Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

Egypt and Gaul:   Two Roman Provinces under the Principate

Steve Muhlberger

It is always important to remember, when discussing the Roman Empire, that it was not a nation.    The empire was rather a political ascendancy, a political machine, that ruled over many nations, peoples, and regions.  The common element that all these subject regions shared was the fact that all paid taxes to support Roman armies.

The provinces varied in many ways, and there was never any effort to reduce them to uniformity.  If we are interested in more than the political and cultural elite, we should look closely at the provinces.

We can learn something about them by choosing two to look at.  I have taken one from the east, Egypt, and another from the west, Gaul (roughly equivalent to France, with the emphasis on northern and central France).  They serve as examples of two different situations that Roman rulers found themselves in.

In much of the east, Rome ruled over older civilized cultures, with well developed governmental structures that the Romans simply took over and ran.  In most of the west, Roman rule was imposed on less civilized cultures -- less civilized in the sense that urbanization and large-scale trade were just beginning, or were not nearly as highly developed as they were in Italy.  In such areas, Rome imposed a whole new pattern on the local society.

One reason I have chosen Egypt and Gaul is that they are fairly well known -- we have a lot of information on them, as ancient historians calculate such things.  But for people who are not professional ancient historians, it may be a little shocking to realize how little "a lot of
information" can be.  For instance, we have no large-scale contemporary history of Gaul between Julius Caesar's history of his conquest of the place in the 50s B.C., on one extreme, and Gregory of Tours'  History of the Franks in the 590s A.D.  The country makes many brief and a few extensive appearances in some imperial histories in the intervening period, but no one wrote a history of life in Gaul as seen by Gauls.  I am not familiar with the Egyptian situation in any detail, but I know that it is roughly the same. So for neither country can we put together a detailed narrative of the important events.

So what do we have?  In Gaul, we have archaeology and inscriptions.  This gives us a very
interesting kind of history, once you get into it, but it has a severe disadvantage:  it is a history without individuals.  Some names are recorded in imperial histories or inscriptions or both.  A few of them are quite famous military or political figures, known because of their over-all imperial significance.  The others can be seen as examples of historical trends only.  These trends are of course the result of the actions of millions of people, many of them quite ordinary, people whom most of us would like to know something about.  But the discussion of them is forced to be very abstract.

When we turn to Egypt, the situation is much different.  Here the archaeology of settlements is not very productive.  Most sites occupied in Roman times are still occupied.   But Egypt has two other things of great interest.

The first, and most important, are the personal documents that have been discovered in large numbers since the last century.  Papyrus is tough and on the edge of the desert it can last for thousands of years.  Thanks to papyrus we have accounts, letters, petitions to the government,
government answers to petitions, oracle sheets that would be equivalent to today's horoscopes, in vast numbers.  Some of these have been peeled off the mummies of sacred crocodiles; others have been found in more mundane circumstances.   Some of our documents are not on papyrus, but on broken pieces of pottery.  Broken pottery was as common in the ancient world as broken glass or empty cans are in our time.  If you needed to write a receipt or a short note, it made sense to do it on a potsherd -- after all, it was free.  The documents found on sherds are perhaps less interesting
than the longer ones found on papyrus, but there are so many thousands of them that they can be compared and teach us quite a bit.

Added on to the documents is one further source of interest:  portraits taken from Graeco-Egyptian sarcophaguses.  Everyone is familiar with the portraits from old mummy cases -- the most famous one of course is that of Tut.  In the first few centuries A.D., mummification was still practiced in Egypt,
and portraits were still put on the mummy cases, but now the portraits are much more realistic, in the Greek style.  No doubt portraiture was a highly developed art throughout the Hellenistic world, but most of it is lost.  In Egypt, we have a number of faces from the past to look at.

Of the two regions, Egypt was the more developed.   What do I mean by developed? At the moment  I mean "centrally governed."    Centralized government was very old in Egypt and bound its economy and society tightly together.   Indeed, centralization had been reinforced by the Hellenistic dynasty that ruled Egypt between Alexander and Cleopatra.

Ptolemy and his successors had run their realm on a principle familiar to us as apartheid.  Egyptian society was divided on the basis of national origin, or on the basis of blood descent, into different groups with different privileges.

