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Ancient History Sourcebook:
Accounts of Meröe, Kush, and Axum, c. 430 BCE - 550 CE


Below are the main accounts of Ancient Nubia and Ethiopia from classical sources. There are a few accounts missing from this text: Pliny the Elder, Claudius Ptolemaeus, and the Periplus, though  they used the same source that Strabo did. Diodorus Siculus is also missing. The Loeb version is still under copyright; but since the accounts of Strabo and Diodorus are virtually the same, thisis not much of a problem (again, they used the same source).


The Selection of Aspalta as King of Kush, c. 600 BCE

Now the entire army of his majesty was in the town named Napata, in which Dedwen, Who presides over Wawat, is God---he is also the god of Kush---after the death of the Falcon [Inle-Amon] upon his throne. Now then, the trusted commanders from the midst of the army of His Majesty were six men, while the trusted commanders and overseers of fortresses were six men.... Then they said to the entire army, "Come, let us cause our lord to appear, for we are like a herd which has no herdsman!" Thereupon this army was very greatly concerned, saying, "Our lord is here with us, but we do not know him! Would that we might know him, that we might enter in under him and work for him, as It-Tjwy work for Horus, the son of Isis, after he sits upon the throne of his father Osiris! Let us give praise to his two crowns." Then the army of His Majesty all said with one voice, "Still there is this god Amon-Re, Lord of the Thrones of It-Tjwy, Resident in Napata. He is also a god of Kush. Come, let us go to him. We cannot do a thing without him, but a good fortune comes from the god. He is the god of the kings of Kush since the time of Re. It is he who will guide us. In his hands is the kingship of Kush, which he has given to the son whom he loves.....

So the commanders of His Majesty and the officials of the palace went to the Temple of Amon. They found the prophets and the major priests waiting outside the temple. They said to them, "Pray, may this god, Amon-Re, Resident in Napata, come, to permit that he give us our lord, to revive us, to build the temples of all the gods and goddesses of Kemet, and to present their divine offerings! We cannot do a thing without this god. It is he who guides us. Then the prophets and the major priests entered into the temple, that they might perform every rite of his purification and his censing. Then the commanders of His Majesty and the officials of the palace entered into the temple and put themselves upon their bellies before this god. They said, "We have come to you, O Amon-Re, Lord of the Thrones of It-Tjwy, Resident in Napata, that you might give to us a lord, to revive us, to build the temples of the gods of Kemet and Rekhyt, and to present divine offerings. That beneficent office is in your hands---may you give it to your son whom you love!"

Then they offered the king's brothers before this god, but he did not take one of them. For a second time there was offered the king's brother, son of Amon, and child of Mut, Lady of Heaven, the Son of Re, Aspalta, living forever. Then this god, Amon-Re, Lord of the Thrones of It-Tjwy, said, "He is your king. It is he who will revive you. It is he who will build every temple of Kemet and Rekhyt. It is he who will present their divine offerings. His father was my son, the Son of Re, Inle-Amon, the triumphant. His mother is the king's sister, king's mother, Kandake of Kush, and Daughter of Re, Nensela, living forever, He is your lord."


Herodotus: The Histories, c. 430 BCE, Book III.

I went as far as Elephantine [Aswan] to see what I could with my own eyes, but for the country still further south I had to be content with what I was told in answer to my questions. South of Elephantine the country is inhabited by Ethiopians...Beyond the island is a great lake, and round its shores live nomadic tribes of Ethiopians. After crossing the lake one comes again to the stream of the Nile, which flows into it. ...After forty days journey on land along the river, one takes another boat and in twelve days reaches a big city named Meroë, said to be the capital city of the Ethiopians. The inhabitants worship Zeus and Dionysus alone of the Gods, holding them in great honor. There is an oracle of Zeus there, and they make war according to its pronouncements, taking it from both the occasion and the object of their various expeditions. . . .After this Cambyses [King of Persia] took counsel with himself, and planned three expeditions. One was against the Carthaginians, another against the Ammonians, and a third against the long-lived Ethiopians, who dwelt in that part of Libya which borders upon the southern sea. . . while his spies went into Ethiopia, under the pretense of carrying presents to the king, but in reality to take note of all they saw, and especially to observe whether there was really what is called "the table of the Sun" in Ethiopia. Now the table of the Sun according to the accounts given of it may be thus described: It is a meadow in the skirts of their city full of the boiled flesh of all manner of beasts, which the magistrates are careful to store with meat every night, and where whoever likes may come and eat during the day. The people of the land say that the earth itself brings forth the food. Such is the description which is given of this table.

The Ethiopians to whom this embassy was sent are said to be the tallest and handsomest men in the whole world. In their customs they differ greatly from the rest of mankind, and particularly in the way they choose their kings; for they find out the man who is the tallest of all the citizens, and of strength equal to his height, and appoint him to rule over them....The spies were told that most of them lived to be a hundred and twenty years old, while some even went beyond that age---they ate boiled flesh, and had for their drink nothing but milk. Among these Ethiopians copper is of all metals the most scarce and valuable. Also, last of all, they were allowed to behold the coffins of the Ethiopians, which are made (according to report) of crystal, after the following fashion: When the dead body has been dried, either in the Egyptian, or in some other manner, they cover the whole with gypsum, and adorn it with painting until it is as like the living man as possible. Then they place the body in a crystal pillar which has been hollowed out to receive it, crystal being dug up in great abundance in their country, and of a kind very easy to work. You may see the corpse through the pillar within which it lies; and it neither gives out any unpleasant odor, nor is it in any respect unseemly; yet there is no part that is not as plainly visible as if the body were bare. The next of kin keep the crystal pillar in their houses for a full year from the time of the death, and give it the first fruits continually, and honor it with sacrifice. After the year is out they bear the pillar forth, and set it up near the town. . . .

