Cleopatra and the Romans in Egypt
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Roman Egypt


April 2016 - By the time of the Roman Julius Caesar, around 50 BC, the Ptolemies, the Greek kings of Egypt, were much weaker than the Romans.

Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar

When Julius Caesar visited Egypt, the Ptolemaic (Greek) Pharaoh of Egypt, Cleopatra, begged him to help her fight a civil war against her teenaged brother and husband, Ptolemy.

Mark Anthony
Mark Anthony

Julius Caesar did help Cleopatra get back into power, but he left Roman troops all over Egypt, and also took Cleopatra (klee-oh-PAT-rah) back to Rome with him as his girlfriend, where they had a baby. When Julius Caesar was assassinated in Rome in 44 BC, Cleopatra went back home to Egypt with another Roman leader, Mark Anthony (who was also her partner). Cleopatra ruled Egypt for another fourteen years, raising three more children with Mark Anthony and running her country successfully while also managing Roman politics so Egypt could stay independent.

In a civil war between Julius Caesar's nephew Augustus and Marc Anthony, however, Antony and Cleopatra were finally defeated. They killed themselves (or perhaps were killed) in 30 BC, and the Romans took over Egypt.

The Romans valued Egypt very highly, because it was so fertile and produced so much food. A lot of food, especially wheat for bread, was taken from Egypt for taxes and sent to Rome on big ships. To make it easier to collect these taxes, the Romans also established Roman-style government in Egypt, though the main language of government was still Greek (the way it had been under Greek rule) rather than Latin. By this time even most ordinary people in Egypt knew some Greek. Gradually people stopped writing hieroglyphs and wrote mostly in the Greek alphabet.

Egypt's long tradition of scholarship continued through the Roman period with the astronomer Ptolemy, the Jewish philosopher Philo, and many other researchers working in Alexandria.

Around 300-400 AD, most Egyptians converted to Christianity. There were bitter battles over exactly which kind of Christianity, Arian or Catholic, would be observed in Egypt.

When Rome fell to the Ostrogoths in 476 AD, Egypt's grain was sent instead to the new Roman capital at Constantinople, near the Black Sea, in what is now Turkey (modern Istanbul).

The Romans held Egypt until the 600s AD, for about 700 years, until the Arabs conquered it.

Learn by doing: read Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra
Go on to Islamic Egypt

Bibliography and further reading about Roman Egypt:

Asterix and Cleopatra, by Rene Goscinny. A funny comic book, but historically not so far off.

Cleopatra, by Diane Stanley (reprinted 1997) . A biography of the last independent queen of Egypt, for kids.

Egypt After the Pharaohs: 332 BC-AD 642: from Alexander to the Arab Conquest, by Alan Bowman (1996). A standard among historians, and pretty readable.

Women in Hellenistic Egypt: From Alexander to Cleopatra, by Sarah Pomeroy (reprinted 1990). Pomeroy is an expert on the lives of women in antiquity.

The Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome, by Erich Gruen (reprinted 1986).

Life in Egypt Under Roman Rule, by Naphtali Lewis (1999). A classic work, which uses evidence from scraps of writing on papyrus - shopping lists, letters, contracts, bills - to reconstruct people's daily life.

Egypt in Late Antiquity, by Roger S. Bagnall (reprinted 1995).

Old Kingdom (2686-2160 BC)
First Intermediate Period (2160-2040 BC)
Middle Kingdom (2040-1633 BC)
Second Intermediate Period (1786-1558 BC)
New Kingdom (1558-1085 BC)
Third Intermediate Period (1085-525 BC)
Persian rule (525-332 BC)
Greek rule (332-30 BC) (also called the Hellenistic)
Roman rule (30 BC-700 AD)
Islamic rule (700 AD to 1500)

Dress up as Cleopatra!

A Cleopatra costume for Halloween or for acting out Cleopatra's story

A Cleopatra costume for younger people, in a smaller size

Julius Caesar costume (also works for Mark Anthony)

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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  • Carr, K.E. . Study Guides, . Web. 23 March, 2017