At the top was the family of the king (or queen, since Egypt had a number of important queens).  As in pharoanic times, the royalty considered the entire country to belong to them, and so they
constituted the most privileged group of all.

Just below them were Greeks who lived in major cities, Alexandria, Naukratis, and Ptolemais,  cities that had Greek laws.  As hereditary members of these poleis, the citizens enjoyed a certain amount of self-government.  They also were not subject to the poll tax or from compulsory services on lands that they owned, whether these lands were in the city or anywhere else in Egypt.

Below the citizens of Greek cities were Greeks who lived in minor towns.  Under the Ptolemys, they too had some privileges.  They tended to dominate the locality, and a recent expert calls them "minor gentry."

A third group, hard to locate precisely in relation to the last  two, were the Jews of Alexandria.  They were not considered full citizens of the metropolis, but they did have their own recognized corporations and privileges.

The vast majority of the population of Egypt was classified as Egyptian.  These people lacked the privileges that everyone else had, and were subject to a bewildering variety of taxes.

The same kind of divisions can be seen in the cultural sphere.  Greeks maintained theaters, gymnasia, military and athletic training for young men, and cultivated the literature of their ancient homeland and their Greek religious practices.  The Egyptian religious establishment continued in its age-old fashion.  Egyptian temples still controlled land, still erected monuments, and if not quite as powerful as
in the past, they were hardly negligible.  The Jews, even though they spoke Greek, were intent on maintaining religious purity, which kept them apart from others.

Of course there was mixing between the groups.  In law and in public discussion, national differences were always emphasized, but mixing happened anyway.  For instance, the Greek minor gentry, out in the smaller towns, had adopted the custom of brother-sister marriages, as had the royal family.
This had a practical aim: to keep the family property together.  But this is a common problem in agrarian societies, and most of them, including ancient Greeks outside of Egypt, think that brother-sister marriages are incest.  Much as the minor gentry might like to deny it, Egypt had gotten
into their souls.

Despite common elements between Greeks and non-Greeks, there was a constant struggle to
maintain one's status, or, if one was an Egyptian, to sneak into a higher one.

When Augustus took Egypt, he disturbed the practical and the ideological lines of the system very little.  The Ptolemaic tax machine was put to work to supply one-third of the grain requirements of the city of Rome, something quite within the capability of this very fertile country.

Augustus effectively took over all the powers and attributes of the earlier kings and queens, in the view of Egyptians, Greeks, and Jews.  In the broad social structure, only a few alterations were made.

There were never too many Roman citizens in Egypt during the principate.  The emperors restricted Roman access to the province in order to keep control of it.  Most Romans settled in Egypt were veterans retired from the legions stationed there.  In later years, when some soldiers were recruited locally, entry into the legions became a limited avenue of social mobility.

Restricting mobility, dividing the population and making sure that most of them remained unprivileged, was as important to the Roman administration as it had been to the Greek.  In fact the Romans tightened up the rules considerably.  For instance, misrepresenting one's national status, especially if one tried to pass oneself off as a Roman, was punished by confiscation of half one's estate.  Children of mixed marriages took the lower status.  Freedmen of Alexandrian citizens could not marry Egyptian women. There were even attempts to prevent Greeks and Romans from inheriting from
each other.   All these rules were violated, of course, but the government did its best to profit from each violation.

The papyri show much more of life than the structure of government and society.  There are little personal vignettes.  Here is the story of an aggrieved husband, a member of the minor gentry, as revealed in a letter to his wife {Lewis, p. 56}:

     Serenus to Isidora, his sister and wife, very many greetings.  Before
     all else I pray that you are well, and every morning and evening I do
     obeisance in your name before [the goddess]  Thoeris, who loves you.
     I want you to know that ever since you left me I have been in mourning,
     weeping at night and lamenting by day.  After I bathed with you on
     Phaophi 12th I had neither bath nor oil-rub till Hathyr 12th [thirty
     days later], when I received from you a letter that can shatter a
     rock, so much did your words upset me.  I wrote you back on the
     instant, and sent it on the 12th with you letter enclosed.  You say in
     your letter, "Kolobos has made me into a prostitute," but he told me,
     "Your wife sends you this message:  "[Remind him] it was he himself
     who sold my necklace, and it was he himself who put me on the boat."
     You're just saying that so people won't believe my rebuttal.  But
     look, I keep writing you and writing you.  Are you coming [back] or
     not coming?  Tell me that.