Where the south declines towards the setting sun lies the country called Ethiopia, the last inhabited land in that direction. There gold is obtained in great plenty, huge elephants abound, with wild trees of all sorts, and ebony; and the men are taller, handsomer, and longer lived than anywhere else. The Ethiopians were clothed in the skins of leopards and lions, and had long bows made of the stem of the palm-leaf, not less than four cubits in length. On these they laid short arrows made of reed, and

armed at the tip, not with iron, but with a piece of stone, sharpened to a point, of the kind used in engraving seals. They carried likewise spears, the head of which was the sharpened horn of an antelope; and in addition they had knotted clubs. When they went into battle they painted their bodies, half with chalk, and half with vermilion. . . .


Strabo: Geography, c. 22 CE
XVI.iv.4-17; XVII.i.53-54, ii.1-3, iii.1-11.

The straits at Ethiopia are formed by a promontory called Deire [i.e., modern Bab-el-Mandeb]. There is a small town upon it of the same name. The Ichthyophagi inhabit this country. Here it is said is a pillar of Sesostris the Egyptian, on which is inscribed, in hieroglyphics, an account of his passage (across the Arabian Gulf). For he appears to have subdued first Ethiopia and Troglodytica, and afterwards to have passed over into Arabia. He then overran the whole of Asia. Hence in many places there are dykes called the dykes of Sesostris, and temples built in honor of Egyptian deities.

The straits at Deire are contracted to the width of 60 stadia; not indeed that these are now called the Straits, for ships proceed to a further distance, and find a passage of about 200 stadia between the two continents; six islands contiguous to one another leave a very narrow passage through them for vessels, by filling up the interval between the continents. Through these goods are transported from one continent to the other on rafts; it is this passage which is called the Straits. After these islands, the subsequent navigation is among bays along the Myrrh country, in the direction of the south and east, as far as the Cinnamon country, a distance of about 5000 stadia [Strabo here speaks not of the coast of Arabia but of Africa, from the Straits to Cape Guardafui--the tip of modern Somalia, opposite the isles of Socotra]; beyond this district no one to this time, it is said, has penetrated. There are not many cities upon the coast, but in the interior they are numerous and well-inhabited. Such is the account of Arabia given by Eratosthenes. We must add what is related also by other writers.

Artemidorus says that the promontory of Arabia, opposite to Deire, is called Acila, and that the persons who live near Deire practice male circumcion. In sailing from Heroöpolis along Troglodytica, a city is met with called Philotera [modern Al-Ghurdaqah], after the sister of the second Ptolemy; it was founded by Satyrus, who was sent to explore the hunting-ground for elephants, and Troglodytica itself. Next to this is another city, Arsinoë [modern Jamsah?], and next to this, springs of hot water, which are salt and bitter; they are precipitated from a high rock and discharge themselves into the sea. There is a plain near these springs a mountain, which is of a red color like minium. Next is Myus Hormus, which is also called Aphrodite's Hormus [Harbor of Venus--modern Bãr Safäjah]; it is a large harbor with an oblique entrance. In front are three islands; two are covered with olive trees, and one (the third) is less shaded with trees, and abounds with guinea-fowls. Then follows Acathartus (or Foul Bay) [probably modern Al-QuÕayr], which, like Myus Hormus, is in the latitude of the Thebaïs. The bay is really foul, for it is very dangerous from rocks (some of which are covered by the sea, others rise to the surface), as also from almost constant and furious tempests. At the bottom of the bay is situated the city of Berenice [modern Bandar-el-Kebir].

After the bay is the island Ophiodes [modern Zamargat], so-called from the accidental circumstance of its having once been infested with serpents. It was cleared of the serpents by the king [Ptolemy II Philadelphus], on account of the destruction occasioned by those noxious animals to the persons who frequented the island, and on account of the topazes found there. The topaz is a transparent stone, sparkling with a golden luster, which however is not easy to be distinguished in the daytime, on account of the brightness of the surrounding light, but at night the stones are visible to those who collect them. A body of men was appointed and maintained by the kings of Egypt to guard the place where these stones were found, and to superintend the collection of them.

Next after this island follow many tribes of Icthyophagi and of nomads; then succeeds the harbor of the goddess Soteira (the Preserver), which had its name from the circumstance of the escape and preservation of some masters [of ships] from great dangers of the sea. After this the coast and the gulf seem to undergo a great change: for the voyage along the coast is no longer among rocks, and approaches almost close to Arabia; the sea is so shallow as to be scarcely of the depth of two orguiae [one orguia equals one fathom equals six feet], and has the appearance of a meadow, in consequence of the sea-weeds, which abound in the passage, being visible through and under the water. Even trees here grow from under the water, and the sea abounds with sea-dogs. Next are two mountains, the Tauri (or the Bulls), presenting at a distance a resemblance to these animals. Then follows another mountain, on which is a temple of Isis, built by Sesostris; then an island planted with olive trees, and at times overflowed. This is followed by the city Ptolemaïs [modern Tawkar], near the hunting-grounds of the elephants, founded by Eumedes, who was sent by Philadelphus to the hunting ground. He enclosed, without the knowledge of the inhabitants, a kind of peninsula with a ditch and a wall, and by his courteous address gained over those who were inclined to obstruct the work, and instead of enemies made them his friends.

