I. Otto, D.Reardon, B. Feinberg, Z. Zhong

In the Classical Period, and to a lesser extent still today, Egypt was held as the oldest, longest-lived civilization of the Mediterranean. With its grand architecture, arcane and often incomprehensible worship of animal figures, reverence for the dead, and thousands of years of history, Egypt enthralled the ancient imagination as much as it does the modern. Still, while Egyptian culture had a strong impact on the art and culture of both Greece and Rome, it remained obstinately resistant to external cultural forces, right up until the country’s conversion to Christianity around the fall of the Roman Empire.

The Greeks were a self-righteous people who truly believed that they had totally figured out the way to make a society run. They respected a fair bit of Egyptian civilization, but held disdain for some of it. With this mindset, the Greeks viewed the Egyptians as a sort of prototype to their own civilization. That being said, the Greeks saw their way of life as an improved version of the Egyptians and also saw the way the Egyptians lived as backwards in a sense. That alone doesn’t fully encompass the view as that mindset towards the Egyptians gave birth to a sort of superiority complex held by the Greeks.

In order to make sense of Egypt in the context of Greece one must first be able to understand Egypt without the views of Greece mixed in with it. The early Egyptian society was respected in their small sphere of influence almost since their inception. The Egyptians were also feared for their fighting prowess as best stated by Poo through the words of Harkhuf, “Egypt was very much respected by the Nubians. In his own words (Harkhuf), he was one who “brings the produce of all foreign lands to his lord, . . . who casts the dread of Horus into the foreign lands”(Poo 2005, 72). The Egyptians were accustomed to fear and respect from their contemporaries during the formative years of their civilization, but they were not a people with the same dreams of conquest held by Rome or Greece. The Egyptians were cautious of spreading themselves too thin, which ironically would cause the two aforementioned civilizations to fall apart. As the, “mentality of the Egyptian elite: the foreign lands, be it Nubia or Syria, were not places to cast a curious eye” (Poo 2005, 73). Again, the Greeks would be confused by this decision and would lump it in with the “backwardness” of the Egyptians. The conservatism of the Egyptians is something that they held onto for a long time and was something that was the cause of ire among the Greeks analyzing the Egyptians of the time.

The Greeks had a complicated attitude toward the Egyptians that seemed at times to be paradoxical. They appeared to both admire and condemn Egyptians at the same time, calling their ways backwards or different from everyone else in the world. Herodotus says, “[Egypt] has more wonders than any other land and monuments beyond description,” but in the same passage writes about how backward they are, such as “the women urinate standing up, the men do it sitting down.” (Kennedy 2013, 116)  Phiroze Vasunia examines this complicated attitude and relationship between Greece and Egypt through the writings of many prominent Greeks, and the contexts of those writings. The Greeks can be observed to have used Egyptian culture to contextualize themselves, and this is where the paradox appears. They seemed to appropriate the Egyptian culture in order to “confer authority and legitimacy on their own tradition,” while at the same time “specifying their own break with Egypt and signaling a displacement away from Egypt” (Vesunia 1996, 201). Vasunia’s argument is simply that the Greeks sought to understand themselves by comparing themselves to the Egyptians, which is not an unfamiliar phenomenon. “The explanation given here for this phenomenon is that the Greeks, by considering Egypt within the limits of their own discourses, were determining the shape of their own culture as well as representing a foreign country” (Vesunia 1996, 201). This extended cultural event shows that the Greeks considered the Egyptians somewhat equal to them. They both attributed the origins of many things, such as certain gods and even the practice of writing, to the Egyptians, while making it clear that the Egyptians were not like anyone else around the known world. This strange relationship and attitude makes it clear that the Greeks did not take the presence and potential threat of Egyptian culture lightly, they knew about its importance, and used it define themselves, creating a unique cultural interaction that, in the end, had an impact on both nations.

One of the best ways we can define this impact is by watching the flow of ideas across the Mediterranean. Ideas can start in one area, move to another and take on a new form, while still retaining the essence of the idea. While this dissemination takes place, the idea in not entirely unfamiliar, and can ever be observed to come back to its original home to be accepted in its new form. Take for example, the influence one people might have on another’s art. Art is a very important form of expression that we use to learn much about the peoples of the past, and at times, it can be very clear to see some art directly influencing other art. The article “Origin and Influence Cultural Contacts: Egypt, the Ancient near East, and the Classical World” discusses the contact between the regions listed in the title through the observation of art from those various regions.

