3 The bread basket of Rome
The Roman empire dined out on the Nile delta’s fertile farmlands
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