2. Geographers and Ethnographers on Africa

Interest in what lay beyond the boundaries of their own society led Greek geographers to conduct systematic explorations and produce maps. Fascination with the peoples who inhabited remote regions spawned the genre of ethnography (literally “writing about tribes”). For these geographers and ethnographers, Africa represented one of the most remote places on earth.

2.1 The Edges of the Earth

The earliest Greek conception of the earth had a landmass surrounding the Mediterranean and in turn surrounded by the River Okeanos (Ocean). In this Greece-centered view of the world, places that bordered Okeanos were the most remote locations. As such, they were envisioned as having extreme conditions and exotic inhabitants. Africa, with its northern coast facing Greece across the Mediterranean and with its southern coast bordering Okeanos, was seen as extreme and exotic, and, by Herodotus, as a kind of mirror image of Greece.

2.1.1 Hesiod Theogony 337–345 (c. 700 BCE; Greek)

          Okeanos is the father of other river-gods, including the Nile
          To Okeanos Tethys [1] bore eddying rivers:
          Nile, Alpheios, deep swirling Eridanos,
          Strymon, Maeander, beautifully flowing Ister,
340    Phasis, Rhesus, silver-streamed Achelous,
          Nessos, Rhodios, Haliakmon, Heptaporos,
          Granicus, Aisepos, divine Simois,
          Peneus, Hermos, well-flowing Caicus,
          Sangarius, great Ladon, Parthenios,
345    Euenos, Ardeskos, and divine Scamander.

2.1.2 Homer Iliad 18.481–489, 607–608 (8th c. BCE; Greek)

Achilles’ divinely made shield resembles a map.
          The shield itself had five layers; on its surface, Hephaestus
          sculpted many intricate designs with his crafty mind.
          On it he wrought the earth,the sky, the sea,
          the tireless sun, and the full moon.
485    On it he made all the constellations that adorn
          the sky: the Pleides, the Hyades, mighty Orion,
          and the Great Bear, which they also call the Wagon,
          and which, as it rotates, watches Orion and
          has no part in the baths of Okeanos.
          . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
607    On it he made the great strength of the river Okeanos
          the outermost rim of the solidly made shield.

2.1.3 Herodotus Histories 4.36, excerpt (c. 425 BCE; Greek)

Herodotus describes Hecataeus’ map of the world.
… I laugh when I see that many have already drawn maps of the world and no one lays it out sensibly: they draw Okeanos flowing around the land, which is circular, as if drawn by a compass, and they make Asia equal in size to Europe. In a few words, I will reveal the size of each of them and how one should draw them.

2.2 Climate and Characteristics

Ethnographers connect characteristics of a landscape with the qualities of the people who inhabit it. [2] Factors such as climate and water supply contribute to the body type, intellectual abilities, and health of the local inhabitants. The principle at work is like to like: those who live near marshy, stagnant waters that are hot and thick in summer and cold and turbid in winter tend to have, among other things, hot, dry digestive organs. [3] The various climates of the world, then, offer a framework within which to view the differences observed among peoples.

2.2.1 Hippocratic Corpus, Airs, Waters, Places 1 (c. 400 BCE; Greek)

Environment influences one’s constitution and susceptibility to disease.
Whoever wishes to study medicine properly must do the following: first, take note of the seasons of the year and their effects (for there are not all alike, but differ greatly from one another in the changes they produce); next, consider hot and cold winds, both those common to all men and those specific to individual regions; lastly observe the nature of the waters (for just as they differ in taste and weight, so do they have different properties). Likewise, when one arrives in an unfamiliar city, one must consider its location with respect to the winds and the sunrise, for a city that lies to the north does not have the same strengths as one that lies to the south and one that lies to the east differs from one that lies to the west. It is necessary to note these things carefully. Also consider the waters the inhabitants have, whether they are soft and marshy or hard and from rocky heights or salty and unsuitable for cooking. Note too the land, whether it is bare and dry or wooded and moist and whether it is hollow and sheltered from the cold or high and exposed. Observe how the inhabitants live and what sort of things they enjoy, whether they take pleasure in eating and drinking and are lazy or they favor exercise and hard work, have hearty appetites, and refrain from drinking.

2.2.2 Herodotus Histories 2.10, 12, excerpts (c.425 BCE; Greek)

The formation of Egypt from silt deposited by the Nile contributes to its unique character.
10. The majority of Egypt’s land, according to the priests and my own assessment, was added for the Egyptians. The region that lies between the mountains above the city of Memphis seemed to me to have been at one time an inlet of the sea. …
12. I believe those who say these things about Egypt and I myself am very sure the accounts are true, since I have seen that Egypt extends further into the sea than the land next to it. Also, shells can be found in the mountains, [4] salt blooms even on the surface of the pyramids, and the only mountain of sand is the one above Memphis. In addition, Egypt differs from the Arabian land, which borders it, Libya, and even Syria (for the Syrians inhabit the coastal region of Arabia). Egypt’s soil is black and crumbling: it resembles mud carried down and deposited by the river that flows from Ethiopia. We know that the Libyan soil is red and sandy and that Arabia and Syria have clay over a rocky substrate.