In the intervening space, a branch of the river Astaboras [the modern Atbara] discharges itself [not so]. It has its source in a lake, and empties part of its waters into the bay, but the larger portion it contributes to the Nile. Then follow six islands, called Latomiae [these are to the north of modern Arkiko], after these the Sabaïtic mouth, as it is called, and in the inland parts a fortress built by Suchus. Then a lake called Elaea, and the island of Strato; next Saba, a port [not the same as that in modern Yemen, but probably modern Mitsiwa], and a hunting-ground for elephants of the same name. The country deep in the interior is called Tenessis [modern Eritrea, between about Asmara and Kassala]. It is occupied by those Egyptians who took refuge from the government of Psamtik III [c. 658 B.C.]. They are surnamed Sembritae [the modern Senaar], as being strangers. They are governed by a queen, to whom also Meroë, an island in the Nile near these places, is subject. Above this, at no great distance, is another island in the river, a settlement occupied by the same fugitives. From Meroë to this sea is a journey of fifteen days for an active person. Near Meroë is the confluence of the Astaboras [modern Atbara], the Astapus [the White Nile], and of the Astasobas [Blue Nile].

On the banks of these rivers live the Rhizophagi (or root-eaters) and Heleii (or marsh-men). They have their name from digging roots in the adjacent marsh, bruising them with stones, and forming them into cakes, which they dry in the sun for food. These countries are the haunts of lions. The wild beasts are driven out of these places, at the time of the rising of the dog-star, by large gnats. Near these people live the Spermophagi (or seed-eaters), who, when seeds of plants fail, subsist upon seeds of trees, which they prepare in the same manner as the Rhizophagi prepare their roots. Next to Elaea are the watch-towers of Demetrius, and the altars of Conan. In the interior Indian reeds grow in abundance. The country there is called the country of Coracius [right about modern Asmara].

Far in the interior was a place called Endera [right about modern Aksum], inhabited by a naked tribe [the Gymnetae] who use bows and reed arrows, the points of which are hardened in the fire. They generally shoot the animals from trees, sometimes from the ground. They have numerous herds of wild cattle among them, on the flesh of which they subsist, and on that of other wild animals. When they have taken nothing in the chase, they dress dried skins upon hot coals, and are satisfied with food of this kind. It is their custom to propose trials of skill in archery for those who have not attained manhood. Next to the altars of Conan is the port of Melinus [about 100 miles Southeast along the modern Eritrean coast from Asmara], and above it is a fortress called that of Coraus and the chase of Coraus, also another fortress and more hunting-grounds. Then follows the harbor of Antiphilus, and above this a tribe, the Creophagi [modern Djibouti], whose men are circumcised and whose women are excised after the Jewish custom [i.e., clitoridectomy].

Further still towards the south [near modern Addis Ababa] are the Cynamolgi [Greek: "milkers of bitches"], called by the natives Agrii, with long hair and long beards, who keep a breed of very large dogs for hunting the Indian cattle which come into their country from the neighboring district, driven there either by wild beasts or by scarcity of pasturage. The time of their incursion is from the summer solstice to the middle of winter. Next to the harbor of Antiphilus is a port called the Grove of the Colobi (or the Mutilated), the city Berenice of the Sabae [probably modern Bailul, northwest of Assab], and Sabae [modern Assab], a considerable city; then the grove of Eumenes.

Above is the city Darada, and a hunting-ground for elephants, called "At the Well." The district is inhabited by the Elephantophagi (or Elephant-eaters), who are occupied in hunting them. When they descry from the trees a herd of elephants directing their course through the forest, they do not then attack, but they approach by stealth and hamstring the hindmost stragglers from the herd. Some kill them with bows and arrows, the latter being dipped in the gall of serpents. The shooting with the bow is performed by three men, two, advancing in front, hold the bow, and one draws the string. Others remark the trees against which the elephant is accustomed to rest, and, approaching on the opposite side, cut the trunk of the tree low down. When the animal comes and leans against it, the tree and the elephant fall down together. The elephant is unable to rise, because its legs are formed of one piece of bone which is inflexible; the hunters leap down from the trees, kill it, and cut it in pieces. The nomads call the hunters Acatharti, or impure.

Above this nation is situated a small tribe---the Struthophagi (or Bird-eaters), in whose country [about modern Lake Tana] are birds of the size of deer, which are unable to fly, but run with the swiftness of the ostrich. Some hunt them with bows and arrows, others covered with the skins of birds. They hide the right hand in the neck of the skin, and move it as the birds move their necks. With the left hand they scatter grain from a bag suspended to the side; they thus entice the birds, until they drive them into pits, where the hunters despatch them with cudgels. The skins are used both as clothes and as coverings for beds. The Ethiopians called Simi are at war with these people, and use as weapons the horns of antelopes.

Bordering on this people is a nation blacker in complexion than the others, shorter in stature, and very short-lived. They rarely live beyond forty years; for the flesh of their bodies is eaten up with worms. Their food consists of locusts, which the south-west and west winds, when they blow violently in the spring-time, drive in bodies into the country. The inhabitants catch them by throwing into the ravines materials which cause a great deal of smoke, and light them gently. The locusts, as they fly across the smoke, are blinded and fall down. They are pounded with salt, made into cakes, and eaten as food. Above these people is situated a desert tract with extensive pastures. It was abandoned in consequence of the multitudes of scorpions and tarantulas, called tetragnathi (or four-jawed), which formerly abounded to so great a degree as to occasion a complete desertion of the place long since by its inhabitants.

