3 The bread bas­ket of Rome

The Ro­man em­pire dined out on the Nile delta’s fer­tile farm­lands

BBC History Magazine - - Cairo In Five Cultures -

The bat­tle of Ac­tium – fought on the Io­nian Sea in 31 BC – was one of the great turn­ing points in Egyp­tian his­tory. It saw Egypt’s last Ptole­maic ruler, Cleopa­tra, and her Ro­man lover, Mark Antony, con­front a navy com­manded by Oc­ta­vian. Their de­feat would have enor­mous ram­i­fi­ca­tions – Oc­ta­vian would be made Ro­man em­peror (as Au­gus­tus), Cleopa­tra would take her own life, and Egypt would be gob­bled up by the Ro­man em­pire.

The Ro­mans soon re­garded Egypt as one of their most im­por­tant prov­inces – and with good rea­son. The fer­tile lands of the Nile delta pro­vided enough food to keep the pop­u­la­tion of Rome fed for sev­eral months a year. Egypt also of­fered Ro­man mer­chants a gate­way to the eastern trade routes. The Ro­mans used the cities on the north­ern Egyp­tian coast, the nav­i­ga­ble Nile, along with ports on Egypt’s Red Sea coast, to set off on trade mis­sions across the In­dian Ocean. The taxes ex­torted by the Ro­man state on goods en­ter­ing and leav­ing Egypt pro­vided, in some es­ti­mates, a third to a half of the en­tire Ro­man im­pe­rial tax rev­enue.

The Nile was one of this trade route’s vi­tal ar­ter­ies, and so it was per­haps in­evitable that the Cairo re­gion would be­come a hub of im­pe­rial ac­tiv­ity. The Ro­mans oc­cu­pied Baby­lon in Egypt and based a Ro­man le­gion there. At the start of the sec­ond cen­tury AD, Em­peror Tra­jan re­cut the canal link­ing the Nile to the Red Sea and built a stone har­bour and a ma­jor fort at the meet­ing point of the canal and the Nile, which was en­larged by later em­per­ors. To­day, this sits un­der the streets of Old Cairo: parts of the struc­ture of the fort were used as foun­da­tions for a later Greek Or­tho­dox church.

The taxes ex­torted by the Ro­mans on goods en­ter­ing and leav­ing Egypt pro­vided a third to a half of the en­tire im­pe­rial tax rev­enue

The re­mains of a Ro­man tower in Cop­tic Cairo. This was part of a ma­jor Ro­man fort that sits un­der the streets of the mod­ern city

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