Africa: Greek and Roman Perspectives from Homer to Apuleius

3. Greek Colonization Before Alexander

In addition to trade and exploration, the Greeks encountered Africa through colonization. As early as 800 BCE, there were Greek settlements outside Greece. Asia Minor was the focus on the earliest Greek colonization, followed by Sicily and southern Italy. Settlements in northern Africa, beginning in the mid-seventh century BCE, represent a third wave of Greek colonization.

3.1 Naucratis

The Egyptian pharaoh Amasis II gave the Greeks control of the port city Naucratis, on the Canopic branch of the Nile. Naucratis was not the colony of a particular Greek city, but rather replaced forts held by Ionian Greeks and Carians under the pharaoh Psammetichus I. Naucratis functioned as a trading post and served as Egypt’s primary harbor before the rise of Alexandria.

3.1.1 Herodotus Histories 2.152, 154, excerpts (c. 425 BCE; Greek)

3.1.2 Herodotus Histories 2.178–179 (c. 425 BCE; Greek)

3.2 Trade and Tourism

Trade might be used to finance a sight seeing trip, as in the case of a quasi Cinderella story involving Sappho’s brother. Trips combining business and pleasure were attributed to famous figures including Solon and Plato. Diodorus considers the Greeks as interested in trade as the Phoenicians, who were primarily known as traders.

3.2.1 Strabo Geography 17.1.33, excerpts (7 BCE–23 CE; Greek)

The Greek poet Sappho’s brother’s mistress was perhaps the original Cinderella. Strabo reveals in telling her story that trade and tourism went hand in hand.

One going forth from the city of Memphis will find after forty stadia the brow of a hill, on which are many pyramids, or royal tombs. Three of the pyramids are worthy of mention; two are counted among the seven wonders of the world. … Further up the mountain at a greater height is the third pyramid, which is much smaller than the other two, but built at much greater expense. For from the foundation up to almost the middle, it is built with black stone, from which mortars are made and which is brought from afar. It comes from the mountains of Ethiopia. Because it is hard and difficult to work the labor is expensive and requires much diligence. The pyramid is said to be the tomb of a lover, a woman whom Sappho the poet calls Doriche and who became the mistress of Sappho’s brother Charaxos. Charaxos came to Naucratis and traded wine from Lesbos. Others call her Rhodopis. They say that while she was bathing an eagle snatched one of her sandals from her attendant and brought it to Memphis. The eagle as it flew overhead dropped the sandal into the lap of the king, who was administering justice. The king, amazed by the unusual shape of the sandal, searched the region to find the sandal’s owner. When she was found in the city of Naucratis, the woman was brought before the king and made his wife. When she died, she received the tomb mentioned above.

3.2.2 Aristotle Athenian Constitution 11.1 (329 BCE; Greek)

Solon traveled with a triple purpose.

After Solon established the constitution in the way described above, people were disturbing him about the laws, criticizing and questioning various items. Since he wished neither to change the laws nor to become hated by staying in Athens, he made a trading and sightseeing trip to Egypt, saying that he would not return for ten years. For he did not think it just for him to stay and explain the laws, but for each man to interpret them for himself.

3.2.3 Plutarch Solon 2.3–4, excerpt (early 2nd c. CE; Greek)

3.3 Cyrene

Greek accounts of colonization stress the connections between the colony and its metropolis ‘mother city’. Both mythological aitia and historical accounts of colonizing expeditions establish these links. An aition ‘cause’ is a story that explains the origin of a place name or the reason behind a tradition. There are several myths that explain the origin the city of Cyrene. All involve the nymph Cyrene and the god Apollo. It is no surprise that the Hellenistic poet Callimachus, who was a native of Cyrene, alludes to the legend.

In addition to mythological aitia, we have historical accounts of the foundation of Cyrene as a colony. Herodotus offers a particularly detailed description. A tantalizing piece of evidence is an inscription that dates to the fourth century BCE that claims to quote the seventh-century BCE decree with which the Therans established the colony of Cyrene.

3.3.1 Nonnus Dionysiaca 13.300–303 (Greek, late 4th–early 5th c. CE)

3.3.2 Pindar Pythian 9.1–13, 17–28, 51–58 (474 BCE; Greek)

In praising an athletic victor from Cyrene, Pindar incorporates the origin story of his home city.