Next to the harbor of Eumenes, as far as Deire and the straits opposite the six islands, live the Ichthyophagi, Creophagi, and Colobi, who extend into the interior. Many hunting-grounds for elephants, and obscure cities and islands, lie in front of the coast. The greater part are nomads; husbandmen are few in number. In the country occupied by some of these nations styrax grows in large quantity. The Icthyophagi, on the ebbing of the tide, collect fish, which they cast upon the rocks and dry in the sun. When they have well-broiled them, the bones are piled in heaps, and the flesh trodden with the feet is made into cakes, which are again exposed to the sun and used as food. In bad weather, when fish cannot be procured, the bones of which they have made heaps are pounded, made into cakes and eaten, but they suck the fresh bones. Some also live upon shellfish, when they are fattened, which is done by throwing them into holes and standing pools of the sea, where they are supplied with small fish, and used as food when other fish are scarce. They have various kinds of places for preserving and feeding fish, from whence they derive their supply.

Some of the inhabitants of that part of the coast which is without water go inland every five days, accompanied by all their families, with songs and rejoicings, to the watering places, where, throwing themselves on their faces, they drink as beasts until their stomachs are distended like a drum. They then return again to the sea-coast. They dwell in caves or cabins, with roofs consisting of beams and rafters made of the bones and spines of whales, and covered with branches of the olive tree. The Chelonophagi (or Turtle-eaters) live under the cover of shells (of turtles), which are large enough to be used as boats. Some make of the sea-weed, which is thrown up in large quantities, lofty and hill-like heaps, which are hollowed out, and underneath which they live. They cast out the dead, which are carried away by the tide, as food for fish.

There are three islands which follow in succession, the island of Tortoises, the island of Seals, and the island of Hawks. Along the whole coast there are plantations of palm trees, olive trees, and laurels, not only within, but in a great part also without the straits. There is also an island called the island of Philip; opposite to it inland is situated the hunting-ground for elephants, called the chase of Pythangelus; then follows Arsinoë, a city with a harbor [a bit Southeast of modern Assab]; after these places is Deire, and beyond them is a hunting-ground for elephants. From Deire, the next country is that which bears aromatic plants [on the northern Somalian coast, around Berbera]. The first produces myrrh, and belongs to the Icthyophagi and the Creophagi. It bears also the persea, peach or Egyptian almond, and the Egyptian fig. Beyond is Licha, a hunting-ground for elephants. There are also in many places standing pools of rain-water. When these are dried up, the elephants, with their trunks and tusks, dig holes and find water.

On this coast there are two very large lakes extending as far as the promontory Pytholaus [modern Karin, on the northern Somalian coast]. One of them contains salt water, and is called a sea; the other, fresh water, and is the haunt of hippopotami and crocodiles. On the margin grows the papyrus. The ibis is seen in the neighborhood of this place. The people who live near the promontory of Pytholaus (and beginning from this place) do not undergo any mutilation in any part of their body. Next is the country which produces frankincense; it has a promontory and a temple with a grove of poplars. In the inland parts is a tract along the banks of a river bearing the name of Isis, and another that of Nilus, both of which produce myrrh and frankincense. Also a lagoon filled with water from the mountains; next the watchpost of the Lion, and the port of Pythangelus. The next tract bears the false cassia. There are many tracts in succession on the sides of the rivers on which frankincense grows, and rivers extending to the cinnamon country. The river which bounds this tract produces rushes in great abundance. Then follows another river, and the port of Daphnus [probably modern Bosaso], and a valley called Apollo's, which bears, besides frankincense, myrrh and cinnamon. The latter is more abundant in places far in the interior.

Next is the mountain Elephas [modern Fellis or Fel], a mountain projecting into the sea, and a creek; then follows the large harbor of Psygmus [modern Qandala], a watering-place called that of Cynocephali [modern Alula], and the last promontory of this coast, Notuceras (or Southern Horn) [modern Cape Guardafui]. After doubling this cape towards the south, we have no more descriptions, he says, of harbors or places, because nothing is known of the sea-coast beyond this point. Along the coast there are both pillars and altars of Pytholaus, Lichas, Pythangelus, Leon, and Charimortus, that is, along the known coast from Deire as far as Notuceras; but the distance is not determined. The country abounds with elephants and lions called myrmeces (ants). They have their genital organs reversed. Their skin is of a golden color, but they are more bare than the lions of Arabia.

It produces also leopards of great strength and courage, and the rhinoceros. The rhinoceros is little inferior to the elephant; not, according to Artemidorus, in length to the crest, although he says he had seen one at Alexandria, but it is somewhat about a span less in height, judging at least from the one I saw. Nor is the color the pale yellow of boxwood, but like that of the elephant. It was of the size of a bull. Its shape approached very nearly to that of the wild boar, and particularly the forehead; except the front, which is furnished with a hooked horn, harder than any bone. It uses it as a weapon, like the wild boar its tusks. It has also two hard welts, like folds of serpents, encircling the body from the chin to the belly, one on the withers, the other on the loins. This description is taken from one I myself saw. Artemidorus adds to his account of this animal, that it is peculiarly inclined to dispute with the elephant for the place of pasture; thrusting its forehead under the belly of the elephant, and ripping it up, unless prevented by the trunk and tusks of his adversary.

Camel-leopards are bred in these parts, but they do not in any respect resemble leopards, for their variegated skin is more like the streaked and spotted skin of fallow deer. The hinder quarters are so very much lower than the fore quarter that it seems as if the animal sat upon its rump, which is the height of an ox; the fore legs are as long as those of the camel. The neck rises high and straight up, but the head greatly exceeds in height that of the camel. From this want of proportion, the speed of the animal is not so great, I think as it is described by Artemidorus, according to whom it is not to be surpassed. It is not however a wild animal, but rather like a domesticated beast; for it shows no signs of savage disposition.

