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Roman Interference in Egypt

During the time of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Rome was already beginning to interfere in the governance of Egypt. Cicero references an unpublished agreement between Sulla and Alexander I (Ptolemy X) or II (Ptolemy XI) to bequeath Egypt to Rome.

"What will become of Alexandria, and of all Egypt? How much it is out of sight! how completely is it hidden! how stealthily is it abandoned entirely to the decemvirs! For who is there among you who is ignorant that that kingdom has become the property of the Roman people by the will of king Alexander?"
-Cicero, On the Agrarian Law, 2.41 

Lurking beneath the surface of this coin is a story of money, power, Roman fascination with Egypt, and political fights. In Rome the courts became a tool to wage political proxy fights between Roman nobility and the triumvirate. The characters and events are endless and well documented, these notes will inevitably only introduce the story which is laid out in great detail by Siani-Davies (2001) in her commentary on Pro Rabirio Postumo.

Seleucis & Pieria, Antioch, Aulus Gabinius, 57-55 BC, AR Tetradrachm (25mm, 15.52g, 12h), in the name and types of Philip I Philadelphus

Obv: Diademed head right within bead-and-reel border

Rev: BAΣIΛEΩΣ/ΦΙΛΙΠΠOY to right, EΠIΦANOVΣ/ΦIΛAΔΕΛΦOY to left, Zeus Nicephorus enthroned left; thunderbolt above, monogram of Gabinius to lower inner left, monogram below throne; all within laurel wreath Ref: McAlee 1; Prieur 1; RPC I 4124;

A summary of characters

  • Pompey the Great, a member of the First triumvirate (60-53 BC), wielded broad power over the eastern provinces.

  • Aulus Gabinius, a protégé of Pompey's and proconsul of Syria from 57-55 BC, who also initiated the Lex Gabinius that gave Pompey broad powers to fight pirates in 67 BC.

  • Mark Anthony, a rising talent who led the cavalry in Gabinius' army.

  • Ptolemy XII, the king of Egypt, who had to bribe Julius Caesar to stay in power. Rome weakened him further by annexing Cyprus which was controlled by a aother Ptolemy. Ptolemy XII turned to Rome for money and support, leaving his daughter Bernice IV behind.

  • Rabirius Postumus, a wealthy Roman financier, who played a key role in funding Roman affairs in Egypt. He formally became finance minister to Ptolemy XII - perhaps to make legal his work.

  • Publius Clodius Pulcher, friend of Julius Caesar who is accused of incest with his sister, the wife of the general Lucullus, and sleeping with Julius Caesar's wife.

  • Archelaus, an ambitious Pontic general appointed by Pompey as high priest at the great temple of Ma at Comana and later a member of Gabinius' staff in Syria, preparing for war with Parthia. He falsely claimed to be a son of Mithridates VI, turned against Rome and married Bernice IV, queen of Egypt.

  • M. Tullius Cicero, orator and consul in 63 BC and target of the Catalinarian conspiracy by veterans of Lucius Cornelius Sulla's armies. His resolution of the conspiracy opened him up to exile from Rome by consuls Piso and Gabinius.

  • M. Porcius Cato (the Younger), leader of the optimates who levied charges against Gabinius, and tried to warn Ptolemy in 58BC of the "hardship he was subjecting himself in dealing with the corruption and rapacity of the chief men at Rome, whom Egypt could scarcely glut if it were all turned into money" (Plutarch, Cato, 35.4)

A summary of events

67 BC: as tribune of the plebs, Aulius Gabinius brought forward Lex Gabinia, giving 39-year old Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great) a political opportunity and great authority and resources to combat the growing problem of piracy on the Mediterranean.

62 BC: Cicero gave evidence in the incest trial of Publius Clodius Pulcher making a fierce enemy in Clodius. Clodius was acquitted after Crassus bribed everyone.

61 BC: Gabinius, as praetor put on extravagant games to win public favor

59 BC: Gabinius, ran and was elected as consul for 58 BC with Lucius Calpurnius Piso Casoninus, and during his term aided Publius Clodius Pulcher in the exile of Cicero. Gabinius secured Syria as his proconsular province.

Cicero doesn’t spare the drama, verbally lashing out against Piso and Gabinius – two notes of many:

“Should I, if I were to see you (Piso) and Gabinius both nailed to a cross, feel greater rejoicing at the laceration of your bodies, than I do at the tearing to pieces of your reputations?
-Cicero, Against Piso 18

[Publius Servilius] "has thought it his duty to brand not only with his adverse opinion but with the greatest severity of language, Gabinius and Piso, as the two monsters who have been almost the destruction of the republic, both on other accounts, and also most especially because of their extraordinary wickedness and unseemly inhumanity towards me, with what feelings ought I myself to be actuated towards those men,—I whose safety they devoted and ruined for the gratification of their own evil passions?"
- M. Tullius Cicero, On the Consular Provinces, 3.1.2

58 BC: Clodius as tribune of the plebs passes a law to outlaw anyone involved in the killing of a Roman citizen without due process, the law aimed as revenge on Cicero who 's actions against the Catalinarian conspiracy made him vulnerable. Cicero was exiled and his property confiscated and destroyed. It is not long before Cicero is recalled to Rome in 57 BC thanks to the efforts of his allies including Pompey the Great.

