Taming the Crocodile: Augustus Annexes Ptolemaic Egypt

Augustus’ conquest of Ptolemaic Egypt and the annexation of this wealthy region in 30 BCE caused a profound change in Egyptian society and facilitated the rise of the Roman Empire.

Oct 13, 2021By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History
ancient coin augustus gold temple dendur petronius
Gold coin of Augustus, 27 BCE, the British Museum; with Temple of Dendur, built by prefect Petronius, 10 BCE, its original location was near the present-day Aswan, The Metropolitan Museum of Art


I added Egypt to the empire of the Roman people.” With these few words, Emperor Augustus summarized the subjugation of Ptolemaic Egypt in the record of his life and accomplishments distributed across the Roman Empire. Indeed, the conquest of Egypt and its subsequent annexation had an important role in shaping the nascent Empire. The wealthiest region of the ancient world became the emperor’s personal possession, further bolstering his power and influence. While Augustus, like all Ptolemaic kings before him, assumed the role of pharaoh, Roman rule still caused a clear break with the past.


For the first time in Egypt’s history, its ruler resided in another part of the world. Further, most high officials were foreigners sent from abroad. The same applied to the military, with Roman legions replacing the Ptolemaic troops. Yet, the Romans continued to respect the local customs, culture, and religion, maintaining good relations with the old elites. Besides the changes within the country, the taming of the Egyptian crocodile had far-reaching consequences for Roman society as a whole: from the bloom of so-called Nilotic art, to the famous grain fleets that annually supplied the city of Rome with large quantities of free wheat, keeping the populace happy and loyal to the emperor.


Before the Conquest: Ptolemaic Egypt

ancient bust ptolemy i soter and ptolemy as pharaoh
The bust of Ptolemy I Soter, late 4th to early 3th century BCE, Musée du Louvre, Paris; with Fragment of a black basalt statue of Ptolemy I, presenting him as a pharaoh, 305-283 BCE, The British Museum, London


The history of Ancient Egypt was irreversibly changed by the arrival of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE. Egyptians regarded the young general as a liberator, freeing them from the Persian regime. During his visit to the Oracle of Siwa, one of the most important sacred sites in Egypt, Alexander was proclaimed pharaoh and son of the god Amun. However, the newly crowned ruler did not stay for long, embarking on his famous Persian campaign, which would eventually take him all the way to India. Before his departure, Alexander left another indelible mark upon Egypt. He founded a new city and named it after himself — Alexandria.


Alexander never returned to his beloved city. Instead, one of Alexander’s generals and successors, Ptolemy I, chose Alexandria as the capital of his new empire. Under the new dynasty, which ruled the country for three centuries, Ptolemaic Egypt became one of the most powerful Mediterranean states, deriving its power and influence from its favorable geographic position and the immense wealth of its lands.


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Map of Ptolemaic Egypt at its height during the 3rd century BCE, via the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World

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Under the Ptolemies, Egypt expanded its territory towards Libya in the East and Syria in the West, controlling at its apex the southern coast of Asia Minor and the island of Cyprus. The capital of the mighty kingdom, Alexandria, became a cosmopolitan metropolis, a trade hub, and an intellectual powerhouse of the ancient world. Ptolemy’s successors followed his example, appropriating ancient Egyptian customs, taking an active role in religious life, and marrying their siblings. They built new temples, preserved old ones, and bestowed royal patronage on the priesthood.


Despite supporting the old lifestyle, the Ptolemaic Dynasty rigorously promoted its own Hellenistic character and traditions. In Ptolemaic Egypt, high positions were occupied mainly by Greeks, or Hellenized Egyptians, while the ancient religion incorporated new Hellenistic elements. Besides the capital Alexandria, the other two main centers in Egypt were the Greek cities of Naucratis and Ptolemais. The rest of the country retained local governments.


The Arrival of Rome

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Marble Portrait of Cleopatra VII Philopator, mid-1st century BCE, Altes Museum, Berlin


From having been a world power in the 3rd century BCE, Ptolemaic Egypt fell into crisis a century later. The decreasing authority of the Ptolemaic rulers, paired with military defeats, especially against the Seleucid Empire, resulted in an alliance with the rising Mediterranean power —  Rome. Initially, Roman influence was weak. However, internal troubles that lasted for the whole of the 1st century BCE further weakened the Ptolemaic power, gradually drawing Egypt closer to Rome.


After the death of Ptolemy XII in 51 BCE, the throne was left to his daughter Cleopatra and her younger brother, Ptolemy XIII, a 10-year-old boy. According to the king’s will, the Romans had to guarantee that this fragile alliance would be observed. It did not take long for the rivalry to emerge between the siblings. Ptolemy was determined to rule alone, and the conflict morphed into a full-blown civil war. But Cleopatra was not one to give up easily. Following the assassination of Pompey the Great in 48 BCE, his rival Julius Caesar arrived at Alexandria.


