Roman Emperors In Egypt

ROMAN EMPERORS IN EGYPT

Although Alexandria never became a “Second Rome,” the existence and, in some sense, the presence of the Roman emperor was a common and permanent experience for the inhabitants of Egypt.

The head of the provincial administration, the prefect of Egypt, was the direct representative of the emperor. The importance and power of the distant imperial overlord were constantly felt in everyday life. Documents from Augustus to DIOCLETIAN were dated by the regnal years of the emperor, often recalling his name and his victory titles. Annual official ceremonies commemorated the accession of the emperor and his anniversary. In their oaths, the subjects invoked the name and the fortune of the emperor, and they sacrificed to his divinity while performing the ruler-cult or to demonstrate that they were not Christians.

Even the appearance of those emperors who never paid a visit to Egypt was well known to the inhabitants of the Nile Valley. The emperor’s portrait figured on the coins they handled and his statues were omnipresent in official buildings, military camps, and temples (Kiss, 1984; Vogt, 1924). Well into the Roman period, the emperors were still represented on the walls of Egyptian-style sanctuaries in the traditional pharaonic attire (on the nomenclature of emperors in the Roman-Egyptian system, see Beckerath, 1984; Bureth, 1964; Grenier, 1988; and Saulnier, 1984; see, for example, the case of Nero, recently dealt with by Cesaretti, 1984, and Perrin, 1982).

Most intensely, of course, the power and prestige of the emperor were felt when he appeared personally in Egypt. The reasons for such visits were normally of a political or military order, but imperial journeys or expeditions were often combined with cultural or religious interests, leading not few of the emperors to the pyramids, the Serapeum of Memphis, the labyrinth in the Fayyum, or the Memnonia on the West Bank near Thebes.

This blend of political mission and educated sightseeing can already be observed with representatives of the Roman republic in Egypt: for example, the embassy of Scipio Aemilianus in 140-139 B.C., the visit of the Roman senator Lucius Memmius in 112 B.C. and, not least, Julius Caesar’s journey on the Nile in 47 B.C., after the Alexandrian War and in the company of Cleopatra (see ROMAN TRAVELERS IN EGYPT).

Imperial visits or expeditions to Egypt not seldom marked crucial points in the history of both Egypt and the Roman Empire. The conquest of Egypt by Octavian and the fall of Alexandria in 30 B.C. brought an end not only to Ptolemaic rule in Egypt but also to the Roman Civil War and to the Roman republic.

The beginning of the Roman imperial period and of the Julio-Claudian dynasty was thus closely tied up with the history of Egypt, as was, at the next stage of dynastic change, the accession of Vespasian and the Flavian dynasty, as Vespasian was proclaimed emperor by the prefect of Egypt, Tiberius Julius Alexander, in A.D. 69. Egypt played a significant role in the imperial ideology of another founder of a dynasty, Septimius Severus (r. 193-211), and in the early years of the Diocletianic tetrarchy (in 293-298).

When Octavian (Augustus since 27 B.C.) came to Egypt in 30 B.C., it was to conquer the country and to defeat his enemies, Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Entering Alexandria as victor, Octavian paid due respects to the memory of Alexander the Great, whose tomb and embalmed body he inspected and honored. But he declined to look at the remains of the Ptolemies and refused to offer a sacrifice to the divine Apis bull in Memphis.

Octavian’s attitude to Egyptian traditions was not wholly negative, as he readily assumed the role of pharaoh and gave fresh impulse to building activities in Egyptian sanctuaries. Egypt was now reorganized as a Roman province, its main role being to secure the food supply of Rome and to allow Augustus to be perceived as the great benefactor of the capital’s population.

After the conquest, Augustus never returned to Egypt nor did his successor, Tiberius, ever visit that country. But the imperial prince Germanicus did in A.D. 19, traveling southward as far as Syene and Elephantine, admiring the monuments and besieged by an adulating population to whom he had opened the granaries in a time of dearth.

Contrary to Augustus, Germanicus did not refrain from inspecting the Memphite Apis sanctuary and from feeding the sacred bull. Germanicus’ attitude and dealings seem to have aroused the suspicion of the emperor Tiberius and were sharply criticized by him (imperial journeys from Augustus to Diocletian are treated comprehensively by Halfmann, 1986, with sources and bibliography).