The best example of cross-cultural dissemination as seen in art provided in this article is the concept of the griffin and the lion-griffin. The regular griffin is a mythological beast with the body of a lion and the head (and typically wings) of a bird. A lion-griffin is similar to a griffin, but still has a head that resembles a lion, and its tail is feathered, and its hindlegs are that of a bird of prey. We can track the origin of the idea of this creature and its evolution through art as it passed to new cultures through cross-culture contact. The article articulates that the classic griffin started out in the art of “near East” societies and migrated over to Egypt, while the lion-griffin came from Mesopotamia, as they can be seen on Mesopotamian seals. We see that the two ideas begin to collide as the several cultures of this area of the world interact more and more. “By the second and early first millennium B.C., griffins had taken on many of the features of lion-griffins—upright ears, neck ruff, and forehead knob … The Greeks took over the idea of the griffin in the late eighth and seventh century B.C. In Greek art, the monster’s characteristic features were a forehead knob, upright horses’ ears, and a gaping beak” (Harper 1971, 320). We can see here the tracking of the ideas of the griffin and its features, and the combining of the two common depictions of the monster. Clearly some cross-cultural dissemination happened here between several nations, including Greece and Egypt.

The Greeks still held reverence to some part of the Egyptian way of life and were able to recognize them as pioneers in the way of society building. As to them, “Egypt was the earliest attempt to combine an ethical existence with economic sustenance on a national scale, in an international milieu” (DeHaven King 2018, 3). Again the Greeks saw the Egyptians as an imperfect but valiant attempt which the Greeks would recreate through their empire later down the line. The most important example of Greek respect and reverence to the Egyptians is with regards to the Egyptian political/ justice system, “First, leadership is critiqued by a simple peasant, which implies recognition of the right—whether formal or customary–to engage in such a critique. Second, its popularity and use in schools also implies an active tradition of critique and redress of grievances. Third, the fact that the peasant triumphs over the leadership reinforces the concept and practice of justice without class bias” (Dehaven King 2018, 8). This system would eventually be the bedrock that all of Greek democracy leadership and justice would lay upon. Ironically the Greeks would fail to realize that they were influenced by the Egyptians for the most part. In the mind of the Greek writers they borrowed very little from the Egyptians but the influence was far greater than they were able to comprehend or were aware of.

The Greeks however were more drawn the differences between them and the people of Egypt. As such, it is, “No wonder then that recurrent interpretation has Herodotus perceive the Egyptians as a prime example of the “Other.” They insisted on their distinctiveness their habits and beliefs contrasted in every way with those of the Hellenes” (Gruen 2010, 4). The Greeks were laser focused on things that differentiated them such as the gender roles and the ways of worship, specifically that of animals which fascinated the Greek writers seemingly to no end. As much as the Greeks didn’t seem to realize it the Greeks and Egyptians shared a very important distinction and that is the distinction of how both groups classified outsiders or barbarians. “The Egyptians set themselves apart from other nations who do not share their language (notably the Greeks). Yet the Greeks, employing the identical mode of demarcation, simultaneously disjoin themselves from Egyptians while adopting the same form of dis-junction” (Gruen 2010,  2). The Greek lack of awareness to this considerable similarity is almost comical.

Still, whatever the attitude of Greeks was toward Egypt as a culture, in practice they showed little regard for the land or its people. While there aren’t many sources from Egypt depicting their view of Greek and Roman foreigners, we do have records from Greek and Roman rule of Egypt. The records left from that, and the analysis done by modern scholars, reveals an imperialistic hegemony that exploited and oppressed native Egyptians while privileging their foreign rulers.

        Progressing chronologically, after Alexander of Macedonia conquered Egypt in 332 BCE he was hailed as a liberator, freeing the Egyptians from Persian rule (Adler 2004, 22). This goodwill quickly evaporated under the Ptolemaic Dynasty, as the ruling class quickly established themselves as privileged elites and began exploiting the Egyptians. One letter of complaint, circa 255 BCE, reads, “But they have treated me with contempt because I am a barbarian. I therefore request you, if you please, to order them to let me have what is owed to me / and in future to pay me regularly, so that I do not die of hunger because I do not know how to speak Greek (Verso) to Zenon. P. Col 66 (Austin 1981:418)” (Adler 2004, 22). Clearly, the Greeks treated their Egyptian subjects not as equal inheritors of a shared pan-Mediterranean tradition, but as conquered subjects who enriched a colonial elite.

        By contrast, the Greek elite enjoyed privileged positions at the highest levels of society, irrespective of their experience or their knowledge of the local population. Neighborhoods of Alexandria were set aside for exclusive Greek use, and the ruling class relied heavily on Egyptian intermediaries who knew the language to enforce their governance (Adler 2004, 22). For these Greeks, a connection to their homeland was a sign of status and superiority to the locals, and the upper echelons of government were drawn exclusively from the local Greek population (Adler 2004, 24).

