of the Ptolemies, Greek culture entrenched itself even more deeply in Egyptian society. Alexandria became the largest and most influential city of the Hellenistic world as its great library promoted learning and scholarship in many fields and as its harbors and markets became the economic locus of the Mediterranean. The dynasty reached its economic and political height during the reigns of Ptolemy II (285-246 B.C.) and Ptolemy III (246-221 B.C.), inspiring one ancient writer to extol Egypt's virtues: "In Egypt, there is everything that exists anywhere in the world: wealth, gymnasia, power, peace, fame, sights, philosophers, gold, young men, the shrine of the Sibling Gods, a good king, the Museum, wine-all the good things one could want. And women-more of them, I swear by the daughters of Hades than heaven boasts stars-and their looks; like the goddesses who once induced Paris to judge their beauty!"

The administrative structure established by the Ptolemaic kings dominated Egypt for the next three centuries and created the economic foundation the Romans would later exploit and expand. The Ptolemies divided the country into approximately forty administrative units called nomes, within which they officially encouraged Greeks to settle. As payment, soldiers (and select civilians) were given parcels of land known as kleroi in the Delta and Nile Valley. This policy served to further entrench Greek culture and language in Egypt. Many Greeks eventually intermarried with Egyptians, thus softening the ethnic distinction between Greek and Egyptian. Indeed, even during the period of Roman domination of Egypt, Greek remained the lingua franca of Egyptian civil administration, Latin being reserved primarily for use in the Roman military.

Along with remolding the Egyptian political structure, the Ptolemies undertook major economic development projects. Most notably, they constructed ambitious irrigation systems that expanded the amount of arable land in the Fayoum (Arsinoite) (see map 4) and the Nile Delta. They also introduced new crops to better suit their needs and tastes, replacing, for example, the traditional emmer wheat with durum wheat and expanding the cultivation of wine in lieu of the traditional Egyptian barley beer. Their most influential economic change, however, was the introduction of currency for use in nearly all commercial exchange. Previously, Egyptians had used a barter system rather than coins for domestic commerce. Although the Ptolemies continued to collect certain taxes, such as those on grain, in kind, levies on other agricultural products required currency. Given the complexities of currency-based economies, the Ptolemies' introduction of gold, silver, and bronze coins had a dramatic effect on the whole of Egyptian society. Political strife, economic problems, and occasional civil wars began to weaken the Ptolemaic dynasty by the second century B.C. Egypt fell increasingly under the influence of Rome, which was fast becoming the major political power in the Mediterranean. Ptolemaic rulers began seeking Roman support to reduce the possibility of an outright Roman invasion and to protect their authority from hostile factions within Alexandria.

It was during this last, turbulent phase of Ptolemaic power that the most famous ruler of that dynasty, perhaps the most celebrated queen of antiquity, acceded to the throne: Cleopatra VII. The reign of this remarkable woman was characterized by her attempts to earn Egypt's independence by engaging in intimate personal and political relationships with powerful Romans: first with Julius Caesar, then Marc Antony. She gave Antony military support for his campaign against the Parthians when Octavian reneged on his promise to send troops to Antony's aid. Her attempts to retain a modicum of Egyptian independence and her success in gaining from Antony nominal control over important regions beyond Egypt contributed to her popularity among her subjects. Ultimately, however, Cleopatra became a client queen of Rome and, as such, could not halt the forces that opposed the man upon whom she depended for her authority. The resultant civil war between Octavian and Marc Antony concluded with Antony and Cleopatra fleeing to Alexandria after their defeat at the sea battle of Actium, guaranteeing that neither Cleopatra nor her Roman overlord and lover could retain the throne of Egypt. Famously entrenched in the royal palace in Alexandria, they awaited their inevitable destruction. Octavian captured Alexandria on August 3, 30 B.C. Antony died that same day, and Cleopatra was asked to help organize his elaborate funeral. After making at least one unsuccessful attempt to starve herself to death, she pleaded with Octavian to permit her children to ascend the throne of Egypt. But such an arrangement was unacceptable to Octavian, who ordered the execution of young Caesarion, Cleopatra's son by Julius Caesar. Although the historical record is imprecise about Octavian's plans for Cleopatra, it is clear that her personal charms and political wiles had little effect on Rome's Qrst emperor. Perhaps Shakespeare's dark version of her future is indeed plausible-a forced return to Rome and inevitable public humiliation:

Now, Iras, what think'st thou? Thou, an Egyptian puppet, shall be shown In Rome as well as I. Mechanic slaves With greasy aprons, rules, and hammers shall Uplift us to the view. In their thick breaths, Rank of gross diet, shall we be enclouded, And forc'd to drink their vapor. ... and I shall see Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness I' th' posture of a whore.

Rather than endure such a fate, Cleopatra VII committed suicide on August 12, 30 B.C. and left the throne of Egypt to Octavian.

With the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra, Octavian, now Caesar Augustus, absorbed Egypt directly into the Roman Empire. In light of its importance, Augustus assigned a Roman governor to administer the territory and sent a large contingent of the newly formed Roman Imperial soldiers to defend it from internal and external enemies. The army of Rome consisted of two main components: the Italian legionary troops who formed the infantry and the auxiliary troops composed primarily of non-Roman citizens taken from other Roman provinces. Augustus also assigned three Roman legions, each consisting of 5,600 men, to occupy the country. By A.D. 23, this presence was reduced to two legions, and by the second century A.D. it was further reduced to one. Although their primary task was defensive, the soldiers also engaged in numerous public works, such as building bridges, roads, and canals, guarding trade routes, and serving as administrators in the mines and quarries of the Eastern Desert.

With Egypt now firmly under its control, Rome commenced expanding and exploiting the province's valuable assets. Of highest importance was the grain produced in the Delta, in the Nile Valley, and in the large western oases; the annual output constituted roughly one-third of Rome's total grain consumption. Additionally, Egypt boasted a myriad of other resources originating not in the Nile Valley, but in the Eastern and Western Deserts, including fine ornamental stone from the eastern quarries and gold, silver, and turquoise from its mines. But even such abundance as Egypt offered was insufficient for Imperial Rome, and Augustus expanded his financial ambitions to include the establishment of seaborne trade with Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. This commercial enterprise proved astoundingly lucrative as Egypt became the conduit through which the riches of India and East Africa entered the Roman world. Camel caravans set out from ports on the Red Sea laden with spices, incense, tortoise shell, and pepper. Together with additional commodities such as ivory and rare animals that the Romans obtained from Egypt's southern border with the Sudan and the olive oil and grain produced in the five major oases of the Western Desert, the Egyptian frontier zones constituted an enormously valuable source of wealth for Rome. Because of the area's economic importance, Augustus risked the possible usurpation of the province by an ambitious Roman senator.


Excerpted from AT EMPIRE'S EDGE by ROBERT B. JACKSON Copyright © 2002 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsix
Part 1The Eastern Desert
I.The Hills of Smoke, Gebel Dokhan3
II.Mons Claudianus35
III.The Quarry Roads to the Nile55
IV.Ports on the Red Sea Coast75
V.Desert Trade Routes95
Part 2The Upper Nile Valley
VI.The Gateway to Africa: Aswan, Elephantine, and Philae111
VII.Roman Nubia129
Part 3The Western Desert
Overview of the Western Desert158
VIII.The Great Oasis163
IX.The Small Oasis229
X.Siwa Oasis241

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At Empire's Edge: Exploring Rome`s Egyptian Frontier 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
no matter what the critics say,this is a great gave me a better understanding of rome,egypt. Keep up the good work.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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