2.2.3 Herodotus Histories 2.19–25 (c. 425 BCE; Greek)

Herodotus discusses possible reasons for the annual Nile flood. Because of the silt the river deposited on the land, the Nile flood was essential for growing crops and so understanding and predicting the flood were of great interest. The bigger the flood, the more land was covered in fertile silt. A smaller flood meant a smaller area for growing crops. The Egyptians invented the Nilometer, a structure resembling a well, to measure the water level. A higher water level predicted a bigger flood and triggered a higher tax rate in anticipation of a large harvest.
19. When the Nile floods, it comes over not only the Delta, but also the Libyan and Arabian lands and extends up to two days’ journey—sometimes more, sometimes less—from the banks on either side. About the nature of the river, I was not able to learn from either the priests or from any others. I was eager to learn from them the following: why the Nile comes down in flood for a hundred days beginning from the summer solstice and why, after this number of days, it goes back by reducing its flow, so that it becomes shallow for the whole winter until the summer solstice comes again. Regarding this, I was not able to learn anything from the Egyptians, although I asked them what power the Nile has that makes it the opposite of other rivers. [5] Since I wished to know, I also asked why the Nile is the only river from which no breezes blow.
20. But some of the Greeks, wishing to become distinguished for their wisdom, professed three ideas about this water. [6] Of these, two are not worth mentioning, except to say what they are. One of them says that the Etesian winds are responsible for the river flooding, as they hinder the Nile flowing into the sea. But frequently the Etesian winds do not blow and the Nile behaves in the same way. Furthermore, if the Etesian winds were responsible, other rivers that flow opposite the winds would have to behave in the same way as the Nile—or indeed be affected even more because being smaller they have a weaker current. But many rivers in Syria and Libya do not behave like the Nile.
21. The other view is even more ignorant, despite being more wonderful to describe. It says that he river has these effects because it flows from Ocean, which encircles the whole world.
22. The third view is both the most believable and the most false, for it says nothing at all. It claims that the Nile flows from melting snow, [7] when in fact it flows from Libya through the middle of Ethiopia and emerges into Egypt. How then would it flow from snow, when it flows from the hottest places into cooler places? For a man able to reason about such matters, the first and biggest evidence that it is not likely to flow from snow is that the winds blowing from these places are hot. The second piece of evidence is that the land is without rain or ice. After snow falls, it must rain within five days, and so if it snowed, rain would fall in these lands. The third piece of evidence is that the people are black from the burning heat. Also, kites and swallows are there all year and do not leave and cranes flee the cold weather in Scythia and migrate to winter in these places. If it snowed at all in this land through which the Nile flows and from which it rises, none of these things would occur, as necessity demonstrates.
23. The one who mentioned Ocean brought up an obscure legend that does not even need to be refuted, for I do not know any river called Ocean. I think that Homer or some earlier poet found the name and brought it into poetry.
24. If, after criticizing the opinions that have been proposed, I must offer a theory about these obscure matters, I will say why it seems to me that the Nile floods in the summer. In the winter, the sun, driven from its original course [8] by storms, comes over the inland part of Libya. Everything has been said to demonstrate this in brief: for whatever country this god is nearest, this land is most thirsty for water and the current of the rivers in that place are dried up.
25. Here is a longer explanation of the above theory. Passing over the inland region of Libya, the sun does the following: just as at all times in that region the air is clear, the land warm, and the winds cold, the sun as it passes over does the same thing as it does in the summer as it goes through the middle of the sky. It draws water to itself and then lets the water go into the inland region. The winds catch up the water, disperse it, and get rid of it. Reasonably, the winds blowing from this country, from the south and southwest, are the rainiest of all winds. It seems to me that the sun does not disperse all of the water it takes from the Nile each year, but keeps some for itself. When the winter becomes mild, the sun comes back to the middle of the sky and at that point draws equally from all rivers. In the meantime, those rivers, once the rain water is mixed into them, flow copiously since the land is rained on and gullies form. In the summer, when the rain doesn’t come and their water is drawn up by the sun, they flow weakly. But the Nile, being without rain and being the only river drawn up by the sun in the winter, reasonably flows much less than in the summer, for at that time it is drawn up equally with all other waters, but in the winter it alone is oppressed.

2.2.4 Manilius Astronomica 4.723–726 (1st c. CE; Latin)

Manilius describes the effect of environment on skin tone.
          The Ethiopians spot the earth and show a race of men covered in shadow;
          India had produced less burned inhabitants; the Egyptian land,
725    swimming in the Nile, stains bodies more lightly as its fields
          are inundated: nearer and moderate, it produces a medium tone.

