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Ancient History Sourcebook:
Accounts of Ancient Mauretania, c. 430 BCE- 550 CE

  • Herodotus: The Histories, c. 430 B.C., Book IV.
  • Strabo: Geography, c. 22 A.D., XVII.iii.1-11.
  • Procopius of Caesarea: History of the Wars, c. 550 A.D. Books III.xxv.3-9;, vii.3, xi.16-20, xiii.26-29

Herodotus: The Histories, c. 430 B.C.,

Book IV.42-43:

For my part I am astonished that men should ever have divided Libya, Asia, and Europe as they have, for they are exceedingly unequal. Europe extends the entire length of the other two, and for breadth will not even (as I think) bear to be compared to them. As for Libya, we know it to be washed on all sides by the sea, except where it is attached to Asia. This discovery was first made by Necos, the Egyptian king, who on desisting from the canal which he had begun between the Nile and the Arabian gulf [i.e., the Red Sea], sent to sea a number of ships manned by Phoenicians, with orders to make for the Pillars of Hercules, and return to Egypt through them, and by the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians took their departure from Egypt by way of the Erythraean sea, and so sailed into the southern ocean. When autumn came, they went ashore, wherever they might happen to be, and having sown a tract of land with corn, waited until the grain was fit to cut. Having reaped it, they again set sail; and thus it came to pass that two whole years went by, and it was not till the third year that they doubled the Pillars of Hercules, and made good their voyage home. On their return, they declared - I for my part do not believe them, but perhaps others may - that in sailing round Libya they had the sun upon their right hand. In this way was the extent of Libya first discovered.

Next to these Phoenicians the Carthaginians, according to their own accounts, made the voyage. For Sataspes, son of Teaspes the Achaemenian, did not circumnavigate Libya, though he was sent to do so; but, fearing the length and desolateness of the journey, he turned back and left unaccomplished the task which had been set him by his mother. This man had used violence towards a maiden, the daughter of Zopyrus, son of Megabyzus, and King Xerxes was about to impale him for the offence, when his mother, who was a sister of Darius, begged him off, undertaking to punish his crime more heavily than the king himself had designed. She would force him, she said, to sail round Libya and return to Egypt by the Arabian gulf. Xerxes gave his consent; and Sataspes went down to Egypt, and there got a ship and crew, with which he set sail for the Pillars of Hercules. Having passed the Straits, he doubled the Libyan headland, known as Cape Soloeis, and proceeded southward.

Following this course for many months over a vast stretch of sea, and finding that more water than he had crossed still lay ever before him, he put about, and came back to Egypt. Thence proceeding to the court, he made report to Xerxes, that at the farthest point to which he had reached, the coast was occupied by a dwarfish race, who wore a dress made from the palm tree. These people, whenever he landed, left their towns and fled away to the mountains; his men, however, did them no wrong, only entering into their cities and taking some of their cattle. The reason why he had not sailed quite round Libya was, he said, because the ship stopped, and would no go any further. Xerxes, however, did not accept this account for true; and so Sataspes, as he had failed to accomplish the task set him, was impaled by the king's orders in accordance with the former sentence.

Book IV.168-198:

The Libyans dwell in the order which I will now describe. Beginning on the side of Egypt, the first Libyans are the Adyrmachidae. These people have, in most points, the same customs as the Egyptians, but use the costume of the Libyans. Their women wear on each leg a ring made of bronze; they let their hair grow long, and when they catch any vermin on their persons, bite it and throw it away. In this they differ from all the other Libyans. They are also the only tribe with whom the custom obtains of bringing all women about to become brides before the king, that he may choose such as are agreeable to him. The Adyrmachidae extend from the borders of Egypt to the harbor called Port Plynus. Next to the Adyrmachidae are the Gilligammae, who inhabit the country westward as far as the island of Aphrodisias. Off this tract is the island of Platea, which the Cyrenaeans colonized. Here too, upon the mainland, are Port Menelaus, and Aziris, where the Cyrenaeans once lived. The Silphium begins to grow in this region, extending from the island of Platea on the one side to the mouth of the Syrtis on the other. The customs of the Gilligammae are like those of the rest of their countrymen.

