Africa: Greek and Roman Perspectives from Homer to Apuleius

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5. Imperialism: Rome

Rome’s involvement with Africa began with a conflict over power in Sicily. The island lay between Italy and Africa and became the catalyst for Rome’s first conflict with the North African city of Carthage, which was a growing naval power in the third century BCE. In addition to Rome’s attempt to control territory beyond the Italian peninsula, Roman perceptions of Carthaginian culture increased enmity for the African city. By the Third Punic War, defeating Carthage became Cato the Elder’s crusade in the Roman senate, as he ended all of his speeches by calling for Carthage to be destroyed. [1] The Carthaginians were a formidable enemy and it took the Romans three wars spanning the years 264 to 146 BCE to conquer them. Following the end of the Third Punic War, the Romans turned much of Carthage’s territory in Africa into a Roman province, the first African land under Roman control. The Romans called the province Africa (eventually Africa Vetus, “Old Africa”). It was governed by a proconsul and comprised modern Tunisia, northeastern Algeria, and the western coastal region of Libya. [2]

Rome left some of Carthage’s territory in the hands of Massinissa, a Numidian king who had become an ally of Rome during the Second Punic War. Upon Massinissa’s death, his kingdom was divided among several heirs. Eventually, a ruler of one of these smaller kingdoms, Jugurtha, attempted to reconstitute the larger kingdom, running afoul of Rome when he attacked the city of Citra, which had many Roman settlers. In the Jugurthine War, Marius and Sulla removed Jugurtha from power and installed client king Bocchus of Mauretania. With the settlement of many Roman veterans in Numidia, Roman control was strengthened. The region came decisively under Roman control with Julius Caesar’s defeat of King Juba of Numidia in 46 BCE.

Despite closely managing affairs in Egypt, the Romans hesitated to make it a province. Egypt’s vast wealth made it both a prize and a risk for Rome. After men like Pompey and Caesar had amassed wealth and power sufficient to challenge the Republic itself, any provincial governor with access to Egypt’s resources could pose a threat to Rome. When Augustus finally annexed Egypt, he appointed a prefect rather than a proconsul to govern there in order to keep Egypt more closely under his own control.

5.1 Carthage

Rome’s conflict with Carthage was cultural as well as political. The Romans believed that the Carthaginians practiced human sacrifice as part of their religious observances. The conflict with Carthage attained mythic status, as its origin was traced to Aeneas abandoning Dido. The Punic Wars, then, fulfilled Dido’s curse of Aeneas’ descendants. Despite this long enmity, after Rome’s victory, the territory formerly controlled by Carthage became an important supplier of grain for the Romans.

5.1.1 Diodorus Siculus Library of History 20.14 (60–30 BCE; Greek)

Roman belief that the Carthaginians practiced human sacrifice made Roman hostility toward Carthage particularly strong.

The Carthaginians, thinking that their misfortune came from a divine source, [4] turned to all sorts of supplication of the gods. A belief that Heracles, whom they as colonists worshipped, was especially angry at them, led them to send a large amount of money and many expensive offerings to Tyre. For when they had left Tyre, they were accustomed in previous times to send to the god a tenth of all their revenue; but recently although they had gained great wealth and were taking in more income, they sent very little, holding the god in lower esteem. Because of the misfortune, they arrived at this regret and were reminded of all the gods in Tyre. They sent the gold shrines with the statues of the gods from their temples as supplication, thinking that they would propitiate the wrath of the god better by sending offerings as an intercession. They blamed Cronus [5] for turning against them, since in the past they sacrificed to this god the strongest of their sons, but more recently they had secretly bought children to raise and send to sacrifice. When there was an inquiry, this fraud was discovered. Considering these things and seeing the enemy arrayed before their walls, they had a superstitious fear that they had abandoned the ancestral honors given to the gods. Hastening to correct their mistake, they chose 200 children of the most noble origins and sacrificed them publicly. At least 300 others who were suspected of fraud sacrificed themselves willingly. They had a bronze statue of Cronus stretching out his upturned hands toward the ground such that a child placed on the arms would roll down and fall into a pit of fire. …

Macrobius describes a ritual element to the defeat of Carthage: the use of evocatio by the Romans to remove a patron god from a city about to be conquered.

7. Moreover this is the spell by which gods are called out when a city is surrounded by a siege:

Whether it is a god or goddess in whose protection the people
and city of Carthage is, I pray to and worship you especially, you who
have taken this city and people under your protection and
I seek favor from you, that you desert the Carthaginian
people and city. Leave their temples, their sacred places,
and their city and go away from them.
8.Inspire in this people and city fear, dread,
and forgetfulness and graciously come to Rome,
to me and my people. May our temples, sacred places
and city be more acceptable and esteemed
to you and may you be gracious to me
and to the Roman people and to my soldiers.
If you act thus, so that we know
and understand
I vow that I will dedicate temples and games to you.

