Books Reviews

Roman Egypt by Roger Bagnall

Review of an important new book on the provinces of Roman Egypt.

Alexandria was known as the First City of the Civilised World and even if its lustre diminished over the years its fame still shone bright as the Pharos lighthouse did over the muddy waters of Aboukir bay. It attracted scholars from across the Mediterranean including men and women (the Bain-Marie takes its name from a female Jewish scientist from the Roman period), as well as from beyond the empire.

Yet this was all to no avail when plague struck. 

Between 165 and 180 CE, a severe plague spread across the Roman Empire. We do not know what disease it was, although smallpox was a likely contender. Like the Spanish ‘Flu, it spread through the army and into the civilian population. Estimates for the average loss of life stand at 22-24% in the first wave and 16-20% in the second. Different areas would have been affected differently. 

The economic, social and psychological impacts are sadly only too easy to imagine.

One notice records multiple deaths in one family. Another petition records that a priest’s house had been robbed while he was away following the death of his daughters, their husbands and his wife.  

We can record so much of the history of this plague through the papyrus records which have survived in the dry conditions in parts of Egypt. This type of evidence which can include personal letters affords an immediacy to the lived experiences of ancient people.

Because of this, Roman Egypt is a country both similar to our own experiences and yet completely different. On the one hand, 10% of households owned slaves and on the other being a member of the elite meant having responsibility for making sure taxes were paid, even if they came from your pocket. The intersectionality of privilege was just as complex as today.

Bagnall v Frankfurter

Sir Roger Bagnall is a major scholar in the field, a noted papyrologist and former Director for the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. He has written widely on Roman Egypt. 

Papyrology is the study of surviving papyrus or ostaka, used as the ‘paper’ of the ancient world. These might include administrative records, petitions or personal letters. They provide a rich insight into ancient life. We can investigate ancient economies and society from this type of evidence however, there are limits to what it can show. It would be like trying to reconstruct contemporary culture from a list of shows on Netflix, letters to the NY Times and the budget for a local cultural centre. We can glean vital information from these sources but any future scholar would have to bring in other forms of evidence. Many aspects of ancient history are the same.

Arguably Bagnall’s most important work was Egypt in Late Antiquity, published in 1993, which set a new paradigm for understanding religion in Roman Egypt and the growth of Christianity. 

Bagnall argued that traditional temples had declined in importance and power since the conquest of Egypt by the Emperor Augustus in 30 BCE. By the second and third century there was a power vacuum within local communities which was then filled by Christianity. This was partly because Roman Emperors ceased funding temples. He writes that the last evidence for the Amesysia, an important festival of Isis, was in 257 CE, suggesting a loss of interest in the goddess. 

This reading was countered by Professor David Frankfurter in Religion in Roman Egypt who argued that although religion changed this was more gradual and elements of traditional piety survived in Christianity and then Islam. Frankfurter examined a wider range of evidence including archaeology, art history and Coptic narratives. He also based his study on local readings.

Although research has developed beyond the two models created 20 years ago, scholars still broadly align with the two models. For my part, I align with Frankfurter. 

Sadly Bagnall does not respond to these arguments directly and seems to just qualify what he wrote nearly 30 years before by arguing social trends centralised money away from rural settlements into cities. 

The loss of power and resources for the Egyptian temples, set in motion by changes early in the Roman period, was thus intensified by developments in political, social, and economic life that took time to emerge and take shape. As the Roman Empire faced acute political, military, and economic stresses in the third century, the emperors’ priorities did not include support for Egyptian temples. Given all these developments, it would not be surprising if we saw signs of distress already in the second century, and of acute trouble in the third century.

And we do.

Page 147

And yet, the third century was the period when worship of the goddess Isis was at its height across the Roman Empire. This goddess had become the dominant figure within a streamlined Egyptian religion. 

Bagnall differentiates Christianity “with its universal claims and network” to traditional religion without fully interrogating traditional religion. In Egypt, many local deities claimed universal power. In the Fayum region, the snake goddess Isis-Thermouthis was associated with an assortment of different goddesses.

All mortals who live on the boundless earth,
Thracians, Greeks and Barbarians,
Express Your fair Name, a Name greatly honoured among all, but
Each speaks in his own language, in his own land.

Hymns of Isidorus, I

It is a different form of universalism to that of Christianity, but similar enough to have warranted further investigation from many scholars. To argue Christianity filled a vacuum in Egypt, a tabula rasa, is just as absurd as the claim it landed in Egypt in the first century CE with bishops, presbyters and correct belief.

This is just one aspect of Roman Egypt, but an important one.


Qualms aside, this book can be read by students and general readers. The text is lucid without being too simplistic and the tasty price point makes it accessible for many readers and public libraries.  As such it will have an important role in disseminating a specific view point. 

The authors collected here are the experts in their field, yet I would argue the book misses something of the richness, complexity and excitement of the country. It does offer a solid overview of the period however.

Ancient Egypt is one of the most exciting periods and areas of historical study thanks to the sheer wealth of evidence that has survived, although we must acknowledge and address the colonial context in which some of this evidence was first recorded and the continues to be held.

It is also good to see this book extend the scope of its study into the Arabic period, a less studied period of history in the West yet one which affords the same level of evidence.

By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics