The term ‘Roman Egypt’ applies to Ancient Egypt from 30 BC until the fall of the Roman Empire. It was in 31 BC that Augustus (then Octavian) defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium. Rome and Egypt had had a lot of contact before this point, but it was in 30 that Egypt officially became a Roman province, thus marking the end of Ptolemaic Egypt.
It was a prosperous region, and had been for centuries, on account of its wealth of natural resources. It was rich in stone, copper and lead ores, and most importantly, gold and semi-precious stones. It was thanks to these resources that Egypt accumulated its wealth, was able to engage in trade with other countries and cultures, and was able to forge its own impressive cultural monuments, from its architecture to its tradition of state sculpture and luxury goods such as jewellery.
In the centuries before Roman rule, Egypt was firmly ingrained within the Hellenistic world, and was ruled by the Ptolemies – a dynasty founded by Ptolemy I Soter, one of Alexander the Great’s generals. As a result of this fusion of cultural heritages, in Romano-Egyptian art we often see elements of Greek art, whether style or technique, mixed with the Roman and Egyptian. This manifests itself beautifully in the Fayum encaustic mummy portraits – on these, we can identify Roman fashions and garments painted in the style of Greek portraiture with Egyptian subjects, and in a funerary context unique to Egypt.
A fusion of cultures
As for our own collection, our Romano-Egyptian Cast Glass Unguentarium showcases some of the artistic fusion we might expect to see in Romano-Egyptian goods. The Romans introduced glass blowing to Egypt – before then, Egyptian workshops very rarely worked with pure glass, and would often work with materials like Egyptian faience. As Greco-Roman culture spread across the Mediterranean, so did their techniques for the production of wares in a variety of media, and hence the introduction of more pure glass wares to Egypt. So, in the case of this bottle, we have a Roman technique in a new Egyptian context.
Egypt had a special place in the Roman Empire – it was the only province to be ruled by a ‘prefect’ rather than a ‘governor’ (though the only real difference between these two rules was their title). This was because technically Egypt, unlike any other province, was an imperial province, and so fell within the emperor’s direct remit – day-to-day control was thus entrusted to an Augustan prefect. All other provinces were deemed senatorial provinces, and so were separate to the emperor’s main responsibilities, and would simply be ruled by senators. This reflects what an asset Egypt was to the Roman Empire – strategically and economically crucial to its control of the Mediterranean, and thus the wider world.
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