The Asbystae adjoin the Gilligammae upon the west. They inhabit the regions above Cyrene, but do not reach to the coast, which belongs to the Cyrenaeans. Four-horse chariots are in more common use among them than among any other Libyans. In most of their customs they ape the manners of the Cyrenaeans. Westward of the Asbystae dwell the Auschisae, who possess the country above Barca, reaching, however, to the sea at the place called Euesperides. In the middle of their territory is the little tribe of the Cabalians, which touches the coast near Tauchira, a city of the Barcaeans. Their customs are like those of the Libyans above Cyrene.

The Nasamonians, a numerous people, are the western neighbors of the Auschisae. In summer they leave their flocks and herds upon the sea-shore, and go up the country to a place called Augila, where they gather the dates from the palms, which in those parts grow thickly, and are of great size, all of them being of the fruit-bearing kind. They also chase the locusts, and, when caught, dry them in the sun, after which they grind them to powder, and, sprinkling this upon their milk, so drink it. Each man among them has several wives, in their intercourse with whom they resemble the Massagetae. The following are their customs in the swearing of oaths and the practice of augury. The man, as he swears, lays his hand upon the tomb of some one considered to have been pre-eminently just and good, and so doing swears by his name. For divination they betake themselves to the sepulchers of their own ancestors, and, after praying, lie down to sleep upon their graves; by the dreams which then come to them they guide their conduct. When they pledge their faith to one another, each gives the other to drink out of his hand; if there be no liquid to be had, they take up dust from the ground, and put their tongues to it.

On the country of the Nasamonians borders that of the Psylli, who were swept away under the following circumstances. The south-wind had blown for a long time and dried up all the tanks in which their water was stored. Now the whole region within the Syrtis is utterly devoid of springs. Accordingly the Psylli took counsel among themselves, and by common consent made war upon the southwind---so at least the Libyans say, I do but repeat their words---they went forth and reached the desert; but there the south-wind rose and buried them under heaps of sand: whereupon, the Psylli being destroyed, their lands passed to the Nasamonians.

Above the Nasamonians, towards the south, in the district where the wild beasts abound, dwell the Garamantians, who avoid all society or intercourse with their fellow-men, have no weapon of war, and do not know how to defend themselves. These border the Nasamonians on the south: westward along the sea-shore their neighbors are the Macea, who, by letting the locks about the crown of their head grow long, while they clip them close everywhere else, make their hair resemble a crest. In war these people use the skins of ostriches for shields. The river Cinyps rises among them from the height called "the Hill of the Graces," and runs from thence through their country to the sea. The Hill of the Graces is thickly covered with wood, and is thus very unlike the rest of Libya, which is bare. It is distant two hundred furlongs from the sea. Adjoining the Macae are the Gindanes, whose women wear on their legs anklets of leather. Each lover that a woman has gives her one; and she who can show the most is the best esteemed, as she appears to have been loved by the greatest number of men.

A promontory jutting out into the sea from the country of the Gindanes is inhabited by the Lotophagi, who live entirely on the fruit of the lotus-tree. The lotus fruit is about the size of the lentisk berry, and in sweetness resembles the date. The Lotophagi even succeed in obtaining from it a sort of wine. The sea-coast beyond the Lotophagi is occupied by the Machlyans, who use the lotus to some extent, though not so much as the people of whom we last spoke. The Machlyans reach as far as the great river called the Triton, which empties itself into the great lake Tritonis. Here, in this lake, is an island called Phla, which it is said the Lacedaemonians were to have colonized, according to an oracle.

The following is the story as it is commonly told. When Jason had finished building the Argo at the foot of Mount Pelion, he took on board the usual hecatomb, and moreover a brazen tripod. Thus equipped, he set sail, intending to coast round the Peloponnese, and so to reach Delphi. The voyage was prosperous as far as Malea; but at that point a gale of wind from the north came on suddenly, and carried him out of his course to the coast of Libya; where, before he discovered the land, he got among the shallows of Lake Tritonis. As he was turning it in his mind how he should find his way out, Triton (they say) appeared to him, and offered to show him the channel, and secure him a safe retreat, if he would give him the tripod. Jason complying, was shown by Triton the passage through the shallows; after which the god took the tripod, and, carrying it to his own temple, seated himself upon it, and, filled with prophetic fury, delivered to Jason and his companions a long prediction. "When a descendant," he said, "of one of the Argo's crew should seize and carry off the brazen tripod, then by inevitable fate would a hundred Grecian cities be built around Lake Tritonis." The Libyans of that region, when they heard the words of this prophecy, took away the tripod and hid it.