          I wish to proclaim, announcing it along with
          the deep-girdled graces, the Pythian victory
          of Telesicrates with his bronze shield. [
          A blessed man, he is the crown jewel of horse-driving Cyrene.
5        Once Leto’s son with flowing hair snatched her from Pelion’s hollows
          that echo in the wind. He carried off the wild maiden in his golden chariot
          and made her mistress of a fertile land filled with sheep
          to inhabit the thriving and lovely third root of the earth. [
          Aphrodite of the silver feet received her
10      Delian guest from his divine chariot,
          laying her nimble hand upon him.
          She bestowed on their sweet union loving reverence and bound
          the god in marriage to the daughter of Hypseus, who ruled widely.
          . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
          Hypseus raised his fair-armed daughter Cyrene.
          But she enjoyed neither the back and forth of the loom
          nor the pleasures of dining with the women of the house;
20      rather, fighting with bronze javelins and the sword,
          she hunted wild beasts, thus providing
          great quiet and peace to her father’s
          cattle. She spent little time
          with the sweet bedfellow sleep
25      falling upon her eyelids towards dawn.
          One time, broad-quivered Apollo who works from afar
          came upon her wrestling a mighty lion
          by herself without weapons.
          . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Chiron the centaur to Apollo:

          “You came to this glen to become Cyrene’s husband and you
          are about to carry her over the sea to the outstanding garden of Zeus.
          There, you will make her ruler of a city after you gather the islanders
          and make them one people on the hill surrounded by plains.
55      And now Libya, mistress with broad meadows,
          will freely welcome your famous bride in her golden house
          and will grant her at once an allotment of land to lawfully belong to her
          and reward her with a variety of fruits and wild animals.”

3.3.3 Callimachus Hymn to Apollo 55–96 (c. 250 BCE; Greek)

Callimachus, a native of Cyrene, highlights the local legend in his hymn to the god Apollo.

55      Following Phoebus, men measure out cities:
          for Phoebus always delights in peopled cities
          and he himself weaves their foundations.
          At age four, Phoebus established the first foundations
          in beautiful Ortygia near the circular pool.
60      Artemis, hunting, repeatedly brought the heads
          of Cynthian goats while Apollo knitted together an altar.
          He built the precinct from horns and he put the altar together
          out of horns and he surrounded it with walls of horn.
          Thus, Phoebus learned to raise his first foundations.
65      Phoebus also pointed out to Battus my city [
12] blessed with deep soil
          and, as a raven (an auspicious bird to the colonizer), the god
          led the people as they entered Libya and swore
          that he would grant walls to our kings—and Apollo
          always keeps his word. O Apollo, many call you Boedromius
70      and many call you Clarius: your name is called out everywhere.
          But I call you Carneius, according to my ancestry. [
          O Carneius, Sparta was indeed your first precinct,
          Thera was second, and the city of Cyrene third.
          From Sparta the sixth generation descendants of Oedipus
75      led you to the planting of the colony of Thera. From Thera,
          vigorous Aristoteles [
14] placed you by the land of the Asbytae, [15]
          and built you a very beautiful palace. In the city,
          he established a yearly rite, in which many
          bulls fall to their haunches for the last time, my lord.
80      Ho, Carneius, to whom many prayers are offered, your altars
          are loaded with flowers in spring, as many multicolored blossoms
          as the Hours bring forth when the Zephyr breathes dew;
          in winter, there is the sweet crocus. Your ever-flowing fire
          is eternal and ash does not feed around yesterday’s coals.
85      To be sure, Phoebus rejoiced greatly when Enyo’s [
          belted warriors danced with blonde Libyan women,
          when the appointed time of the Carneian festival arrived.
          Not yet did the Dorians approach the fountain of Cyre;
          rather, they dwelled in the thickly wooded glens of Azilis. [
90      The god himself saw them and showed them to his bride
          while standing on horn-shaped Myrtussa, where the daughter
          of Hypseus killed the lion that plundered Eurypylus’ cattle.
          Apollo never saw another dance more divine than that one,
          nor did he dispense as many benefactions to a city as he did to Cyrene,
95      as he was mindful of his earlier rape. And the descendants
          of Battus themselves have honored no other god more than Phoebus.

3.3.4 Strabo Geography 17.3.21 (7 BCE–23 CE; Greek)

3.3.5 Pausanias Description of Greece 10.15.6–7 (Greek, c. 110–180 CE)

Pausanias, in discussing some famous statues, has occasion to relate the founding of Cyrene.

6. The Cyrenaeans erected at Delphi a statue of Battus in a chariot, since he was the one who led them from Thera in ships to Libya. The charioteer is Cyrene and in the chariot are Battus and Libya, who is crowning him. Cnossian Amphion, son of Acestor, sculpted it.

