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Roman Egypt in the Egypt Centre (Notes, Site Under Construction)


By the far the largest quantity of objects in the Egypt Centre date to Graeco-Roman times, when Egypt was part of the Ptolemaic and then the Roman empires (332-395 BC). Indeed, most of the standing structures you see in Egypt today, the temples, date to Graeco-Roman times.  

What did Egypt do for the Roman world? Egypt affected Roman culture in several ways. It became a motif for all things exotic and sexual immoral (Cleopatra VII). Emeralds and pearls were particularly associated with excess and emeralds came from Egypt. Egypt was said to be the grain house of Rome. Egyptian crafts, especially metalwork, and papyrus were also exported throughout the Empire. Alabastra (vessels for holding perfume oil) were first used in Egypt in the 2nd millennium BC, but later spread to rest of the classical world. Nilotic motifs were used in mosaic pavements in Roman houses. Obelisks were taken from Egypt to decorate Roman cities. The Egyptian goddess Isis and Horus, in the form of Serapis, were worshipped throughout the Empire.  

Recently there have been more studies showing how much Egypt contributed to the Roman world. 

Outline history of Roman Egypt

The earliest well-known officialRoman involvement in Egypt could be said to date to c.51BC. when Pompey became guardian of Cleopatra VII. By 47BC. Caesar had killed Pompey and become regent with the famous queen who later married Mark Anthony. Octavian (later Augustus) took over Egypt after the death of the pair in 30BC. Notably, Octavian Augustus refused to visit sacred Apis bull and thus was not popular in Egypt. 

It is sometimes stated that Egypt was treated as an imperial estate rather than province. For example, grain from Egypt was taken to Rome and the heavy imposition of taxes did not endear Egyptians to Rome. The Romans also deleted several traditional important Egyptian offices such as that of the High Priest of Ptah. Understandably, there were several major revolts. However, the Romans did finish several of the Ptolemaic temples, such as that at Philae and the occasional visits by the Roman emperors, although imposing a cost on Egypt, were often met with jubilation.

According to Egyptian Christians, Christianity was introduced into Egypt by St Mark in 33AD. Thus began the gradual rise of Coptic Christianity. At first persecuted (famously by Diocletian), in 395AD Christianity became the official religion of Egypt. Christians desecrated Egyptian temples and killed priests.

From late 4th century AD Egypt came under the under the control of the Byzantine emperor at Constantinople. Rome held Egypt until about 700AD when it was defeated by Islamic invaders.

Changes in material culture in Roman Egypt.

Egyptian material culture was quickly superseded by that of the Hellenistic rulers and the Romans, especially items used in everyday life. However, in the field of religion, Egyptianising ideas and motifs continued. Religion is slower to change in many cultures.

By the end of the Ptolemaic Period, shabtis and Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figures had fallen out of use. Mummification ceased at the end of the 3rd century AD. The dead were presented in everyday life dress. The formerly straight hair of women was shown as curly and mummy portraits introduced. Painted shrouds began in Ptolemaic Period but continued in Roman Period. 

Oil lamps often put in tombs, either for rituals or so that living could give offerings. 

Funerary art with Egyptian style motifs was largely abandoned at the end of the 4th century AD. The late Roman Period saw the development of Coptic art which continued until later periods.


These are a few of the Roman Period things you can see in the Egypt Centre:


Gods case.

Many Egyptian gods are portrayed in animal, or semi-animal form. However, the Romans were disgusted by what they saw as animal worship in ancient Egypt. Juvenal (cAD100) ‘Who knows what animals the Egyptians worshipped’. However, the Egyptians did not really worship the animals themselves but rather the character of the gods was shown through the type of animal it could take on. And of course, the gods could be incarnate in animals, or any other thing. 

Many of the copper alloy gods in this case date to the Graeco-Roman Period and were votive offerings. One example is W1374, a statue of Isis with baby Horus on her knee. Some say this was the blueprint for the motif of Madonna and child. Isis rose to popularity under the Ptolemies and continued under the Romans. The image of her with Horus on her lap had begun in the Late Period, but by the Roman Period this maternal aspect was particularly popular. It is often shown on coinage and terracottas. Isis was worshipped throughout the Roman world. However, she was not originally the most important of Egyptian goddesses. That accolade goes to Hathor. Horus the Child (Greek Harpocrates from the Egyptian Har-pa-khered). Child deities were particularly popular in Graeco-Roman times. Interestingly the Greeks had misunderstood the meaning of the Egyptian finger on the lip motif of Horus the Child and thus associated Harpocrates with god of silence. 


W56. The god Serapis (Osiris-Apis) was devised, or at least transformed from an earlier god, 3rd century BC to unify Egyptians and Greeks (Dunand and Zivie-Coche 2002, 214-221 summarise the stories and meaning of the creation of the god). He was not so popular under the Ptolemies but became particularly important in Roman Egypt. From the Roman Period too, he was often shown with Isis, and also Harpocrates. The serpent body emphasised his function to ensure the fertility of the fields. Double agrarian and funerary function also a factor of Osiris. What was added to Serapis was the healing function. Serapis sometimes said to have been created to fuse heterogeneous ethnic groups. Unlikely as no desire for this known- more likely associated with the royal family- showing Greek and Egyptian ancestry. First spread by Greeks. By Roman Period Serapis more universal and associated with Zeus and Helios. Worshipped in Roman with Isis and even as far afield as London! Isis, as Isis-Thernouthis incorporates the harvest goddess of the Fayum, Renenoutet.