2.3 Exploration

Since travel was easier by sea than by land, Greek and Roman explorers had more detailed knowledge of Africa’s coastal regions than of its interior. In addition, sea voyages in the ancient world tended to hug coastlines and ventured into open water only when necessary. This strategy for reducing risk resulted in opportunities to observe coastal regions and led to a type of geographical writing known as the periplus (literally ‘a sailing around’). Inland regions tended to be explored if a river provided access: those who did not live on the coast could still trade if ships could reach them by sailing upstream to the interior.

2.3.1 Periplus of the Erythraean Sea 1–18, excerpts (1st c. CE; Greek)

The author describes trade routes along the coastlines of the Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean, including coastal cities of Africa from eastern Egypt to eastern Tanzania. A periplus is not a literary work, but an efficient transmission of information on where to trade and what materials are available in the various market towns. As the passage demonstrates, trading opportunities were plentiful along the coast of Africa.
1. Of the designated harbors of the Erythraean Sea [9] and the market towns along its shores, first is the port of Egypt called Mussel Harbor. After that, those sailing on come to Berenike on the right after 1800 stadia. [10] Both of these harbors are at the border of Egypt and they are bays of the Eyrthraean Sea.
2. Next on the right after Berenike is the land of Barbaroi. [11] Along the coast the Fish-Eaters live in caves scattered throughout narrow valleys. Further inland live the Barbaroi and after them the Wild-Beast-Eaters and Shoot-Eaters. Each of these tribes is ruled by a chief. Further inland behind these to the west lies the city of Meroe.
3. After the Shoot-Eaters on the coast is a small market town about 4000 stadia away called Ptolemais of the Hunts, from which the hunters set out in the reign of the Ptolemies. This market town has a few true land tortoises, which are white and have smaller shells. Also in this place is found a little ivory, similar to that from Adulis. The place, however, is without a harbor and is reached only in small boats.
4. Below Ptolemais of the Hunts, about 3000 stadia distant, is Adulis, a market town established by law. It lies in a deep harbor to the south, where so-called Mountain Island lies about 200 stadia out to sea, having the mainland lying next to it on both sides. Arriving ships now anchor here because of attacks from the mainland. Originally, they anchored at the end of the bay, at an island called Diodoros, which was by the shore and reachable on foot. Because of this, the barbarous inhabitants could attack the island. Opposite Mountain Island and twenty stadia inland is Adulis, a sizable village, from which it is a three-day trip to the inland city of Coloe, the first ivory market. From there to the city of the Axumites is a journey of five more days. To that place all the ivory from beyond the Nile is brought from the place called Cyeneum and from there to Adulis. The majority of the slain elephants and rhinoceros dwell in inland places, but occasionally they are hunted on the coast by Adulis. From the market town, out to sea on the right lie many other small, sandy islands called Alalaei, which have tortoise shell that the Fish-Eaters bring to the market.
5. 800 stadia further on there is another very deep bay where there is a large heap of sand at the entrance on the right side; at the bottom of it is found the obsidian stone, made in this place alone. Zoskales rules all these from the Shoot-Eaters up to the rest of Barbaria. He is exacting in all aspects of his life and always looking for more, but he is well bred and knows Greek.
16. Two days’ sail further on lies the last market town of Azania, which is called Rhapta. It has this appellation from the sewn boats mentioned above, [12] in which there is much ivory and tortoise shell. Men very large in body inhabit this region and each rules in his own territory as a chief. The governor of Mapharitis rules this region according to some ancient right that subjects it to the kingdom of Arabia as first established. The people of Mouza hold the region according to a grant from the king and they send to it large ships, using mostly Arab captains and agents, who are acquainted with and intermarry with the natives and know their coast and language.
17. To these market towns are brought spears made for this purpose at Mouza, as well as axes, daggers, and awls. There are many types of glass and in some places wine and grain, not for trade, but for the sake of feasting in order to gain the favor of the Barbaroi. A lot of ivory is brought out from this place, but it is inferior to that from Adulis. There is also rhinoceros horn and tortoise shell—the type most in demand after India’s—and a little palm oil.
18. The markets of Azania are the last on the coast that stretches to the right from Berenike. For beyond these places unexplored ocean bends to the west, extends south along the parts of Ethiopia, Libya, and Africa that face in the other direction, and mixes with the Western Sea. [13]

