Africa: Greek and Roman Perspectives from Homer to Apuleius

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The Mediterranean Sea connects Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. More properly, the Mediterranean connects people in these regions who are in reasonable proximity to the coast (or have access to it via rivers) and who have the ability to travel by water. As soon as these conditions were met, cultural exchange began. This exchange took numerous forms. Among them were trade, colonization, invasion, and tourism. This book considers the contact between Greco-Roman civilization and the peoples of northern Africa. It examines Africa from the perspective of the Greeks and Romans who attempted to understand this mysterious continent.

The Greeks’ earliest attempts to understand Africa appeal to the realm of myth. Africa’s defining characteristic is its remoteness. It is one of the edges of the earth and, as such, is a place where the supernatural can coexist with ordinary human life. Gods and mortals have an ease of interaction not found elsewhere. The mysterious nature of Africa is also reflected in its ability to conceal. Visitors to Africa may find themselves either protected from view or hindered in the completion of their journey. In this way, Africa stands apart from the rest of the world. Those who go there may experience a sort of suspended animation, as they are removed from ongoing action elsewhere.

This perception of Africa as unique continues in the genres that focus on the physical as opposed to the supernatural. Geographers and ethnographers emphasize the exotic nature of Africa and envision it as an opposite of Greece. Exploration becomes more systematic as observations are recorded during coastal voyages (periploi). Like myths about Africa, ethnographies and periploi speak to a fascination with regions and cultures that differ dramatically from Greek civilization.

The movement outward toward the edges of the known world by the Greek imagination was followed by physical movement outward in the form of colonization. Africa received colonies from Greece, Italy, and the Middle East. Greek colonization in Africa began with the city of Naucratis, which the pharaoh Amasis II granted to the Greeks. The arrangement was beneficial to both sides from the perspective of trade.

Not all of those who settled in Africa asked permission. Foreign peoples continued to come to Africa, but the circumstances shifted toward imperialism as the Persians, then Alexander the Great, and finally the Romans established overseas empires. Not all of these incursions were wholly unwelcome, however. Alexander, for instance, was hailed as a liberator who freed Egypt from Persian rule. His successor, Ptolemy I, established a dynasty under whom Alexandria became the intellectual capital of the Mediterranean world. The Romans inherited an Egypt that was primed to foster great power. Their awareness of this fact is evident in the reluctance they showed in making Egypt a Roman province.

In addition to receiving colonists and cultural influences from Greece and Rome, Africa influenced those cultures as well. Africa’s most influential cultural export to the Greco-Roman world was the worship of the goddess Isis. The worship of Isis became very popular with both Greeks and Romans and spread throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. Isis was assimilated to various Greek and Roman divinities and was worshipped according to Greco-Roman religious traditions, such as mystery cults.


[ back ] 1. A few post-second-century CE authors are included because they preserve information from the time period on which this book focuses.

[ back ] 2. Jones 2006.