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

  • Introduction
  • Art and Archaeology: Overviews
  • Historiographical Issues
  • Royal and Imperial Ideology, Dynastic and Imperial Cult, Elites and Court Circles
  • Fiscality and Taxation
  • Army and Police
  • The Economy
  • Law and Justice
  • Household and Family

Biblical Studies Hellenistic and Roman Egypt
by
Gaëlle Tallet
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 September 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0276

Introduction

The Greco-Roman period in Egypt started with the conquest of the country by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE and marks the end of the Achemenid domination over the area. The period covers a seven-century span of time, including the Ptolemaic rule (323/305–330 BCE) and the Roman rule, opened by Octavian-Augustus’s victory over Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, down to the reign of Diocletian (284–305 CE). With this emperor, Egypt entered the Byzantine period, which will not be dealt with in the following bibliography. This long period of time has mostly been studied through the lens of the relationships between Greeks and Hellenized people (among which stand the Jewish communities of Egypt), on the one hand, and Egyptian subjects, with their millenary traditions, on the other. It was the main focus of the pioneering work of Johann Gustav Droysen on the Hellenistic period (Geschichte des Hellenismus, Hamburg, 1836–1843), and remained at the heart of most of the following studies on Greco-Roman Egypt: Hellenization, acculturation, resistance, cultural transfers, and middle-grounds are the most debated concepts for the period. Indeed, culture and literacy were the subject of Arnaldo Momigliano’s masterwork, Alien Wisdoms: The Limits of Hellenization (Cambridge, 1976), and art and religion were also studied through this lens, with major debates on mischkultur and syncretism. For the same reason, ethnicity and individual status were the subject of major studies, together with law systems and taxation patterns. The relationships between the rulers and their subjects, at last, raised major questions, such as: How far can we consider the Egyptian society to be a colonial society during the Hellenistic period? How did the Ptolemies manage the two faces of their kingdom, in terms of privileges, royal ideology, and economy, and what about the diversity of cultures subsumed in the Hellenized category? What can be said of the specific situation of the Jewish people, who were not treated and considered like the Egyptian people and received a status similar to that of Greek people? The question of the governance of the Ptolemaic powers and their relationships with ethnic communities, especially Jewish, remains at the heart of the debate. What were their relationships with the Egyptian traditional elites (and specifically, the clergy) and the common people? Where did they settle? Were Egyptian revolts, which occurred from the 2nd century BCE onward, of a nationalistic nature, and directed against the Greeks and the Greek kings, and their allies? At last, how far was this kingdom “Greek”? In a city like Alexandria, the question of cultural interactions between Greek culture and Egyptian traditions and art is a central one, as is the study of the emergence of a Judeo-Greek culture and its role in the adaptation of the Jewish religion to the Greek koine, as manifested by the formation of the Septuagint. For the Roman period, the question of the specific position of the Egyptian “province” within the empire is also crucial, as is that of Roman efficiency in the management of a multicultural society that did not exactly fit the usual imperial pattern. For the Jewish communities, the period witnessed a deep transformation of life conditions, as the abolition of the Ptolemaic army, with its numerous Judean units settled in the Egyptian chôra, disrupted the economic balance of the communities, while Jewish officials and tax collectors were systematically replaced by people of Greek background. Jewish people were now integrated in the new category of Aigyptoi, and lost the fiscal status of Hellenes. The swift economic decline of the Jewish Diaspora in Egypt during the first century CE was accentuated by the revolt of Eastern Judean communities under the reign of Trajan (98–117), which took violent forms in Egypt and led to harsh conflicts between ethnical communities: it was strongly repressed by the Roman troops, and the economic capacity of the Diaspora took decades to recover from the episode. Indeed, in the first centuries of our era, the question of the emergence of Christianity and its connection with Jewish communities is the subject of lively discussions.

General Overviews

General information on the Greco-Roman period is provided by a small number of general Handbooks, either covering the whole period or focusing on the Hellenistic period or Roman times. The color of the lively debates that took place among scholars involved in the field can be caught through a series of proceedings of International Conferences that enable the reader to understand how major issues were identified and dealt with. Another useful tool is a series of Exhibition Catalogues, which also provide general information and a good choice of documents that help paint the global picture of life in Greco-Roman Egypt.

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