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Cleopatra and Caesar, by Jean Leone Gerome, 1866, private collection, via Arthur Digital Museum


Caesar did not come alone, bringing with him an entire Roman legion. Having ordered Pompey’s death, Ptolemy hoped to curry favor with Caesar. However, he was forestalled by Cleopatra. Using a mix of her feminine charms and her royal status, the 21-year old queen convinced Caesar to support her claim. From here on, events moved quickly. Ptolemy, whose force greatly outnumbered the Romans, attacked in 47 BCE, trapping Caesar within the walls of Alexandria. However, Caesar and his well-disciplined Roman troops survived the siege. Several months later, the Roman army defeated Ptolemaic soldiers at the Battle of the Nile. Ptolemy, trying to escape, drowned in the river after his boat capsized.


With her brother dead, Cleopatra was now the undisputed ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt. Although the kingdom became a Roman client state, it was immune from any political interference from the Roman Senate. Egyptians treated the Roman visitors well, but transgressions and disrespect of the local customs and beliefs could end in severe punishment. An unfortunate Roman who accidentally killed a cat — a sacred animal to the Egyptians — learned this the hard way, being torn apart by an angry mob. Another important animal was the crocodile. A child of the crocodile-headed god Sobek, associated with the life-giving Nile, the large reptile was a symbol of Ptolemaic Egypt.


Augustus: A Roman Pharaoh

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Detail of the colossal carving of Cleopatra and her son Ptolemy XV Caesarion before the gods, on a south exterior wall of the Temple of Dendera, Photo by Francis Frith, via the Royal Collection Trust


Cleopatra’s intimate relationship with Caesar resulted in their son Caesarion. However, the Ptolemaic queen’s further plans and a possible official union between Rome and Egypt were cut short by Caesar’s assassination in March 44 BCE. Trying to find protection for both herself and her son, Cleopatra backed Mark Antony in the civil war against Caesar’s adopted son Octavian. She chose poorly. In 31 BCE, at the Battle of Actium, the combined Roman-Egyptian fleet was smashed by Octavian’s navy, commanded by his close friend and future son-in-law Marcus Agrippa. A year later, both Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide. The death of Cleopatra marked the end of Ptolemaic Egypt, ushering a new Roman era into the land of the pharaohs.


Rome’s rule over Egypt officially began with the arrival of Octavian to Alexandria in 30 BCE. The sole ruler of the Roman world realized that it was in his best interest to keep friendly relations with the Egyptians (both the Greeks and the natives), since he rightly understood that Egypt had great value for his nascent Empire. Although the Egyptian religion, customs, and culture remained unchanged, Octavian’s visit signaled a significant shift in the country’s politics and ideology. While he visited the famed tomb of his idol Alexander, Octavian refused to see the resting places of the Ptolemaic kings. This was only the beginning of his departure from the past.


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Emperor Augustus depicted as the pharaoh of Egypt, relief from the Temple of Kalabsha, via Wikimedia Commons


Like Alexander, Octavian also visited the ancient capital of Egypt — Memphis — where the god Ptah and the Apis Bull had been revered since the 1st dynasty. This was also the place where both Alexander the Great, and his Ptolemaic successors were crowned pharaohs. Octavian, however, refused the coronation, which contradicted the Roman republican tradition. Octavian was not yet Augustus, the emperor. He was only an official representative of the Roman state to Egypt.


Augustus was depicted as a pharaoh during his reign, with the cult of Augustus established in Memphis. He would be, however, a different sort of pharaoh. Unlike his predecessors, both Egyptian and Ptolemaic monarchs who were crowned by the gods, Augustus became the ruler of Egypt through the powers (imperium) granted to him by the Senate and the people of Rome. Even as emperor, Augustus respected Roman traditions. Some of his successors, like Caligula, openly admired the Ptolemaic divine autocracy and considered transferring the capital to Alexandria.


The Emperor’s Private Estate

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The Vatican Nile, showing the personified Nile with cornucopia (the horn of plenty), a sheaf of wheat, crocodile, and the sphinx, the late 1st century BCE, Musei Vaticani, Rome


Another important change made by Augustus was his decision to rule from Rome, not from Egypt. Besides his brief stay in 30 BCE, the emperor never visited Egypt again. His successors would also be proclaimed pharaohs, and would also briefly visit this exotic possession of the Empire, admiring its ancient monuments and enjoying luxury cruises on the Nile. Yet, the change affected all aspects of Egyptian life. Besides the changes in the calendar, a new era was also introduced, known as the Kaisaros Kratesis (Dominion of Caesar) Era, beginning with Augustus’ conquest of Egypt.


Not only the Egyptians were affected. By Augustus’ decree, no senator could enter the province without the emperor’s permission! The reason for such a draconic ban was Egypt’s geostrategic position and its immense wealth, which made the region an ideal power base for a potential usurper. The successful usurpation of Vespasian in 69 CE, which was aided greatly by his control of Egypt’s grain supply to Rome, justified Augustus’ concerns.


nimes late period crocodile
The famous dupondius of Nemausus, bronze coin minted in Nimes in honor of Augustus’ victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra, Left, the joint portrait of Emperor Augustus and Marcus Agrippa; right Egypt personified as the crocodile chained to a palm, 10-14 CE, via the British Museum


Thus, Roman Egypt, the “jewel in the empire’s crown” became the emperor’s private estate. As a  “breadbasket” of the Empire, the province played a paramount role in solidifying the emperor’s position, bolstering the imperial economy, and giving the ruler direct access to grain fleets that fed Rome’s populace, securing their support. To maintain that control, Augustus appointed a viceroy of Egypt, a prefect, who answered only to the emperor. A prefect’s assignment lasted a limited time, effectively depoliticizing the country. This temporary status of the prefect also neutralized rivalries and lowered the risk of revolts. As the coins of Augustus proudly proclaimed to all his subjects, Rome had captured and tamed the Egyptian crocodile.