        While the Greeks did control the government and wealth of the Egyptians, they didn’t restrict personal freedoms beyond what were required to govern, and even made an effort to match Egyptian customs while they ruled. The constructed God Sarapis is the most drastic example of this, a god made of whole cloth intended to appeal to both Greek and Egyptian worshippers (Milne 1928, 227). The Ptolemaic Dynasty also made concessions to local merchants in 270 BCE, when they changed their currency from the Greek standard of silver to copper, which Egyptians were more familiar with (Milne 1928, 228).

        The Greek conquerors of Egypt clearly had no regard for Egypt as “the most ancient civilization.” When they conquered, they saw an opportunity for profit to be seized, shared traditions be damned. While the Greeks did make concessions to Egyptian sensibilities in the name of fostering peace between the two peoples, these seem to have been calculated political maneuvers rather than sincere attempts at bridging the divide between conquerors and conquered. Whatever Herodotus and other Greek historians may have written, the Ptolemaic Dynasty shared none of those authors’ sentiments when they took rulership of Egypt.

        Still, Greek colonization did lead to some intermingling of the two cultures. Despite the attempts of the Greeks to Hellenize Egypt, it was the conquerors who found themselves integrating more with the local culture, becoming more Egyptian than Greek in the process. Other Greeks and Romans visiting Alexandria remarked on the Egyptian nature of the Greeks who lived there (Milne 1928, 229). Perhaps most tellingly, the worship of the constructed god Sarapis flourished more outside Egypt than inside, with temples being maintained along the Mediterranean even during the reign of the Roman Empire (Milne 1928, 229-230).

When the Romans conquered Egypt, they imposed many customs and practices that were entirely foreign to Egyptians. They introduced changes in all aspects of life: agriculture, religion, architecture, the arts, literature, scholarship, and much more. And vice versa, some of the Egyptians ideas and beliefs have also influenced the Romans’ daily life. Not surprisingly, the Ancient Egypt burial was the strongest influence on the Romans, where the underground columns are carved with Egyptian gods.

Kom El Shoqafa Catacombs
Wikimedia Commons

Moreover, Augustus made Egypt has a private province due to Egypt’s rich agricultural resources, to the point where Roman senators were even banned from visiting the country without the emperor’s authorization. As a result, the peaceful trade between Egypt’s grain and Roman’s wine, olive oil, and craft products lasted. In that era, while the Romans converted to Christianity around Egypt, various Egyptian cultures and customs were adopted by the Romans as part of their religion and culture, despite the incompatible characteristics of many of the core ideas of the two cultures. For example, “The exclusivity of the sole Christian god could not tolerate Egypt’s vast pantheon, its sacred animals, and the like. The original Christian values of a simple and modest lifestyle clashed with Egypt’s massive temples and festivals” (Van De Mieroop 2011, 353). This internal disagreement resulted in conflict between the two sides; however, the Romans were able to exercise their military might as conquerors to win these struggles.

As people with different cultures intersect and mingle with each other, it is not surprising to see subtle, yet noticeable, changes in the way any one culture operates. Religion specifically was a very large part of a nation’s culture in the ancient world, and we have seen in many previous readings how people from one nation tend to view the practices and beliefs of those from another. What we have not yet thoroughly discussed in the phenomenon of the alteration of religious customs facilitated by the interaction between any given ancient peoples. When Rome occupied the majority of the Mediterranean, Egyptians continued to practice their religion as normal. Pauline Ripat brings into light the practice of Egyptians consulting their oracles for advice about the future, as one does with any oracles.

Ripat’s thesis is that the Egyptian religious practice of consulting the oracles was changed by the Egyptians’ interactions with the people of Rome, and that this can be observed through the queries brought to the oracles. The difference in the kinds of questions asked may, essentially, tell us whether the changed that has occurred is due to Roman influence. Her contemporaries argue that the practice was not changed, and this must be true because they continued to consult the oracles in the first place, but Ripat is more concerned with the content of the questions brought forth than the continued practice of bringing the questions. Ripat claims that the change over time is clear, and can be heavily marked on two occasions. “… it is clear that this ancient form of divination underwent significant alterations at two points under Roman rule, first upon annexation, when the function and the language of the method was strictly circumscribed to exclude the traditional judicial function and the Demotic language, and second, in AD 199, when this particular method of divination to determine the course of future events was outlawed” (Ripat 2003, 286). Ripat goes on to say that part of Roman subjugation was the idea that Roman religion took precedence over native religion, so those practices were looked down upon, and eventually outlawed. Religious superiority was a large sign of power for conquerors. The way the Egyptians practiced their religion was unquestionably changed by this occurrence.

While the Greeks at least made some attempt at integration with Egyptian society, inasmuch as they established an enclave of expatriates, when the Roman Empire conquered Egypt they didn’t even bother with such token gestures. Governorship of Egypt was largely an appointed post that cycled out every few years, and order was maintained by stationing Roman legions in Egypt to maintain order (Milne 1928, 230). Even more than the Greeks, the Romans viewed Egypt as a conquered power, meant only to pay tribute to their empire.

