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Putting it all in context.

Egypt. Land of the pharaohs, the pyramids, Cleopatra, the Nile. Familiar, yet foreign.
Throughout ancient history, Egypt was an important center of cultural life and political development. Occupied as early as 10,000 BC, the abundance of rich farmland along the Nile River allowed it flourish at an early date. By 5000 BC, stratified societies had already begun to emerge. According to historical accounts, Egypt was brought under the unified control of a single king around 3150 BC. A siltstone stele, the so-called “Narmer Palette”, seems to depict this event, with the king wearing both the red crown of lower Egypt and the white crown of upper Egypt. For the next 2500 years, Egypt was a significant independent power in the Mediterranean and Near East. It boasted many famous pharaohs, such as Tutankhamen and Ramesses the Great. Egyptian religion had its own set of gods, and the people used their own language and writing system. Up to 525 BC, Egypt was more or less Egyptian. But in that fateful year, the armies of the Persian Empire defeated the pharaoh in battle, and Egypt became part of Persia. This meant a new administrative system, new leaders, and new cultural practices. Persians moved to Egypt, settled down, and married into the local population.


The Pyramids at Giza.

Base of an obelisk captured by Augustus, commemorating his victory over Egypt.

After 200 years, the army of Alexander the Great ‘rescued’ Egypt from Persian rule, but this did not mean that Egypt regained its independence. Instead, it became part of Alexander’s own empire. When Alexander died in 323 BC, his conquests were divided among his generals, and Ptolemy I was awarded control of Egypt. This began what was called the “Ptolemaic” period, which lasted until 31 BC. The Ptolemies were Macedonians, neighbors of the Greeks, and many of their soldiers were Greek. As these soldiers settled in Egypt, the population of the country became very mixed- there was a smaller Greek population, which was the elite class, and a much larger population of Egyptians. As time passed, the Greeks gradually married into the local populations, and after a few hundred years it became very difficult to distinguish the two groups. But the division is important, as you’ll see below.
Cleopatra VII is the most famous Ptolemaic ruler, and she was also the last. Following her defeat at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Egypt came under Roman control. For the next 670 years, until the Islamic conquest of 639 AD, Egypt was ruled by the Romans. Once again, there were new people in charge, a new group of elites, and new people moving to the countryside. What it meant to be “Egyptian” had changed again.
The most important aspect of all this change, at least in terms of education, is the fact that Ptolemaic and Roman administration changed the rules for advancing in society, which had a major impact on who was educated and what they learned. Under the Ptolemies, the most important qualification for social advancement was to be Greek. If you could show that you had Greek parents, then you had a lot of options- especially if you wanted a government job. If you weren’t descended from Greek parents, however, you weren’t allowed to enroll in the gymnasion, and had far fewer career options.
In antiquity, school wasn’t required, and it wasn’t free. Parents only sent their children to school if they could get some advantage out of it. Learning to read and do simple math was fairly important for a wide range of people, Greeks and Egyptians. But higher education, such as learning rhetoric or astronomy, wasn’t useful to people who wouldn’t be able to get advanced jobs because of their ethnic heritage. As a result, most of the students who went on past primary school could demonstrate Greek parentage.
Why are most of the texts that are preserved written in Greek? Two reasons. First, since the Ptolemies were Macedonian Greeks, and their administration was made up of Greeks, it was the official language of the land. Sure, most of the population spoke Egyptian instead, but if you wanted to get an official document like a marriage contract or a receipt to show you’d paid your taxes, it would be written in Greek. For the same reason, it was more practical to study Greek than Egyptian.
The second reason that we see so much Greek is that, even after the Roman conquest, Latin never really was a major language in this part of the Mediterranean. Roman elites spoke perfectly good Greek, and since all the civil administrators had already been trained in Greek, they left well enough alone and continued to use it. Can you guess who, in Egypt, would use Latin? Not the elite Romans, who had good educations. It was the soldiers. There were always Roman troops stationed in Egypt, and many of the people in the military didn’t have a lot of formal education. Latin was the language of the army, and when we find Latin documents they often relate to military matters.

A Marriage Contract, written in Greek. P.Mich.inv. 3172.