Egypt History – Byzantine Age
At the advent of Diocletian, Egypt went through one of its, now very rare, periods of quiet, but shortly after, Lucio Domizio Domiziano, commonly known as Achilleus, rose up and made himself recognized by the Alexandrians as emperor. Diocletian personally came to the area, besieged the city for eight months and finally stormed it, abandoning it to devastation and pillage. The same fate befell Coptic, Busiri and other cities that had supported the usurper. Given the great decline of agriculture and general impoverishment, the emperor reduced the annona that had to be sent to Rome every year and decided that the reduced part was donated to the relief of Alexandria. Diocletian implemented administrative and monetary reforms which also affected Egypt. Alexandria stopped minting its own special currency, and the country was incorporated into the diocese of the East. Thus ended the exceptional regime established by Augustus.
According to agooddir, the Egyptian territory was first divided into 3, then into 4 provinces: 1. Aegyptus Iovia (Lower Egypt); 2. Aegyptus Herculia (later Arcadia in honor of Arcadius; Middle Egypt), 3. Augustamnica, created in 341 with the eastern parts of the first two; 4. Thebaid; each under a praeses. Subsequent reforms slightly altered this scheme, having been reduced to dividing the pre-existing provinces into two, minus Arcadia. The tax collector replaced the stratego, part of whose attributions, moreover, were transferred to the logistes or curator. Great care of Diocletian was to clearly separate the civil power from the military one. Within each of these provinces, Massimino Daza established the division into pagi (instead of districts or names).
The persecutions to which Diocletian subjected Christians were very serious, so much so that for many centuries the Coptic church, for its chronological uses, adopted the “Age of the martyrs”, starting it from 284, the first year of the emperor. The history of Egypt up to Constantine can now be summed up in religious persecutions and in the growing administrative disorder; after Constantine (323-337) for about two centuries, in a series of fierce conflicts between Christians of various sects, alternating with common persecutions during periods of pagan reaction (Julian) and in a series of often bloody fights between patriarchs and governors.
The Egyptian church had meanwhile developed considerably. Alexandria until about 200 seems to have been the only episcopal see in Egypt, the Christian communities in the rest of the territory were administered by priests and deacons, under the direction of the bishop of the capital. The bishops Demetrius and Heracla began to create bishops for the principal localities of Egypt and the number of dioceses with their own bishops increased considerably during the course of the century. III, so that at the beginning of the IV there existed in Egypt, including the Thebaid, Libya and the Pentapolis, about 100 bishops, all instituted by the bishop of Alexandria. This development of the ecclesiastical organization explains the special position of the bishop of the capital, as the direct head of the entire ecclesiastical hierarchy of Egypt and neighboring regions. In the century IV we find in the patriarchate of Alexandria 9 ecclesiastical provinces with their metropolitan seats, corresponding to the political division of that time. The bishop of the capital, as patriarch, always maintained his position as the true direct head of all the dioceses of his patriarchate.
In the epoch prior to Constantine, some bishops celebrated throughout Christianity, such as Dionysius and St. Peter martyr in the persecutions of Diocletian, were at the head of the Alexandrian church. From the letters of Dionysius and from the Hist. Eccl. of Eusebio on the martyrs of the persecutions of the century. III and the beginning of the IV we have detailed information. Numerous Christians of Egypt were crowned by martyrdom. The patron saint of Christian Egypt, from the century. IV onwards, was S. Mena, and near his tomb (in an oasis west of Alexandria) a splendid and vast basilica was erected surrounded by various religious buildings.
Under Constantine who, if he did not visit, had the plan to visit Egypt on the occasion of the Council of Nicaea, Alexandria had the hope of regaining or overcoming the ancient splendor by becoming the new capital of the Empire, but the definitive choice fell on Byzantium. The Council of Nicaea (325) was a triumph against Arius, of the young Egyptian theologian Athanasius, who, having returned to Alexandria, assumed the government of the church there, working, with extreme energy but with alternating vicissitudes, for the triumph of Catholic orthodoxy. The theological controversy did not take long to turn into a political dispute, disturbing the country for many years.
