Roman troops were already present in Egypt when the country was still ruled by the Ptolemaic dynasty. Ptolemy XII Auletes, who had been driven from his throne by the Alexandrian opposition, would hardly have been able to reenter Egypt without the military aid of the Roman legate Aulus Gabinius (55 B.C.). Since that time, Roman soldiers, partly in close connection with the remnants of the Ptolemaic army, were stationed at Alexandria and in the chora. After the end of the Alexandrian War (48-47 B.C.), this Roman presence was reaffirmed and regularized by Julius Caesar when he left three legions in Egypt under the command of Rufio (?), the son of one of his freedmen.
In the aftermath of the conquest of Egypt by Octavian (Augustus from 27 B.C.) in 30 B.C., Roman troops were distributed about Egypt in order both to control the conquered population and to seal off the borders of the country against foreign inroads. Legionary camps were established at Nikopolis, immediately east of Alexandria; at Babylon, at the southern point of the Delta, and at Thebes (the latter two to be reduced during the early principate). Lesser garrisons were stationed in various key places, such as frontiers (Pelusium, Syene), mines and quarries in the Eastern Desert, important road junctions (Coptos), and grain depots.
The Roman army in Egypt was composed of three (later two) legions of Roman citizens and of various auxiliary units of provincials serving under Roman officers. These auxiliary units included infantry, cavalry, and a naval squadron based at Alexandria (classis Alexandrina). The Roman army in Egypt must have totaled 15,000- 20,000 men until the end of the third century, allowing for alterations due to the overall military situation of the empire and especially to the requirements of Rome’s eastern frontier.
Service in the legions, lasting normally for twenty-five years, was restricted to Roman citizens. Citizens of the Greek poleis of Egypt also were eligible to serve in the legions, becoming cives Romani immediately upon enlistment. As a rule, the Egyptian population had access only to the auxiliary troops, whose members became Roman citizens upon honorable discharge (honesta missio) after having served for twenty-six years. These auxiliary units were increasingly, but never exclusively, recruited in Egypt proper, above all from the gentry of the nome capitals, most of whom were descended from the Greek or Hellenized population. But until the second century, many non-Egyptians served not only in the legions but also in the auxiliary forces.
These foreigners often stayed in Egypt after discharge. As veterans they enjoyed a privileged status, exempted from many of the taxes and services imposed upon the mass of the population. The papyri show the veterans as men of substance, active in the everyday life and commercial transactions of Egypt; they concentrated especially in the nome capitals and in the larger villages. The basic needs for the maintenance of the army (food, fodder, and fuel) were provided by taxes levied in Egypt. But the military were authorized to requisition additional supplies and services, such as billets and means of transport, a source of much friction and the raison d’être of many papyri.
There is no continuous record of the army of Byzantine Egypt, but we have at our disposal a variety of sources covering different aspects of the military situation in Egypt: the Notitia dignitatum, a survey of the Roman troops, their designations, and their garrisons in the fourth century (Berger, 1974), occasional notices in literary texts, legal sources, and many papyri giving a detailed but fragmentary insight into various activities of soldiers (such as the Abinnaeus Archive). While Diocletian maintained the frontier troops, from the middle of the third century on, we can observe the growing importance of the mobile field armies, the comitatenses, who accompanied the emperors on their journeys and expeditions.
This development led to the system of Constantine the Great (306- 337), characterized by the military masters (magistri militum) as commanders of the army and by the predominance of the comitatus, whereas the frontier army (limitanei, ripenses) was reduced in strength and prestige. The Notitia dignitatum reflects the military organization at about the time of Theodosius the Great (379-395) and as it continued to exist without substantial changes down to the time of Justinian I (527-565). The frontier army in Egypt was commanded by a comes rei militaris and by two duces, respectively of the Thebaid and of Libya. Compared with the third century, the army of the fourth century was split into a larger number of smaller units more evenly spread about Egypt.
