Why Was Egypt Crucial for the Roman Empire? - The Comprehensive Minds

Why Was Egypt Crucial for the Roman Empire?

Egypt Crucial for the Roman Empire
Photo Source: Google Images| credit: Alex The Rambler

The Roman Empire developed into one of the most prosperous, vibrant, and affluent civilizations of the ancient world, but what made it this way? Conquests and taxes are the stereotypical viewpoints, however many of these were drains on the Empire’s resources rather than boons. 

As the costs of defending and maintaining territorial gains gradually increased throughout the first century BC, Augustus was forced to look for new sources of revenue. The new imperial regime found that in the ancient land of Egypt. 

Conquest in the Roman Republican period accelerated at the end of the third century BC. It was often a profitable venture for legionaries and their commanders, who would often gain vast wealth in war loot. However, when a new province was conquered, it would serve as a drain on funds due to the necessary administrative and defensive costs. 

Beginning in the early 2nd century BC, Rome gradually began to expand into the eastern Mediterranean basin, encountering and annexing the economically prosperous, well-organized, and long-urbanized territories in the east. The conquests of Gnaeus Pompey in particular were a landmark moment. After finally defeating the Pontic Kingdom in the Mithridatic Wars, Pompey turned the Anatolian territories of Bithynia, Cilicia [si’lishia], and Pontus itself into Roman provinces. 

Further east, he annexed Syria and accepted the Judean Kingdom as a protectorate. These rapid territorial acquisitions raised the revenue of the Roman state from 200 million sesterces per annum to 340 million - a colossal increase in such a short time. However, during the late republican period, many Roman territories operated at a deficit, and only the recently acquired Anatolian territories, now part of the province called Asia, were able to send wealth back to Rome after paying their own other lands.” As the Republic’s political turmoil intensified, Mark Antony and Octavian divided the Roman state through the Treaty of Brundisium in 40 BC. 

While Octavian took the turbulent and unconsolidated western half, Antony - as the senior partner, took the wealthier east. He quickly turned his gaze onto Egypt and made an alliance with Cleopatra VII, a descendant of Alexander the Great’s general, Ptolemy. 

During this period, taxes were vastly increased in order to fund an expensive war against the Parthian Empire, which damaged Egyptian businesses and the economy. Moreover, Antony’s regime neglected important aspects of Egypt’s infrastructure, such as the canals necessary for both irrigations of crops and for transportation. 

The Battle of Actium in 31 BC saw the end of Ptolemaic Egypt and Antony’s regime there. When Octavian conquered it in 30 BC, the neglected new province could only provide 40 million sesterces per annum. In comparison, Julius Caesar’s recent conquest of the economically less developed Gallic province also provided 40 million, showing the mismanagement which had occurred under Antony, and the often decadent and neglectful Ptolemaic Dynasty as a whole. 

Even with the reduced Egyptian incomes now flowing into the Empire’s treasuries, the enlarged Roman state could not be maintained for long. In the hopes of finding additional methods of meeting their monetary needs, a conference between various imperial leaders was held. The best solution at first was an attempt to conquer and seize the incense-rich Sabaean Kingdom or to attack and plunder the Parthian Empire. 

When these invasions didn’t happen for a variety of reasons, Augustus and his subordinates were forced to search for other sources of revenue. Despite the country’s depleted and neglected status, the conquest of Egypt granted Augustus an enormous fortune initially, mainly from the capture of Ptolemaic treasures. 

The wealthiest people in their society had ⅔ of their wealth confiscated, and the Romans stole the plentiful religious offerings gathered by Cleopatra. Two distinct, but connected, events now occurred which would result in a drastic rise in Roman prosperity, and they were directly linked to Egypt. 

The first was the way in which Augustus used this sudden dramatic influx of wealth, which had flowed back to Rome in unprecedented quantities. He used it to supplement state spending and more crucially granted generous amounts to the Roman People. 

In one of these payouts, the Princeps gave gifts to the soldiers, and 400 sesterces to each Roman citizen. As well as ensuring his popularity, this gift also had a profound economic impact. A consumer boom began which eventually led to the increasing of prices of saleable goods to up to double their previous level - which began to attract many foreign merchants to the eternal city. 

The second was the conquest of the Egyptian Red Sea ports and their accompanying sea-lanes, which led to ancient India and beyond. Though Egypt had been neglected for over a century by the Ptolemaic rulers, Augustus would now begin to restore sound governance and vibrancy to the region. 

He used the Roman army, now famous for its construction work, as a massive labor force, to rapidly restore the agricultural and transportation infrastructure, which had been allowed to decay by the Ptolemies. Roads and trade routes were improved, caravan stations were constructed and military outposts, as well as watchtowers, were erected to facilitate and take control of communication and trade. 

Making routes safe for traders was crucial, as more would travel if they felt secure in their safety and property. Crucially, the main advancements in this aspect of governance were accomplished in a concentrated area between the Nile port city of Coptos and its closest Red Sea ports - primarily Myos Hormos. 

Strabo reported that cisterns filled with plentiful rainwater were constructed at regular intervals, which aided traveling merchants. Additionally, the Romans moved in to utilize the ancient gold and emerald mines of the Eastern Desert of Egypt, as well as the decorative porphyry and granite quarries of Mons Porphyrites and Mons Claudanius. 

The early Ptolemaic kings had also developed a competent administration, which was revitalized and added onto by Augustus, in order to efficiently deal with the vast quantities of grain and wealth which flowed through the province. 

After only a few years of good Roman administration, the number of ships sailing from Egypt to India per year had increased from less than 20 to over 120, and this began to provide important new revenues derived from import and export taxes. 