The next tribe beyond the Machlyans is the tribe of the Auseans. Both these nations inhabit the borders of Lake Tritonis, being separated from one another by the river Triton. Both also wear their hair long, but the Machlyans let it grow at the back of the head, while the Auseans have it long in front. The Ausean maidens keep year by year a feast in honor of Minerva, whereat their custom is

to draw up in two bodies, and fight with stones and clubs. They say that these are rites which have come down to them from their fathers, and that they honor with them their native goddess, who is the same as the Minerva (Athena) of the Grecians. If any of the maidens die of the wounds they receive, the Auseans declare that such are false maidens. Before the fight is suffered to begin, they have another ceremony. One of the virgins, the loveliest of the number, is selected from the rest; a Corinthian helmet and a complete suit of Greek armor are publicly put upon her; and, thus adorned, she is made to mount into a chariot, and led around the whole lake in a procession. What arms they used for the adornment of their damsels before the Greeks came to live in their country, I cannot say. I imagine they dressed them in Egyptian armor, for I maintain that both the shield and the helmet came into Greece from Egypt. The Auseans declare that Minerva is the daughter of Neptune and the Lake Tritonis---they say she quarreled with her father, and applied to Jupiter, who consented to let her be his child; and so she became his adopted daughter. These people do not marry or live in families, but dwell together like the gregarious beasts. When their children are full-grown, they are brought before the assembly of the men, which is held every third month, and assigned to those whom they most resemble.

Such are the tribes of wandering Libyans dwelling upon the sea-coast. Above them inland is the wild-beast tract: and beyond that, a ridge of sand, reaching from Egyptian Thebes to the Pillars of Hercules. Throughout this ridge, at the distance of about ten days' journey from one another, heaps of salt in large lumps lie upon hills. At the top of every hill there gushes forth from the middle of the salt a stream of water, which is both cold and sweet. Around dwell men who are the last inhabitants of Libya on the side of the desert, living, as they do, more inland than the wild-beast district. Of these nations the first is that of the Ammonians, who dwell at a distance of ten days' from Thebes [Waset], and have a temple derived from that of the Theban Jupiter. For at Thebes likewise, as I mentioned above, the image of Jupiter has a face like that of a ram. The Ammonians have another spring besides that which rises from the salt. The water of this stream is lukewarm at early dawn; at the time when the market fills it is much cooler; by noon it has grown quite cold; at this time, therefore, they water their gardens. As the afternoon advances the coldness goes off, till, about sunset, the water is once more lukewarm; still the heat increases, and at midnight it boils furiously. After this time it again begins to cool, and grows less and less hot till morning comes. This spring is called "the Fountain of the Sun." Next to the Ammonians, at the distance of ten days' journey along the ridge of sand, there is a second salt-hill like the Ammonian, and a second spring. The country round is inhabited, and the place bears the name of Augila. Hither it is that the Nasamonians come to gather in the dates.

Ten days' journey from Augila there is again a salt-hill and a spring; palms of the fruitful kind grow here abundantly, as they do also at the other salt-hills. This region is inhabited by a nation called the Garamantians, a very powerful people, who cover the salt with mold, and then sow their crops. From thence is the shortest road to the Lutophagi, a journey of thirty days. In the Garamantian country are found the oxen which, as they graze, walk backwards. This they do because their horns curve outwards in front of their heads, so that it is not possible for them when grazing to move forwards, since in that case their horns would become fixed in the ground. Only herein do they differ from other oxen, and further in the thickness and hardness of their hides. The Garamantians have four-horse chariots, in which they chase the Troglodyte Ethiopians, who of all the nations whereof any account has reached our ears are by far the swiftest of foot. The Troglodytes feed on serpents, lizards, and other similar reptiles. Their language is unlike that of any other people; it sounds like the screeching of bats.

