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coin of Cleopatra

Coin of the Egyptian pharaoh Cleopatra

The Ptolemies, the Greek kings of Egypt, ruled Egypt for 300 years. But by around 50 BC, the Ptolemies were much weaker than the Romans. The Roman leader Julius Caesar started to think maybe the Romans could conquer Egypt.

Julius Caesar stone bust of a thin white man with his hair in a sort of short bowl cut

Julius Caesar

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

Julius Caesar did help Cleopatra get back into power, but he left Roman troops all over Egypt. Caesar 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. But she didn’t go alone: she took another Roman leader, Mark Anthony (who was also her next partner).

Mark Anthony on a coin, looking fat and piggy

Mark Anthony on a coin

Cleopatra ruled Egypt for another fourteen years, raising three more children with Mark Anthony. She ran her country successfully. And she also managed Roman politics so Egypt could stay independent.

But in a civil war between Julius Caesar’s nephew Augustus and Marc Anthony, Augustus finally defeated Antony and Cleopatra. They killed themselves (or maybe Augustus killed them) 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. Roman tax c0llectors took a lot of that Egyptian food, especially wheat for bread, from Egypt for taxes. The Romans sent it 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: Egyptian hieroglyphics
More about Cleopatra
Or more about Gnosticism
More about Ptolemy
And more about Arian Christians
Go on to Islamic Egypt

Bibliography and further reading about Roman Egypt:

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

Old Kingdom Egypt
Greek Egypt
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