In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Hellenistic and Roman Egypt

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Handbooks and Encyclopedias
  • Conference Publications and Festschrift Volumes
  • Bibliographies
  • Ecology, Geology, and Environment

Classics Hellenistic and Roman Egypt
Caitlín E. Barrett
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0189


Alexander’s conquest of Egypt in 332 BCE heralded two lengthy periods of foreign rule over the ancient civilization of the Nile. Following Alexander’s death, a Greco-Macedonian dynasty—the Ptolemies—obtained control of Egypt during the Hellenistic period. In 31 BCE, Octavian’s victory over the last Ptolemaic ruler, Cleopatra VII, led to Egypt’s incorporation into the Roman Empire and the beginning of another major new era of Egyptian (and Mediterranean) history. During these two periods of foreign rule, Egypt became a crossroads for the entire Mediterranean, inhabited not only by indigenous Egyptians but also Greeks, Jews, and many others. The wide-ranging trade networks, cultural exchanges, population movements, and religious interactions of these periods provide ancient parallels for modern phenomena such as globalization, imperialism, and tourism. Furthermore, thanks to the dry Egyptian climate, the extraordinary preservation both of material and textual (especially papyrological) evidence from these periods makes Egypt an exceptionally well-documented region of the Hellenistic and Roman Mediterranean. This wealth of data means that any comprehensive study of Hellenistic and Roman Egypt must combine the fruits of numerous disciplines, including (just to name a few) archaeology, philology, history, and art history. Scholars must additionally engage with at least two major languages (Egyptian and Greek—in addition to other languages preserved in fewer documents from Egypt, such as Latin and Hebrew); up to seven scripts (Greek, hieroglyphic, hieratic, Demotic, Latin, occasionally Hebrew, and, for the later Roman period, also Coptic); and multiple phases of the Egyptian language, because texts written in “classical” Middle Egyptian were still produced at periods when the spoken language had become dramatically different. Partly because of the increasing embrace of multidisciplinary approaches, research on Hellenistic and Roman Egypt has undergone immense changes in the later 20th and 21st centuries. These periods are sometimes categorized together as the “Greco-Roman period,” although some scholars challenge this practice (e.g., Lewis 1995, cited under General Overviews), arguing that the term “Greco-Roman period” conceals major social, political, and economic differences between Ptolemaic and Roman administrations. However, both periods do share certain distinctive cultural features—for example, the existence of a substantial element of the population that considered itself “Hellenic” (although definitions of “Hellene” were themselves subject to much change over time: see Ethnicity and Ethnic Identity). This article accordingly retains the term “Greco-Roman” as an umbrella term both for Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, while acknowledging the existence of profound differences between these periods. The chronological focus of this article starts with the death of Alexander in 323 BCE and ends with the transition to the “Late Antique” or “late Roman” period, here defined as dating from Diocletian’s accession in 284 CE. As a result, most of the rich literature on Late Antique Egypt and the rise of Coptic Christianity is omitted here (although some specific works cited do draw on material both earlier and later than the article’s primary focus). For references on Late Antiquity and early Christianity, readers should consult several other Oxford Bibliographies articles (e.g., Eric Rebillard’s articles Roman History: Late Antiquity and Early Christianity).

General Overviews

Bowman 1996 provides a historical and cultural overview of the Hellenistic and Roman periods (and beyond) in Egypt, while Bagnall and Rathbone 2004 describes the major archaeological sites. For the Hellenistic period in particular, Chauveau 2000 is an accessible introductory text, Hölbl 2001 and Huss 2001 are excellent histories, and Manning 2010 (cited under Ptolemaic Administration) discusses government and economy. Lewis 1999 offers a social history of Roman Egypt, and Ritner 1998 provides a brief survey of major political developments. Mitteis and Wilcken 1912 discusses—and provides primary papyrological sources on—many aspects of state and society in Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine Egypt; the authors’ four-volume study, foundational to papyrology as a discipline, helped shape the concerns and orientation of much subsequent papyrological research. Lewis 1995 (originally published in 1970) may at first seem an odd choice for inclusion in this section, since the article does not attempt to provide an “overview” of Hellenistic or Roman Egypt, focusing instead on administrative changes associated with the start of Roman rule. However, this study still serves as a useful starting point for problematizing any discussion of “the Greco-Roman period” in Egypt; citing numerous changes in society and government from the Ptolemies to the Romans, Naphtali Lewis launched an influential argument against the conflation of these periods through the use of the term “Greco-Roman.”