At the distance of ten days' journey from the Garamantians there is again another salt-hill and spring of water; around which dwell a people, called the Atarantians, who alone of all known nations are destitute of names. The title of Atarantians is borne by the whole race in common; but the men have no particular names of their own. The Atarantians, when the sun rises high in the heaven, curse him, and load him with reproaches, because (they say) he burns and wastes both their country and themselves. Once more at the distance of ten days' there is a salt-hill, a spring, and an inhabited tract. Near the salt is a mountain called Atlas, very taper and round; so lofty, moreover, that the top (it is said) cannot be seen, the clouds never quitting it either summer or winter. The natives call this mountain "the Pillar of Heaven"; and they themselves take their name from it, being called Atlantes. They are reported not to eat any living thing, and never to have any dreams.

As far as the Atlantes the names of the nations inhabiting the sandy ridge are known to me; but beyond them my knowledge fails. The ridge itself extends as far as the Pillars of Hercules, and even further than these; and throughout the whole distance, at the end of every ten days' there is a salt-mine, with people dwelling round it who all of them build their houses with blocks of the salt. No rain falls in these parts of Libya; if it were otherwise, the walls of these houses could not stand. The salt quarried is of two colors, white and purple. Beyond the ridge, southwards, in the direction of the interior, the country is a desert, with no springs, no beasts, no rain, no wood, and altogether destitute of moisture.

Thus from Egypt as far as Lake Tritonis Libya is inhabited by wandering tribes, whose drink is milk and their food the flesh of animals. Cow's flesh, however, none of these tribes ever taste, but abstain from it for the same reason as the Egyptians, neither do they any of them breed swine. Even at Cyrene, the women think it wrong to eat the flesh of the cow, honoring in this Isis, the Egyptian goddess, whom they worship both with fasts and festivals. The Barcaean women abstain, not from cow's flesh only, but also from the flesh of swine. West of Lake Tritonis the Libyans are no longer wanderers, nor do they practice the same customs as the wandering people, or treat their children in the same way. For the wandering Libyans, many of them at any rate, if not all---concerning which I cannot speak with certainty---when their children come to the age of four years, burn the veins at the top of their heads with a flock from the fleece of a sheep: others burn the veins about the temples. This they do to prevent them from being plagued in their after lives by a flow of rheum from the head; and such they declare is the reason why they are so much more healthy than other men. Certainly the Libyans are the healthiest men that I know; but whether this is what makes them so, or not, I cannot positively say---the healthiest certainly they are. If when the children are being burnt convulsions come on, there is a remedy of which they have made discovery. It is to sprinkle goat's water upon the child, who thus treated, is sure to recover. In all this I only repeat what is said by the Libyans.

The rites which the wandering Libyans use in sacrificing are the following. They begin with the ear of the victim, which they cut off and throw over their house: this done, they kill the animal by twisting the neck. They sacrifice to the Sun and Moon, but not to any other god. This worship is common to all the Libyans. The inhabitants of the parts about Lake Tritonis worship in addition Triton, Neptune, and Minerva, the last especially. The dress wherewith Minerva's statues are adorned, and her Aegis, were derived by the Greeks from the women of Libya. For, except that the garments of the Libyan women are of leather, and their fringes made of leathern thongs instead of serpents, in all else the dress of both is exactly alike. The name too itself shows that the mode of dressing the Pallas-statues came from Libya. For the Libyan women wear over their dress stripped of the hair, fringed at their edges, and colored with vermilion; and from these goat-skins the Greeks get their word Aegis (goat-harness). I think for my part that the loud cries uttered in our sacred rites came also from thence; for the Libyan women are greatly given to such cries and utter them very sweetly. Likewise the Greeks learnt from the Libyans to yoke four horses to a chariot.

All the wandering tribes bury their dead according to the fashion of the Greeks, except the Nasamonians. They bury them sitting, and are right careful when the sick man is at the point of giving up the ghost, to make him sit and not let him die lying down. The dwellings of these people are made of the stems of the asphodel, and of rushes wattled together. They can be carried from place to place. Such are the customs of the afore-mentioned tribes.

