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Egypt in the Hellenistic Civilization

In the eastern Mediterranean were formed elements of new economic and political relations during the fierce struggle between generals for the division of Alexander state. Many Macedonians and Greeks, such as merchants, artisans, mercenaries and others, settled in Asia and Egypt; they brought their customs there; and, in turn, became acquainted with local traditions. There were developed new forms and methods of operation of the rural population; the rulers sought a rapprochement with the local nobility; they formed a new state apparatus. It was the beginning of the era, which was called Hellenism in the scientific literature.

According to the majority of researchers, the time of the collapse of Alexander’s power to the Roman conquest of the Eastern Mediterranean (III-I centuries BC) was the time of interaction between local and Greek customs, and the establishment of legal norms, the results of which depended on the level and needs of social development population of the region (Ellis, 1994). It should be borne in mind that there interacted with each other not only the Greeks and the inhabitants of the eastern provinces, but also a variety of local people. Thus, it is necessary to observe Egypt in the Hellenistic Civilization in this project.

Taking into account historical evidences, it is possible to say that exactly Egypt was one of the first Hellenistic states formed from the estates of Alexander. According to Ellis, it is important to mention that the satrap of Egypt became one of the closest associates of Alexander – Ptolemy, the son of Lagus (Ellis, 1994). In 305 he proclaimed himself a king. There is no doubt that the possession of Ptolemy I was not limited to Egypt, he joined Cyrenaica in the west and began fighting with the other generals for the South Syria. His son Ptolemy II annexed Lycia, a number of towns in Asia Minor and Miletus. Thus, observing Egypt’s territories it is possible to note that Hellenistic Egypt was the strongest kingdom and has existed as a state entity over a longer historical period than the other major Hellenistic states. In addition, its conquest by Rome in 30 BC is considered to be the end of the Hellenistic period as the final stage of Greek history.

Despite the fact that the term ‘Hellenism’ quickly became a scientific use in modern historiography, and considering that there are plenty of works on general and special problems of Hellenic history, there is no unity opinions about its content, as well as geographic and chronological boundaries of the so-called ‘Hellenistic civilization’. But, it is also a proven fact that the troops of Alexander the Great entered the territory of Egypt at the end of 332 BC, and since then, the fate of the ancient and Egyptian civilization were inseparably fused. Bingen and Bagnall stated that it was the era of modernizing the old and the development of new state institutions that could meet the needs of local and migrant populations, as well as the requirements of the new rulers of the country (Bingen and Bagnall, 2007).

It can be also argued that Hellenism was not desirable; in fact, it became violent union (i.e., achieved as a result of the Eastern campaign of Alexander the Great in 334-323 BC) of the Greek and the ancient Eastern world (which previously evolved separately) in a single system of Hellenistic States that had much in common in the economy, socio-class relations, the state system, foreign affairs and culture. Analyzing the situation, we can also add that the merger of the Greek and the ancient Eastern world in the same system has formed a kind of society that was different from both the actual Greek and ancient public structures, and represent an alloy synthesis of elements of the Greek and ancient oriental civilization, which gave qualitatively new economy, social class relations, government, foreign activities and culture.

Observing Egypt in the Hellenistic civilization, it is possible to mention that a system of economy and administration, which is characteristic for the entire history of Hellenistic Egypt, was formed during the reign of the first kings of the Ptolemaic dynasty. The new rulers have used the Greek institutions and a number of local establishments to consolidate this power. Ptolemy I embellished and expanded Alexandria, one of the few big cities in Egypt, trying to turn it into the largest port in the Mediterranean.
The representatives of the Ptolemaic dynasty as the conquerors, on the one hand, and the heirs of the pharaohs, on the other hand, considered themselves entitled to dispose of the whole land of Egypt. On the lands of Alexandria and Ptolemaida which were considered transferred polices, were possessions of their citizens (Fraser, 1972). All other lands were divided into the actual royal and ceded lands. The latter included the possession of churches, warriors, donative lands, which the king bestowed the highest officials, and the so-called private lands that were in a hereditary possession of individuals. Despite the well-known categories of fractional ownership, there was a centralization of the organization of agriculture in Ptolemaic Egypt (Ellis, 1994). All lands, except of the polis and donative lands, were taxed. The rulers interfered in the cultivation of the lands, whoever it may belong to, prescribing specific plans of works for citizens.