7. After Battus founded Cyrene, it is said that the following remedy for his stutter occurred. As he crossed the territory of the Cyrenaeans, in the furthest parts of it—at that time they were still deserted—he saw a lion and the fear from the sight caused him to shout out loudly and clearly.

3.3.6 Herodotus Histories 4.150–151, 158–159 (c. 425 BCE; Greek)

Herodotus gives a detailed account of the process by which Cyrene was founded.

151. Seven years after these events there had been no rain in Thera. During this time, all the trees on the island except one dried up. When the Therans again consulted the oracle, the Pythia brought up the expedition to Libya. Since there was no other remedy for the disaster, they sent messengers to Crete to see whether any Cretan—native or immigrant—had reached Libya. As they wandered around the island, the Therans reached the city of Itanus, where they met a man named Corobius who traded in purple dye. He told them that the winds had carried him to Libya and the Libyan island Platea. They hired him and brought him to Thera. First, a small scouting party sailed from Thera. After Corobius led them to the island of Platea, they left Corobius supplied with enough food for several months and themselves sailed home with all speed to report to the Therans about the island.

After several unsuccessful attempts to establish a settlement in Libya, the Therans colonized Aziris.

159. During the lifetime of Battus the founder who ruled for forty years and during the life of his son Arcesilaus who ruled for sixteen years, The Cyrenaeans lived there in numbers similar to what they were at the colony’s founding. During the rule of the third king, called Battus the Fortunate, the Pythia urged all Greeks to sail to Libya and settle with the Cyrenaeans, for the Cyrenaeans had called for a redistribution of their land. The oracle proclaimed the following: “Whoever comes late to beloved Libya, after the land has been divided, I say that he will regret it.” When a great crowd had converged upon Cyrene, the neighboring Libyans, cut off from the majority of their land, along with their king, whose name was Adicran, on the grounds that they were deprived of their land and insulted by the Cyrenaeans, sent to Egypt and put themselves under the protection of Apries, the king of the Egyptians. In response, Apries sent a large army of Egyptians to Cyrene. But the Cyrenaeans marched out to Irasa and the spring called Theste. They engaged the Egyptians and conquered them. The Egyptians, never having tested themselves against the Greeks were so utterly destroyed that only a few of them returned home to Egypt. This is why the Egyptians, blaming these things on Apries, revolted against him.

3.3.7 Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum ix.3: Foundation Decree of Cyrene (4th c. BCE; Greek)

The following is the text of an inscription found in Cyrene. The inscription dates to the fourth century BCE, but it appears to preserve the language of the original seventh-century BCE decree made in Thera that established the colony of Cyrene.

God. Good Fortune. Damis son of Bathycles decrees this. Concerning what the Therans Kleudamas son of Euthycles says, we grant to the Therans—both those who colonized Cyrene and those who remained in Thera—citizenship, according to the ancestral customs established by those who came before us, so that the city may flourish and the Cyrenaean population have good fortune. This follows the precedent of Apollo granting Battus and the Theran colonists of Cyrene good fortune if they upheld the oaths that our ancestors themselves swore when they sent out the colony at the behest of Apollo the Founder. With good fortune.

It has been decided by the people that equal citizenship will continue for the Therans in Cyrene. It also has been decided that all Therans living in Cyrene will take the same oath as the others once took and we will place them into a tribe, a clan, and nine brotherhoods. We inscribe this decree on a marble stele and set it up in the ancestral shrine of Pythian Apollo. We also inscribe on the stele the oath which the colonists took who sailed to Libya with Battus from Thera to Cyrene. Regarding the expense of the stone and the inscription, those who preside over the account will pay it from the income of Apollo.

Oath of the Colonists [

The assembly resolved: since Apollo of his own accord commanded Battus and the Therans to settle Cyrene, it seemed right to the Therans to send Battus to Libya as leader and king, with Therans as companions. The selection will be fair and equitable, according to household: one son will be chosen from each family—strong young men. Of the other Therans, any free man who wishes will sail. If the colonists found a settlement, other Therans who sail to Libya subsequently will receive citizenship and honor, as well as an allotment of unoccupied land. But if they do not found a settlement and the Therans are not able to aid them, but they suffer at the hands of necessity for five years, they may return to Thera fearlessly and reclaim their possessions and citizenship. Anyone who, sent by the city, refuses to sail, let him be subject to the death penalty and let his property be divided among the populace. Anyone who protects or harbors another, whether a father saves his son or a brother his brother, suffers the same penalty as one who refused to sail.