Here is a more cheerful letter:

     Apollonios and Sarapias to Dionysia, greeting.  You filled us with joy
     in announcing the good news of the wedding of your fine Sarapion, and
     we should have come straightaway on that day, most longed-for by us,
     to attend upon him and share your joy, but on account of the annual
     assizes and because we are recovering from illness we could not come.
     Roses are not yet in full bloom here -- in fact they are scarce -- and
     from all the nurseries and all the garland-weavers we could just
     barely get together the thousand that we sent you with Sarapas, even
     with picking hte ones that ought not to have been picked till
     tomorrow.  We had all the narcissi you wanted, so instead of the two
     thousand you asked for we sent four thousand.  We wish you did not
     think us so petty as to make fun of us by writing that you have sent
     the money [for the flowers], when we too regard your children as our
     own and esteem and love them more than our own, and so we are as happy
     as you and their father.

 It is interesting that almost everyone mentioned in this letter, male and female, is named after the god Serapis.  Serapis was a new god, by Egyptian standards.  In fact he was a product of Hellenization.  His worship had been encouraged by the first Ptolemy, perhaps as a unifying gesture.  He combined the attributes of an Egyptian god of the underworld, a Greek Zeus figure, and ruled over healing and fertility.  During Roman times, Serapis's worship spread throughout the empire, as part of the search for a  universal god.  His claim to fame was a combined appeal to the Greek religious tradition and to antique Egyptian mystery.  Here is one more example of how Roman rule, despite itself, unleashed new energies and encouraged new cultural phenomena in the subject population.

To sum up, it should be remarked that life in Egypt looks remarkably hard to scholars who have studied the material.  This applies even during the best times of empire.  The demands of the government were always heavy and manifold.

Two factors made taxation especially oppressive.  As always in Egypt, much taxation of the lower class was in the form of forced labor on land owned by the emperor.  If one imperial tenant fled, other people in the locality were required to take up the slack, a duty that would rearrange one's whole life and make it much harder.  Also, if taxpayers fled, other people in the village would have to make up his share of taxes.

If taxes were heavy and times were bad, the number of people leaving a village would pass a
threshold.  The tax burdens of the village would become so heavy that it was unbearable to the rest.  The whole village would then be deserted.  The people would go to the desert, a nearby town, or especially the big city of Alexandria, which was made more turbulent by the beggars streaming into it.

As a product of this situation, we even have resistance literature, both Greek and Egyptian.  The Greek literature showed brave Greeks defying unjust imperial courts in speeches worthy of a Greek.  The Egyptian complaints were apocalyptic:  prophecies of divine vengeance on the oppressors.  But of course no revolt against Rome, and there were some, ever seriously threatened the empire.  A big Jewish revolt in Alexandria under Trajan simply lost the Jews who survived the repression their ancient privileges, to Greek satisfaction.

Gaul is an entirely different kettle of fish. There are two parts of Gaul of interest.  The first is the Mediterranean coast and the Rhone valley, where Roman influence infiltrated over a long
period.  This area was a gateway to northern trade, and so was taken over by the Romans from about 121 B.C.

The rest of Gaul was a barbarian outland reduced to submission in the course of a savage invasion by Julius Caesar.  He conquered it, you'll remember, as part of a campaign to make himself master
of Rome.  The reputation, loot, and new manpower he gained in his Gallic wars helped him immensely in his war with Pompey and the Senate.

The Romans always thought of the Gauls as a savage people.  They never got over the memory of the Gallic sack of Rome in 390 B.C.  But we should not take the Roman characterization of their enemies at face value.  By the time Caesar took over the country, even the northern Gauls were on the verge of urbanization.  By then, there was a long-standing trade with Rome, Gallic slaves, leather, and iron for Italian wine and other luxuries.  This trade had produced small but economically active fortified towns, which even Caesar called civitates or city-states.  These states even issued
their own gold coins, creative adaptations of Philip of Macedon's coins.

Thus the Roman conquest had several motives.  One was Caesar's self-interest; second was a real fear of northern invasion; third was the fact that Gaul was getting organized and rich enough for Rome to annex, whoever Rome's leader might be.