2.3.2 Herodotus Histories 2.28–29 (c. 425 BCE; Greek)

Herodotus describes an inland voyage, sailing upstream on the Nile.
28. Let these things be as they are and as they were in the beginning. None of the Egyptians, Libyans, or Greeks whom I have encountered claim to know the springs of the Nile, except the treasurer of Athena’s temple in the Egyptian city of Sais. [14] This man seemed to me to be joking when he said he knew precisely. He spoke as follows, saying that there are two sharp-peaked mountains between the city of Syene [15] in the Thebaid and Elephantine and that the names of the mountains are Crophi and Mophi. He said that the bottomless springs of the Nile flow from the middle of these mountains and that half of the water flows to Egypt toward the north wind and the other half to Ethiopia toward the south. He said that the Egyptian king Psammetichus proved that the springs were bottomless when he dropped a rope that he had woven many thousands of fathoms long and did not reach the bottom. If the treasurer spoke accurately, he demonstrated, it seems to me, that there are some strong and swirling eddies pushing the water up against the mountains such that the sounding line cannot reach the bottom.
29. I was not able to learn anything from anyone else. But I learned further by going to see for myself up to the city of Elephantine [16] and in addition by investigating what I heard. For one traveling inland from Elephantine, the land slopes upward. It is necessary to proceed by tying the boat on both sides as though yoking an ox. If the rope breaks, the boat is carried away by the strength of the current. This region is a four-day voyage and here the Nile has as many bends as the Maeander. A distance of twelve schoeni [17] must be navigated in this way. Next, you reach a smooth plain, in which the Nile flows around an island, called Takhompso. Ethiopians inhabit the region above Elephantine and they have half of the island; Egyptians have the other half. There is a large lake near the island and nomadic Ethiopians dwell on its shores. Having crossed the lake, you reach the stream of the Nile, which flows into the lake.

2.4 Ethnography: Egypt

The Greeks and Romans were aware that the Egyptians were a more ancient culture than they were. Perhaps for this reason, the Egyptians were not viewed simply as an “other” or as barbarians. Instead, they were portrayed as a complex mixture of opposition and origin. [18] On the one hand, Herodotus lists many ways in which Egypt is the opposite of Greece, but on the other hand, he sees Egypt as the source of certain aspects of Greek culture, including the names of the gods. [19]
Geography and topography also play a role. The Nile flowing from south to north suggests an inversion of the norms on the north side of the Mediterranean. The fertility the Nile flood brings to Egypt brings the success and wealth for which Egypt is known. We see the principles of ethnography at work in the connections Herodotus and others make between the land and its people.

2.4.1 Herodotus Histories 2.35–36 (c. 425 BCE; Greek)

Herodotus connects Egyptian culture with the country’s unique environment. In his account, customs in Egypt tend to be the opposite of what a Greek reader would consider normal.
35. Just as the Egyptians have a climate that is unique to them and a river with a nature distinct from all other rivers, in almost all cases they have set up laws and customs opposite those of other people. For instance, the women shop in the marketplace and operate shops, while the men, being at home, do the weaving. When others weave, they push the weft up; the Egyptians push it down. [20] Men carry burdens on their heads, while women carry them on their shoulders. Women urinate standing up, while men sit down. They move their bowels in the house, but eat outside in the street, explaining that shameful things must be done in private, but things that are not shameful should be done in public. No woman serves as a priestess of any god, male or female; men are priests of all gods and goddesses. There is no requirement for sons to support their parents, but daughters must, even if they do not wish to.
36. In other places, priests of the gods have long hair; in Egypt they shave their heads. For other men, it is the custom in mourning that those closest to the deceased shave their heads; after a death, the Egyptians let their hair grow, both on their heads and on their faces, but at other times they shave their hair. For other people, it is customary to live apart from their animals, but the Egyptians and their livestock share a common house. Others live on wheat and barley; for the Egyptians it is the greatest shame to live on these grains. They derive nourishment from a coarse grain that many call spelt. They knead dough with their feet, but they knead clay and also pick up dung with their hands. The Egyptians circumcise, while other men, except those who learned from the Egyptians, allow their genitals to stay as they were at birth. Each of the men has two garments; each of the women one. Others attach the rings and reefing ropes of the sails on the outside; the Egyptians do so on the inside. The Greeks write texts and perform calculations moving their hand across the page from left to right, but the Egyptians go from right to left. The Egyptians, however, say that they write to the right and the Greeks write to the left. They use two kinds of letters: one they call sacred and the other common. [21]

2.4.2 Strabo Geography 17.1.3 (7 BCE–23 CE; Greek)

The Nile contributes to the success of Egyptian culture.
It is necessary to speak further, first about Egypt, proceeding from the more well known aspects and then going in order. For the Nile produces some of the same effects in this region and in the one adjacent to it, Ethiopia to the south. When it rises, it waters them and leaves habitable only the portion of them that is inundated by the flood. As it flows through the highlands, the whole area above its stream on both sides is uninhabited and deserted due to lack of water. But the Nile does not go across all of Ethiopia, nor is it the region’s only river, nor does it flow straight, nor are its banks thickly settled. It crosses the whole of Egypt, however, as the only river, flowing in a straight line, beginning from the small cataract above Syene and Elephantine, which mark the boundary of Egypt and Ethiopia, up to its exit into the sea. The Ethiopians live for the most part as nomads with little wealth, on account of the poor land, the unsuitable climate, and the distance from us. [22] The Egyptians enjoy the opposite of all these conditions. For they have lived from the beginning in a settled and civilized society and they occupy well known places. As a result, their constitution is recorded and they are commended for using wisely the prosperity of their land by dividing and cultivating it well. For having designated a king, they divided the population into three parts: soldiers, farmers, and priests. The priests had as their concern matters relating to the gods; the others matters relating to mankind. Of the latter group, some oversaw matters relating to war and others matters relating to peace: the cultivation of the land and of crafts, from which revenue was gathered for the king. The priests practiced philosophy and astronomy and were the kings’ scholars.