On these conditions they took oaths—both those remaining there and those sailing to colonize—and they put curses on those who violated the agreement or failed to abide by it, whether they were those who inhabited Libya or those who were in Thera. After making wax figures, they burned them as they uttered curses. Everyone came together—men, women, boys, and girls: “Whoever does not uphold these oaths, but transgresses them, may he waste away and melt like these figures—he, his offspring, and his possessions. For those who uphold these oaths, both those who sail to Libya and those who stay in Thera, may they enjoy many good things both for themselves and for their offspring.”

3.4 Cyrenaica

The region on the coast of Northern Africa around Cyrene, known as Cyrenaica (modern Libya), was of great economic importance to the Mediterranean world. For the Egyptians, the area was a prominent religious site, as it was the location of the oracle of Ammon. Cyrene became wealthy city, thanks to its exports of wheat, barley, olive oil, and, in particular, a plant known as silphium.

3.4.1 Pliny Natural History 5.31–34, excerpts (77–79 CE; Latin)

3.5 Silphium

3.5.1 Theophrastus History of Plants 6.3.1–5, excerpts (350–287 BCE; Greek)

Theophrastus was an important figure in the history of botany. He describes the appearances and uses of plants and classified plants based on their method of reproduction. In this section, he treats silphium as part of a group of hollow-stemmed plants.

1. The greatest and most individual natures are of silphium and papyrus in Egypt. For these are hollow-stemmed plants. We have already discussed papyrus among plants living in water; we now must discuss silphium. Silphium has a root that is extensive and thick; Its stalk resembles giant fennel and is almost as thick; its leaf, which they call maspeton, resembles celery; its fruit is broad and leaf-shaped. Its stalk lives one year, like fennel. In spring, it sends out the maspeton, which is used as a purgative for sheep and also to fatten them. It gives their meat a wonderful flavor. After this, it produces the stalk, which is eaten in every way, boiled and roasted. This also is said to purge the body in forty days.

2. It has two kinds of juice: one from the stalk and one from the root, which are called stalk-juice and root-juice. The root has black bark, which is peeled off. There are rules, like those in mines, for the root cutters. These rules govern how much can be cut taking into account previous cuttings. For it is not permitted to make a wrong cut or to take too much. For the juice is ruined and putrefies if it is kept too long. When bringing it to Piraeus, they use the following technique: after placing it in vessels and mixing meal with it, they shake it for a long time. From this, it takes on its color and after being worked in this way it keeps without putrefying. This is the information about cutting and working the plant.

3. It is found in a large region of Libya, over a distance, they say, of more than 4000 stadia. Most of it is located around the Syrtis beginning at the Euesperides islands. It has the unique characteristic of avoiding cultivated land; when the land is cultivated and tamed, it retreats, making clear that it does not want tending but is wild. …

5. …They say that the roots are eaten fresh, sliced up in vinegar. The leaf is gold in color. …

3.5.2 Pliny Natural History 19.38–42 (77–79 CE; Latin)

Pliny discusses some characteristics of silphium.

38. Next after these the illustrious laserpicium will be treated, which the Greeks call silphion and which is found in the province of Cyrenaica. Its juice is called laser and it has important uses in medicine. By weight, its value is equivalent to silver.

39. For many years now it has not been found in Cyrenaica, since those who lease the land use it for pasturing sheep, believing it more profitable to ravage the land for animal feed. In our memory, only a single stalk has been found and it was sent to the emperor Nero. If ever a flock encounters a growing stalk, it will be known by this sign: a sheep, after eating it, falls asleep at once; a goat sneezes repeatedly.

41. We discover from the most trusted Greek authors that the plant was born when rain the color of pitch suddenly soaked the land around the gardens of the Hesperides and the Greater Syrtis seven years before the town of Cyrene existed—it was founded in 611 BCE—and he force of that rain affected 500 miles of Africa.

42. In this region, laserpicium was accustomed to grow wild and unyielding. If it is cultivated, it flees into the desert; it has many thick roots and a stalk that is like fennel and of equal thickness. Its leaves were then called maspetum and are very similar to parsley. The seed looks like a leaf, but the actual leaf falls off in spring.

3.5.3 Hippocratic Corpus, Internal Affections 6.39 (5th–4th c. BCE; Greek)

Silphium was recommended as a treatment for diseases of the lungs and sides.

After five days, in the morning let him drink, fasting, silphium juice in an amount equivalent to a vetch bean, in water and honey or in wine and honey.

3.5.4 Pliny Natural History 22.100–101, excerpts (77–79 CE; Latin)

3.5.5 Soranus Gynecology 63, excerpts (98–138 CE; Greek)

Soranus is more explicit than Pliny in discussing silphium’s contraceptive and abortive properties.

