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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Roman Egypt

Rome’s rule over Egypt officially began with the arrival of Octavian (later called Augustus) in 30 B.C., following his defeat of Marc Antony and Cleopatra in the battle at Actium. Augustus, who presented himself to the people of Egypt as the successor to the pharaohs, dismantled the Ptolemaic monarchy and annexed the country as his personal estate. He appointed a prefect (governor) for a limited term, which effectively depoliticized the country, neutralized rivalries for its control among powerful Romans, and undermined any possible focus for local sentiments. For almost a decade, Egypt was garrisoned with Roman legions and auxiliary units until conditions became stable. All business was transacted according to the principles and procedures of Roman law, and local administration was converted to a liturgic system in which ownership of property brought an obligation of public service. New structures of government formalized the privileges associated with “Greek” background.

For the first century following the Roman conquest, Egypt functioned in the Mediterranean world as an active and prosperous Roman province. The value of Egypt to the Romans was considerable, as revenues from the country were almost equal to those from Gaul and more than twelve times those from Judaea. Its wealth was largely agricultural: Egyptian grain supplied the city of Rome. The country also produced papyrus, glass, and various finely crafted minor arts that were exported to the rest of the Roman empire. Its deserts yielded a variety of minerals, ores, and fine stones such as porphyry and granite, which were brought to Rome to be used for sculpture and architectural elements. Trade with central Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and India flourished along the Nile, desert routes, and sea routes from the Red Sea port of Berenike. Goods and cultural influences flowed from Egypt to Rome through Alexandria, which Diodorus of Sicily described as “the first city of the civilized world” in the first century B.C. Its great library and community of writers, philosophers, and scientists were known throughout the ancient world.

The conquest of Egypt and its incorporation into the Roman empire inaugurated a new fascination with its ancient culture. Obelisks and Egyptian-style architecture and sculpture were installed in Roman fora. The cult of Isis, the Egyptian mother goddess, had an immense impact throughout the empire. Likewise, changes were noticeable in Egyptian artistic and religious forms, as Egyptian gods were increasingly represented in classicizing style. Egyptian funerary arts evolved in a new and creative direction: traditional idealized images gave way to ones accessorized with contemporary Greco-Roman coiffures and dress as influenced by fashions of the imperial court at Rome, and even panel portraits were painted in the illusionistic Greco-Roman style.

By the second century A.D., the economic and social changes in the country emerged more forcefully, gradually evolving as part of a larger pattern of change in the Roman empire that culminates in the Byzantine period.