Egyptians: Ammianus on their “dark” complexion and insubordinate behaviour (late fourth century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Egyptians: Ammianus on their “dark” complexion and insubordinate behaviour (late fourth century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified August 2, 2023,

Ancient author: Ammianus Marcellinus (late fourth century CE), Roman Antiquities / Res Gestae 22.23 (link).

Comments: Ammianus Marcellinus’ fourth century digression on Egypt is focussed primarily on the natural (Nile, animals) and human-made wonders (temples, pyramids) of the land, but he does give a substantial paragraph that reveals his own stereotypes regarding the character of Egyptian people, with dark and rebellious being the gist. As usual, Ammianus emphasizes Roman control of the region.

Source of translation: J. C. Rolfe, Ammianus Marcellinus: Roman History, 3 volumes, LCL (Cambridge: HUP, 1935-1940), public domain (Rolfe passed away in 1943), adapted and modernized by Harland.


[For Ammianus’ previous discussion of Celts / Gauls, go to this link.]

[Egypt’s location and wonders]

(22.15) Accordingly, since the occasion seems to demand it [Ammianus has just incidentally brought in worship of the Apis bull in comparison with emperor Julian’s sacrifices to another god], let us touch briefly on matters Egyptian, of which I discoursed at length in connection with the history of the emperors Hadrian and Severus [books now lost],​ telling for the most part what I myself had seen. The Egyptian descent group (gens) is the most ancient of all, except that in antiquity it vies with the Scythians [Trogus or the traditions employed by Trogus may be in mind – link].​ Egypt is bounded on the south​ by the Greater Syrtes, the promontories Phykos and Borion, by the Garamantians​ and various other peoples (nationes). Where it looks directly east it extends to Elephantine and Meroe, cities of the Ethiopians, to the Katadupi​ cataract and the Red Sea, and to the tent-dwelling Arabians, whom we now call the “Saracens.”​ On the north it forms part of the boundless tract where Asia and the provinces of Syria begin. On the west its boundary is the Issiac sea, which some have called the Parthenian. . . [omitted extensive discussion of the Nile, animals, and other paradoxical features of nature, as well as the wonders of temples and pyramids].

[Egypt’s Roman provinces]

(22.16) In early times Egypt is said to have had three provinces: Egypt proper, Thebais, and Libya. To these later times have added two: Augustamnica being taken from Egypt, and Pentapolis from the dryer part of Libya. . . [omitted extensive discussion of the provinces and their cities, including Alexandria].


(22.23-24) In general, the men of Egypt have a somewhat swarthy and dark complexion. They are rather gloomy-looking,​ slender and hardy, excitable in all their movements, quarrelsome, and very demanding. Any one of them would blush if he did not, in consequence of refusing tribute, show many stripes on his body. Even until now it has been impossible to find some torture cruel enough to force a hardened bandit (latro) of that region to reveal his own name against his will.

[Roman control]

Moreover, it is a well-known fact, as the ancient records show, that all Egypt was formerly ruled by their ancestral kings. However, after Antony and Cleopatra were vanquished in the sea-fight at Actium, the country fell into the power of Octavian Augustus and received the name of a province.​ We [Romans] acquired the dryer part of Libya by the last will of king Apion. We received Cyrene, with the remaining cities of Libya-Pentapolis, through the generosity of Ptolemy.​ After this long digression, I will return to the order of my narrative.

[For Ammianus’ subsequent discussion of Thracians and Black Sea peoples, go to this link.]

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