Egypt: History - Graeco Roman Period

Graeco Roman Period

(322 BC-671 AD)

The great event which settled Egypt's fate and determined the nature of her government for the next three centuries was Alexander the Great's conquest of her in 322 BC. The rise of Macedon, as the dominant power in the world, had begun to be reckoned with as a possibility as early as 338 BC, when the doubtfully Greek Philip II, having crushed all resistance by his defeat of Athens and Thebes at Chaeronea, founded a Hellenic League which was to ally all Greece subservience to himself. But no one could then have foreseen the glittering victories which, within a decade, had made his young son Alexander the undisputed master of the entire eastern world. It seems likely that Alexander himself was not fully aware of his purpose until he had conquered Asia Minor and driven Darius into flight at the battle of Issus some 15 miles north of modern Alexandretta (333 BC). Even then his first thought was not the pursuit of the Persian monarch, but the subjection of Syria and Egypt. The siege of Tyre was a long and tedious business, but after that difficulty had been overcome, nothing delayed his march until he arrived at Gaza, which resisted desperately. When Egypt was reached in 332 BC, the Persian satrap surrendered without striking a blow. Alexander hastened upstream to Memphis, sacrificed to the Apis bull, was accepted as Pharaoh, and then returned to the coast. Here on the shore of the Mediterranean near a village named Rhacotis, he traced out the lines of the future great city of Alexandria before starting out on his famous visit to the oracle of Amun in the oasis of Siwa. Whether Alexander had at this time any definite thought of his own divination is uncertain, but that solemn landmark in his life was an inevitable consequence of age-old Egyptian tradition. The Pharaoh was necessarily the son of Amun and therefore himself a god. Alexander's stay in Egypt was prolonged only sufficiently to enable him to appoint native governors, to make wise provision for the collection of taxes under his financial superintendent Cleomenes of Naucratis, and to establish a small standing army under his friend Ptolemy. Then he was quick to liquidate the Persian Empire and to explore its territories as far as India. His subsequent fate is no concern of this book, however tempting it might be to follow up a career of such unparalleled brilliance. He fell seriously ill after his return to Babylon in 323 BC. Here he died in Nebuchadrezzar's palace when he was not 33 years old and before he had complete the thirteenth year of his reign.

Naturally the history of Egypt does not end here, and indeed is entering upon a new phase at the present time. But the consecutive sketch which is all that can be offered by us has to be concluded somewhere, and it is best to place our full-stop before the commencement of the long-drawn-out dynasty of the Ptolemies. Under then Egypt was a changed land. The administration was Greek, although to a large extent the native population continued to live its own life, to write its own language, and to observe it traditional customs. Throughout the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, the Greek-speaking and Latin-speaking rulers of the land retained their highly politic pose of genuine Pharaohs, of worshipping the ancient gods of the country, and of conciliating the priesthoods by providing money for the building or extension of the great temples. It might seem ludicrous to dispense here entirely with descriptions of such splendidly preserved monuments as the temples of Edfu and Dendera, to fail to add our voice to the laments over the impending submergence of the Nubian temples in the interest of growing and hungry generations, and to pass over with no more that brief allusions such all-important inscriptions as those of the Rosetta Stone and the Decree of Canopus. But if the youthful critics for whom we chiefly write reproach us with such omissions, we must remind them that we have still a promise to redeem. The prehistory and early dynastic history of Egypt remain to be discussed before we may lay down our pen.