Sunday, July 10, 2011

Page 28: A Glorious Decline: the Roman Period


Pharaohs from afar: the Roman Period and Ancient Egyptian Temples

The latter part of the Ptoleaic dynasty was plagued by internal power struggles and as the contesting factions turned to Rome for assistance ancient Egypt fell increasingly under the influence of the emerging Mediterranean power. Finally, the victory of Octavian (later Augustus) over his rival Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII spelled the end of Egyptian independence, and ancient Egypt was declared a Roman province under imperial control.

Like the Ptolemaic kings, the Romans who followed them desired to adopt ancient Egyptian models both for the purposes of their own legitimation and acceptance with the ancient Egyptian priesthoods and people, and perhaps more importantly to preserve the social and economic stability within the area which provided much of Rome's grain supply. Roman emperors were thus depicted in pharaonic guise and continued to restore and in some cases elaborate Egypt's temples. One of the most distinctive structures in ancient Egypt, Trajan's Kiosk, on the island of Philae, was constructed as a monumental entrance to the temple of Isis at that site, though the structure was never completed. Entirely new temples were also built, in many cases following the old styles. The temple of Esna for example, reflects the design of the earliesr Ptolemaic temple at Dendera and is decorated with representations of several emperors in motifs which were by this time thousands of years old.

The Romans displayed great interest in ancient Egyptian civilization, and several emperors commanded the removal of scupltures and monuments from ancient Egypt's temples (though these were perhaps already abandoned structures, such as at heliopolis) which were to be set up in Rome. An example is the obelisk which today stands in the Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano and which was taken to Rome in the 4th century AD by Constantius II.

Overall, the continued decline in the importance of ancient Egyptian temples in evident, however, and by the early 4th century AD we find no less a structure than Luxor Temple incorporated into a permanent Roman military camp and adapted to serve the cult of emperor worship. Arguably, as Stephen Quirke has suggested, this could be seen as a Roman interpretation of Amenophis III's concept of Luxor Temple as a statement of the divine nature of kingship - now in the form of the emperor. But in any event, the fate of ancient Egyptian temples was finally sealed by the acceptance of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire.

Trajan's Kiosk on the island of Philae is a good example of the kind of building accomplished by the Romans in ancient Egyptian temples in addition to the emblbellishment of existing structures
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