Africa: Greek and Roman Perspectives from Homer to Apuleius

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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)

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

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)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

Herodotus describes an inland voyage, sailing upstream on the Nile.

2.4 Ethnography: Egypt

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.

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

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

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

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

Diodorus gives extensive details on the Libyan Amazons.

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

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

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

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)

2.7 Ethnography: Meroe

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.


[ 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.