This country, continues Artemidorus, produces also sphinxes, cynocephali, and cebi, which have the face of a lion, and the rest of the body like that of a panther; they are as large as deer. There are wild bulls also, which are carnivorous, and greatly exceed ours in size and swiftness. They are of a red color. The crocuttas [the spotted hyena] is, according to this author, of mixed progeny of a wolf and a dog. What Metrodorus the Scepsian relates, in his book "on Custom," is like fable, and to be disregarded. Artemidorus mentions serpents also of thirty cubits in length, which can master elephants and bulls: in this he does not exaggerate. But the Indian and African serpents are of a more fabulous size, and are said to have grass growing on their backs.

The mode of life among the Troglodytae is nomadic. Each tribe is governed by tyrants. Their wives and children are common, except those of the tyrants. The offence corrupting the wife of a tyrant is punished with the fine of sheep. The women carefully paint themselves with antimony. They wear about their necks shells, as a protection again fascination by witchcraft. In their quarrels, which are pastures, they first push away each other with their hands, they then use stones, or, if wounds are inflicted, arrows and daggers. The women put an end to these disputes, by going into the midst of the combatants and using prayers and entreaties.

Their food consists of flesh and bones pounded together, wrapped up in skins and then baked, or prepared after many other methods by the cooks, who are called Acatharti, or impure. In this way they eat not only the flesh, but the bones and skins also. They use (as an ointment for the body?) a mixture of blood and milk; the drink of the people in general is an infusion of the paliurus (buckthorn); that of the tyrants is mead; the honey being expressed from some kind of flower. Their winter sets in when the Etesian winds begin to blow (for they have rain), and the remaining season is summer.

They go naked, or wear skins only, and carry clubs. They deprive themselves of the foreskin, but some are circumcised like Egyptians. The Ethiopian Megabarae have their clubs armed with iron knobs. They use spears and shields which are covered with raw hides. The other Ethiopians use bows and lances. Some of the Troglodytae, when they bury their dead, bind the body from the neck to the legs with twigs of the buckthorn. They then immediately throw stones over the body, at the same time laughing and rejoicing, until they have covered the face. They then place over it a ram's horn, and go away. They travel by night; the male cattle have bells fastened to them, in order to drive away wild beasts with the sound. They use torches also and arrows in repelling them. They watch during the night, on account of their flocks, and sing some peculiar song around their fires. . . .

Egypt was from the first disposed to peace, from having resources within itself, and because it was difficult of access to strangers. It was also protected on the north by a harborless coast and the Egyptian Sea; on the east and west by the desert mountains of Libya and Arabia, as I have said before. The remaining parts towards the south are occupied by Troglodytae, Blemmyae, Nubiae, and Megabarae Ethiopians above Syene. These are nomads, and not numerous nor warlike, but accounted so by the ancients, because frequently, like robbers, they attacked defenseless persons. Neither are the Ethiopians, who extend towards the south and Meroë, numerous nor collected in a body; for they inhabit a long, narrow, and winding tract of land on the riverside, such as we have before described; nor are they well prepared either for war or the pursuit of any other mode of life.

At present the whole country is in the same pacific state, proof of which is that the upper country is sufficiently guarded by three cohorts, and these not complete. Whenever the Ethiopians have ventured to attack them, it has been at the risk of danger to their own country. The rest of the forces in Egypt are neither very numerous, nor did the Romans ever once employ them collected into one army. For neither are the Egyptians themselves of a warlike disposition, nor the surrounding nations, although their numbers are very large.

Cornelius Gallus, the first governor of the country appointed by Augustus Caesar, attacked the city Heroöpolis, which had revolted [in 28 B.C.], and took it with a small body of men. He suppressed also in a short time an insurrection in the Thebaïs which originated as to the payment of tribute. At a later period Petronius resisted, with the soldiers about his person, a mob of myriads of Alexandrines, who attacked him by throwing stones. He killed some, and compelled the rest to desist.

We have before related how Aelius Gallus, when he invaded Arabia with a part of the army stationed in Egypt, exhibited a proof of the unwarlike disposition of the people; and if Syllaeus had not betrayed him, he would have conquered the whole of Arabia Felix. The Ethiopians, emboldened in consequence of a part of the forces in Egypt being drawn off by Aelius Gallus, who engaged in war with the Arabs, invaded the Thebaïs and attacked the garrison, consisting of three cohorts, near Syene; surprised and took Syene, Elephantine, and Philae, a sudden inroad; enslaved the inhabitants, and threw down statues of Caesar. But Petronius, marching with less than 10,000 infantry and 800 horse against an army of 30,000 men, compelled them to retreat to Pselchis [former Maharraqa--now submerged beneath Lake Nasser], an Ethiopian city. He then sent deputies to demand restitution of what they had taken, and the reasons which had induced them to begin the war.

On their alleging that they had been ill-treated by the nomarchs, he answered, that these were not the sovereign of the country, but Caesar. When they desired three days for consideration, and did nothing which they were bound to do, Petronius attacked and compelled them to fight. They soon fled, being badly commanded, and badly armed; for they carried large shields made of raw hides, and hatchets for defensive weapons; some, however, had pikes, and others swords. Part of the insurgents were driven into the city, others fled into the uninhabited country; and such as ventured upon the passage of the river escaped to a neighboring island, where there were not many crocodiles on account of the current. Among the fugitives were the generals of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians in our time, a masculine woman, and who had lost an eye. Petronius, pursuing them in rafts and ships, took them all and despatched them immediately to Alexandria. He then attacked Pselchis and took it. If we add the number of those who fell in battle to the number of prisoners, few only could have escaped.