        One of the first revolts against Roman rule actually came from the former Greek elites in Alexandria, after the Jewish population there received preferential treatment from the Roman governor (Milne 1928, 231). For nearly a century Greek violence against the Jews and Roman authority continued, and while it would seem that in this case Egyptian and Greek interests were aligned, we should consider the differences in inciting events between Egyptian and Greek resistance. For the Greeks, the affront was a deprivation of liberties they had previously enjoyed at the expense of the Egyptian people, a loss of privilege that came with being the colonialist authority of Egypt. Despite the intermingling that happened over three centuries of Ptolemaic rule, the Greeks in Egypt maintained an identity separate from the native Egyptians. In 115 CE when the Jews rose up themselves against the Romans, the Greeks sided with the state against the Jews, although their efforts still did not restore the privileges of the conqueror they had previously enjoyed (Milne 1928, 231).

        By contrast, the Egyptian uprising around 170 CE was led by a priest, and documents left to us from that period indicate a distinctly nationalist sentiment (Milne 1928, 231). The peasant uprising seemed to have more to do with reclaiming their land’s wealth and their own sense of identity than to retaliate against any particular ethnic group. After these uprisings were put down, resistance rose again in the third century CE by defying imperial edicts against monasticism—again through religion, a fundamental part of ancient Egyptian identity (Milne 1928, 232). In the fourth century the powerful Egyptian church aligned itself with the Egyptian farmers, who were banding together under the system of patronage to effect a form of limited self-government against the declining power of the Roman Empire, a system which persisted until the conquest of Egypt by the Arabs (Milne 1928, 233).

Although Egypt has gone through the countless rise and falls in its period, late Egyptian art showed a surprising resistance to temptations coming from the outside and are able to influence other regions. For example, Alexandria on the Mediterranean Sea became the center of a well-patronized school of Hellenistic Greek art, and the mummy portraits of the Faiyum type from the Roman period are the iconic art in earlier Hellenistic painting. In the Roman period, about A.D. 50, the Romans are particularly fascinated by the Egyptians art and the myth of afterlife, leading to an overwhelming purchase in portraits mummy for their afterlife, which is the “beautiful lifelike portrait painted on a wooden panel to be inserted into the mummy bandages” (Rita 2003, 193). In the picture below, on the bottom of the footcase there are paintings with figures of bound prisoners, which turned out to be symbolic of the deceased’s victory over opposing forces in the underworld.

Mummy with an Inserted Panel Portrait of a Youth
Egypt, Fayum, Hawara, BSAE excavations
Wikimedia Commons

However, the final break occurred in the Egyptian cultural tradition when Christianity in the 4th century came in. “It is estimated that by Constantine’s death in 337 half of Egypt’s population was Christian” (Rita 2003, 171). And finally, the fall of Rome to the barbarians in 476 lead to the disconnection between the two worlds as the Arabs took over. Though Roman rule over Egypt lasted twice as long as the Ptolemaic Dynasty, the Romans made no effort to integrate or introduce their own culture as the Greeks did. By maintaining an imperialist aloofness from their conquered subjects, they left a cultural void of identity in Egypt, one which was eventually filled by local nationalism and religion.

In the face of mounting economic and military pressure from across the Mediterranean, and even under Macedonian rule, Egypt maintained its own strong sense of cultural identity, even integrating many of its Greek rulers to an extent. Under the full-scale colonialism of the Roman Empire that identity eventually crumbled, but a new one rose as Coptic Christianity, a sect that still practices in Egypt to this day. Taken from the beginnings of Egyptian civilization to its eventual collapse under Rome, Egypt lasted far longer than the Greece or Rome of antiquity.


Dehaven King, L. 2018. “Development, Ancient Egypt, and National Liberation: An Examination of Economic Growth, Nationalism, and Governmental Ethics.” REVIEW OF HISTORY AND POLITICAL SCIENCE, 6(2), REVIEW OF HISTORY AND POLITICAL SCIENCE, Vol.6(2).

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Ripat, Pauline L. 2003. “Prophecy and *policy in Roman Egypt”, University of Washington, Ann Arbor, ProQuest, https://search.proquest.com/docview/305274720?accountid=14784.

Samuels, Tristan. 2015. “Herodotus and the Black Body: A Critical Race Theory Analysis.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 46, no. 7: 723–741.

Ancient Egypt. 1st ed. MFA Highlights. Boston, Mass.: MFA Publications.

Van De Mieroop, Marc. 2011. “A History of Ancient Egypt”. Blackwell History of the Ancient World. Chicester: Wiley. ProQuest Ebook Central.  

Vasunia, Phiroze. 1996. “Hellenizing Egypt”, Stanford University, Ann Arbor, ProQuest, https://search.proquest.com/docview/304305107?accountid=14784.

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