A Description of Egypt Under the Principate
[Introduction (adapted from Davis)]:
Roman rule was established in Egypt after Octavian (Augustus) displaced the
last ruler of the Ptolemaic line, the famous Cleopatra VII. It proved to be a great
and rich province for Augustus, who organized the country not so much as a Roman Province
but as the emperor's own special domain land. In Egypt, the Emperor was considered
the successor of the ancient Pharaohs; his deputy - the prefect - ruled the country with
an authority permitted to few other governors.
Strabo, Geography, c. 22 CE
XVII.i.52-53, ii.4-5; XVIII.i.12-13:
At present [in Augustus's time] Egypt is a Roman province, and pays considerable
tribute, and is well-governed by prudent persons sent there in succession. The governor
thus sent out has the rank of king. Subordinate to him is the administrator of justice,
who is the supreme judge in many cases. There is another officer called the Idologus whose business is to inquire into property for which there is no claimant, and which of
right falls to Caesar. These are accompanied by Caesar's freedmen and stewards, who are
intrusted with affairs of more or less importance.
Three legions are stationed in Egypt, one in the city of Alexandria, the rest in the
country. Besides these, there are also nine Roman cohorts quartered in the city, three on
the borders of Ethiopia in Syene, as a guard to that tract, and three in other parts of
the country. There are also three bodies of cavalry distributed at convenient posts.
Of the native magistrates in the cities, the first is the "Expounder of the
Law" - who is dressed in scarlet. He receives the customary honors of the land, and
has the care of providing what is necessary for the city. The second is the "Writer
of the Records"; the third is the "Chief Judge"; the fourth is the
"Commander of the Night Guard." These officials existed in the time of the
Ptolemaic kings, but in consequence of the bad administration of the public affairs by the
latter, the prosperity of the city of Alexandria was ruined by licentiousness. Polybius
expresses his indignation at the state of things when he was there. He describes the
inhabitants of Alexandria as being composed of three classes, first the Egyptians and
natives, acute in mind, but very poor citizens, and wrongfully meddlesome in civic
affairs. Second were the mercenaries, a numerous and undisciplined body, for it was an old
custom to keep foreign soldiers---who from the worthlessness of their sovereigns knew
better how to lord it than to obey. The third were the so-called "Alexandrines,"
who, for the same reason, were not orderly citizens; however they were better than the
mercenaries, for although they were a mixed race, yet being of Greek origin they still
retained the usual Hellenic customs.
Such, then, if not worse, were the social conditions of Alexandria under the last
kings. The Romans, as far as they were able, corrected -- as I have said-many abuses, and
established an orderly government -- by setting up vice-governors, nomarchs, and
ethnarchs, whose business it was to attend to the details of administration.
Herodotus and other writers trifle very much when they introduce into their histories
the marvelous, like (an interlude) of music and song, or some melody; for example, by
asserting that the sources of the Nile are near the numerous islands, at Syene and
Elephantine, and that at this spot the river has an unfathomable depth. In the Nile there
are many islands scattered about, some of which are entirely covered, others in part only,
at the time of the rise of the waters. The very elevated parts are irrigated by means of
screw pumps. Egypt was from the first disposed to peace, from having resources within
itself, and because it was difficult of access to strangers. It was also protected on the
north by a harborless coast and the Egyptian Sea; on the east and west by the desert
mountains of Libya and Arabia, as I have said before. The remaining parts towards the
south are occupied by Troglodytae, Blemmyes, Nubians, and Megabarzae Ethiopians above
Syene. These are nomads, and not numerous nor warlike, but accounted so by the ancients,
because frequently, like robbers, they attacked defenseless persons. Neither are the
Ethiopians, who extend towards the south and Meroë, numerous nor collected in a body; for
they inhabit a long, narrow, and winding tract of land on the riverside, such as we have
before described; nor are they well prepared either for war or the pursuit of any other
mode of life.
At present the whole country is in the same pacific state, proof of which is that the
upper country is sufficiently guarded by three cohorts, and these not complete. Whenever
the Ethiopians have ventured to attack them, it has been at the risk of danger to their
own country. The rest of the forces in Egypt are neither very numerous, nor did the Romans
ever once employ them collected into one army. For neither are the Egyptians themselves of
a warlike disposition, nor the surrounding nations, although their numbers are very large.
Cornelius Gallus, the first governor of the country appointed by Augustus Caesar,
attacked the city Heroöpolis, which had revolted [in 28 B.C.], and took it with a small
body of men. He suppressed also in a short time an insurrection in the Thebaïs which
originated as to the payment of tribute. At a later period Petronius resisted, with the
soldiers about his person, a mob of myriads of Alexandrines, who attacked him by throwing
stones. He killed some, and compelled the rest to desist.
To what has been said concerning Egypt, we must add these peculiar products; for
instance, the Egyptian bean, as it is called, from which is obtained the ciborium, and the
papyrus, for it is found here and in India only; the persea [peach] grows here only, and
in Ethiopia; it is a lofty tree, and its fruit is large and sweet; the sycamine, which
produces the fruit called the sycomorus, or fig-mulberry, for it resembles a fig, but its
flavor is not esteemed. The corsium also (the root of the Egyptian lotus) grows there, a
condiment like pepper, but a little larger. There are in the Nile fish in great quantity
and of different kinds, having a peculiar and indigenous character. The best known are the
oxyrhynchos [the sturgeon], and the lepidotus, the latus, the alabes, the coracinus, the
choerus, the phagrorius, called also the phagrus. Besides these are the silurus, the
citharus, the thrissa [the shad], the cestreus [the mullet], the lychnus, the physa, the
bous, and large shellfish which emit a sound like that of wailing.