From Pselchis Petronius went to Premnis [the former Karanog--now also submerged beneath Lake Nasser], a strong city, traveling over the hills of sand, beneath which the army of Cambyses [king of Persia, and successor to Cyrus the Great] was overwhelmed by the setting in of a whirlwind. He took the fortress at the first onset, and afterwards advanced to Napata. This was the royal seat of the Candace; and her son was there, but she herself was in a neighboring stronghold. When she sent ambassadors to treat of peace, and to offer the restitution of the prisoners brought from Syene, and the statues, Petronius attacked and took Napata, from which her son had fled, and then razed it. He made prisoners of the inhabitants, and returned back again with the booty, as he judged any farther advance into the country impracticable on account of the roads. He strengthened, however, the fortifications of Premnis, and having placed a garrison there, with two years' provisions for four hundred men, returned to Alexandria. Some of the prisoners were publicly sold as loot, and a thousand were sent to Caesar, who had lately returned from the Cantabrians, others died of various diseases.

In the meantime the Candace attacked the garrison with an army of many thousand men. Petronius came to its assistance, and entering the fortress before the approach of the enemy, secured the place by many expedients. The enemy sent ambassadors, but he ordered them to repair to Caesar: in their replying, that they did not know who Caesar was, nor where they were to find him, Petronius appointed persons to conduct them to his presence. They arrived at Samos, where Caesar was at that time, and from whence he was on the point of proceeding into Syria, having already despatched Tiberius into Armenia. The ambassadors obtained all that they desired, and Caesar even remitted the tribute which he had imposed. . .

The mode of life of the Ethiopians is wretched; they are for the most part naked, and wander from place to place with their flocks. Their flocks and herds are small in size, whether sheep, goats, or oxen; the dogs also, though fierce and quarrelsome, are small. . . . They live on millet and barley, from which also a drink is prepared. They have no oil, but use butter and fat instead. There are no fruits, except the produce of trees in the royal gardens. Some feed even upon grass, the tender twigs of trees, the lotus, or the roots of reeds. They live also upon the flesh and blood of animals, milk, and cheese. They reverence their kings as gods, who are for the most part shut up in their palaces.

Their largest royal seat is the city of Meroë, of the same name as the island. The shape of the island is said to be that of a shield. Its size is perhaps exaggerated. Its length is about 3000 stadia, and its breadth 1000 stadia. It is very mountainous, and contains great forests. The inhabitants are nomads, who are partly hunters and partly farmers. There are also mines of copper, iron, gold, and various kinds of precious stones. It is surrounded on the side of Libya by great hills. of sand, and on that of Arabia by continuous precipices. In the higher parts on the south, it is bounded by the confluence of the rivers Astaboras [modern Atbara], Astapa [the White Nile], and Astasobas [the Blue Nile]. On the north is the continuous course of the Nile to Egypt, with its windings, of which we have spoken before.

The houses in the cities are formed by interweaving split pieces of palm wood or of bricks. They have fossil salt [rock salt], as in Arabia. Palm, the persea [the peach], ebony, and carob trees are found in abundance. They hunt elephants, lions and panthers. There are also serpents, which encounter elephants, and there are many other kinds of wild animals, which take refuge, from the hotter and parched districts, in watery and marshy districts. Above Meroë is Psebo [the modern Lake Tana], a large lake, containing a well-inhabited island. As the Libyans occupy the western bank off the Nile, and the Ethiopians the country on the other side of the river, they thus dispute by turns the possession of the islands and the banks of the river, one party repulsing the other, or yielding to the superiority of its opponent.

The Ethiopians use bows of wood four cubits long, and hardened in the fire. The women also are armed, most of whom wear in the upper lip a copper ring. They wear sheepskins, without wool; for the sheep have hair like goats. Some go naked, or wear small skins or girdles of well-woven hair around the loins. They regard as god one being who is immortal, the cause of all things; another who is mortal, a being without a name, whose nature is not clearly understood. In general they consider as gods benefactors and royal person, some of whom are their kings, the common saviors and guardians of all; others are private persons, esteemed as gods by those who have individually received benefits from them. Of those who inhabit the torrid region, some are even supposed not to acknowledge any god, and are said to abhor even the sun, and to apply opprobrious names to him, when they behold him rising, because he scorches and tortures them with his heat; these people take refuge in the marshes. The inhabitants of Meroë worship Hercules, Pan, and Isis, besides some other barbaric deities. Some tribes throw the dead into the river; others keep them in the house, enclosed in hyalus. Some bury them around the temples in coffins of baked clay. They swear an oath by them, which is reverenced as more sacred than all others.

Kings are appointed from among persons distinguished by their personal beauty, or by their breeding of cattle, or by their courage, or their riches. In Meroë the priests anciently held the highest rank, an sometimes sent orders even to the king, by a messenger, to put an end to himself; when they appointed another keeper, in his place. At last one of their kings abolished this custom, going with an armed body to the temple where the golden shrine is, and slaughtering all the priests. The following custom exists among the Ethiopians. If a king is mutilated in any part of the body, those who are most attached to his person, as attendants, mutilate themselves in the same manner, and even die with him. Hence the king is guarded with the utmost care. . . .


Acts of the Apostles 8:26-39, c. 90 A.D.

