When empire comes calling

A statue of Augustus as a younger Octavian, dated ca. 30 BC (Wikipedia) Imperialism has a bad name. Just ask the Egyptians. But while you’re at it, ask them about being conquered by Rome.

I know, I know. It seems a long time ago now that Octavian, the future Augustus, walloped Mark Antony, deposed Cleopatra (actually Cleopatra VII, but who remembers the other six who were never played by Elizabeth Taylor) and then incorporated the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt into the Roman Empire on August 1 of 30 BC. Much water has passed down the Nile since then, including the coming of Islam. Still, here’s my question.

Does anyone seriously maintain that Egypt wasn’t better off under Rome? Obviously not everybody. Life is full of variety and some people will fare poorly through bad luck, stupidity or a toxic mix of the two no matter what’s going on. But Roman Egypt was spectacularly prosperous, secure and governed according to the Roman version of the rule of law that was a heck of a lot better than the Egyptian one. (Can I just mention here that Egypt, and North Africa more generally, were the breadbasket of the Empire? It seems subsequent climate change went and changed it to a desert. Too bad Alus Gor wasn’t there to warn them of whatever evil thing mankind did to cause that one.)

Some Ptolemaic nationalists, if any can be found, might say yes, sure, Roman Egypt secure against being attacked by Rome. But only because we were conquered by Rome which is cheating. They were the big threat to everybody in those days. But only because they’d beaten down all the other threats and delivered better rule once they did it. The world is a messy place and the Mediterranean had seen its share of trouble from the sack of Troy to Alexander the “Great” to pirates to, later, the coming of Islam out of the desert with fire and sword. Under Rome such disorder was largely suppressed.

Loyalists of the 18th dynasty might say things were better under Rameses II. But that regime had long since collapsed and Egypt was dwindling. I mean if I say Ptolemaic you’re likely to remember the geocentric astronomical system if indeed the word triggers associations at all. Can you name one Ptolemaic ruler other than Cleopatra who, as far as I can tell, was mad, bad and dangerous to know… or be? Oh, and another thing. The Ptolemies were Greek anyway. The original Ptolemy, not the astronomer (who incidentally did his work in Roman Egypt, a centre of learning as well), showed up in the wake of Alexander’s conquest and death. Plus Alexander had conquered Egypt from the Persians not the Egyptians. At least the Romans kept it until the Muslim conquest of 646 that ended almost a millennium of Greek and Roman rule and didn’t exactly set Egypt on the path back to the glories of Rameses.

So go ahead and sneer at imperialism. But if you pick the right empire to be absorbed by it can work out pretty well. And I didn’t even get to Britain and its eventual informal conquest of Egypt.