The animals peculiar to the country are the ichneumon and the Egyptian asp, having some
properties which those in other places do not possess. There are two kinds, one a span in
length, whose bite is more suddenly mortal than that of the other; the second is nearly an orguia [six feet] in size, according to Nicander, the author of the Theriaca. Among
the birds are the ibis and the Egyptian hawk, which, like the cat, is more tame than those
elsewhere. The nycticorax is here peculiar in its character; for with us it is as large as
an eagle, and its cry is harsh; but in Egypt it is the size of a jay, and has a different
note. The tamest animal, however, is the ibis; it resembles a stork in shape and size.
There are two kinds, which differ in color; one is like a stork, the other is entirely
black. Every street in Alexandria is full of them. In some respects they are useful; in
others troublesome. They are useful, because they pick up all sorts of small animals and
the offal thrown out of the butchers= and cooks= shops. They are troublesome because they
devour everything, are dirty, and with difficulty prevented from polluting in every way
what is clean and what is not given to them.
Herodotus truly relates of the Egyptians that it is a practice peculiar to them to
knead clay with their hands, and the dough for making bread with their feet. Caces is a peculiar kind of bread which restrains fluxes. Kiki (the castor-oil bean) is a kind
of fruit sowed in furrows. An oil is expressed from it which is used for lamps almost
generally throughout the country, but for anointing the body only by the poorer sort of
people and laborers, both men and women. The coccina are Egyptian textures made of some
plant, woven like those made of rushes, or the palm tree. Barley beer is a preparation
peculiar to the Egyptians. It is common among many tribes, but the mode of preparing it
differs in each. This, however, of all their usages is most to be admired---that they
bring up all children that are born. They circumcise the males, as also the females [i.e., cliterodectomy], as is the custom also among the Jews, who are of Egyptian origin, as I
said when I was treating of them.
Private Life in Egypt Under the Empire.
Most of the letters here given explain themselves. They are from papyri of the
Imperial period, found at the Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchos, and serve to give a curious
and valuable light upon the life of an obscure provincial community, circa late third
& early fourth centuries A.D.
The Oxyrhynchos Papyri.
Dioscorides, logistes [Davis: a high local magistrate in Roman Egypt] of the
Oxyrhynchite nome. The assault at arms by the youths will occur tomorrow, the 24th.
Tradition, no less than the distinguished character of the festival, requires that they do
their uttermost in the gymnastic display. The spectators will be present at the two
At a meeting of our body a dispatch was read from Theodorus, recently chosen in place
of Areion, the scribe, to proceed to his highness, the Prefect [of Egypt] and attend his
immaculate court. In this dispatch he explained that he is victor in the games and
exempted from inquiries. We have, therefore, nominated Aurelianus to serve and we send you
word accordingly that this fact may be brought to his knowledge, and no time be lost in
his departure and attendance upon the court.
To Aureleus Theon, keeper of the training school, from Aurelius Asclepiades, son of
Philadelphus, president of the council of the village of Bacchias. I desire to hire from
you Tisais, the dancing girl, and another, to dance for us at the above village for
fifteen days from the 13th Phaophi by the old [Egyptian] calendar. You shall receive as
pay 36 drachmae a day, and for the whole period three artabai of wheat, and fifteen
couples of loaves; also three donkeys to fetch them and take them back.
Chaereman requests your company at dinner, at the table of the lord Serapis at the
Serapeum, tomorrow the 15th, at 9 o'clock.
Herais requests your company at dinner, in celebration of the marriage of her children,
in her house tomorrow, the 5th, at 9 o'clock.
Greeting, my dear Serenia, from Petosiris. Be sure, dear, to come upon the 20th for the
birthday festival of the god, and let me know whether you are coming by boat or by donkey,
in order that we may send for you accordingly. Take care not to forget. I pray for your
To Flavius Thennyras, logistes of the Oxyrhynchite district, from Aurelius
Nilus, son of Didysus, of the illustrious and most illustrious city of Oxyrhynchos, an egg
seller by trade. I hereby agree on the August, divine oath by our lord the Emperor and the
Caesars to offer my eggs in the market place publicly for sale, and to supply to the said
city, every day without intermission; and I acknowledge that it shall be unlawful for me
in the future to sell secretly or in my house. If I am detected in so doing, I shall be
liable to penalty."
I married a woman of my own tribe . . . a free-born woman, of free parents, and have
children by her. Now Tabes, daughter of Ammonios and her husband Laloi, and Psenesis and
Straton their sons, have committed an act that disgraces all the chiefs of the town, and
shows their recklessness; they carried off my wife and children to their own house,
calling them their slaves, although they were free, and my wife has brothers living who
are free. When I remonstrated, they seized me and beat me shamefully.
On the fourth of this month, Taorsenouphis, wife of Ammonios Phimon, an elder of the
village of Bacchias although she had no occasion against me, came to my house, and made
herself most unpleasant to me. Besides tearing my tunic and cloak, she carried off 16
drachmae that I had put by, the price of vegetables I had sold. And on the fifth her
husband, Ammonios Phimon, came to my house, pretending he was looking for my husband, and
took my lamp and went up into the house. And he went off with a pair of silver armlets,
weighing forty drachmae, while my husband was away from home.