Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Why Was Egypt Crucial for the Roman Empire?

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The Roman Empire developed into one of the most prosperous, vibrant and affluent civilisations

of the ancient world, but what made it this way? Conquests and taxes are the stereotypical

viewpoint, however many of these were drains on the Empires 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. Welcome to our video on the

Roman Egypt, its importance to the Roman Empire and its governance.

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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 organised

and long-urbanised 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 [silishia], 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

costs. As Cicero stated: “Due to its multitude of exports, Asia is greatly superior to all

other lands.” As the Republics 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 Greats 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, Antonys

regime neglected important aspects of Egypts infrastructure, such as the canals necessary

for both irrigation of crops and for transportation. The Battle of Actium in 31 BC saw the end

of Ptolemaic Egypt and Antonys regime there. When Octavian conquered it in 30 BC, the neglected

new province could only provide 40 million sesterces per annum. In comparison, Julius

Caesars 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 Empires 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 didnt happen for a variety of reasons,

Augustus and his subordinates were forced to search for other sources of revenue.

Despite the countrys 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 hadof 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 labour 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 travelling merchants. Additionally, the Romans moved

in to utilise 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 revitalised

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 travelled to Rome and to their newly

wealthy buyers, the imports were likely taxed again by the one-fortieth Mediterranean Portoria,

which likely totalled 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 which occurred late

in the life of Augustus. Tacitus tells us that as the Emperors ship was passing by

the Bay of Puteoli, an Alexandrian merchant freighter approached. The ships 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 ships 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 Romes 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 phrasebread and circusesto describe both the grain dole and the entertainments

Romans were supposedly preoccupied with during this time. However, there was an economic

incentive to subsidising 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 Romes 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 realised 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 which 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. What were

the many commodities, products and routes through which they travelled? What other kingdoms

partook in this ancient globalised trade network? We are planning to make more videos on the

Roman economy, so make sure you are subscribed to our channel and have pressed the bell button.

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