Then the angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, "Get up and head south on the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza, the desert route." So he got up and set out. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, that is, the queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of here entire treasury, who had come to Jerusalem to worship, and was returning home. Seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. The Spirit said to Philip, "Go and join up with that chariot." Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and said, "Do you understand what you are reading?" He replied, "How can I, unless someone instructs me?" So he invited Philip to get in and sit with him. This was the scripture passage he was reading: Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opened not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who will tell of his posterity? For his life is taken from the earth. Then the eunuch said to Philip in reply, "I beg you, about whom is the prophet saying this? About himself, or about someone else?" Then Philip opened his mouth and, beginning with this scripture passage, he proclaimed Jesus to him. As they traveled along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, "Look, there is water. What is to prevent my being baptized?" Then he ordered the chariot to stop, and Philip and the eunuch both went down into the water, and he baptized him. When they came out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, but continued on his way rejoicing.


Dio Cassius: History of Rome, c. 220 CE
Book LIV.v.4-6.

About this same time [23 B.C.] the Ethiopians, who dwell beyond Egypt, advanced as far as the city called Elephantine, with the Candace as their leader, ravaging everything they encountered. At Elephantine, however, learning that Gaius Petronius, the governor of Egypt, was already moving, they hastily retreated before he arrived, hoping to make good their escape. But being overtaken on the road, they were defeated and thus drew him after them into their own country. There, too, he fought successfully with them, and took Napata, their capital, among other cities. This place was razed to the ground, and a garrison left at another point; for Petronius, finding himself unable either to advance farther, on account of the sand and the heat, or advantageously to remain where he was with his entire army, withdrew, taking the greater part of it with him. Thereupon the Ethiopians attacked the garrisons, but he again proceeded against them, rescued his own men, and compelled the Candace to make terms with him.


Inscription of Ezana, King of Axum, c. 325 CE

Through the might of the Lord of All I took the field against the Noba [Nubians] when the people of Noba revolted, when they boasted and "He will not cross over the Takkaze," said the Noba, when they did violence to the peoples Mangurto and Hasa and Barya, and the Black Noba waged war on the Red Noba and a second and a third time broke their oath and without consideration slew their neighbors and plundered our envoys and messengers whom I had sent to interrogate them, robbing them of their possessions and seizing their lances. When I sent again and they did not hear me, and reviled me, and made off, I took the field against them. And I armed myself with the power of the Lord of the Land and fought on the Takkaze at the ford of Kemalke. And thereupon they fled and stood not still, and I pursued the fugitives twenty-three days slaying them and capturing others and taking plunder from them, where I came; while prisoners and plunder were brought back by my own people who marched out; while I burnt their towns, those of masonry and those of straw, and seized their corn and their bronze and the dried meat and the images in their temples and destroyed the stocks of corn and cotton; and the enemy plunged into the river Seda, and many perished in the water, the number I know not, and as their vessels foundered a multitude of people, men and women were drowned. . .

And I arrived at the Kasu [Kush], slaying them and taking others prisoner at the junction of the rivers Seda and Takkaze. And on the day after my arrival I dispatched into the field the troop of Mahaza and the Damawa and Falha and Sera up the Seda against the towns of masonry and of straw; their towns of masonry are called >Alwa, Daro. And they slew and took prisoners and threw them into the water and they returned safe and sound, after they had terrified their enemies and had conquered through the power of the Lord of the Land. And I sent the troop Halen and the troop Laken and the troop Sabarat and Falha and Sera down the Seda against the towns of straw of the Noba and Negues; the towns of masonry of the Kasu which the Noba had taken were Tabito, Fertoti; and they arrived at the territory of the Red Noba, and my people returned safe and sound after they had taken prisoners and slain others and had seized their plunder through the power of the Lord of Heaven. And I erected a throne at the junction of the rivers Seda and Takkaze, opposite the town of masonry which is on this peninsula.


Procopius of Caesarea: History of the Wars, c. 550 CE
Book I.xix.1, 17-22, 27-37, xx.1-13

At that time the idea occurred to the Emperor Justinian to ally himself with the Ethiopians and the Omeritae, in order to injure the Persians. . . .About opposite the Omeritae on the opposite mainland dwell the Ethiopians who are called Auxumitae, because their king resides in the city of Auxomis [Axum]. And the expanse of sea which lies between is crossed in a voyage of five days and nights, when a moderately favoring wind blows. . . .

From the city of Auxumis to the Egyptian boundaries of the Roman domain, where the city called Elephantine is situated, is a journey of thirty days for an unencumbered traveler. Within that space many nations are settled, and among them the Blemmyae and the Nobatae [Nubians], who are very large nations. But the Blemmyae dwell in the central portion of the country, while the Nobatae possess the territory about the River Nile. Formerly this was not the limit of the Roman Empire, but it lay beyond there as far as one would advance in a seven days' journey; but the Roman Emperor Diocletian came there, and observed that the tribute from these places was of the smallest possible account, since the land is at that point extremely narrow (for rocks rise to an exceedingly great height at no great distance from the Nile and spread over the rest of the country), while a very large body of soldiers had been stationed there from of old, the maintenance of which was an excessive burden upon the public; and at the same time the Nobatae who formerly dwelt about the city of Premnis [modern Karanog--now submerged beneath Lake Nasser] used to plunder the whole region; so he persuaded these barbarians to move from their own habitations, and to settle along the River Nile, promising to bestow upon them great cities and land both extensive and incomparably better than that which they had previously occupied. For in this way he thought that they would no longer harass the country about Pselchis [modern Maharraqa--now submerged beneath Lake Nasser] at least, and that they would possess themselves of the land given them, as being their own, and would probably beat off the Blemmyae and the other barbarians.