To some it seems appropriate one time per month to drink Cyreniac juice in an amount equivalent to a chickpea in two ladles of water in order to bring on menstruation. Or grind and coat with wax obols of panax juice, Cyreniac juice, and rue seed. Swallow and then take diluted wine or drink it in diluted wine. … These things not only prevent conception, but destroy what was already conceived…

3.5.6 Aristophanes Birds 526–538 (414 BCE; Greek)

Silphium was an ingredient that could cover the taste of spoiled meat. This passage is addressed to birds and imagines them meeting an ignominious end.

          Every bird hunter sets nooses,
          limed sticks snares,
          and various nets for you:
          once they catch you, they sell you in heaps
530    and the buyers poke and squeeze you.
          And then, if only they did the appropriate thing
          and served you roasted!
          But no: they grate cheese and add oil,
          silphium, and vinegar. They rub
535    in another sauce, sweet and greasy,
          and then pour it all heated
          onto you as though
          you were roadkill.

3.5.7 Athenaeus Sophists at Dinner 2.67, excerpt (early 3rd c. CE; Greek)

Silphium improves the taste of onions.

Concerning the dressing of onions, Philemon says:

The onion, if you want it, consider
the cost to make it delicious: cheese, honey
sesame, olive oil, leek, vinegar, silphium.
The onion itself by itself is worthless and bitter.

3.5.8 Cato On Agriculture 116 (c. 160 BCE; Latin)


[ back ] 1. Psammetichus was pharaoh form 663–609 BCE.

[ back ] 2. The city of Buto was approximately 60 miles east of Alexandria. Buto was also the Hellenized name of the goddess Wadjet, who had a temple and oracle there. The Greeks associated her with Leto (mother of Apollo and Artemis).

[ back ] 3. Psammetichus had been one of twelve kings, eleven of whom drove him into the marshes when they realized that an oracle had marked him for sole rule.

[ back ] 4. I.e. in the time of Amasis.

[ back ] 5. I.e. using canals.

[ back ] 6. Hesiod Works and Days 311.

[ back ] 7. See Malkin 1987:2–4 and Graham 1982:143–155.

[ back ] 8. Austin 2008:192–193.

[ back ] 9. Aristaeus was a rustic god of shepherds who was credited with inventing bee-keeping.

[ back ] 10. Telesicrates was a competitor from Cyrene in the Pythian games of 478 BCE, where he won the Hoplite race (a foot race in full armor).

[ back ] 11. Pindar sees the earth as a plant having three roots (i.e. continents), Europe, Asia, and Africa (Gildersleeve 1885 ad Pythian 9.8.

[ back ] 12. I.e. Cyrene, Callimachus’ home.

[ back ] 13. Carneius was an epithet of Apollo used in Sparta, Thera, and Cyrene.

[ back ] 14. I.e. Battus

[ back ] 15. The Asbytae were a people in Cyrenaica.

[ back ] 16. Enyo: a war goddess, female counterpart to Ares.

[ back ] 17. Before founding Cyrene, Battus and his followers settled for six years in Azilis (see Herodotus Histories 4.157).

[ back ] 18. The emphasis on Cyrene’s fertile soil may be a reference to silphium, Cyrene’s primary export crop. Silphium was used as a seasoning and in medicine. It was so important to the Cyrenaean economy that it was featured on the city’s coins. Demand eventually caused the extinction of the plant.

[ back ] 19. The prophetess of Apollo at Delphi.

[ back ] 20. I.e. there is plenty of rain.

[ back ] 21. This begins the text that purports to be the original seventh-century BCE decree.

[ back ] 22. ‘Place of Five Cities’.

[ back ] 23. The oracle at Siwah. The Greeks associated the Egyptian god Ammon with Zeus.

[ back ] 24. I.e. Hesperis was renamed Berenice by the Ptolemies. The modern name is Benghazi.

[ back ] 25. The Hesperides were nymphs associated with sunset who were located at the western edge of the world.

[ back ] 26. It also began to be replaced by a substitute, ferula asafoetida, which came from Persia, Syria and Media (Kiehn 2007:4).

[ back ] 27. Foster and Johnson 2008:301.

[ back ] 28. Cooper and Deakin 2016:14.

[ back ] 29. A cubit is approximately 18 inches.

[ back ] 30. The sap of a plant from the parsley family.

[ back ] 31. 93 BCE.

[ back ] 32. About two fluid ounces.

[ back ] 33. I.e. silphium.