Domestic piety case

AB110 Cippus with Horus the child. Idea of child gods as defeating dangerous animals popular in Roman Egypt. We are not sure of the date of this one, though it is probably Graeco-Roman. Most are known from the 6th century BC onwards. There are also late survivals among Byzantine Christians. 

EC446 and EC447 Fertility figurine. The more curvaceous version is Graeco-Roman in date. 

Cartonnage case

W922 and W923. Deir el-Bahri shrouds. When excavated these were thought to be Christian, but actually show Egyptian motifs. Both are wearing wreaths on their heads (thought to represent the transfiguration of the deceased), and hold a cup in their right hands. The hem shows henu-barque of Sokaris flanked by two seated jackals with iron keys around their necks (the key to Hades -this motif is not known until the twelfth regenal year of the emperor Trajan AD 109). The man has a beard (very un-Egyptian and the woman wears jewellery, though probably not jewellery she owned in everyday life. These are from a group of shroud found at Deir el-Bahri dated to the mid-late 3rd century AD. Published by Christina 2000 and 2005.  

W649-655. Tashay’s shroud. Greek dress, Roman hairstyle, Graeco-Roman full faced but Egyptian gods. Dated by her hairstyle to 140-160AD. The difference between Greek and Egyptian art- Egyptian art more honest- according to Plato! 

W646. Fayum portrait. The portrait dates from the Roman Period in Egypt and probably from the 1st to 3rd centuries AD. Such portraits are usually found in the area of Lower Egypt settled by Greeks and then Romans, largely the Fayum. This example comes from Hawara. It is possible that such paintings were originally displayed in the home and were painted from life, but when found they had been used as mummy masks. For more information on these items see Walker and Bierbrier (1997).  

W549. Mummy labels were written in Greek or Coptic, this one is in Greek. Translation: “Hermiysis, [son] of Kollouthos, farewell! Kollouthos to Kallistos: When the mummy of my child reaches you, keep guard until I arrive,” … In Graeco-Roman Egypt…People who had died away from home were normally shipped back for burial in their local cemeteries. In order to facilitate the transport, the senders attached small labels which ensured proper identification…(Mueller, In ‘Journal Of Egyptian archaeology’ 1973, p.175).


Coffin case

W1042. Pink coffins fragments. These two coffin fragments date to the Roman Period and in style are very similar to other pieces from Tuna el-Gebel. Both fragments may belong to the same coffin, though we cannot be sure. They are both end sections of a rectangular outer coffin which, at this date, would have been vaulted with four corner-posts. 

The hieroglyphs display many of the unusual characteristics common at this date. The pink colour is commonly thought to represent the pink of the rising sun suggesting a rebirth in the afterlife. It is common on funerary objects of this period. 

There is evidence from Roman Egypt that coffins were on display above ground for some time (Borg 1997). Not only is this mentioned in the literature, but bird droppings on the tops of coffins suggest they were not immediately interred in tombs. 

Provisioning the Dead case

The Book of the Dead was out of use by Roman times and was replaced by new compositions such as the Book of Breathing. The latest known Book of the Dead is a demotic version written in AD64.  

EC272. Architectural fragment. Similar ones found on domestic sites date to 2nd-3rd centuries AD.

Stela such as W1041 and W1043 date to this period. 

Animal Case

Animal mummies were mass produced and donated to the gods. 

W985. Crocodile Mummy. Lozenge pattern of bandages typically Roman. By Roman Period Sobek was associated with the Greek god Helios. 

Coffin clamps from Armant c200AD-Apis bull.  


Metalwork case

Egypt important for supplying Rome with iron work

Commodus stela (W946)

Roman Emperors did not frequently visit Egypt, but were nevertheless thought of as kings. Thus, they take the place of kings on religious reliefs in Egypt, in temples and other items. Stela 190AD shows the Emperor Commodus offering to the mother of the Buchis bull.The Romans were more horrified at what they saw as ‘animal worship’, than the Greeks had been. Emperors were still shown as offering to the Apis and Buchis bull, as demonstrated by this stela, but in reality did not do so (unlike Ptolemies who encouraged mummification of animals, etc.). Animal mummification and depicting of gods with animal heads continued.


Body adornment case

AB31 Coptic Cross based on Egyptian ankh 


Votive offering case

EC1307 Foot graffiti are found in both Egypt and Nubia, though since it is from the Gayer-Anderson collection it is likely to be Egyptian. Egyptian examples tend to be larger than life size. Some show naked feet or unlaced sandals, or sometimes a combination of both. Sometimes related inscriptions accompany them. They are found in temples, tombs quarries and as desert rock carvings.  