  • Bagnall, Roger S., and Dominic W. Rathbone, eds. 2004. Egypt from Alexander to the Copts: An archaeological and historical guide. London: British Museum.

    Well-researched guide to the archaeological sites of Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine Egypt. For each site, provides an overview of excavation history, historical context, current state as of 2004, and further bibliography.

  • Bowman, Alan K. 1996. Egypt after the pharaohs, 332 BC–AD 642: From Alexander to the Arab conquest. 2d ed. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press.

    General account of Egyptian history and culture in the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine periods.

  • Chauveau, Michel. 2000. Egypt in the age of Cleopatra: History and society under the Ptolemies. Translated by David Lorton. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

    Useful, accessible introductory text on Hellenistic Egypt, emphasizing social history. Translation of L’Égypte au temps de Cléopâtre (Paris: Hachette Littératures, 1997).

  • Hölbl, Günther. 2001. A history of the Ptolemaic Empire. Translated by Tina Saavedra. New York: Routledge.

    Excellent Egyptologically oriented political and military history of Ptolemaic Egypt, including a subtle and detailed analysis of the ideology of power. Translation and updated edition of Geschichte des Ptolemäerreiches: Politik, Ideologie, und religiöse Kultur von Alexander dem Grossen bis zur römischen Eroberung (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buschgesellschaft, 1994).

  • Huss, Werner. 2001. Ägypten in hellenistischer Zeit 332-30 v.Chr. Munich: Verlag C. H. Beck.

    Together with Hölbl 2001, forms one of the most recent studies of Ptolemaic political and military history. Note that Huss’s method of numbering the Ptolemaic reigns after Ptolemy VI—with Ptolemy Euergetes II now known as “Ptolemy VII” rather than “Ptolemy VIII,” and so on—is not shared by most other scholars.

  • Lewis, Naphtali. 1995. Greco-Roman Egypt: Fact or fiction? In On government and law in Roman Egypt: Collected papers of Naphtali Lewis. By Naphtali Lewis, 138–149. Edited by Ann Ellis Hanson. American Studies in Papyrology 33. Atlanta: Scholars Press.

    Questions the validity of the term “Greco-Roman Egypt.” Surveys the spheres of government, economy, and society to conclude that “Roman domination brought more change than continuity in the administration of Egypt” (p. 148). Argues, accordingly, for discarding the term “Greco-Roman Egypt” as a misleading expression that “has outlived its usefulness” (p. 149). Originally published in Proceedings of the Twelfth International Congress of Papyrology (Toronto: Hakkert, 1970), edited by D. H. Samuel, pp. 3–14.

  • Lewis, Naphtali. 1999. Life in Egypt under Roman rule. 2d ed. Classics in Papyrology 1. Atlanta: Scholars Press.

    Readable, learned social history of Roman Egypt, written from a “bottom-up” perspective that focuses on lived experience. Includes numerous illustrative quotations from papyrological sources.

  • Mitteis, Ludwig, and Ulrich Wilcken. 1912. Grundzüge und Chrestomathie der Papyruskunde. 4 vols. Leipzig and Berlin: B. G. Teubner.

    Foundational work of juristic and historical papyrology. The first two volumes deal with historical papyri, the second two with juristic. Each “set” includes an introductory volume (Grundzüge) and a volume of texts (Chrestomathie). The Grundzüge volumes should be read in the context of more-recent scholarship (e.g., regarding Egypt’s supposed “Sonderstellung” in the Hellenistic and Roman world: Vol. 1, p. xv) but still provide foundational discussions of numerous aspects of society.

  • Ritner, Robert K. 1998. Egypt under Roman rule: The legacy of ancient Egypt. In The Cambridge history of Egypt. Vol. 1, Islamic Egypt, 640–1517. Edited by Carl F. Petry, 1–33. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Brief but useful overview of Egyptian history during the Roman period, surveying major social and political developments and discussing the impacts of different emperors’ reigns on the province of Aegyptus.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.