2.5 Ethnography: Libya

In antiquity, Libya referred to the area west of the Nile. The modern area that corresponds to ancient Libya is the Maghreb. The name Libya derives from Lebu, the name of one of the tribes in the region. They may be the ancestors of the Berbers. [23] Like Egypt, Libya was known for its fertility. Both agricultural and nomadic ways of life existed there. Amazons, or warrior women, were usually located in Scythia, but there are some mentions of warrior women who lived in Libya. [24]

2.5.1 Diodorus Siculus Library of History 3.49.1–3 (60–30 BCE; Greek)

Diodorus discusses several tribes in Libya.
49. After treating the above topics, it is fitting to treat the Libyans living near Egypt and the bordering region. Four tribes of Libyans inhabit the areas around Cyrene and the Syrtes, as well as the inland part of the mainland in these places. Of the tribes, the people called Nasamones inhabit the inclined part to the south. [25] The Auschisai live to the west and the Marmaridai inhabit a narrow strip between Egypt and Cyrene, sharing the coastline. The Makai, having a larger population, live in the places around the Syrtes. [26] Of the Libyans mentioned above, some are farmers who control land able to produce plentiful crops and some are nomads who raise flocks and derive their nourishment from them. Both of these groups have kings and lead a life not wholly wild or different from civilized people. The third type neither obeys a king nor has any reckoning or idea of justice, but always steals, unexpectedly making attacks from the desert, snatches whatever happens to be nearby and quickly returns to the same place. This group of Libyans has a savage life, living outdoors and emulating the customs of wild animals. The do not share in a civilized lifestyle or clothing, but cover their bodies with the hides of goats. Their leaders do not have cities, but only towers near water sources. In these towers they place their extra possessions.

2.5.2 Herodotus Histories 4.193 (c. 425 BCE; Greek)

This tantalizing reference is all that Herodotus has to say about warrior women in Libya.
Next to the Libyan Maxyes [27] are the Zauekes, whose women drive chariots into battle.

2.5.3 Diodorus Siculus Library of History 3.52–53, excerpts (60–30 BCE; Greek)

Diodorus gives extensive details on the Libyan Amazons.
52. After examining the previous topics it is appropriate, given the regions discussed, [28] to set out what we know of the Amazons who were in ancient times in Libya. Most people assume that the only Amazons are said to have lived area around the River Thermodon in Pontus; but that is not the truth, because the Amazons of Libya lived much earlier in time and accomplished important things. It does not escape us that to many of our readers the account of these people seems strange and unheard of, since the race of these Amazons vanished completely many years before the Trojan War, while the women around the River Thermodon flourished a little before the time of the war. Thus, it is not unreasonable that the later and better known ones inherited the renown of the older and absolutely unknown ones because of the time that elapsed. …
53. They say that there was in the western part of Libya at the edge of the known world a tribe ruled by women and differing in customs from us. For these women, the custom was to engage in war and to serve in the army for a prescribed time, during which they remained virgins. When their years of service ended, they went to the men for the sake of bearing children, but kept for themselves ruling and all public matters. The men, like our married women, stayed at home, obeying the orders of their wives. They did not share in military activity or governing or exercising free speech in public, all of which might make them become presumptuous and rise up against the women. After the children were born, they were given over to the men, who fed them with milk and other boiled things suitable to the age of the infants. If a girl happened to be born, her breasts were cauterized, so that they would not grow at the time of maturity, for the thought that the breasts, since they stand out from the body, were a hindrance to warfare …

2.6 Ethnography: The Garamantes

For Greeks and Romans, the Garamantes were notable for their remoteness. Vergil uses their name to conjure the edges of the earth “Augustus Caesar … will extend his rule beyond both the Garamantes and the Indians.” [29] Occupying a region in southwestern Libya known as Fazzan, the Garamantes were indeed removed from the more cosmopolitan atmosphere of coastal settlements. The archaeological record contains evidence of Garamantian civilization as far back as 1000 BCE; [30] the earliest evidence of contact with the Greek world comes from Herodotus.
The origins of the Garamantes may lie in nomadic horsemen who invaded the Sahara in the second millennium BCE and there may be a link between the Garamantes and the modern Tuareg. [31] Despite these nomadic connections, the Garamantes seem to have had fairly sophisticated settlements. According to archaeological evidence, the Garamantes built cities and engineered an impressive water supply system in the desert. The sophisticated underground water tunnels known as foggaras may represent technology imported from Egypt. [32] This means of irrigation allowed the Garamantes to survive in the Sahara.
Other than archaeological remains, our evidence for the Garamantes in Classical Antiquity comes from Greek and Roman sources, as no Garamantian writings are known. The latest Roman mention comes from Ptolemy (Geography 4.6, c. 150 CE) and consists of a list of towns in the region. Although we lack sources on the Garamantes after 150 CE, they continued to exist as a distinct tribe until they were conquered by the Arabs in the seventh century CE. [33]