5.1.3 Appian Punic Wars 133–136, excerpts (c.95–c. 165 AD; Greek)

The Romans did not, as some accounts have it, plow salt into the land at Carthage to prevent the city from being reoccupied. [6] Rather, the former Carthaginian territory became an important supplier of grain to Rome. [7] The fertility of the new colony of Africa allowed Rome’s wealth to grow rapidly.

5.1.4 Josephus Jewish War 2.382–386, excerpts (c. 75 CE; Greek)

5.1.5 Vergil Aeneid 4.622–629 (29–19 BCE; Latin)

Dido curses Aeneas’ descendants after he leaves her to continue his voyage to Italy. Vergil’s readers would understand the curse as foreshadowing the Punic Wars.

          Then you, Tyrians, plague his descendants and the whole future race
          with your grudge. Send this as an offering to my
          ashes. May there be no fondness, no alliance between the peoples.
625    May some avenger rise from my bones, who will
          pursue the Trojan colonists with sword and fire,
          whether now, later, or whenever strength offers itself.
          I pray that our shores oppose their shores, our waves their waves,
          our arms their arms; may generation after generation fight.

5.2 The Roman Ethnographic Tradition

5.2.1 Sallust Jugurthine War 17–19 (41-40 BCE; Latin)

Sallust, in relating the events of the Romans’ war with Jugurtha (112–106 BCE), includes a description of the regions and peoples of Africa with which the Romans were familiar.

18. In the beginning the Gaetulians and Libyans controlled Africa. They were fierce and uncivilized; they ate meat from wild animals or plants from the ground as flocks do. They were ruled neither by custom nor law nor the command of anyone; they were nomadic and stopped only when night compelled them. The Africans believe that after Hercules died in Spain, his army, made up of various peoples and having lost its leader, quickly fell apart after many sought power each for himself. From this number, the Medes, Persians, and Armenians, carried to Africa in ships, occupied the places closest to our sea, [18] but the Persians were closer to Ocean [19] and made huts from their overturned hollow ships, since there were no building materials in the fields, nor could they obtain them from Spain either by purchasing or trading: the expanse of the sea and the language barrier prevented commerce. Little by little they mixed with the Gaetulians by marriage and, since they often tried other fields and explored other places, they called themselves Numidians. [20] Still today the Numidian peasants’ houses, which they call mapalia, [21] are oblong with curved sides and roofs like the hulls of ships. The Libyans, however, approached the Medes and Armenians, for the Libyans were closer to the African sea while the Gaetulians lived more to the south not far from the hot places. Soon the combined Medes, Armenians, and Libyans had towns, for, separated from Spain by a strait, they began to have contact with one another. Little by little the Libyans corrupted the name, calling the Medes Moors in their barbarian language. But the Persians’ power soon grew and as time passed some of them, using the name Numidians, left their parents because of overpopulation and took control of the places closest to Carthage which go by the name Numidia. Then those who had left and those who had stayed behind, relying on each other, forced the neighboring peoples under their rule by arms or fear. But the Gaetulians, who had moved toward our sea, gained more glory for themselves, since the Libyans are less warlike than the Gaetulians. Finally, most of the coastal part of Africa was controlled by the Numidians and all those they conquered joined with their rulers in name and culture.

19. Later, the Phoenicians—some for the sake of reducing the population at home and others motivated by imperialism—recruited commoners, as well as anyone desiring change, and founded Hippo, Adrumentum, Leptis, [22] and other coastal cities. These cities soon grew; some served as protectors of their mother city and others brought it honor. Concerning Carthage, I think it better to remain silent than to say too little, since time demands that I hasten to another topic. Therefore, in the direction of the Catabathmos, which divides Egypt from Africa, Cyrene, a colony of Thera, is the first coastal city. Next are the two Syrtes and Leptis [23] is between them. Next are the altars of the Philaeni, which the Carthaginians considered the boundary between their territory and Egypt. Next are the other Punic cities. The Numidians hold the rest, up to Mauretania; the Moors are closest to Spain. South of Numidia, we understand that the Gaetulians live, some have huts and some lead a less civilized life as nomads. Beyond these are the Ethiopians and then the places burned by the heat of the sun. Therefore, at the time of the Jugurthine War, most of the Punic towns and the territory the Carthaginians had recently controlled [24] were governed by the Roman people through a magistrate. A large portion of the Gaetulians and Numidia up to the Mulucha river were ruled by Jugurtha. King Bocchus ruled all of the Moors. Except for the name, Bocchus knew nothing of the Romans and likewise we did not know of him either in war or peace. About Africa and its inhabitants, all that is needed for my topic has been said.