“When Gabinius, a man of consular dignity, was sailing for Syria, he tried to persuade Antony to join the expedition. Antony refused to go out with him in a private capacity, but on being appointed commander of the horse, accompanied him on the campaign. And first, having been sent against Aristobulus, who was bringing the Jews to a revolt, he was himself the first man to mount the highest of the fortifications, and drove Aristobulus from all of them; then he joined battle with him, routed his many times more numerous forces with his own small band, and slew all but a few of them. Aristobulus himself was captured, together with his son”
- Plutarch, Life of Anthony 3.1 

57-55 BC: Gabinius as proconsular governor of Syria, supported by Pompey the Great, stabilized the region for Rome by establishing a local subject governance structure in 5 administrative districts (Judea, Gallileea, Perea, Jericho, and Idumea (Gadora?)) – with no King of Judea. With Mark Antony as his cavalry leader, Gabinius successfully defeated Aristobulus II who was fighting with his half-brother Hyrcanus II (Hasmonean Dynasty) for control of Judea. Aristobulus was taken prisoner and became a pawn in the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey. This governance didn't last long as soon Gabinius made Antipater the Idumaean authority over Judea (founder of the Herodian dynasty).

Winter 57/56 BC: Archelaus leaves Syria for Egypt. While Ptolemy is in Rome to ask support and there is jockeying for position to lead the war. The promise of Egypt's riches lures money from Rome to back a restoration of Ptolemy XII as king.

56 BC: The Senate decides in March not to launch military efforts to restore Ptolemy XII, and Gabinius, perhaps under orders from Pompey and with Roman money backing him, by early summer turns away from Parthia and moves to restore Ptolemy as king. In the late fall, Archelaus is killed, supposedly by Gabinius himself, and Antony accords him a respectful burial.

"Nor did the multitude fail to observe his humane treatment of the dead Archelaüs,​ for after waging war upon him by necessity while he was living, although he had been a comrade and friend, when he had fallen, Antony found his body and gave it royal adornment and burial. Thus he left among the people of Alexandria a very high reputation, and was thought by the Romans on the expedition to be a most illustrious man."
Plutarch, Mark Antony 3.2-4 

Gabinus was indicted by Cato, at least in part to weaken the Triumvirate and highlight their unconstitutional behavior of ignoring the Senate. Quickly after being acquitted of treason, Gabinius was charged again by Cato and this time convicted on bribery charges.

  • He was acquitted of the charge of treason for leaving his province for Egypt without the consent of the Senate

  • He was found guilty of extortion and accepting a 10,000 talent bribe from Ptolemy

  • A third charge of illegal activity in his bid for consulship was dropped

Cicero was pressured to take the defense of his enemy, Gabinus, against these charges, perhaps his half hearted willingness to do so also contributed to the guilty verdict.

Cicero also defended, successfully, Postumus on charges of extortion. For the bribery charge Gabinius was exiled and his property was confiscated. Caesar recalled him in 49 BC and he fought for Caesar in Illyria - dying of illness in 47BC at Salonae.


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2 Kommentare

Alfred Kowsky
Alfred Kowsky
17. Mai 2022

Sulla, I enjoyed reading your well-researched article but found the title "Roman Interference in Egypt" rather misleading 🤤. Your article seems to focus on the prelude to the downfall of the Roman Republic, with Egypt being of secondary importance. It took many centuries before people realized the importance of Cicero & the impact he had on Roman history, literature, & the Latin language. His fiery tongue cost him his head & hands by the order of Mark Antony 😩. Aulus Gabinius was the very definition of political corruption, & he much more deserved the fate that befell Cicero. A number of excellent tetradrachms of Gabinius have gone through my hands, but the one pictured below stayed in my collection 😉.

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17. Mai 2022
Antwort an

Hi Al, it certainly was an interesting time - I found the scheme to make money and make sure the right people were in power in Egypt the compelling part of this story. It also certainly was a time of decline for the Roman republic with the senate and courts being used for political games with high stakes. Fantastic strike 5/5 surface 5/5 coin of yours. Williams in the article cited takes a bit kinder view on Gabinus - arguing that what we know was overly colored by hostile voices like Cicero's.

Thanks as always for the comment,


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