Dunand (1979, 63-66) also cites votive footprints in private dwellings dedicated to Isis Thermouthis at Karanis. Castiglione (1971) sees examples from Egypt as being votive and dating to Graeco-Roman times, though there is evidence that some may be much earlier (Kaper 2009; Shaw 2010, 97). It is often said that the practise of carving votive feet originated in Egypt and was transported to Greece and elsewhere via the Isis cult (Dunand 1973, pl. 17, 1,2; Sackho-Autissier 2006, 260-263) or that of Isis and Serapis (Darnell 2003, 112).  

The carving of votive footprints into temple pavements or roof temples was presumably to ensure the donor stayed in the presence of the god (Darnell and Darnell 2002, 121; Jaquet-Gordon 2003, 5; Thissen 1989, 197-198 and Yoyotte 1960, 59-60).


Woking loan

Glass bottle


Stone case

Alabastron- makeup and perfume containers. Items such as these originated in Egypt but spread to the rest of the classical world.

W1161 (see bird in toy case).


Textile case

From the mid 3rd century AD, tunics (clavi) were decorated with medallions placed in pairs. You can see several here. One motif would go over each shoulder and the other two over each knee. It has been suggested that these were so placed to protect the arm and knee joints from harm (Carroll 1988, 84).

The Early Roman Period saw use of monochrome decoration, brown/purple wool on a linen background). From around the 6th century AD other colours were increasingly used in the designs.

We have several Coptic textiles in the Centre including EC824, a leaf shaped medallion may date to the 4th century AD.

Soter type shrouds. Women as Hathor.


Pottery case

EC1299 Plant motif from Roman coffin? Similar items with pierced holes are used as coffin decorations (2009, page 131 and plate 91).

Terracottas begin in the Ptolemaic Period but more common in the Roman Period. Note one of the Egyptian god Osiris and one of Harpocrates. These items are found in tombs but also on domestic sites. Dunand 2004, 302-3: Terracotta figurines not found in temples but rather houses, rubbish heaps and tombs. Some have a hook or hole to enable them to be hung up. They were also probably put in domestic altars.


GR107 Pilgrim’s souvenir flask from the shrine of Saint Menas showing the saint standing between two kneeling camels. 4th to 7th century AD.

St Menas (285-c.309AD) was an Egyptian soldier saint known for performing miracles and martyrdom. Like other Egyptian saints he lived as a hermit in the desert.

The basilica built at Abu Mena over the supposed tomb of St Menas, in the desert east of Alexandria, was a shrine on the pilgrim’s route through Christendom. The springs nearby were famous for their cures and pilgrims carried flasks of the water home. Such flasks are found all over the Roman Empire. On the flask St Menas is shown dressed as a Roman soldier flanked by two camels. Camels supposedly carried his body into the desert and halted miraculously at the point where his shrine was to be built. Although camels were occasionally used in the first millennium BC (the mandible of a domestic camel was found at Qasr Ibrim in lower Nubia dating to the 10th century BC), they were not used extensively until the time of the Greeks and Romans. 

EC1301-EC1302 These are fragments of a pottery brazier used for cooking and heating. Such braziers were used throughout the Hellenistic world from around 200-BC to AD 100. Many were found at Naukratis. They depicted a bearded figure usually identified as a satyr or the daemon Seilenos (Selenos), a follower of Dionysus and associated with intoxication.

Terracottas, such as these (EC450 Osiris terracotta and GR114c Harpocrates terracotta) date to the Graeco-Roman Period and are found in temples and tombs as well as domestic sites. We also have a couple of items which some would classify as ‘grotesques‘. This type of object came into use in the Greek Period but continued until the Roman Period. Their use is unclear though some may be votives. GR114c is described: The head wears a floral wreath, the double crown and sun disc. Two lotus buds are depicted each side of the disc. This is a depiction of Horus the Child (Greek Harpocrates) who is often depicted with a floral wreath, double crown and two lotus buds. The lotus buds emphasise the generative qualities of the god. Harpocrates was the personification of the young sun.


Games case

EC25. Bird toy. It has been suggested that these pottery birds were used as children’s toys, with sticks or pottery wheels being inserted into the hole to allow movement. They date from throughout all Periods of Egyptian history. Teeter (2010, 144) states that on Roman stelae toy birds were a symbol of innocence, and Török (1993, 53) states that clay toy birds were a popular children’s toy throughout the ancient world. The Centre also has a stone sculpture showing a boy with a bird (W1161). 

Die. The die shown here date to the Graeco-Roman Period. Games with die were introduced into Egypt during Roman rule. The Greek historian Plutarch describes Cleopatra playing dice with Mark Anthony (though he was writing years after the death of the queen). Prior to this period moves on board games were determined by means of throwsticks. 


Writing case

The Greek language and alphabet was the written language for most of Roman Egypt, except for the military which tended to use Latin. However, demotic (a version of hieroglyphs which derives ultimately from hieroglyphs) was used for religious writing until replaced by Coptic (which uses the Greek script with some hieroglyphs thrown in). The Egyptian spoken language continued to be used. Hieroglyphs finally went out of use in the 4th century AD. Coptic was used until at least the 13th century AD (despite the Islamic conquest).


Faience case

Reed pen and inkwell date to Roman times.




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