The Rulers of the Roman and Byzantine Periods in Egypt

The Rulers of the Roman and Byzantine Periods in Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn

Statue of Augustus

Notation: This article has been written in conjunction with an update to our list of rulers of Egypt .

For the most part, it was clear who ruled Egypt up until the end of the Greek Period and into the early Roman Period . The Greeks, or Ptolemies, ruled Egypt as pharaohs from within Egypt. However, after the defeat of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony in 30 BC, Octavian, the future emperor Augustus , entered Alexandria in triumph and definitely subjugated Egypt to the domination of Rome. From that time onward, Egypt would at least in some respect, be ruled by outsiders until the populous finally earned their independence in the mid 1900s.

When Rome took Egypt as its own, its importance as a Roman province is clear because it was treated differently than most other areas controlled by the empire. The country actually enjoyed a privileged juridical status. It was not governed by a procurator, as were most Roman provinces, but rather by a praefectus Alexandriae et Egypti (prefect of Alexandria and Egypt). Hence, it was controlled by a type of governor vested with the powers of a viceroy, directly named by the emperor and answerable to him alone. So essentially, Egypt was ruled directly by the Roman emperors, who, together with their representatives, paid frequent visits to the Roman province.

Icon of Constantine, who legalized Christianity in the Roman World

The true Roman era lasted well into the early years of Christian Egypt , up until the time when Constantine finally legalized that faith. However, with the creation of Constantinople in 330, the real rulers of Egypt becomes less clear. Constantinople, the new imperial capital, weakened the prestige of Alexandria , which was until then unquestionably the cultural capital of the Mediterranean East. However, at the same time, the legalization of Christianity transformed Alexandria into the seat of a supranational church and the beacon of the Christian East. For the three centuries beginning with the death of Constantine and ending with the rise of Islam, the church of Egypt, organized around the patriarchate of Alexandria, dominated the religious and civil institutions and so assumed an extraordinary prominent role on both the religious and political front. It became so strong that it was able to at times oppose the central power of Constantinople. Religious doctrinal conflicts which arose within Christianity from the fourth century on became a battle field that was always ready to be used by the patriarchate of Alexandria to defy and contradict the patriarchate of Constantinople, and thus oppose its power.

In fact, the conflict ends in an open and definitive break on the occasion of the controversies concerning Christ's human and divine nature which culminated in the council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. It should be noted that even this early, the popes (patriarchs) and the Emperor at Constantinople were viewed as being equals.

Icon of Justinian

For Egypt, as well as for the whole of the Byzantine world, the reign of Justinian (527-565) became a period of tumultuous activity effecting the organization and administration of the state as well as the security and integrity of the empire's territories, which were increasingly threatened, especially on their eastern frontiers.

What must be said of this Egypt's history after the legalization of Christianity and prior to the Muslim invasion is that the true leadership of Egypt is unclear, though nominally Constantinople did maintain some degree of control.

This situation clears up for a few years between 619 and 629 AD, when, for a brief period, the Persians concurred Egypt, together with Syria and Palestine. This happened at a point when the Byzantine empire had been weakened by economic crisis, epidemics, and a resulting crash in population. At first the Persian occupation is characterized by bloody intolerance, but afterwards the Egyptians are allowed to preserve much of their political and religious rights. However, in 629, the Byzantine emperor, Heraclius, re-conquered Egypt.

Hoping to establish a unified faith once more, Heraclius attempted to impose a theological compromise between the Egyptians and Constantinople regarding the nature of Christ. To achieve this, he appointed the bishop Cyrus patriarch and also gave him the titles of prefect and viceroy. It should be noted that at this point in time, the Melkite Cyrus had only about two hundred thousand Greeks and officials for his adherents in Egypt, were as as many as six million Egyptians acknowledged the non-Chalcedonian faith under Benjamin I. Cyrus was so cruel and violent towards the Egyptian Monophysites, in fact, that he even alienated the Chalcedonian minority, making his patriarchate the most unpopular period in Egypt history. In effect, Cyrus's reign would eventually lead to the easy conquest of the Muslims, who in many regards, treated the local Christians with a more even hand than their brethren in Constantinople. In fact, it was Cyrus who eventually surrendered Alexandria to the Muslims

Coin depicting Heraclius


So the question of who ruled Egypt during the Byzantine period is difficult at best. Certainly Constantinople always seems to have been an influence, and could impose certain controls over the country. There were always Roman soldiers present in Egypt and at the command emperor, but apparently the Christian patriarch frequently also controlled the actions of these troops.So to, apparently, could councils of bishops have considerable influence over Egypt, but essentially, it was very frequently the Patriarch of the Coptic people of Egypt who ruled their hearts, if not always the Egyptian administration.






Reference Number

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American University in Cairo Press, The

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