The reign of Theodosius – who in 382 restored its administrative unity to Egypt, elevating it to the rank of diocese under the authority of the Augustal prefect, resident in Alexandria – marked the final victory of the Athanasians over the Arians, and also officially marked the end of paganism, having the emperor with a special edict (389) ordered the closure of the temples. Meanwhile, the position of the patriarchal see of Alexandria in front of the church of the Eastern Empire had aroused a rivalry with the bishops of Constantinople, who with the help of the Caesar-Papist tendencies of the emperors tried to become the heads of the Church in the Empire. of the East. The patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria (385-412) in his fight against the origenists, took advantage of this opportunity to direct his activity against St. John Chrysostom of Constantinople and succeeded in his intrigues. Theophilus was also distinguished by the zeal with which, assisted by the imperial soldiers he applied the decree of Theodosius regarding the closure of the temples. The famous temple of Serapis was then abandoned to fire and destruction. His nephew and successor Cirillo (famous for the part he took in the Monophysite controversy), skilled and very ambitious, overcame him in fanaticism and violence during his 30 years of patriarchy. He drove the Jews out of the city en masse and let Hypatia massacred in front of the Caesar’s church. The successor Dioscoro favored to a large extent the spread of the Monophysite theory and under him the relations between the clergy and the government became, and then remained for a long time, very hostile, the patriarch representing the religious ideas of the Egyptians, the prefect those of the imperial court. Dioscoro was excommunicated and exiled, but the bishop Proterius sent from Constantinople could only be installed after a new siege, a new sacking of the city and a new fire in the Serapeum. And it didn’t last long, as he was assassinated and replaced by a heterodox monk.
Around this time, new raids by the Blemmîs took place in the Thebaid and as far as the Great Oasis. The Blemmîs were rejected by Floro, first governor of Upper Egypt and then prefect, who managed to conclude a better treaty with them than the previous ones and to obtain the delivery of hostages. Under Zeno (474-491), for some time victoriously opposed by Basiliscus, partisan of the Egyptian religious ideas, the jumble of patriarchs and bishops continued, appointed, in contrast, by the Egyptians and the emperor with alternating depositions, deportations and condemnations. Finally, under Anastasius (491-518) there was a period of religious peace, but this did not prevent the growing misery and depopulation, the increasingly arbitrary taxation, the disappearance of small properties and the almost automatic formation of of vast estates of a feudal type, in the hands of a few owners and monasteries. The farmer who did not want to abandon the land and flee into the desert, as some did out of desperation, had recourse to the patronage of a powerful neighbor – not alien to resisting tax agents even with armed forces – giving him his rights: he thus became his settler in the large estates, first as a tenant, then as a serf. Justinian (527-565) strove to lift the country out of anarchy. Nothing succeeded in the religious field. The measures he took were always fought by the empress Theodora and this contrasting action made the very serious difficulties even more complicated. The administrative reforms proclaimed with the famous Edict XIII also proved impotent.
The diocese of Egypt disappears and in its place is replaced by a division into five eparchies, each having its own administration, under a civil and military governor at the same time. Three of these provinces are duchies ; the duchies are divided into two eparchies, the second under the command of a purely civil praeses. Arcadia includes only one eparchy. The territory west of the Delta forms the Limes of Libya. Alexandria constitutes a separate unit, but it depends, like the Duchy of Egypt, on the Augustal Duce of Egypt, who, in practice, therefore came to exercise a preponderant function over the others.
The evil was by now too complex and too deep-rooted, and the reforms lacked whoever wanted and could honestly apply them on the spot, despite the very serious sanctions threatened by corrupt or only negligent employees, for the country to recover. However, under Justinian there was some renewed activity in public construction and despite the unfortunate situation, the Blemmîs could be reduced to impotence and were forced to convert to Christianity. On that occasion the last vestige of pagan worship, the Isis temple in File, was closed and destroyed. Exasperated by the irremediable economic crisis, the bloody fights of a religious-nationalist nature continued for the rest of the century between Melkites (imperial, Catholic) and Jacobites (from Jacob Baradas, who, in the sixth century, he had managed to collect in a body of doctrine the various shades of monophysitism). Egypt acquired considerable political importance when Heraclius raised, in 609, the banner of the revolt against Phocas, which had excluded the Egyptians from all the offices of the state and the province. Alexandria welcomed the victory of the Augustal duce, Niceta, over the imperial troops with great celebrations. The first years of the reign of Heraclius (610-641) passed in relative religious peace, Niketas having followed a policy of conciliation, and the patriarch John the Almoner having managed to win the respectful admiration of all, for his moral gifts. and the great spirit of charity. It is probable that if the Persian invasion of 616 had not occurred, Nicetas would have induced the imperial court not to escalate the struggles by coming to a compromise with the church which enjoyed the greatest popularity in Egypt. The Persians did not find serious resistance as far as the walls of Alexandria, which they nevertheless took possession of only with the help of a traitor. The city was sacked and the residents massacred. The Persian lordship lasted about ten years, until the victories obtained by Heraclius in Syria and Mesopotamia (627) forced the Persians to retreat. Egypt was again occupied by a Roman garrison. Unfortunately, Heraclius, repeating an error committed by Justinian, united in one person the office of prefect and patriarch, choosing in addition in Cyrus an irreducible opponent of the Monophysites. Therefore every attempt of emperor to find a formula acceptable to the two parties failed and increasingly alienated the Copts from the Empire. Meanwhile, more aggressive and stronger invaders than the Persians, the Muslims, were approaching Egypt.