A document known as the Muziris Papyrus confirms how Roman customs agents taxed the lucrative eastern cargo. For example, a ship named the Hermapollon returned from India carrying a staggering 9 million sesterces worth of goods, primarily exotic eastern pepper and spices. 

State officials supposedly collected around 2.2 million sesterces as a 25% tax from this one ship. Therefore, all 120 ships could have brought in 250 million sesterces in import taxes. As they traveled to Rome and to their newly wealthy buyers, the imports were likely taxed again by the one-fortieth Mediterranean Pretoria, which likely totaled around 25 million sesterces per annum. 

Another 25 million was collected by the state as Roman exports, such as cereals, wine, and olive oil being shipped to India were taxed on their exit. Therefore, by 20 BC, Augustus was receiving from Egypt an income larger than that received by king Ptolemy XII in 80 BC, and it is likely that the province provided up to half of the income needed to finance the whole Empire. 

The prosperity that this trade brought merchants is shown in an incident that occurred late in the life of Augustus. Tacitus tells us that as the Emperor’s ship was passing by the Bay of Puteoli, an Alexandrian merchant freighter approached. 

The ship’s merchant crew and passengers, donning white garments and dressed in garlands, began burning celebratory incense. They lavished good wishes and praise on the emperor, stating gratefully that he and his reforms had given them their livelihood. 

The aging Augustus watched with pleasure, and gave forty gold pieces to each of the ship’s soldiers, provided they all swore to spend the gift on eastern goods from Alexandria. By the mid-first century AD, Egypt was producing staggering revenues of around 600 million sesterces, or two-thirds of imperial revenue per year, highlighting its importance to the Roman economy and massive potential when administered correctly. 

The growth of eastern trade explains how the Empire received such a massive, sudden boost to its revenues in the reign of Tiberius. When that Emperor perished, the imperial treasury reportedly had 2.7 billion sesterces of surplus. 

This prosperity seems to have been unexpected, as during the reign of Augustus he had advised his potential successors not to undertake further conquests - as the Empire at that time could not support the additional costs. However, due to the monumental revenues generated by Egypt, it became possible to embark on more ambitious endeavors. By the year 43 AD, Claudius could afford to undertake the conquest of Britannia, adding another deficit region to the imperial domains. 

This annexation also sacrificed the acquisition of trading tariffs which were more prosperous than the possession of the area itself. The last Flavian emperor - Domitian, also raised army pay by a third in the late first century AD, in order to cement his popularity with the soldiers, increasing military spending by 200 million sesterces per year. Both of these fiscally negative moves would have been impossible without Egypt. 

With its fertility, massively prosperous eastern trade, and low military costs, the now well-administered Roman Egypt essentially bankrolled the rest of the empire, propping up its deficit provinces and allowing for further expansion. 

During this early period of the Empire, control over Egypt meant consequent control over the vast majority of imperial revenue and possession of a third of Rome’s crucial grain supply, intended for the Annona grain dole. 

We must take a moment to discuss the importance of this underestimated economic phenomena. During the late Republic, socio-economic conditions in Rome, the growing population, and political unrest, caused senators to enact the grain dole in order to secure popular support among the citizens. The Roman poet Juvenal derisively coined the phrase ‘bread and circuses’ to describe both the grain dole and the entertainments Romans were supposedly preoccupied with during this time. 

However, there was an economic incentive to subsidizing the population which is rarely outlined. Low-income citizens, instead of having to spend all their surplus money on bread, could now afford luxury goods purchased from the increasingly vibrant markets of Rome, which encouraged trade even further. In essence, the Roman state had indirectly fostered market commerce by allowing their citizens to maintain their surplus income for luxury spending. Furthermore, the grain dole allowed for Rome to become the most massive urban area of the ancient world, reaching up to a million people. 

At the time of Rome's peak population, its nearest rival was the city of Luoyang in Han China, with a population of 500,000. To recap, Egypt provided both massive revenues and massive quantities of the grain necessary to maintain Rome’s integrity. Now, we shall discuss how the Roman Emperors managed this unique province. 

Aware of the economic potential of Egypt, and its importance to the imperial structure, the Emperors realized that access to the province needed to be limited. It could not be afforded for any aristocratic challenger or native separatist movement to originate in the province, as it would severely disturb imperial finances and possibly cause food shortages. 

To this end, Egypt was governed in a manner, unlike any other province, with measures which shall now be discussed. Shortly after Augustus consolidated the Empire, he split it into senatorial and imperial provinces. Senatorial provinces, or 'Provinces of the Roman People’, were those territories where the senate had the authority to appoint the proconsular governor, and were also less threatened regions that possessed fewer legions. 

Conversely, the governors of imperial provinces were appointed solely by the emperors as legatus Augusti. Imperial provinces usually possessed vastly more military force, due to the risk that senators might attempt a coup against the emperor. 

Egypt was an imperial province, but it was subject to even more restrictions. Its governor was always a member of the equestrian class - Equestrian Praefectus - rather than a senator. In addition, no senator was permitted to visit Egypt without the direct approval of the Emperor, and therefore could not own property or conspire to use the province to rebel. 

Moreover, no Alexandrian was permitted to become a Roman senator and the leading citizens were forbidden from assembling any native administrative council. Egypt was the gateway to the vast and untapped riches of the east which, when exploited through international trade, granted Rome an unprecedented level of wealth and prosperity. 

The Greek author Dio Chrysostom outlined that, fundamentally, Roman control of Egypt altered Mediterranean commerce, and Alexandria become the greatest emporium in the inhabited world. 

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