Graeco-Roman Egypt

The Classical City in Egypt

When Egypt became a Hellenistic kingdom, following Alexander’s invasion of 332 BC and the subsequent installation of the Ptolemaic dynasty, significant changes took place in the urban geography of Egypt. The later absorption of Egypt within the Roman imperial system after the death of Cleopatra VII in 31 BC ushered in a further period of major adjustment. This section will examine the evidence for continuity and change in the towns and cities of the Graeco-Roman Period, which had two major phases, each roughly 300 years long: Ptolemaic Egypt (332–31 BC) and ‘early’ Roman Egypt (31 BC–AD 395. ‘Late’ Roman Egypt, from AD 395 to 641, is the period when Egypt came under the control of the Byzantine Empire). Because of the significant differences between cities of the Classical Period in Egypt and what went before, it is worth considering urban developments of this era in their own right.

The evidence for this period is, in many ways, superior to that of the much longer dynastic period. In archaeological terms it is self-evident that later structures will normally have a higher survival rate than earlier ones built in the same locale. However, the propensity for the use of fired red brick and lime mortar, rather than unbaked mudbrick, in the Roman Period means that even relatively modest buildings of this period have a greater chance of surviving both water and diggers for sebbakh (the rich fertiliser composed of degraded mudbrick). The result of this is that the sight of a red-topped mound of fired brick (and pottery) sitting on top of an even more ancient pile of mudbrick is a common sight, especially in the Nile Delta, at sites such as Tell Mutubis. It should be noted, however, that the remains of Graeco-Roman sites have not always been treated with much interest by archaeologists keen to dig down to the dynastic layers below. Moreover, even these sites are not immune from pillaging and the phenomenon of even more modern sites sitting on top of them.

The Polis

The Hellenistic ideal for settlement was based on the Greek conception of a city: the polis. Ideally the polis would be a self-governing urban centre with its own extensive (Greek style) institutions. It would be supported by a network of smaller settlements that existed within its agricultural hinterland (chora). The Ptolemies found one existing city in Egypt that fitted the bill – Naukratis in the Eastern Delta, which was essentially a city of Greek settlers that had developed polis-like institutions with which the Ptolemies could identify. In Alexandria, the Ptolemies inherited, in its early stages, a city that would certainly develop polis institutions, and they later founded another one: Ptolemais Hermiou 16 km (10 miles) south of Akhmim in southern Egypt.

This striking mosaic of a woman with a headdress in the form of a ship’s prow, found at Thmuis in the Delta, has been claimed to be a personification of the city of Alexandria, although another possibility is that it is a portrait of the Ptolemaic queen Berenike II. Steven Snape.

Technically these were the only three ‘cities’ (in so far as they could be defined as a polis) in Ptolemaic Egypt. However, there were more than three ‘functional’ cities in Ptolemaic Egypt, even if only three were termed polis. There were also, of course, existing major population centres, which became equally, or even more, important during the Ptolemaic Period and there were new settlements, which, even if they were not termed polis, were substantial and important nevertheless. It was also common to (re-)name these settlements after members of the Ptolemaic royal family, hence a profusion of Ptolemy-, Arsinoe- or Berenike-compounded toponyms.

The Ptolemies exercised a light touch when it came to the organization of the administration and physical appearance of Egyptian cities, but the same was certainly not true of the Romans. Their reorganization of their newly acquired province was radical and far-reaching, affecting both the social structure of Roman Egypt and its physical reflection in its settlements. The Romans established a clear hierarchy of settlements. First were the ‘Greek’ cities, of which Alexandria was the largest and most obvious example. On the next level down were the metropolis cities of the chora (nome), which were often longstanding nome-capitals. On the third and lowest level were villages.

These distinctions were not just based on the size of settlements, but were also reflected in the status of their inhabitants, particularly their social status and – perhaps most important of all – their tax obligations. Alexandrians and Roman citizens were exempt from the poll tax. Metropolites – the inhabitants of the metropolis cities – paid at a reduced rate, but villagers were assessed at a full rate. The consequence of this policy was to privilege cities and city-dwellers, by placing the burden of poll tax firmly on the agricultural population. Internally, major towns were divided into a series of administrative districts or amphoda. These were identified by a simple numbering system (including the adjacent Delta cities of Thmuis and Mendes which had 20 and 9 districts respectively, and Memphis which had only 5).

Public Facilities

Perhaps the most distinctive physical change in Graeco-Roman cities compared with their dynastic predecessors was the appearance of public buildings that serviced activities unknown in the Egypt of Khufu or Ramesses II. Associations based on social-relatedness and shared pursuits such as the gymnasia of the Graeco-Roman world might be seen as distantly connected to the confréries of Deir el-Medina (and, presumably, other dynastic towns and cities), but the institution of the public baths was entirely new. Perhaps even more striking were mass-audience sports and other forms of entertainment that required large and specialized buildings in which they could take place. Examples of such structures include the 11,000-seat theatre at Oxyrhynchus and the extraordinary Hippodrome at Antinoöpolis. Because of the size of these buildings, shoe-horning them into existing dynastic settlements was not usually a feasible proposition, and the enthusiasm by which they were greeted by the population of such town might be doubted. However, provision of such places was an inherent part of the planning of Classical cities so new foundations would have had these facilities incorporated to service a more cosmopolitan local population.

In both archaeological remains and texts, the cities of Graeco-Roman Egypt provide us with evidence of their distinctive character. Alexandria is the obvious, dominant example, but other cities – some new foundations, some radically changed in the Graeco-Roman Period – allow us to see this.

The most significant excavated part of Alexandria, apart from its cemeteries, is the area now known as Kom el-Dikka, which contained, among other things, this theatre, part of the civic centre of the 4th century AD. Steven Snape.

An aerial view of the Eastern Harbour at Alexandria, looking eastwards. The mediaeval Qaitbay Fort in the foreground occupies a position close to where the Pharos lighthouse would have stood. Stéphane Compoint.

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