We cannot discuss the details of the lesser units, but the creation and dislocation of new legions under Diocletian deserves at least a short mention. Legio II Traiana fortis, keeping its traditional garrison at Parembole-Nikopolis near Alexandria, received (in 297 or 301/302) a sister unit, legio III Diocletiana stationed at Andropolis in the western Delta (near modern Hirbita, province of Beheirah). From then on, these two legions formed the permanent occupation force of the province Aegyptus Iovia, but they also contributed detachments to the troops in Upper Egypt. In addition, the Thebaid received two legions of its own: legio I Maximiana at PHILAE (south of Aswan) and legio II Flavia Constantia at Cusae (al-Qusiyyah).
The newly created province of Aegyptus Herculia was occupied by detachments of legio XIII Gemina and legio V Macedonica. Notwithstanding their permanent garrison towns, these legions belonged to the mobile field army and contributed to it, at least in the fourth century, by detaching units to the comitatus (Hoffmann, 1969, Vol. 1, pp. 233-34; and, more generally, Bowman, 1978). The Notitia dignitatum records under the heading Dux Thebaidos a number of auxiliary units (alae, cohortes, cunei) in Upper Egypt and also the legions of the Thebaid proper, detachments of legions whose headquarters were in Lower Egypt. Thus, detachments of legio III Diocletiana are attested in Omboi and Thebes.
The bulk of our information on the military reforms of Diocletian in Egypt derives from written sources, but in some cases archaeology provides additional information. One particularly illuminating example is furnished by the camp of a detachment of legio III Diocletiana at Thebes. The foundations of that camp were built into the temple of Amon at Luxor (the name Luxor actually derives from castra qusur [plural of qasr] al-Uqsur), obviously a good choice, since Amon was identified, following the pattern of interpretatio Romana, with Jupiter, the tutelary deity of the Diocletianic tetrarchy.
At Luxor, the dromos of the pharaonic temple leads to the sanctuary of the insignia and of the ruler cult. In the apsis, the remains of wall paintings reveal the adventus and the adlocutio of an emperor. The assumption is justified that one of the outstanding features of this room was a throne standing under a baldachin. This highly ceremonial decoration probably bears testimony to a visit by Diocletian. The tetrarchic inscriptions of Luxor suggest the period 301-302 as the date of that visit and of the installation of that part of the castra. The camp of Luxor is attested until the Persian occupation of 619-629 and may have been destroyed during the Persian retreat. Not much later, the Christians began to erect churches in what had once been an Egyptian temple and a Roman camp.
In addition to the regular troops of the legions and auxilia, the army included federate formations, recruited from tribes beyond the frontiers of the empire and serving under their own tribal leaders. In Egypt, such contingents were furnished by the Blemmyes and Nobadae, by now well outside Egypt since Diocletian had abandoned Lower Nubia and established the new frontier at Philae, on the First Cataract. The maintenance of the army was assured by the annona militaris, taxes providing for payments in money and in kind. The papyri give ample information on the collection, transportation, and distribution of rations for the troops.
They also illustrate in detail the conditions of military service, particularly the texts of the archive of Flavius Abinnaeus, an Egyptian (or perhaps a Syrian) who rose from the ranks to the command of the camp of Dionysius (Qasr Qarun in the Fayyum) in the time of Emperor Constantius II (337-361). Having served in the detachment of the Parthosagittarii, stationed at Diospolis in the Thebaid, he was ordered to escort envoys of the Blemmyes to the palace in Constantinople. This brought him promotion to the rank of protector (ducenarius) in 336 or 337. After having conducted the Blemmyes back to their country, Abinnaeus led recruits from the Thebaid to Hierapolis near the Euphrates, whereupon he was promoted to prefect (eparchos) of the ala quinta praelectorum at Dionysias about 340. What these papers also show is the important role of a military unit and its commander in the life of an Egyptian village.