5.2.2 Vergil Georgics 3.339–348 (29 BCE; Latin)

5.2.3 Lucan On the Civil War 9.410–430, excerpts (60–65 CE; Latin)

Lucan sees Africa in terms of Roman exploitation of the region’s resources.

410    The third part of the world is Libya, if you believe the reports.
          In winds and sky, it is equal to Europe. …
420    … All of Libya’s fertile lands
          lie to the west, but even these are not watered
          by any springs. They do receive rains from
          occasional north winds, which give us clear skies.
          The soil is not corrupted by any riches: it yields
425    neither gold nor bronze, but is pure to its depths
          and unadulterated. The Marusians had a wealth of
          citron wood, but they did not know its value and
          were content to live under its leaves and shade.
          Into the untouched grove came Roman axes,
430    as we sought banquet tables at the ends of the earth.

5.3 Egypt

The Ptolemies were long aware that they were not in a position to challenge Rome and made sure to keep Rome’s approval. Beginning with Ptolemy III Euergetes (“The Benefactor”), Egypt was an ally of Rome. Euergetes, perhaps wishing to limit his indebtedness to the Romans, turned down Rome’s offer of assistance in fighting against Syria. Later, however, Egypt became dependent on Rome for defense and finally, in 30 BCE, it became a Roman province.

5.3.1 Eutropius Abridgement of Roman History 3.1, excerpt (late 4th c. CE; Latin)

Ptolemy III, who reigned from 246–222 BCE, was able to defeat Syria without Rome’s aid and add territory on the northern coast of Syria to the Ptolemaic empire.

Therefore, when the Punic War, which dragged on for twenty-three years, had ended, the Romans, now known for outstanding glory, sent envoys to Ptolemy, the king of Egypt, to offer help, since Antiochus, king of Syria had brought war against him. Ptolemy thanked the Romans, but did not accept their aid. For the fight had been concluded. …

5.3.2 Polybius Histories 29.27, excerpts (200–c. 118 BCE; Greek)

Another occasion on which Rome sent an envoy to Egypt resulted in Rome explicitly becoming a protector of the Ptolemies when in 168 BCE Gaius Popillius Laenas drew a literal and figurative line in the sand to end an invasion by Antiochus IV.

5.3.3 Cassius Dio Roman History 53.23 (200–222 CE; Greek)

Gallus, the prefect Augustus appointed to oversee the new province of Egypt, is contrasted with Agrippa, one of Augustus’ most trusted associates. Unlike Agrippa, who gave credit to Augustus for his works, Gallus engaged in self-aggrandizement. Given the anxiety Egypt’s wealth provoked in Rome’s leader, this was enough to end Gallus’ career, as well as his life.

After this Agrippa was consul for the eighth time with Statilius Taurus and he dedicated what is called the Saepta. For he did not take it upon himself to repair a road, but adorned with paintings and inscriptions this building that had been built by Lepidus on the Campus Martius with porticoes around it for the Comitia Tributa [27] and he called it the Saepta Julia in honor of Augustus. Thus, he did not bring any envy upon himself with these actions, but rather was much honored by Augustus himself and all others because he planned and executed in cooperation the most benevolent, glorious, and useful projects and did not seek for himself even a little fame; instead he used Augustus’ honors neither for his own advantage nor for private gain, but for the emperor’s and the public good. Cornelius Gallus, however, was made arrogant by the honor he received. He made idle gossip about Augustus and engaged in other disrespectful acts. For he set up statues of himself all over Egypt and wrote on the pyramids the things he had accomplished. He was accused of this by Valerius Largus, his companion and confidante, and was dishonored by Augustus, with the result that he was prevented from living in the provinces. After these things happened, many others brought accusations and indictments against him and the whole senate voted that he be convicted in the courts and exiled with his property confiscated; further they voted that his property be given to Augustus and that the senate perform sacrifices. Gallus, greatly pained by these decisions, killed himself.

5.3.4 Strabo Geography 17.1.12 (7 BCE–23 CE; Greek)

Strabo describes the administration of the province of Egypt.