The Rejuvenated Crocodile

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Temple of Dendur, built by prefect Petronius, 10 BCE, its original location was near the present-day Aswan, The Metropolitan Museum of Art


While the Ptolemaic court hierarchy was dismantled, the rest of the administrative structure was preserved but modified according to the needs of the new regime. In Ptolemaic Egypt, the Greeks had held all the high offices. Now, the Romans (sent from abroad) filled most of those posts. The Hellenic residents still kept their privileges, continuing to be a dominant group in Roman Egypt. For instance, they were either exempt from the newly introduced Roman taxes or had to pay less, unlike native Egyptians. But it would be wrong to consider Egyptian culture insignificant. Augustus’ successors continued to maintain good links with the priestly elite, keeping good relations with the natives.


That strategy paid off, and from three legions stationed (each 6,000 men strong) in Egypt during Augustus’ reign, two remained under the later emperors. The army’s primary task was to control the southern border, which remained mostly dormant. The first prefect of Egypt led an ambitious push southwards. However, after initial clashes with the Kingdom of Kush, the expansion was halted, and the border was consolidated on the Nile’s first cataract. During the relatively peaceful reign of emperor Nero in the mid-1st century CE, the Romans ventured southward for one last time, but as explorers, not soldiers, trying to find the mythical source of the Nile.


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Fresco from Herculaneum depicting a Nilotic scene, late 1st century BCE to early 1st century CE, Museo Galileo, Florence


The peace in the interior and exterior allowed Roman Egypt to prosper. The wealthy province distributed grain, fine materials like glass and papyrus, and precious stones all across the growing Empire. Alexandria, now the second-largest city after Rome, continued to flourish, fostering Graeco-Roman culture and intellectual pursuits. After the advent of Christianity, the city of Alexander became the center of the new religion, remaining the most important city of the Roman East until its fall to the Arabs in the 7th century.


The conquest of Egypt and its annexation inspired a wave of great fascination with its ancient culture. While senators could not freely travel to Egypt, others could, visiting the country for its imposing architecture and exotic landscapes. Those who were unable to travel to the distant Roman province could admire numerous monuments, brought to Rome and other major cities of the Empire. Giant obelisks installed in Roman fora and circuses clearly displayed the emperor’s power. But the crocodile did strike back. Rich Romans decorated their villas with Egyptian-themed frescoes, sculptures, and artifacts — “Nilotic art” — while dressing in the ancient Egyptian fashion. As the Roman gods were imported to Egypt, so did Egypt export their ancient deities to Rome. The cult of Isis, the Egyptian mother goddess, had an immense impact throughout the empire.


End of Ptolemaic Egypt: The Rise of the Roman Empire

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Golden coin of Augustus, showing the crocodile with the legend Aegypto Capta (“Egypt Captured”), 27 BCE, the British Museum


The arrival of Augustus to Alexandria in 30 BCE marked the end of Ptolemaic rule, and the beginning of a new era for Egypt. While Augustus and his successors continued to respect the customs, culture, and religion of Egypt, the change at the top signaled the clear break with the country’s past. Augustus became the pharaoh, not by the will of the Egyptian gods, but through the powers bestowed upon him by the Senate and the people of Rome. Further, the new pharaoh resided not in Egypt, but in Italy.


Due to its key position in the Eastern Mediterranean, and its immense wealth, the new province achieved a special status. From Augustus onwards, Roman Egypt became the emperor’s private property. Egypt’s resources, especially its granaries, were used to shore up the emperor’s position and influence, strengthening the empire. The new and more efficient administration headed by the emperor’s trusted governor, the prefect,  governed the country, balancing the needs of its cosmopolitan population with those of the empire. It should not come as a surprise that during Roman rule, Egypt, and its capital Alexandria, prospered.


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A wooden box, showing the ruler making an offering to the crocodile god Sobek, late 1st century BCE, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore


Rome reshaped Egypt, but Egypt also reshaped Rome. Egyptian monuments were taken to the Empire’s major cities, Nilotic art found in opulent houses of the rich and powerful, and ancient gods who joined the Roman pantheon — they all left an indelible imprint on Roman society. Augustus could brag that he tamed the Egyptian crocodile, but in the process, that crocodile became the most important animal in Rome’s growing menagerie.

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By Vedran BiletaMA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in HistoryVedran is a doctoral researcher, based in Budapest. His main interest is Ancient History, in particular the Late Roman period. When not spending time with the military elites of the Late Roman West, he is sharing his passion for history with those willing to listen. In his free time, Vedran is wargaming and discussing Star Trek.