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Roman pharaohs in Egypt: An example of Diocletian

Date of news: 19 March 2022

For 50 years, instability and internal conflict would reign free in the Roman Empire. This period would be known as the era of the Soldier Emperors (235 - 284 CE). During these 50 years, fourteen different emperors would stake their claim to the Roman imperial throne until Diocletian.

Diocletian's rise to power

Diocletian, the last of the Soldier Emperors, would enter the stage in 284. He would restructure the empire and its bureaucratic body to secure stability in the future and prevent the power struggle of the previous decades. One of these reforms was the creation of a tetrarchy, rulership of four, and the division of the Roman Empire in a Western and Eastern section. Diocletian became an emperor in the East (Hekster & Jansen, 2018).

In order to secure the stability of the new system a lot of effort was expended in the representation of all four emperors. Despite this new system the old traditions set by previous emperors regarding their image would remain in place. Chief among these was the need to shape the image to the intended audience, which resulted in Roman Emperors attempting to place themselves in the history and traditions of local provinces. The core of Diocletian's section of the empire was Egypt and as such he would also represent himself as pharaoh (Bowman, 2005).

Portrayal in Egyptian culture

The portrayal of a Roman emperor as pharaoh is not an unprecedented practice in Roman Imperial imagery. For example, imagery of Augustus and his victory at Actium not just preludes the founding of the Roman empire, but also underlined a connection between Egypt and the empire. Other Egyptian cultural practices were also appropriated for imperial ambitions, like the obelisks that are still present today were brought by different emperors to Rome.

The depiction of Roman emperors in Egyptian imagery is twofold. On the one hand Roman emperors tried to anchor themselves in the broader history of the Mediterranean in which Egyptian heritage appealed to the imagination of the collective memory. Mediterranean civilizations had vivid memories of their already old past, the mythical image of Egypt was constructed on ideas about the illustrious city of Alexandria, the linkage with Alexander the Great and the riches of the Nile-delta. On the other hand, there was an unavoidable need for Roman emperors to legitimize their position as external rulers. By placing themselves within the existing Egyptian framework they appealed to the needs of their Egyptian audience (Versluys, 2008).

Diocletian as pharaoh

A stele of Diocletian, dated in 288, depicts him as a pharaoh offering to the Egyptian deity Buchis. This stele is a suitable example of a Roman emperor assimilating local traditions. The iconography on the stele is explicitly Egyptian and Diocletian is no longer visibly recognizable. The Egyptian double crown, which symbolizes the legitimate rulership over both upper and lower Egypt, portrays Diocletian no longer as emperor, but as legitimate Egyptian pharaoh. The style of the stele laid firmly in Egyptian artistic tradition, instead of a Roman style of imagery.  Thus, Diocletian used existing traditions to satisfy the demands of his Egyptian audience and legitimized his position as ruler in the Roman empire and Egypt. The mythmaking of the past, both nowadays and in antiquity, is a recurring phenomenon in the construction of collective identities, also connecting Rome to Egypt.

By: Rick van Brummelen, Marieke Ceelaert, Julian Damen

(students of the course Populism and Propaganda in the Roman World)


Primary sources

Secondary literature and further reading

  • Hekster, O.J., Jansen C., Diocletianus. Tussen eenheid en versnippering (Nijmegen 2018).

    DG313 - D56 2018
    Keizer Diocletianus (244-311) kwam aan de macht op moment dat het Romeinse Rijk geteisterd werd door interne twisten en oorlogen en het economisch verval had ingezet. De heersers dreigden hun macht te verliezen. Dat liet Diocletianus echter niet zomaar gebeuren. Hij voerde een nieuwe staatsstructuur in, de tetrarchie, waarbij twee Augusti (keizers) en twee Caesares (vice-keizers) aan het hoofd stonden. Ook stelde hij voor veel goederen en diensten een maximumprijs in om het rijk makkelijker bestuurbaar te maken. Maar met de gedeelde macht was de eenheid soms ver te zoeken. Na zijn aftreden in 305 (een unicum) leefde Diocletianus nog jaren aan de zijlijn, in zijn paleis in Split. In deze uitgave wordt de centrale rol van Diocletianus belicht tijdens een breukperiode van het Romeinse Rijk.

  • Hidding, A., The Era of the Martyrs: Remembering the Great Persecution in Late Antique Egypt (Berlin 2020).

    One of the most traumatic experiences of Late Antique Christians was the Great Persecution, begun by Emperor Diocletian and his Tetrarchic colleagues in 303 CE. Here Aaltje Hidding unites research of traditional memory studies with work done by cognitive scientists to examine how they remembered the Persecution.

  • Ritner, R., 'Egypt Under Roman Rule: The Legacy of Ancient Egypt', in The Cambridge History of Egypt, 1-33. (Cambridge 1998). https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521471374.002

    E-book = Vol. 1, Islamic Egypt, 640-1517
    Free pdf of chapter

  • Versluys, M.J., 'Understanding Egypt in Egypt and Beyond', In: Bricault L., Versluys M.J. (Eds.) Isis on the Nile. Egyptian gods in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt. Proceedings of the IVth International Conference of Isis Studies. Michel Malaise in honorem, 7-36 (Leiden and Boston, 2008). https://doi.org/10.1163/ej.9789004188822.i-364.10