Now Egypt is a province that pays a remarkable amount of tribute and is ruled by wise men who are sent there to govern. The one sent to govern has the rank of king. Below him is the judicial administrator, who is the judge in many cases. There is also the one called Idiologus, who investigates unowned property that falls to the emperor. The emperor’s freedmen and house-stewards accompany these and are entrusted with more or less important matters. There are also three legions of the army, of which one is stationed in the city [28] and the others in the countryside. Apart from these, there are nine cohorts of Romans: three are in the city, three on the border of Ethiopia in Syene as a garrison for those places, and three elsewhere in the country. There are also three cavalry units likewise stationed in appropriate places. [29] Of the native magistrates in the city, there is the interpreter of laws, who wears purple, has the ancestral honors, and is in charge of what the city needs. There is also the record-keeper and the chief judge. Fourth is the night watch commander. These were the administrators under the kings. Since the kings governed badly, the city’s prosperity ended due to lawlessness. When Polybius was in the city, he loathed the conditions at that time and he said that three types of people lived in the city. The first type was the Egyptians and natives who were bright but apathetic politically. The second type was the mercenaries, who were heavily armed, numerous, and difficult to manage, for according to ancient custom they supported foreign fighters who had been trained to rule rather than to be ruled because of the worthlessness of their leaders. The third type was the Alexandrians, who for the same reasons were not well trained politically, but were nevertheless better than the mercenaries. For even though they were a mixed group, they were nonetheless Greeks and they remembered the common customs of the Greeks. The majority of this group was obliterated under Euergetes Physcon, in whose rule Polybius went to Alexandria. [30] (Physcon, beset by factions, often threw the multitude to the soldiers and destroyed it.) Since this was the state of affairs in the city, according to Polybius, all that remained in truth was the saying of the poet, “To go to Egypt is a long and troublesome journey.” [31]


[ back ] 1. Pliny Natural History 15.23.

[ back ] 2. A proconsul was a provincial governor appointed by the senate.

[ back ] 3. On the Ptolemies and Cleopatra, see Jones 2006.

[ back ] 4. I.e. their defeat by Agathocles of Syracuse.

[ back ] 5. I.e. Baal or Moloch.

[ back ] 6. The accounts of plowing salt into the land to render it barren is not applied to Carthage before 1930, although the city of Shechem is given this treatment in the Old Testament (Ridley 1986:144–145).

[ back ] 7. The land around Carthage became ager publicus and was used to produce grain, some of which was sent to Rome as payment of taxes (Harris 1989:161).

[ back ] 8. Scipio Aemilianus or Scipio Africanus the Younger was the commander under whom the Romans finally defeated Carthage in the Third Punic War (149–146 BCE). He celebrated a Triumph upon his return to Rome.

[ back ] 9. Hannibal was the Carthaginian commander during the Second Punic War (218–201 BCE). The Carthaginians invaded Italy but did not make it to Rome.

[ back ] 10. Byrsa was a hill near Carthage and Megara a suburb of Carthage.

[ back ] 11. Utica was a city located between Carthage and Hippo.

[ back ] 12. Actually his grand-nephew and posthumously adopted son.

[ back ] 13. The curse refers to the legend that Dido, Carthage’s first queen, cursed the descendants of Aeneas (i.e. the Romans) when he abandoned her as he left Carthage, where he had been shipwrecked, to fulfill his destiny in Italy.

[ back ] 14. I.e. Africa.

[ back ] 15. The Straits of Gibraltar.

[ back ] 16. See Riggsby 2006:66-67.

[ back ] 17. Catabathmos in Greek means ‘descent’.

[ back ] 18. “Our sea” refers to the Mediterranean.

[ back ] 19. I.e. the Atlantic.

[ back ] 20. I.e. nomads.

[ back ] 21. ‘Huts’.

[ back ] 22. I.e. Leptis Minor.

[ back ] 23. I.e. Leptis Major.

[ back ] 24. I.e. between the Second and Third Punic Wars.

[ back ] 25. Vergil uses the term mapalia and in doing so, echoes Sallust’s ethnography.

[ back ] 26. Ptolemy VI and Ptolemy VIII, who were brothers. Antiochus had captured Ptolemy VI during his invasion. The Alexandrians had chosen his younger brother, Ptolemy VIII, to be their next king. After Antiochus was driven out, the two Ptolemies ruled together, along with Ptolemy VI’s wife Cleopatra II.

[ back ] 27. The Comitia Tributa was an assembly of Romans by tribe for the election of certain magistrates.

[ back ] 28. I.e. in Alexandria.

[ back ] 29. I.e. clothing dyed with pigment derived from the murex. This mollusk produced the color known as Tyrian purple, which was the most expensive dye in the ancient world.

[ back ] 30. Ptolemy VIII Euergetes (“Benefactor”), nicknamed Physcon (“Potbelly”).

[ back ] 31. Homer, Odyssey 4.481. The context is Proteus telling Menelaus that he must go to Egypt and make offerings to the gods before he can return home after the Trojan War.