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Ancient Egypt offers rich sources of documentary evidence for the study of the experiences of dependent people, particularly enslaved persons, and how they changed over almost four millennia from the Old Kingdom to the early Islamic period. This volume, the work of a team of scholars spanning the full range of disciplines and languages involved, provides nearly three hundred primary sources in translation, arranged both chronologically and thematically, and is aimed principally at students, instructors and general readers. The documents reveal how people became slaves and ceased to be slaves and how they were traded and exchanged in different periods. They also detail the various kinds of work slaves undertook, whether in the household, in agriculture or in mines and quarries. Introductions explain and contextualise the sources, and particularly address the problems of varying terminology in several different languages. The book shows Egypt's place in the world history of slavery.
The Persian invasion in the early seventh century weakened Roman rule in Egypt, particularly the wealthy governing class. Only a decade after the Roman recovery of Egypt it was again invaded, by a two-pronged Arab army that took control of the country and, after a siege, of Alexandria. In many ways Egypt after the Arab conquest continued as it had been, with local elites and administrations running things on behalf of the small occupying force. If anything, elite power and rural dependency were reinforced by the new taxation system. Coptic language and literature flourished, with the gradual erosion of Greek as an imperial language, and the anti-Chalcedonian church of Egypt developed a distinct Coptic cultural and religious identity. Over time, however, a series of pressures and developments led to a wider use of Arabic in administration and in daily life, a decline in Coptic, and eventually to widespread conversion to Islam.
The processes launched at the start of Roman rule continued to support the development of cities and their elites. The 150 years from Hadrian to Diocletian saw enough violence to do severe damage to some of those cities, particularly Alexandria, and occasional revolts disturbed the peace, including one in the Delta at the time of the great plague (smallpox) under Antoninus Pius, which led to the depopulation of many villages. A loss of workers to the plague may have intensified the concentration of landholding in the hands of the wealthy, who could invest in both machinery and capital-intensive crops such as wine. This period also saw the decline of the temples and the beginning of Christianity as a visible (and occasionally persecuted) movement, with the emergence of bishops of Alexandria and the countryside. The Egyptian language acquired a new means of expression in the Coptic alphabet, largely derived from Greek.
That the millennium and a half from the time of the Persian Empire to Fatimid rule in Egypt witnessed much change in the land of the Nile will not surprise anyone. Empires and their dynasties came and went, and Egypt experienced two major religious transformations. With the Ptolemies and Fatimids, Egypt was in a sense independent, although the dynasties were not indigenous. With the Persians, Romans, and the early Arab regime, Egypt was part of a larger empire.
But these changes and many more coexisted with a number of continuities that helped to shape early medieval Egypt. These continuities do not point to an unchanging or “eternal” Egypt, as it has sometimes been depicted to the wider public. But they do suggest some important traits that helped to shape change.
In this chapter the reader is introduced to the background to Roman Egypt, starting with Egypt’s experience of foreign rule under the Kushites, Assyrians, Persians, and Greeks. The impact of the three centuries of rule by the dynasty of the Ptolemies, who took over after the death of Alexander the Great, is explored; many traditional Egyptian institutions remained in place, most importantly the great temples. Many Persian administrative innovations were also kept, but the Greeks brought in their own financial practices. Substantial immigration from the Greek world and the Levant changed the population, and Greek largely displaced Egyptian as a language of power, even though Egyptian society was substantially multilingual. Periodic revolts show that foreign rule was not universally accepted, but many Egyptians became part of the Ptolemaic administration and served its economic goals, which depended heavily on exporting wheat. Romans began to settle in Alexandria in the last decades before the Roman conquest.
The reorganization of the empire and administrative reforms of the emperor Diocletian at the end of the third century brought changes to Egypt, particularly in taxation and coinage, now more similar to those elsewhere in the empire. Alexandria suffered yet more damage in the revolt of Domitius Domitianus, and rebuilding took many years. The civic elite reached its peak of influence in this period, but by the fifth century its lower and middle ranks were losing ground to the wealthiest, and new fortunes were being founded on salaried careers in the imperial administration. The Christian church became a major institutional power after the end of persecutions, developing a large network of churches, clergy, monasteries, and then charitable institutions such as hospitals. A Christian educational culture and Coptic literary culture began to develop, as well. At the same time, there were signs of a rebirth of a visible Jewish community in Egypt.
With the death of Antony and Cleopatra after the battle of Actium in 30 BC, the Roman general Octavian, soon to be called Augustus, took control of Egypt. Roman rule brought a standing garrison of some 20,000 troops and began the long process of making the administration of Egypt more like that used elsewhere in the Romans’ diverse empire. Although no longer a royal capital, Alexandria remained a center of commerce and culture. Much of Egypt’s wheat surplus was shipped to Rome to feed its population, and Egypt was partly integrated into regional economic networks. Roman taxation policies favored the concentration of wealth in private hands and the development of an urban elite that could take on many of the tasks of governance. The cult of the emperors was introduced into Egyptian temples, which continued as vital cultural centers during the first two centuries of Roman rule. The Jewish community of Egypt was destroyed during a revolt in the early second century.
Although Egypt in the fifth century was highly integrated into the empire, it also began to develop new elements of distinctiveness. In part this trend resulted from divisions in theology and church politics that emerged around the Council of Chalcedon in 451, leading to deep splits in the church by the middle of the sixth century and the creation of competing church hierarchies. The native Egyptian language came to have its own literature and began to be used more widely in official contexts. At the same time, Alexandria remained a vibrant center of Greek culture, which permeated the rest of Egypt as well. The economic and social elite of the cities, increasingly closely tied to the imperial administration, concentrated wealth and power in their hands to a degree not seen earlier, even as most of the population continued to live in villages and work the land.