2.6.1 Herodotus Histories 4.174, 183 (c. 425 BCE; Greek)

In discussing the Garamantes, Herodotus also mentions the Troglodytes and, in doing so, provides early evidence for East African talent in distance running.
174. Above them [the Nasamonians] to the south, in a beast-infested land, live the Garamantes, [34] who avoid contact with everyone. They neither possess weapons for war nor know how to defend themselves.
183. Another ten days’ journey from Augila is another salt hill and water and many palms that bear fruit, as there are in the other places. In that place live a people whose name is Garamantes. They are an exceptionally great tribe who pile earth upon the salt and thus sow crops. This is the shortest route to the Lotus Eaters: [35] the journey takes thirty days. The Garamantes also have cattle that graze backward and this is why they do it. They have horns that bend toward the front and because of this they graze walking backwards. They are not able to go forward since the horns would dig into the ground. [36] But they differ in no other way from other cattle, except one: their hide is thicker and rougher. These Garamantes use four-horse chariots to hunt the Ethiopian Troglodytes, for the Troglodytes are the most swift-footed of all peoples about whom we have heard tales. The Troglodytes subsist on snakes, lizards, and other such creatures. They speak a language that is like no other, but resembles the shrill cry of bats. [37]

2.6.2 Strabo Geography 17.3.19 (c. 20 CE; Greek)

Strabo, like Herodotus, emphasizes the importance of horses in Garamantian culture.
Above and alongside the Gaetuli is the land of the Garamantes, from which Carthaginian stones come. [38] They say that the Garamantes are nine or ten days’ journey from the Ethiopians, who live next to Ocean, and fifteen days’ journey from Ammon. [39] Between the Gaetuli and the Mediterranean coast there are many plains as well as many mountains; there are great lakes and rivers, some of which go underground and become invisible. The people are very simple in their appearance and habits; they have many wives and many children. Otherwise, they resemble the Arabian nomads. Both their horses and oxen are longer-necked than those in other places. Horse breeding is such a preoccupation of the kings that the yearly number of foals totals 100,000. The sheep are reared on milk and meat, especially near Ethiopia. This is how things are in the interior.

2.6.3 Pliny the Elder Natural History 5.5.35–36, 38 (77–79 CE; Latin)

Pliny relates a Roman victory over the Garamantians and describes some unusual qualities of the water in the region.
35. Next, going toward the African desert beyond the Lesser Syrtis, comes Phazania, where we conquered the tribe of the Phazani and the cities Mellulen, Zala and, in the region of Sabrata, Gadamez. From here, a mountain stretches a long way from east to west. We call it the Black Mountain because of its appearance: it looks as though it has been burned by fire or the rays of the sun.
36. Beyond the mountain is a desert, in which one soon reaches the Garamantian town of Thelgae. There is also Bedir, home to a spring that produces hot water from noon until midnight and cold from midnight until noon, as well as Garama the renowned capital city of the Garamantes. Roman arms conquered all of these under Cornelius Balbus, who received a triumph—the only one granted to a foreigner—and citizen rights. Indeed, Roman citizenship was granted to this native of Cadiz and to his great-uncle Balbus as well.
38. Until this time, the road to the Garamantes was impassable because Garamantian bandits had concealed the wells with sand. (In that region, wells need not be deep, if one knows the terrain.) During the most recent war, waged with the Oeans at the beginning of Vespasian’s reign, a shortcut taking only four days was found.

2.6.4 Tacitus Annals 4.23 (c. 117 CE; Latin)

Tacitus, like Pliny, focuses on Roman contact with the Garamantes.
This year [40] finally freed the Roman people from their long war against the Numidian Tacfarinus. For previous commanders, when they believed their achievements sufficient for gaining triumphal honors, left the enemy alone. Already there were three laurel-crowned statues in the city, while Tacfarinas still was laying waste to Africa, aided by Mauretanian troops who, since Ptolemaeus son of Juba was careless due to his youth, exchanged subservience to freedmen and slaves for war. The king of the Garamantians was to him a receiver of plunder and an ally in pillaging—not that he marched with an army: rather, he sent light troops who, because of their remoteness, were perceived to be greater than they were. From the province itself, [41] anyone who was down on his luck or of a capricious nature rushed to him without a trace of furtiveness. For the emperor, after the achievements of Blaesus, had commanded that the ninth legion be brought home, as though there were no enemies left in Africa. [42] Publius Dolabella, proconsul for that year, did not dare keep the legion, since he feared the commands of the emperor more than the uncertainties of war.