And since this pleased the Nobatae, they made the migration immediately, just as Diocletian directed them, and took possession of all the Roman cities and the land on both sides of the River beyond the city of Elephantine. Then it was that this emperor decreed that to them and to the Blemmyae a fixed sum of gold should be given every year with the stipulation that they should no longer plunder the land of the Romans. And they receive this gold even up to my time, but none the less they overrun the country there. Thus, it seems that with all barbarians there is no means of compelling them to keep faith with the Romans except through the fear of soldiers to hold them in check. And yet this emperor went so far as to select a certain island in the River Nile close to the city of Elephantine and there construct a very strong fortress in which he established certain temples and altars for the Romans and these barbarians in common, and he settled priests of both nations in this fortress, thinking that the friendship between them would be secure by reason of their sharing the things sacred to them. And for this reason he named the place Philae. Now, both these nations, the Blemmyae and the Nobatae, believe in all the gods in which the Greeks believe, and they also reverence Isis and Osiris, and not least of all Priapus. But the Blemmyae are accustomed also to sacrifice human beings to the Sun. These sanctuaries in Philae were kept by these barbarians even up to my time, but the Emperor Justinian decided to tear them down. . . .

At about the time of this war Ellestheaeus, the king of the Ethiopians, who was a Christian and a most devoted adherent of this faith, discovered that a number of the >Omeritae on the opposite mainland [modern Yemen] were oppressing the Christians there outrageously; many of these rascals were Jews, and many of them held in reverence the old faith which men of the present day call Hellenic [i.e., pagan]. He therefore collected a fleet of ships and an army and came against them, and he conquered them in battle and slew both the king and many of the >Omeritae. He then set up in his stead a Christian king, an Omeritae by birth, by name Esimiphaeus, and, after ordaining that he should pay a tribute to the Ethiopians every year, he returned to his home. In this Ethiopian army many slaves and all who were readily disposed to crime were quite unwilling to follow the king back, but were left behind and remained there because of their desire for the land of the >Omeritae; for it is an extremely goodly land.

These fellows at a time not long after this, in company with certain others, rose against the king Esimiphaeus and put him in confinement in one of the fortresses there, and established another king over the Omeritae, Abramus by name. Now this Abramus was a Christian, but a slave of a Roman citizen who was engaged in the business of shipping in the city of Adulis in Ethiopia. When >Ellestheaeus learned this, he was eager to punish Abramus together with those who had revolted with him for their injustice to Esimiphaeus, and he sent against them an army of three thousand men with one of his relatives as commander. This army, once there, was no longer willing to return home, but they wished to remain where they were in a goodly land, and so without the knowledge of their commander they opened negotiations with Abramus; then when they came to an engagement with their opponents, just as the fighting began, they killed their commander and joined the ranks of the enemy, and so remained there. But Ellestheaeus was greatly moved with anger and sent still another army against them; this force engaged with Abramus and his men, and, after suffering a severe defeat in the battle, straightway returned home. Thereafter the king of the Ethiopians became afraid, and sent no further expeditions against Abramus. After the death of Ellestheaeus, Abramus agreed to pay tribute to the king of the Ethiopians who succeeded him, and in this way he strengthened his rule. But this happened at a later time.

At that time, when Ellestheaeus was reigning over the Ethiopians, and Esimiphaeus over the Omeritae, the Emperor Justinian sent an ambassador, Julianus, demanding that both nations on account of their community of religion should make common cause with the Romans in the war against the Persians; for he purposed that the Ethiopians, by purchasing silk from India and selling it among the Romans, might themselves gain much money, while cause the Romans to profit in only one way, namely, that they be no longer compelled to pay over their money to their enemy (this is the silk of which they are accustomed to make the garments which of old the Greeks called "Medic," but which at the present time they name "Seric" [from Lat. serica, as coming from the Chinese (Seres)]). As for the >Omeritae, it was desired that they should establish Caïsus, the fugitive, as captain over the Maddeni, and with a great army of their own people and of the Maddene Saracens make an invasion into the land of the Persians. This Caïsus was by birth of the captain's rank and an exceptionally able warrior, but he had killed one of the relativesof Esimiphaeus and was a fugitive in a land which is utterly destitute of human habitation.

So each king, promising to put this demand into effect, dismissed the ambassador, but neither one of them did the things agreed upon by them. For it was impossible for the Ethiopians to buy silk from the Indians, for the Persian merchants always locate themselves at the very harbors where the Indian ships first put in (since they inhabit the adjoining country), and are accustomed to buy the whole cargoes; and it seemed to the Omeritae a difficult thing to cross a country which was a desert and which extended so far that a long time was required for the journey across it, and then to go against such a people much more warlike than themselves. Later on Abramus too, when at length he had established his power most securely, promised the Emperor Justinian many times to invade the land of Persia, but only once began the journey and then straightway turned back. Such then were the relations which the Romans had with the Ethiopians and the Omeritae.


Sources:

From:

Schäfer, A History of Ancient Aethiopian Kingship (London, 1905), pp. 81-100.

Herodotus, The History, trans. George Rawlinson (New York: Dutton & Co., 1862)

Strabo, The Geography of Strabo: Literally Translated, with Notes, trans. H. C. Hamilton, esq., & W. Falconer (London: H. G. Bohn, 1854-1857), pp. 191-203, 266-272, 275-284

Dio Cassius, The Roman History, Vol. V, trans. Ernest Cary (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1917), pp. 293, 294

Procopius, History of the Wars, 7 vols., trans. H. B. Dewing (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press & Wm. Heinemann, 1914; reprint ed., 1953-54), I.179, 183-195.

Scanned by: J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton. Prof. Arkenberg has modernized and annotated the text.


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© Paul Halsall, July 1998
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