The above presented facts allow to make a conclusion that the intervention of the central government in economic life and the careful control over it violated the traditional rules of exploitation of direct producers. Peasants, manufacturing royal land, were called ‘ruler’s farmers’. Legally, they acted as imperial landholders and entered into special agreements with the royal administration. In these contracts were stipulated the obligations of the peasants in the processing of their parcels of land in a specific way. The land was divided by the yield on the parcels and each parcel should be paid by a certain amount of agricultural products. Farmers were not legally attached to their plot of arable land: subject to payment of the taxes they could change their place of residence, but leaving the village without such payment was seen as an escape.

Tenants of royal lands, with no economic initiative, being burdened with numerous obligations, were obligated to take part in public works, primarily in the construction of irrigation facilities. The farmers, like the rest Egyptians paid the poll tax in cash, and lots of various fees. The Greek system of indirect levies, worked out in terms of the classical polis, that knew no regular direct taxes on property and incomes, and the system of taxes and duties that existed in ancient Egypt, have merged into a vast organization of a robbery of the masses, in which neither side of the working population activities had no chance to escape from the financial control of the state.

It is true that people have had many problems during the life in Ptolemaic Egypt, but Egypt, due to its hard policy, produced an enormous amount of grain, which was enough not only for domestic consumption, but remained surplus, which became public reserve and could be exported. As a result, already in the III century BC the Egyptian kingdom has become a major exporter of bread in the Mediterranean; moreover, Egypt has long maintained its position in the global grain market.

Analyzing slavery in Egypt in the Hellenistic Civilization, Fraser said that papyri mention a significant number of slaves in private (even medium-sized) sectors (Fraser, 1972). Slaves were used primarily as a staff: servants, estate managers, sales agents; there were also slave-weavers, but slaves did not pay a significant role in the production of goods.

Slaves were people trapped in the war, sold for the debts to the royal treasury. Of course, not all war prisoners must become slaves, some of them were put on royal land and had to cultivate them in the position of ‘ruler’s farmers’.

Analyzing the work of Bingen and Bagnall, it is possible to state that Hellenistic period in the history of Egypt was characterized by a sharp jump in the development of technology, improvements in the construction and the military (Bingen and Bagnall, 2007). For instance, special discharge device was used in the construction of irrigation facilities (the invention is attributed to Archimedes and has a title of the so-called Archimedean screw). One of the ‘Seven Wonders of the World’ – Faroese lighthouse, the greatest achievement of ancient engineering, a height of about 120 m, was erected at the entrance to the harbor of Alexandria. Progress has been made also in shipbuilding: the Egyptian Navy warships were equipped with fifteen and sixteen rows of oars (Ellis, 1994).

Thinking about the period of the Hellenistic Egypt existence, we can state that prosperity was its attribute not through the whole history. The last century of the existence of the Hellenistic Egypt was marked by intensified ruin of the country, reduction of arable land, the decline of agriculture, crafts, trade, and global depletion of one of the richest Hellenistic states. In this regard, performances of local character in ground of discontent occurred in the Egyptian kingdom in II-I centuries BC. Depending on the same general socio-economic and political situation in Egypt, local collision merged into the general movement which covered a large territory.

Thus, the II-I centuries BC are considered to be hard times for the population of the Hellenistic Egypt. Economic difficulties, the increase in raw area, the monetary crisis since the end of the III BC, the invasion of Antiochus IV (170 and 168 BC), the fierce social collision and the dynastic struggle, a huge increase in internal contradictions – everything of these left its stamp on lives of people in the kingdom of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Finally, Egypt lost its independence in foreign policy. In fact, it became an obedient servant of Rome.

In conclusion, we have observed Egypt in the Hellenistic civilization with many details, dwelling not only the period of its prosperity, but also observing the period of its decline. It was proved that Ptolemaic Egypt was a specific kind of society with two faces, one face was Egyptian, while the other Greek. By the way, taking everything into consideration it is also possible to conclude that the main feature of the Hellenistic period was the widespread of Greek language and culture into the territories which have joined the state of Diadochi (that formed after the death of Alexander the Great), and the interpenetration of Greek and Oriental cultures.

Works cited:
Bingen, J. and Bagnall, R. S. Hellenistic Egypt: Monarchy, Society, Economy, Culture (Hellenistic Culture and Society). Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.
Ellis, W. M. Ptolemy of Egypt. Routledge, 1994.
Fraser, P. M. Ptolemaic Alexandria. Clarendon Press, 1972.