Caesar's conquest, however, was so thorough that in some ways Gaul was forced to make a new start.  Druidism, the major religion of Gaul, was wiped out.  All the gold in the country was siphoned off, and gold coinage disappeared.  Gaul got a military government, installed by Julius Caesar,
to make sure that Gaul's resources went into his cause.

For half a century, these resources were very important to the Julian family, first in the person of Julius Caesar, then in the person of Augustus.  After the direct plundering was over, they cultivated a new elite of native collaborators, who assumed hybrid Gallic-Roman names that included the name Julius, a sign of the all-important patron-client tie.

The Julii, as these men are called, were still Gallic warlords.  Part of their worth to Caesar was their ability to call up men for the civil wars. But the Julii were Gauls who did their best to be as Roman as possible.

Once Augustus was secure, Gaul was stabilized.  A permanent military district was created on the Rhine (the province of Germania).  The rest of Gaul was turned into regular provinces, and crossed with roads to bind it firmly to the empire.

The roads and the armies began a more profound process of Romanization.  Armies need supplies and markets, and around the Rhineland camps grew up commercial and administrative cities on the Roman model, cities that were much bigger than the pre-conquest Gallic centers.  The rest of Gaul was caught up in the supply network, and commercial and urban life naturally spread.  This was helped, of course, both by the emperors, who patronized cities they thought important, and local aristocrats who wanted to imitate Rome and get in good with the rulers.

The network of roads and cities was long-lasting.  It is interesting, though, that the people of northern Gaul, whose leaders at least were initially closely tied to the imperial house, never were entirely
integrated into the Roman system.

Why?  This is because the Gauls, after a long association with the Julio-Claudian emperors, fell out with Nero, who ignored them, and were the earliest rebels against Nero.  The first rising was led by a man named Julius Vindex -- a representative of a group allied by Rome for over a century.  Vindex's revolt started Nero's fall, but it also led to an anti-Gallic reaction.  The Rhine armies immediately interpreted Vindex as a closet nationalist, and crushed him, before deciding that rising against Nero was a good idea.
When the year of the Four Emperors, 69 A.D., was over, the whole group of Julii in Gaul were seen not as heroes who had served the cause of Roman liberty, but dangerous sorts who had to be eliminated.  And they were.

The Gallic elite learned a lesson from this.  They decided it was safer to be big fishes in the small ponds of their own cities and provinces, than to try and compete in the big imperial pond, where there were big, Gaul-hating sharks who could gobble up the likes of them.  For the next three centuries, Gaul produced very few senators or high imperial officials.

This does not mean that Gauls turned against Rome.  Quite the contrary.  Into the third century, Rome was the source of prestige, and Gallic cities did their best to imitate the metropolis.  The cause of Romanization was much aided by the presence of the army, which gave Gauls the possibilities of a career, and encouraged veterans from other parts of the empire to settle in Gaul.

If we step back now, and compare our two provinces, we see two much different situations, almost different worlds.

In the east, the early empire did little but incorporate existing societies that had their own strong dynamics.  Romans used military superiority to control and milk the Hellenistic world.

In Gaul, as in much of the rest of the west, Roman conquest worked quite differently.  Rome, from a combination of greed and strategic concern, attacked, conquered and rearranged neighboring countries that were often the source of belligerent raiders but which were basically weaker than Rome.  The conquest destroyed much of native culture and economy.  At the same time, however, Gaul and other such areas were brought into the vigorous exchange-oriented economy of the Mediterranean countries.

The result was that in many western regions, new Latin cultures were created.  Of course the elites were affected first and most, but a large proportion of the population was eventually incorporated into the imperial system.

A final difference between Egypt and Gaul, fairly typical of east and west, is the different relationship to the armies of Rome.

To the old cultures of the east, the army was an alien presence.  It was a Latin army, in religion, language, and even recruiting.

In the west, the army quickly became fairly central to life.  That is because these provinces had been created by the army, which first conquered them, then sparked their economic development, and continuously drew upon them for troops.  The division between the west, so closely integrated with the military machine, and the east, which was not, would become very important in the later empire.


J.F. Drinkwater,  Roman Gaul:  The Three Provinces, 58 B.C.-A.D. 260. (Not at NU)

Naphthali Lewis,  Life in Egypt under Roman Rule.

Edith Wightman,  Gallia Belgica. (Not at NU)

Original material copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.