The departure from the policies of Augustus is still more obvious in the case of the emperor Gaius, nicknamed Caligula (r. 37-41), who planned to go to Egypt but did not find the opportunity to do so. Having a strong propensity for things Egyptian and ardently wishing to enhance his divinity, he conceived the journey to Egypt as a means to realize his apotheosis.

Nero (r. 54-68) also intended to visit Egypt (in 64), and preparations for his impending tour were already under way, but the journey did not materialize. The splendor of Egypt and its traditions of ruler worship would have offered Nero the possibility to put on show his monarchical as well as his artistic ambitions.

When on 1 July 69 Tiberius Julius Alexander had his troops take the oath of allegiance to Vespasian, the latter was still in Judaea. At the end of 69, he went to Egypt and stayed there until the summer of 70. Vespasian’s sojourn at Alexandria is famous for his visit to the Serapeum and for the healing wonders ascribed to him (cf. Barzano, 1988, with bibliography and detailed discussion of evidence).

Wishing to obtain a divine confirmation of his newly won imperial dignity, to model himself on the role of Serapis, and to appear as a savior to the population, Vespasian was partly successful in increasing his own prestige and contributed much to the popularity of Serapis outside Egypt. That the presence of the emperor coincided with a felicitous rise of the Nile could be heralded as further proof of divine assent to Vespasian’s accession. In 71, Titus, the son of Vespasian, also paid a visit to Egypt where the conqueror of Jerusalem offered a sacrifice to the bull-god Apis in Memphis.

Hadrian’s sojourn in Egypt was surely among the most famous imperial visits to that country. Coming from Judaea and Gaza, the emperor paid his respects to the tomb of Pompei near Pelusium and arrived at Alexandria in the summer of 130. Hadrian and his wife Sabina there performed the traditional sacrifices, an homage duly advertised by the Alexandrian coinage. Traveling in the country and entering the Libyan desert, Hadrian made a demonstration of imperial virtus (excellence) by hunting a lion and killing it with his own hand. On the West Bank, near Thebes, several inscriptions record his visit to the colossus of Memnon in November 130.

However, the best-known episode of Hadrian’s stay in Egypt is the mysterious death of Antinous, the emperor’s favorite. On the place where Antinous drowned in the Nile, the emperor founded in 130 a city perpetuating the name of the youth, Antinoopolis. It was to be one of the few Greek cities in Egypt, its constitution being modeled, with some exceptions, on that of Naucratis. Deified, Antinous was commemorated by cults and statues in many provinces of the empire.

The next ruler to visit Egypt was Marcus Aurelius in 175-176. His journey was prompted by the short-lived usurpation of Gaius Avidius Cassius, who had also been recognized in Egypt. Much more far-reaching were the consequences, a quarter-century later, of the stay of Lucius Septimius Severus in Egypt in 199-200. After the end of the Parthian War, the emperor did not immediately return to Rome, but stayed for some time in the Near East and proceeded first to Egypt via Pelusium, where he paid honors to the tomb of Pompei. If we may believe the author of the vita of Septimius Severus found in the late antique Scriptores Historia Augusta (17.3-4), the emperor wanted to visit Egypt because of his veneration for Serapis and his curiosity about antiquities and animals.

Not content to inspect Alexandria, the pyramids, Memphis, and the labyrinth in the Fayyum, he spent a whole year in Egypt, extending his journey to the Theban colossus of Memnon and to the southern frontier. Severus’ veneration for Serapis went so far that he modeled himself on the appearance of this god, adopting the typical curls on the forehead and assuming, as a feature of imperial self-advertisement, the prestige of Serapis as a beneficent, patriarchal divinity. But this emperor’s interest in religion was not free of fear and apprehension. That Septimius Severus went to see the embalmed body of Alexander the Great and then had the tomb sealed may be understood as a step to prevent dangerous imitation of Alexander by potential rivals.

Already before entering Egypt, the emperor had sent instructions to the prefect enforcing strong measures against divination and magic. After all, Severus had just survived a string of wars against rival usurpers, and Egypt had supported his adversary, Pescennius Niger. Among the political and administrative measures taken by Severus in Egypt, one stands out as a major reform: the granting of a council to Alexandria and to the capitals of the nomes. Another decision, also designed to correct earlier discrimination and to enhance the status of Egypt, was the permission for Egyptians to enter the Roman senate.

