How and when did Rome conquer Egypt?

Rome’s conquest of Egypt culminated in 30 BC, but the relationship between the two powers had been evolving for years before this event.

World History Edu provides a brief overview of how Egypt became a Roman province.

Rome’s Conquest of Egypt – How and when did it happen? Image: Map of Roman Egypt

Ptolemaic Dynasty (c. 305 – 30 BC)

In the 4th century BC, Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great, in his conquest of the Mediterranean, defeated the Achaemenid Empire. By so doing, Egypt fell into the hands of the Macedonians, who would establish the Ptolemaic Dynasty and rule from 305 BC to 30 BC. Image: Ptolemaic Dynasty pharaohs (from left to right): Ptolemy I Soter, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, and Ptolemy III Euergetes

Egypt was ruled by the Ptolemaic Dynasty, which was of Greek origin and had been established after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC.

However, by the 1st century BC, the Ptolemaic rule was in decline, both politically and economically.

Established by Ptolemy I Soter, the Ptolemaic dynasty was the longest-lasting of the Hellenistic age.

READ MORE: What were the Hellenistic Kingdoms?

Rome’s Ascendancy

As the Roman Republic expanded and became the dominant Mediterranean power, it increasingly intervened in the affairs of other kingdoms, including Egypt. Economic and strategic interests drove this relationship, as Egypt was a major grain supplier to Rome.

Rome’s Involvement in Ptolemaic Succession

The declining Ptolemaic Dynasty often looked to Rome for support in their internal and external struggles. For instance, when Ptolemy XII was ousted from the throne, he sought Roman assistance to be reinstated. This involved paying substantial bribes to key Roman figures.

Cleopatra’s Affairs with Roman Leaders

Cleopatra VII, one of the most famous Ptolemaic rulers, had personal and political relationships with two of Rome’s most powerful men: Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.

The Egyptian queen’s liaison with Julius Caesar, which resulted in a child named Caesarion, deepened Rome’s involvement in Egyptian politics. This relationship ensured a temporary Roman protection over Egypt. After Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, Egypt was left vulnerable once again.

Her subsequent relationship with Mark Antony became a central element in the ensuing political struggles in Rome. Basically, Cleopatra and Antony aimed to consolidate the powers against Rome’s growing dominance, especially that of Octavian (later Emperor Augustus), the young heir of Julius Caesar.

Queen Cleopatra VII, one of the most famous rulers of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, sought to maintain her power and the independence of Egypt by forming liaisons with two of Rome’s most powerful figures: Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. The latter was part of the Second Triumvirate that ruled Rome after Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC. Image: “Cleopatra and Caesar” – An 1866 painting by French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme

Battle of Actium in 31 BC

The relationship between Cleopatra and Mark Antony alarmed Rome, especially Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus). Their combined forces represented a significant threat to Rome. The tension culminated in the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, where Octavian’s fleet, under the command of Roman general Agrippa, defeated the combined navies of Antony and Cleopatra.

The alliance between Cleopatra and Mark Antony was seen as a threat by the other triumvir, Octavian (later Augustus, first emperor of Rome). Octavian and his allies helped orchestrate a propaganda in Rome that presented Antony as a traitor under the spell of the Egyptian queen. Image: Battle of Actium (30 BC) was the final war of the Roman Republic. After which point, Octavian emerged as the sole ruler of Rome.

Conquest of Egypt

Following their defeat at Actium, both Antony and Cleopatra retreated to Alexandria, Egypt. In 30 BC, Octavian invaded Egypt. Facing inevitable defeat, Antony and Cleopatra both committed suicide. With their deaths, Octavian easily took control of Egypt.

The death of Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt in 30 BC marked the end of the Ptolemaic dynasty – a Macedonian dynasty that had ruled Egypt for almost three centuries. Egypt then became the personal possession of the emperor of Rome. The rulers came to be called Roman pharaohs. Image: “Cleopatra” by British painter John William Waterhouse, 1887

READ MORE: Notable Accomplishments of Cleopatra

Egypt Becomes a Roman Province

After the conquest, Octavian made Egypt a Roman province, but it was directly controlled by the emperor rather than the Roman Senate. This special status reflected Egypt’s strategic importance, especially as a grain supplier.

The conquest of Egypt marked the end of independent Hellenistic rule in the region and the beginning of several centuries of Roman governance. The wealth and resources of Egypt played a significant role in the prosperity of the Roman Empire.

Octavian (i.e. Emperor Augustus) turned a declining Republic of Rome into a gigantic and mighty empire. | Image: Augustus in an Egyptian-style depiction, a stone carving of the Kalabsha Temple in Nubia

READ MORE: Major Accomplishments of Emperor Augustus

Romanization of Egypt

When Rome annexed Egypt after the defeat of the Ptolemies, significant changes swept through the land. While they took apart the Ptolemaic administrative systems, the Romans retained some of its bureaucratic aspects to create a government that was uniquely Roman but still functional for Egypt.

