ptolemaic and roman egypt

Marble bust of the Greco-Egyptian deity Serapis.  Roman copy after a Greek original (4th cent. BCE) made by the sculptor Bryaxis for the Serapeum in Alexandria.  Now in the Museo Pio-Clementino, Vatican City.

Detail of an ancient Egyptian wooden chest, showing a king making an offering to the crocodile-god Sobek, with a demotic inscription above.  Artist unknown; 1st cent. BCE (end of the Ptolemaic or beginning of the Roman period).  Now in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.  Photo credit: Walters Art Museum.

Until recently it was automatically assumed that Roman civilization was a Good Thing. Rome carried the torch of civilization into the barbarian darkness, and after the unpleasantness of conquest, Rome brought law, architecture, literature and similar benefits to the conquered peoples. When the Dark Ages descended on western Europe, the idea of Rome, and memories of her lost grandeur, provided the inspiration for reconstruction, even as the Roman language of Latin united the church and scholars across Europe.

There is now an alternative view, which suggests that Rome became the only civilization in the Mediterranean area by destroying half a dozen others. Some of these civilizations were as advanced as Rome’s, or even more so. Others were developing, and the form they might have finally taken is now lost forever.

In the third century before Christ, when our story begins, there were a number of different, lively and competing cultures scattered about the Mediterranean. In the East, the Macedonian conquest of Asia Minor had created the Seleucid Empire, an exotic mix of western Greek ideas, Zoroastrian spiritualism, and ancient Persian culture. In Egypt, the Ptolemaic dynasty had identified with its Egyptian subjects, and Egypt’s mainly Greek capital of Alexandria was the intellectual centre of the world.

The Hebrews and Phoenicians had cities which were thousands of years old when Rome was founded. In fact the Phoenician alphabet was the precursor of the Greek, which in turn was the basis of the alphabets still in use in most of modern Europe. Both Greeks and the Phoenicians had expanded westward to found cities such as Marseilles in modern France and Naples in modern Italy. Sicily was divided between the Greeks in the east and the Phoenicians in the west, these Phoenicians coming from the city of Carthage which dominated the southwestern Mediterranean.

The Celtic peoples of northern Europe were expanding rapidly. Like the Romans, they learned much from the ancient Etruscan civilization even as they helped to extinguish it. While the Celts were not a developed civilization, they were far from barbarians. Their metalworking was as good as, or better than, the Romans’, and they were competent builders and traders. It is one of the tragedies of history that, just as the Celts of Gaul were pulling these threads together to develop more representative government, a monetized economy and written tradition, they were Romanized by a savage conquest. The subsequent massacres and famine cost millions of lives, and effectively obliterated the nascent Celtic civilization.

Therefore at the time of Hannibal’s invasion, Rome was far from being the only civilization on offer in Europe. The social pattern on the continent was changing rapidly, and everywhere urbanization, writing and long-distance trade were transforming the way that people lived their lives. This trend would have continued and developed even had Rome never existed. In fact, until after the Punic wars, Rome’s overall contribution to Mediterranean culture was minimal. Early Rome produced no great paintings or sculpture, no historians, poets or philosophers. Even the Romans who lived there admitted that the architecture of Rome was sub-standard, its greatest edifice being a sewer – the cloaca maxima – built during a period of Etruscan dominance.

What Rome did have to offer was a society optimized for war – a warrior culture where every peasant was a soldier, and the aristocracy competed for military success. Hannibal could not have known it, but his failure meant that Rome would develop an unstoppable momentum that would take it from the Thames to the Euphrates, turning each conquered nation into a model of itself. Hannibal unwittingly represented the last chance for a Europe of diverse cultures and civilizations which could grow and develop together.

Naturally, Rome absorbed much from the peoples she conquered. Indeed, so much was absorbed from Greece and the Greek peoples of Asia Minor that the culture of Roman civilization is quite correctly described as Graeco-Roman. The problem was not that Rome’s was an exclusionist culture, but that it became a monoculture. For the peoples of the Mediterranean the choice became Roman civilization or no civilization.

Over the centuries, that civilization became sterile, sick and ossified. Those peoples who still opposed Rome changed their perspective, and regarded Rome less as a potential threat than as a profitable target. Rome fell back on the defensive, scourged by barbarian incursions from outside even as civil wars devastated her from within. By the death of Attila the Hun, Rome had returned to the position it had held before the birth of Hannibal. It was no longer the driving force of culture and civilization in western Europe. But when Rome failed, there was no civilization to take Rome’s place, as there would have been had Hannibal destroyed Rome in 215 BC. The Goths, Franks and Vandals had only ruins to build upon. Had Rome not triumphed so thoroughly, both military and culturally, the Dark Ages need never had happened.

In this book we see many of the alternative European and Mediterranean cultures in their last years before they were overwhelmed. We meet the leaders who, our of pride, greed, idealism or self-preservation stood against the Roman juggernaut. Few withstood conquest, and fewer still died in their beds. And as each one fell, the civilization of the Mediterranean became that much poorer…

—  Philip Matyszak, The Enemies of Rome

~Corn Mummy.
Medium: Wood, clay, sand, corn, linen
Place Made: Egypt
Date: 332 B.C.E.-150 C.E.
Period: Ptolemaic Period to early Roman Period

From the source: During annual rituals honoring Osiris, the ancient Egyptians fashioned small “mummies” from a mixture of clay, sand, and grains of corn. These “mummies” were wrapped in layers of bandages and placed in coffins decorated with images of the falcon god Sokar. The Egyptians considered corn a living element of a natural cycle embodying the concept of resurrection and renewal. This concept was crucial to the worship of Osiris, who died and was resurrected as lord of the dead.

