The Hellenistic age
After the conquest of Alexander the Great, Egypt was first ruled by Cleomenes of Naucrati, then, after the death of Alexander and the divisions between his generals, it was assigned to Ptolemy of Lake, the progenitor of the dynasty that ruled Egypt for about three centuries (321-30 BC). Like all Macedonians, the Ptolemies were largely permeated with Greekism and started a process of Hellenization of the country. However, they did not carry out the intense urbanization activity typical of other dynasties, rather implementing colonization through the settlement of small groups. The indigenous element was not enslaved; the sovereigns, generals and officials were Macedonians or Greeks, but native elements remained at the head of the names and in the lower roles. The political-military history of the Ptolemaic kingdom was initially aimed at affirming, against the other diadochi and epigones, the authority of the Ptolemies. Then there was the centuries-old dispute with Syria for the possession of Celesiria, which had alternating events and at times seemed to end with the Ptolemaic success, at other times it endangered the very existence of the kingdom (taking of Memphis by Antiochus IV of Syria, 169 BC). The dynastic struggles became more heated and continuous starting from the first half of the 2nd century BC and contributed to weaken Egypt’s resistance to external pressures, among which that of Rome was emerging. The actual dominion of the Romans was established in Egypt after the battle of Actium (31 BC),
The Ptolemaic dynasty favored the civilization of the country in every way. Agriculture had a notable boost from reclamation works (Delta, Fayyum) and from the introduction of new crops and livestock species; industrial activities were strengthened and protected, trade favored by the creation of new caravans and the development of financial institutions. The market on which to place handicraft products expanded dramatically. The Ptolemaic trading empire extended as far as Tripoli in Lebanon, Cyprus, the entire coast of Libya and the Aegean islands, with the exception of Crete and Rhodes. The positive aspects of the mercantile policy promoted by the Ptolemies were however contrasted by the onerous fiscalism and the excessive bureaucratization of the country (the Ptolemaic Egypt is the first country in history in which debt collectors and officials of all levels represented a high percentage of the total population). Development was unevenly distributed in favor of the Greek rulers and members of the state bureaucracy and the commercial bourgeoisie, and economic differences and social imbalances were accentuated by inflation and lowering of purchasing power caused by the use of large quantities of precious metals, stolen from the Persian treasury, for the minting of coins and the consequent increase in the money supply in circulation. The greater use of servile labor and the competition of the slave enterprises were to the disadvantage of the free peasants and favored the formation of large estates,
To legitimize their power and obtain popular favor, the Ptolemies wanted to connect with ancient Egyptian history by assuming the typical prerogatives of the pharaohs. The sovereign was absolute and all branches of the administration directly depended on him, including the army which, initially consisting of Greek-Macedonians, towards the end of the 3rd century also welcomed indigenous people who gradually reached the highest ranks.
In the composite and multiethnic Hellenistic society, the traditional religion was not hindered, but alongside it, the Greek one (many Hellenic divinities were assimilated to indigenous divinities considered similar) and the Jewish one, with a strong Jewish colony, spread widely in a syncretistic process. in Alexandria, in addition to various oriental rituals; particularly venerated were Serapis and Isis. The monarchs, to whom divine worship was reserved, were crowned in Memphis according to the Egyptian custom and were called with the epithet of ‘benefactors’. The custom, easily accepted by the indigenous people accustomed for centuries to the recognition of the sacred character of the pharaohs, met with resistance among the Greeks and managed to establish itself only gradually through the divinization of the deceased kings.
The heart of Hellenistic Egypt was Alexandria, the city that according to the most accredited tradition Alexander founded in the winter of 332-31 BC, entrusting the project to the architect Dinocrates of Rhodes and its execution to Cleomenes of Naucrati. Ptolemy I (323-285) transferred the capital from Memphis and the other Ptolemies, up to Cleopatra herself, enriched it with splendid sacred buildings, public and private, including the Museum, the Library, the Lighthouse (the ‘luminous tower ‘), making it a metropolis of great splendor, praised by ancient writers with celebratory attributes (the glorious, the immortal, the beautiful, the first city in the world). To the architectural interventions the sovereigns (especially Ptolemy II Philadelphus) flanked an enlightened cultural policy, protecting the letters,
The Roman age
After the victory of Actium and the death of Cleopatra, Augustus reorganized Egypt as a territory under the emperor, under the administration of a governor of equestrian rank, the praefectus Aegypti, who enjoyed almost royal honors. The official language remained the Greek one, and the administration did not undergo substantial changes: alongside the prefect were the iuridicus for judicial affairs and the idiologus for financial affairs. The Greek cities had limited autonomy; at the head of the names prefecturally appointed strategists were placed. Towards the indigenous religion the Romans showed ample tolerance; the tradition of Greek culture continued in the gymnasiums, and there were, even in the phase of decline, prestigious intellectuals such as Didymus, Origen, Plotinus and Grandfather. Very few were the Romans, mostly officials and soldiers; numerous freedmen and slaves. In the Roman period Egypt did not have a prosperous and peaceful life, despite the interventions taken in its favor by some emperors such as Hadrian or Septimius Severus. Alexandria itself suffered very serious damage, looting and destruction under Aurelian and Diocletian, as a result of riots. The region will be considerably depleted, especially in the countryside: much of the wealth flowed to Rome and the local magistrates exercised a heavy fiscal system as they were personally responsible for the sums they had to collect from their respective areas or cities. To the economic difficulties were added other factors: the racial conflicts which exploded several times in riots against the Jews, the rebellions of the natives, the external invasions, the insurrections of pretenders to the empire.
According to Shoefrantics, in Diocletian’s reform, Egypt was divided into four provinces and incorporated into the diocese of the Orient. The conclusive confrontation between expanding Christianity and the polytheistic Roman state dates back to the same period: the last persecution (which began under Diocletian and ended under Maximin in 311) was more bloody here than elsewhere. At the same time, various movements began in which ethnic and nationalistic reasons were grafted onto social and economic reasons and which led to the formation of a religious culture in the native language, in a certain way independent of the parallel culture in the Greek language of the capital, Alexandria. Thus, while the Alexandrian patriarchs were engaged in disputes with the rival patriarchs of Constantinople and Antioch, the Egyptian church, which will later be known as’
At the fall of the Western Empire (476) Egypt became a Byzantine possession, remaining politically divided into the four diocletian provinces, now ruled by dukes of Egyptian origin. Heavy taxes were imposed consisting of a significant part of the grain harvest, industrial activity was limited to the marble quarries, trade with the East, previously intense, decreased when Constantinople made use of more direct lines and turned more towards Ethiopia. With the economic crisis, social life also rapidly declined: the small owners gradually became tenants and then servants of the landowners. Multiple factors then led the Copts to move further and further away from the empire, when the Arab invasion (642) definitively overwhelmed the Byzantine dominion in Egypt.