It would be unwise to generalize on the living conditions of soldiers in Byzantine Egypt. Differences of rank and the changing state of general affairs during such a protracted period forbid any sweeping comment. But many soldiers, especially those who joined the comitatus, seem to have been far better off than most of their fellow Egyptians who were toiling in the rural areas. Different conditions applied to the limitanei, who were still a fighting force in the fourth century but degenerated into a hereditary, less professional peasant militia from the fifth century on. The scarcity of sources for the fifth century does not permit us to follow closely the development of the military organization in Egypt, but there surely was much continuity until Justinian.
Justinian, however, introduced an important reform in the command structure of the army in Egypt. Henceforward, the traditional separation of the military command from the civil administration was abandoned in the five provinces of Egypt (Aegyptus, Augustamnica, Arcadia, Thebais, Libya) and the direction of both civil and military affairs was unified under the control of one official designated as dux Augustalis. Jones (1964, Vol. 1, pp. 656-57) offers the following explanation for this reform:
In Egypt there were three problems. The south was constantly troubled by razzias of the desert tribes, the Blemmyes and the Nobadae. Throughout the country the great landlords with their bands of bucellarii defied the administration. Above all, the attempts of the government to impose Chalcedonian patriarchs and clergy on the rabidly monophysite population provoked frequent civil disturbances, especially in Alexandria. To cope with the first problem the dux of the Thebaid had already in the fifth century been given administrative powers in the extreme south. To deal with the last, the offices of Augustal prefect and dux of Egypt had from time to time been vested in one person. Justinian made both these changes permanent, and seems to have extended the principle of a united civil and military command to all the provinces of Egypt.
Justinian’s edict XIII, regulating above all the administrative competences with regard to the taxation of Egypt, sharply insists on the duty of the army to help tax collectors, if necessary, militari manu.
In the fifth century there already existed a tendency to assign regiments of the theoretically mobile field army to permanent garrisons, a feature that can be well observed in Egypt. Of course, the limitanei still constituted the bulk of the military effectives in Egypt. Beside these regular units, other formations were on the rise, such as the bucellarii (military retainees employed by private individuals). Great territorial magnates, often simultaneously high officials (for instance, the Apion family in fifth-century Egypt), were able to maintain private armies of bucellarii notwithstanding the efforts of the central government to curb this development.
This traditional view of the bucellarii has been challenged by Gascou. In his opinion, the bucellarii were not private soldiers, but troops performing a public obligation (munus) and organized as an officially recognized corporation whose sustenance was provided by the “houses” (oikoi) of big landowners in fulfillment of a public duty. In a number of cases, the bucellarii were integrated into the imperial troops and fought in conjunction with regular units.
Another important change, perhaps well under way in the fifth century and attested by the time of Justinian, concerns the method of recruitment. Military service, still being largely hereditary in practice, had become entirely voluntary. Recruitment was predominantly local for the limitanei and even for the static units of the comitatenses, who, having lost their mobility, had become an Egyptian infantry force. The pool of the mobile troops adequate for rapid intervention thus further shrinking, one had, in case of an emergency (such as the wars against the Blemmyes), to call on bucellarii and on special numeri, chiefly composed of soldiers from the less civilized areas of the empire.
As a consequence, the terms “soldier” and “barbarian” came to acquire the same meaning in the papyri of Byzantine Egypt. But these “barbarians” were slowly Egyptianized and lost much of their mobility (Rémondon, 1961, has admirably retraced this evolution in a remarkable contribution on the military situation in sixth-century Egypt).
The number of soldiers stationed in Byzantine Egypt is very difficult to estimate. It increased during the fourth century and may have reached about 64,000 limitanei at the end of that century in the provinces of Egypt, Thebaid, and Libya (Jones, Vol. 1, pp. 682-83). There is no guide to estimate even the approximate number of soldiers during Justinian’s reign, at least for the limitanei in Egypt.
In any case, their number and value had decreased since the fourth century.
[See also: CASTRUM.]
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