2.7 Ethnography: Meroe

Meroe was known in antiquity as the southern limit of the known world. [43] Located 600 miles south of Aswan, it was part of the region the Greeks referred to to as Ethiopia and the Egyptians called Kush. Although it was regarded as an important city in antiquity, relatively little of what was written about it remains. Some of what survives is legend. While most likely not factual, these stories indicate a recognition of Meroe’s importance. For instance, Pliny makes Andromeda’s father Cepheus the ruler of an empire surrounding Meroe, the Alexander Romance tells of an affair between Alexander the Great and a queen of Meroe, and Josephus relates that Moses married a member of the royal family of Meroe. [44]
After Rome took control of Egypt, there was conflict with Meroe, as the Romans attempted to stop raids on southern Egypt launched by Meroe. In 20 BCE, Augustus signed a treaty with Meroe, which led to great prosperity for Meroe, as the city became a trade depot between sub-Saharan Africa and Roman Egypt. [45] An expedition against Meroe sent by the emperor Nero in 61 BCE was the southernmost part of Africa reached by Romans. [46]

2.7.1 Diodorus Siculus Library of History 3.6–7, excerpts (60–30 BCE; Greek)

Diodorus uses the designation “Ethiopia” for the region to the south of Egypt. In this passage, he writes of some customs from Meroe.
6. The most amazing of all the customs is what happens regarding the death of their kings. For the priests of Meroe who are devoted to serving and honoring the gods have the greatest and most powerful responsibility. Whenever the notion occurs to them, they send a messenger to the king ordering him to die. For they say that the gods have issued the order and it is necessary for anyone mortal to follow the command of the immortals. … In earlier times, the kings listened to the priests, not because they were compelled by weapons or force, but because they were prevailed upon by the persuasive power of their own fear of the gods. In the reign of Ptolemy II, the king of the Ethiopians, Ergamenes, [47] who partook of Greek learning and philosophy, first dared to reject the priests’ command. Adopting an attitude worthy of a king, he went with his soldiers to the place where one must not tread, where the golden shrine of the Ethiopians stood, and he cut the priests’ throats. After ending the custom, he governed according to his own preference.
7. As for the custom regarding friends of the king, although it is contrary to expectation, they said that it persists until our own time. For they say that the Ethiopians have this custom: when the king injures some part of his body (no matter what the cause), all of his close companions willingly endure the same loss. For it would be shameful, if the king’s leg were maimed, for his friends to walk on sound feet and not to accompany him on his outings being equally lame. It would be strange for fast friends to share grief and suffering and endure in common all other things both good and evil, but to be without a share in bodily pain. They also say that it is customary for the companions of the king to die with him voluntarily and that they hold this death in esteem as evidence of true friendship. For this reason, a conspiracy against the king is not easily formed among the Ethiopians, since all his friends perceive his safety and their own equally. These are the customs of the Ethiopians who live in the capital and on the island of Meroe and in the land next to Egypt. [48]


