Sunday, December 6, 2020

Social Integration in Roman Period Egypt

 The social structure in Aegyptus under the Romans was both unique and complicated. On the one hand, the Romans continued to use many of the same organizational tactics that were in place under the leaders of the Ptolemaic period. At the same time, the Romans saw the Greeks in Aegyptus as “Egyptians”, an idea that both the native Egyptians and Greeks would have rejected. To further compound the whole situation, Jews, who themselves were very Hellenized overall, had their own communities, separate from both Greeks and native Egyptians.

The Romans began a system of social hierarchy that revolved around ethnicity and place of residence. The Augustan takeover introduced a system of compulsory public service, which was based on poros (property or income qualification), which was wholly based on social status and power. Other than Roman citizens, a Greek citizen of one of the Greek cities had the highest status, and a rural Egyptian would be in the lowest class. In between those classes was the metropolite, who was almost certainly of Hellenic origin. Gaining citizenship and moving up in ranks was very difficult and there were not many available options for ascendancy. 

One of the routes that many followed to ascend to another caste was through enlistment in the army. Although only Roman citizens could serve in the legions, many Greeks found their way in. The native Egyptians could join the auxiliary forces and attain citizenship upon discharge.

Although Alexandria enjoyed the greatest status of the Greek cities in Egypt, it is clear that the other Greek cities, such as Antinoopolis, enjoyed privileges very similar to the ones seen in Alexandria and the Romans looked to Greek elites  to provide municipal officers and well-educated administrators. In contrast, the native Egyptians were treated as a conquered race.

Prior to Roman conquest, the Hellenistic Ptolemies identified Egyptian deities with their own. This continued after Roman annexation. The cult of Isis appealed even to Greeks and Romans outside Egypt, and in Hellenized form it spread around the Mediterranean and eventually across the Roman Empire. The result was the creation of hybrid deities such as those depicted on this "good luck" bracelet crafted in Roman Egypt in the late 1st century BCE or 1st century CE. 

The first known temple to Isis in Greece was built during or before the fourth century BCE by Egyptians living in Athens. Isis's cult reached Italy and the Roman sphere of influence at some point in the second century BCE.  It was one of many cults that were introduced to Rome as the Roman Republic's territory expanded in the last centuries BCE. Authorities in the Republic tried to define which cults were acceptable and which were not, as a way of defining Roman cultural identity amid the cultural changes brought on by Rome's expansion. In Isis's case, shrines and altars to her were set up on the Capitoline Hill, at the heart of the city, by private persons in the early first century BCE. 

The independence of her cult from the control of Roman authorities made it potentially unsettling to them. In the 50s and 40s BCE, when the crisis of the Roman Republic made many Romans fear that peace among the gods was being disrupted, the Roman Senate destroyed these shrines, although it did not ban Isis from the city outright.

Egyptian cults faced further hostility during the Final War of the Roman Republic (32–30 BCE), when Rome, led by Octavian, the future emperor Augustus, fought Egypt under Cleopatra VII. After Octavian's victory, he banned shrines to Isis and Serapis within the pomerium, the city's innermost, sacred boundary, but allowed them in parts of the city outside the pomerium, thus marking Egyptian deities as non-Roman but acceptable to Rome. Despite being temporarily expelled from Rome during the reign of Tiberius (14–37 CE), the Egyptian cults gradually became an accepted part of the Roman religious landscape. The Flavian emperors in the late first century CE treated Serapis and Isis as patrons of their rule in much the same manner as traditional Roman deities such as Jupiter and Minerva.

Image: Bracelet with Agathodaimon, Isis-Tyche, Aphrodite, and Thermouthis, 1st century B.C.E.–1st century CE, Roman Period at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  

"Powerful talismans of fertility and good destiny are woven into this rich golden composition. The bodies of two snakes intertwine to form a Herakles knot, the centerpiece of this bracelet. The snake on the left represents Agathodaimon, and the cobra on the right Thermouthis, two agrarian/fertility deities associated with Serapis and Isis, respectively. On the platform between them stand two goddesses, Isis-Tyche (or Isis-Fortuna), a deity closely associated with Alexandria, and the nude Aphrodite." - Metropolitan Museum of Art

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