6

On this day in history, August 12th, two thousand and forty six years ago, Cleopatra VII, the last active ruler of Ancient Egypt, committed suicide.

Eleven days previously, her husband Marc Antony had already done the same. The couple had been engaged in a civil war against Octavian, the great nephew of Julius Caesar who had been declared his legal heir. During the final battle in Alexandria, Antony suffered serious desertions among his troops and lost the fight. Upon his return, he falsely heard Cleopatra had killed herself and fell on his sword.

After Antony’s death, Octavian arrived in Egypt and effectively took Cleopatra and her children by Antony prisoner. She had sent her eldest son Caesarion, her only living child with Caesar, away for his own safety. She knew that Octavian planned for her to march in chains behind his chariot during his triumph parade, and would very likely have her killed afterwards. Rather than suffer such humiliations and indignity, she chose to take her own life.

Popular history and mythology leads us to believe that she was killed by inducing an asp to bite her, after having locked herself in her mausoleum with her two handmaidens. However, many modern scholars believe that she instead took a mixture of poisons, since the venom of an asp does not cause a quick or painless death. Octavian and his men found her too late to do anything, Cleopatra was already dead and one handmaiden, Iras, was nearly dead on the floor. The second, Charmian, was straightening the Queen’s diadem. According to legend, one of the men asked if this was well done of her mistress, and she shot back “Very well done, as befitting the descendant of so many noble Kings.”

Upon her death, Octavian honoured her wish to be buried in her mausoleum at Antony’s side. He took her children with Antony, the twins Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios, along with their younger brother, Ptolemy Philadelphus, to Rome with him as prisoners of sorts. They were fated to march in his triumph parade in their mother’s place, the chains so heavy they could hardly walk. After this they were given to Octavian’s sister Octavia, who had been Antony’s third wife, to look after.

Cleopatra’s son with Caesar, Caesarion, was nominally sole ruler of Egypt after his mother’s death. Eleven days after her suicide, he was found after being lured back to Alexandria under false pretenses of being allowed to rule in his mother’s place. Octavian ordered his murder, on advice that “Two Caesar were too many.”

With Cleopatra’s death, and Caesarion’s subsequent murder, the rule of the Ptolemaic Dynasty came to an end and Egypt became a mere Roman Province.

Small collection of Ptolemaic Egyptian beads in emerald, carnelian, amethyst, and gold. Although strung together, this may not be their original context, it is suggested they may be elements of earrings. The mushroom-shaped item may be a pendant or a stud. Date to 220-100 BCE. From the collection of the Getty Museum

On this day in history, August 12th, two thousand and forty five years ago, Cleopatra VII, the last active ruler of Ancient Egypt, committed suicide.

Eleven days previously, her husband Marc Antony had already done the same. The couple had been engaged in a civil war against Octavian, the great nephew of Julius Caesar who had been declared his legal heir. During the final battle in Alexandria, Antony suffered serious desertions among his troops and lost the fight. Upon his return, he falsely heard Cleopatra had killed herself and fell on his sword.

After Antony’s death, Octavian arrived in Egypt and effectively took Cleopatra and her children by Antony prisoner. She had sent her eldest son Caesarion, her only living child with Caesar, away for his own safety. She knew that Octavian planned for her to march in chains behind his chariot during his triumph parade, and would very likely have her killed afterwards. Rather than suffer such humiliations and indignity, she chose to take her own life.

Popular history and mythology leads us to believe that she was killed by inducing an asp to bite her, after having locked herself in her mausoleum with her two handmaidens. However, many modern scholars believe that she instead took a mixture of poisons, since the venom of an asp does not cause a quick or painless death. Octavian and his men found her too late to do anything, Cleopatra was already dead and one handmaiden, Iras, was nearly dead on the floor. The second, Charmian, was straightening the Queen’s diadem. According to legend, one of the men asked if this was well done of her mistress, and she shot back “Very well done, as befitting the descendant of so many noble Kings.”

Upon her death, Octavian honoured her wish to be buried in her mausoleum at Antony’s side. He took her children with Antony, the twins Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios, along with their younger brother, Ptolemy Philadelphus, to Rome with him as prisoners of sorts. They were fated to march in his triumph parade in their mother’s place, the chains so heavy they could hardly walk. After this they were given to Octavian’s sister Octavia, who had been Antony’s third wife, to look after.

Cleopatra’s son with Caesar, Caesarion, was nominally sole ruler of Egypt after his mother’s death. Eleven days after her suicide, he was found after being lured back to Alexandria under false pretenses of being allowed to rule in his mother’s place. Octavian ordered his murder, on advice that “Two Caesar were too many.”

With Cleopatra’s death, and Caesarion’s subsequent murder, the rule of the Ptolemaic Dynasty came to an end and Egypt became a mere Roman Province.

Ptolemaic Floor Mosaic of a Dog from Alexandria, Egypt, 2nd Century BC

The central medallion or emblem carries the picture of a dog, the first time ever such a motif is found on a floor mosaic in Alexandria. The dog is resting on his hind legs close to an upturned Greek vessel.

The Greeks used mosaics to decorate their floors in public places and private dwellings by using tesserae in many ways. Tesserae are the small pieces of stone, limestone, marble, glass or clay, which are cut in a small cubic form, hence their name. The Greek floor coverings became a complete tableau depicting plants, animals, geometrical designs and Greek/ Hellenistic motifs.

The Romans adopted also this art to cover their floors in homes and temples, as well as in their tombs. The Romans applied the same techniques of the Greeks. They also introduced new innovations in the manufacturing process.

The most ancient piece of mosaic was discovered in Ancient Iraq. It is from the Uruk civilization which dates back to 4000 years BC. Mosaic art disappeared after that time and reappeared again at the beginning of the 5th century BC.