[ back ] 1. Tethys was one of the Titans. She was the daughter of Ouranos (Sky) and Gaia (Earth). Okeanos was her brother. She was associated with the sources of fresh water. In addition to rivers, her children included the Oceanids (female deities personifying springs, streams, and fountains) and Nephelai (clouds).
[ back ] 2. See Thomas 1982.
[ back ] 3. Hippocratic Corpus, Airs, Waters, Places 7.
[ back ] 4. The Greeks were aware of fossils and correctly concluded that evidence of sea creatures in dry locations indicated that those areas had been underwater in the past. See Mayor 2000.
[ back ] 5. The Nile flows from south to north, which distinguishes it from other rivers the Greeks knew. The statement that the Nile is the opposite of other rivers also recalls Herodotus’ discussion of Egyptian society as the opposite of Greek society (Histories 2.35–36).
[ back ] 6. Herodotus here refers to Thales and probably Hecataeus. Thales explained the Nile flood as the Etesian winds restraining the river from flowing out into the Mediterranean (Seneca Natural Questions 4a.2.22). Hecataeus and may others believed that the Nile was connected to the River Ocean (Fragments of the Greek Historians 1.19 fr. 278; Diodorus Siculus Library of History 1.37).
[ back ] 7. This explanation was given by Anaxagoras (Diodorus Siculus Library of History 1.38) and also is referenced by Euripides (fr. 230) and Aeschylus (fr. 304) and is in fact the correct one. The river is fed by rains and mountain snows in the Great Lakes region of central Africa.
[ back ] 8. I.e. an east-west course. Herodotus envisions the sun’s course shifted to the south by storms.
[ back ] 9. This place name means “red sea,” but refers to the body of water we call the Red Sea plus the Gulf of Aden and the western Indian Ocean.
[ back ] 10. 10 Greek stadia (sing. stadion) are equivalent to about 1 English mile or 1.6 kilometers.
[ back ] 11. Barbaroi is the Greek word for barbarians. This region was not fertile and thus the tribes who lived there had to eat whatever was available. The Shoot-Eaters (Moschophagoi) are not mentioned elsewhere, but it is possible that they are the Rhizophagoi (Root-Eaters) or Spermatophagoi (Seed-Eaters) mentioned in Diodorus Siculus Library of History 3.23–24 (Casson 2012:98).
[ back ] 12. The name Rhapta means ‘sewn’. The boats were mentioned in section 15.
[ back ] 13. “Western Sea” refers to the Atlantic Ocean.
[ back ] 14. The source of the Nile was a great mystery in the ancient world and, indeed, the source was not found until the nineteenth century. Lucan describes Julius Caesar as willing to give up civil war in exchange for seeing the source of the Nile (Civil War 10.189–192).
[ back ] 15. Modern Aswan.
[ back ] 16. Elephantine is actually an island.
[ back ] 17. The schoenus is a unit of length that the Greeks and Romans adopted from the Egyptians. Herodotus equates it to 60 stadia (approximately 6.5 miles).
[ back ] 18. Gruen 2011:77.
[ back ] 19. Gruen 2011:82.
[ back ] 20. Greek looms were vertical; the threads of the warp were held under tension by weights and the weft was woven from top to bottom. Thus, when a tool such as a comb, was used to create a tighter weave by pushing the weft threads together, the weft threads would be pushed upwards.
[ back ] 21. “Sacred” refers to hieroglyphic and “common” to demotic characters.
[ back ] 22. Greek ethnographers considered Greece to be the center of the world and thus, those far removed from this hub would be at a disadvantage. In addition, proximity to the coast was advantageous for trade and those located near the coast had the opportunity to become more cosmopolitan through contact with other seafarers.
[ back ] 23. Bullard 2001:193.
[ back ] 24. This duality places Amazons at the edges of the known world and resembles the location of Homer’s Ethiopians on both shores of Ocean. Mayor considers the Libyan Amazons mythical (Mayor 2014:391).
[ back ] 25. The Nasamones were a pastoral nomadic tribe in the Libyan desert. Their territory extended from the Gulf of Syrtis to the oasis Augila (Strabo, Geography 17.3.23). They engaged in warfare with their neighbors, including the Greek colonies near Cyrene. According to Thucydides, they fought from chariots, like the Garamantes (Peloponnesian War 7.50).
[ back ] 26. The plural Syrtes refers to Syrtis Major and Syrtis Minor, a pair of sandy gulfs on the Libyan coast known for being dangerous places for ships because of a current changes direction with the tides (Pomponius Mela, Description of the World 1.35–7).
[ back ] 27. A nomadic tribe.
[ back ] 28. I.e. Libya and the surrounding region.
[ back ] 29. Vergil Aeneid 6.792–795.
[ back ] 30. Daniels 1970:20.
[ back ] 31. Brett and Fentress 1996:22–24.
[ back ] 32. Mattingly 2003:261–265.
[ back ] 33. McCall 1999:198.
[ back ] 34. There is debate as to whether Herodotus wrote “Garamantes” and, if he did, whether he confused them with another people. Pliny (Natural History 5.44–45) and Pomponius Mela (Description of the World 1.47) ascribe these characteristics to a people they call the Gamphasantes (Asheri, Lloyd, and Corcella 2007 ad 4.174).
[ back ] 35. The Lotus Eaters appear in Homer (Odyssey 9.82–84). Herodotus locates them in Libya (Histories 4.177).
[ back ] 36. There is some independent evidence for backward-walking cattle. Prehistoric rock art from the Talissi n’Ajjer mountain range in Algeria depicts cattle with downward-pointing horns (Carptenter 1956:235).
[ back ] 37. The name Troglodytes means ‘cave dwellers’. These people may be the ancestors of the Tebu tribe (whose name means ‘rock dwellers’) who live near the Tibesti Mountains and are known to be good runners. Likening a foreign language to the sound of creatures (often birds) was not uncommon in Greek literature (Asheri, Lloyd, and Corcella 2007 ad 4.183).
[ back ] 38. Carghaginian stones, sometimes referred to as carbuncles, were reddish gemstones (Swanson 1975:588).
[ back ] 39. I.e. the Temple of Ammon at Siwah.
[ back ] 40. 24 CE.
[ back ] 41. The province: Roman Africa.
[ back ] 42. Quintus Junius Blaesus was proconsul of the province of Africa from 21 to 23 CE. He celebrated a triumph for his defeat of Tacfarinus. Later he chose to commit suicide rather than stand trial for being an associate of his nephew Sejanus (see Tacitus Annals 3.72–73, 4.7)
[ back ] 43. Dilke 1985:177–178.
[ back ] 44. Burstein 2001:132.
[ back ] 45. Burstein 2001:138.
[ back ] 46. Kirwan 1957:16.
[ back ] 47. Ergamenes was the Hellenized name of one of the kings of Meroe. He has been identified with a number of the Meroitic kings, chiefly Arakamani and Arqamani. It is also possible that several of Meroe’s kings were conflated under this name (Clark 2008:227–228). Diodorus Siculus mentions Ptolemy II of Egypt to date the event he relates. Ptolemy II ruled 283–246 BCE.
[ back ] 48. Meroe was referred sometimes to as an island because it was bounded by the Nile, the Atbarah, and the Blue Nile.