The legal system that had been in place during the Hellenistic era persisted, but it now operated within the parameters set by Roman law.

In terms of the economy, the tetradrachm, which was minted in the Ptolemaic heartland of Alexandria, remained in circulation. However, its value was aligned with the Roman denarius, facilitating smoother financial interactions within the empire.

In a blend of tradition and political prudence, the temples of ancient Egyptian gods and Hellenistic deities remained intact, preserving the region’s spiritual identity. Concurrently, these religious centers incorporated the Roman practice of worshiping deified emperors, ensuring that the prevailing religious infrastructure supported the new political order.

Roman emperor Trajan making offerings to Egyptian Gods, on the Roman Mammisi at the Dendera Temple complex, Egypt.

Prefect of Roman Egypt

Beginning in the 1st century BC, the governance of Egypt underwent a transformation under Roman rule. Instead of local or hereditary rulers, the Roman emperor directly appointed the chief administrator for Egypt. This official was designated as a prefect, a title derived from the Latin term “praefectus.”

The position of the prefect in Egypt was significant, as he had authority over the vast and prosperous province. Appointed for multiple years, this arrangement ensured stability and continuity in administration while also keeping the province firmly under the emperor’s control.

When did Roman Egypt come to an end?

The Byzantine Empire, the eastern continuation of the Roman Empire, held control of Egypt until the 7th century. In 641 AD, Muslim Arab forces under Amr ibn al-As conquered Egypt, marking the end of nearly seven centuries of Greco-Roman rule and the beginning of Islamic Egypt.

READ MORE: The Sultan of Egypt Who Tried to Destroy the Pyramids

Major Facts about Roman Egypt

The city of Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great, remained one of the Mediterranean’s most significant cities during Roman rule. It was a hub of commerce, culture, and learning, housing the famous Library of Alexandria. Image: Location of the city of Alexandria

After Rome effectively conquered Egypt in 30 BC, Egypt remained a Roman, and later Byzantine, province until the Arab Muslim conquest in 640 AD.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • The Latin word for Egypt is Aegyptus.
  • Scholars like to maintain that between the first century BC and the 7th century AD, Roman Egypt was one of Rome’s most significant provinces for quite a number of reasons. For example, Egypt was often called the “Granary of Rome” because of its fertile Nile Valley, which produced vast quantities of grain that were exported to feed the Roman populace.
  • Egypt became an integral part of the Roman economic system. Some estimates put Roman Egypt as the wealthiest Roman province outside of Italy. Beyond grain, the province also exported papyrus, glassware, and textiles.

Enthroned statue of the syncretic Greco-Roman god Serapis with Cerberus, from Pozzuoli (National Archaeological Museum, Naples)

  • By the first century AD the population of Roman Egypt was in the region of one million. The population would hover between 4.5 and 8 million in the centuries that followed.
  • Founded in c. 331 BC by Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great, the city of Alexandria became major cultural and economic hub of not just the Ptolemaic Dynasty but also the Roman pharaohs. The city served as the capital of Roman Egypt. In addition to being the second largest city of the Roman Empire, the city had the largest port in the Empire. As of 2023, Alexandria is regarded as the second largest city in Egypt, and the largest on the Mediterranean coast.

The conquest of Egypt by Rome marked the end of the Ptolemaic Kingdom and the beginning of Egypt as a Roman province. Image: A 1st-century AD Roman emperor wearing nemes with a uraeus, as pharaoh (Louvre, Paris)

  • Unlike other provinces, Egypt was considered the personal possession of the emperor. Instead of being governed by a proconsul, it was overseen by a prefect, usually of equestrian rank, appointed by the emperor.
  • The Egyptian goddess Isis became popular in Rome and throughout the Empire. Her worship spread far and wide and even integrated elements of Hellenistic and Roman beliefs.
  • The city of Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great, remained one of the Mediterranean’s most significant cities during Roman rule. It was a hub of commerce, culture, and learning, housing the famous Library of Alexandria.

4th-century relief of the Egyptian god Horus as a Roman cavalryman killing the crocodile, Setekh (Louvre, Paris)

  • While Egypt was Romanized, particularly in the administration and military spheres, traditional Egyptian culture, religion, and customs persisted. This led to a unique blending of Hellenistic, Roman, and Egyptian traditions.
  • During the Roman era, Christianity spread rapidly in Egypt. The country became a significant Christian center, with Alexandria being a vital theological hub. Egypt is also the birthplace of monasticism, with St. Anthony and St. Pachomius playing pioneering roles.

2nd-century relief of Egyptian god Anubis as a Roman infantryman in the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa

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