Contrary to his father, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, popularly called Caracalla, left an infamous record of his visit to Egypt in winter 215-216. He also paid his respects to the Alexandrian Serapis, even lodging in the sanctuary of the god, but the emperor’s obsession with the imitation of Alexander sparked derision and raillery in Alexandria, a city well known for its propensity to mock even emperors and prefects. Caracalla took a terrible revenge, executing the dignitaries who had come to welcome him upon his entrance in Alexandria, killing the instigators of the troubles aroused by his arrival, prohibiting spectacles, and expelling strangers as well as Egyptian peasants from Alexandria.

That another Severan emperor, Severus Alexander (r. 222-235), intended to visit Egypt is clearly indicated by some texts mentioning preparations for the impending journey, but it is doubtful whether this visit ever took place.

With the end of the Severan dynasty began a troubled period of ephemeral emperors (235-284/285), characterized by external wars and constant usurpations. It came to an end only when Diocletian successfully established himself in 284/285 and stabilized the situation by creating a college of four emperors (with the first tetrarchy beginning in 293). These troubled decades were not propitious for imperial sightseeing in Egypt. When emperors of this crisis period visited Alexandria and the Nile Valley, they normally came to put down revolts and usurpations: for example, Aurelian in 273, Probus in 279, Galerius in 293-294, and Diocletian twice, in 298 with the siege of Alexandria, and probably in 301-302. Diocletian initiated reforms that reshaped the status of Egypt within the Roman Empire. He was the last emperor to visit that country. In 325, Constantine had planned a journey to Egypt, for which preparations are attested in the papyri, but the project was not carried out.

In the Byzantine period, the travels of the emperors followed a new and very different pattern. Though nearer to Alexandria and Egypt than the emperors coming from Rome, the rulers in Constantinople seldom troubled themselves to tour their empire as their predecessors had done, and they never went to Egypt. The endemic troubles of Alexandria and the tense climate of political and ecclesiastical relations, both within Egypt and between Constantinople and Alexandria, may partly account for the lack of imperial visits. But the progressive seclusion of the Byzantine emperor from his subjects and his realm also helps to explain the curtailed program of imperial visits.

Nonetheless, the emperor’s existence and power were still vividly perceived in Egypt: through his representatives and his laws, through his portrait on coins and his statues, and not least through the grain tax, which Egypt had to supply, year after year, for the maintenance of the emperor’s administration and army in Egypt as well as for his residence, Constantinople (see ANNONA and TAXATION).

To imagine what an imperial visit meant for the regions and towns through which the emperor and his escort passed, nothing can compare with the papyri from Egypt for detail of administrative handling of such situations (see the excellent general survey by Millar, 1977, pp. 28-40). Impending visits of emperors led to a wide range of preparations, the nome leaders receiving instructions from the prefect of Egypt and passing them on to the officials of towns and villages. Food and fuel had to be supplied by the local population at prices fixed by the state or were doubtlessly often seized without compensation in times of crisis and civil war.

Another regular feature of such visits and expeditions were liturgies, that is obligations and services to be fulfilled without salary, for instance, the supply of lodgings, draft animals, carriages, and ships. It was by no means always sure that the efforts of the local officials and population would be compensated by grants and privileges bestowed by the emperor, and one may doubt whether the prestige of an imperial visit was commonly prized by the local populace. When an emperor was on the move, he was not only accompanied by his court and his personal attendants, but also by the imperial chancery and a comprehensive section of the central administrative services as well as by an important military guard.

This civil and military retinue alone could number four or five thousand persons, and might be still larger in times of war. One particularly well- documented example is the impending visit of Diocletian at Panopolis/Akhmim at the end of September 298 (Skeat, 1964) with the accompanying collection of the annona, preparation of quarters, repair of ships, supply of sacrificial animals, etcetera. These papyri from Panopolis give clear evidence of the many problems generated by an imperial visit and attest a certain lack of enthusiasm on the side of the local administration.

[See also: Egypt in Late Antiquity.]

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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HEINZ HEINEN

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