Westward of the river Triton and adjoining upon the Auseans, are other Libyans who till the ground, and live in houses: these people are named the Maxyans. They let the hair grow long on the right side of their heads, and shave it close on the left; they besmear their bodies with red paint; and they say that they are descended from the men of Troy. Their country and the remainder of Libya towards the west is far fuller of wild beasts and of wood than the country of the wandering people. For the eastern side of Libya, where the wanderers dwell, is low and sandy, as far as the river Triton; but westward of that the land of the husbandmen is very hilly, and abounds with forests and wild beasts. For this is the tract in which the huge serpents are found, and the lions, the elephants, the bears, the aspics, and the horned asses. Here too are the dog-faced creatures, and the creatures without heads, whom the Libyans declare to have their eyes in their breasts; and also the wild men, and wild women, and many other far less fabulous beasts.

Among the wanderers are none of these, but quite other animals; as antelopes, gazelles, buffaloes, and asses, not of the horned sort, but of a kind which does not need to drink; also oryxes, whose horns are used for the curved sides of citherns, and whose size is about that of the ox; foxes, hyaenas porcupines, wild rams, dictyes, jackals, panthers, boryes, land-crocodiles about three cubits in length, very like lizards, ostriches, and little snakes, each with a single horn. All these animals are found here, and likewise those belonging to other countries, except the stag and the wild boar; but neither stag nor wild-boar are found in any part of Libya. There are, however, three sorts of mice in these parts; the first are called two-footed; the next, zegeries, which is a Libyan word meaning "hills"; and the third, urchins. Weasels also are found in the Silphium region, much like the Tartessian. So many, therefore, are the animals belonging to the land of the wandering Libyans, in so far at least as my researches have been able to reach.

Next to the Maxyan Libyans are the Zavecians, whose wives drive their chariots to battle. On them border the Gyzantians; in whose country a vast deal of honey is made by bees; very much more, however, by the skill of men. The people all paint themselves red, and eat monkeys, whereof there is inexhaustible store in the hills. Off their coast, as the Carthaginians report, lies an island, by name Cyraunis, the length of which is two hundred furlongs, its breadth not great, and which is soon reached from the mainland. Vines and olive trees cover the whole of it, and there is in the island a lake, from which the young maidens of the country draw up gold-dust, by dipping into the mud birds' feathers smeared with pitch. If this be true, I know not; I but write what is said. It may be even so, however; since I myself have seen pitch drawn up out of the water from a lake in Zacynthus. At the place I speak of there are a number of lakes; but one is larger than the rest, being seventy feet every way, and two fathoms in depth. Here they let down a pole into the water, with a bunch of myrtle tied to one end, and when they raise it again, there is pitch sticking to the myrtle, which in smell is like to bitumen, but in all else is better than the pitch of Pieria. This they pour into a trench dug by the lake's side; and when a good deal has thus been got together, they draw it off and put it up in jars. Whatever falls into the lake passes underground, and comes up in the sea, which is no less than four furlongs distant. So then what is said of the island off the Libyan coast is not without likelihood.

The Carthaginians also relate the following: There is a country in Libya, and a nation, beyond the Pillars of Hercules, which they are wont to visit, where they no sooner arrive but forthwith they unlade their wares, and, having disposed them after an orderly fashion along the beach, leave them, and, returning aboard their ships, raise a great smoke. The natives, when they see the smoke, come down to the shore, and, laying out to view so much gold as they think the worth of the wares, withdraw to a distance. The Carthaginians upon this come ashore and look. If they think the gold enough, they take it and go their way; but if it does not seem to them sufficient, they go aboard ship once more, and wait patiently. Then the others approach and add to their gold, till the Carthaginians are content. Neither party deals unfairly by the other: for they themselves never touch the gold till it comes up to the worth of their goods, nor do the natives ever carry off the goods till the gold is taken away.

These be the Libyan tribes whereof I am able to give the names; and most of these cared little then, and indeed care little now, for the king of the Medes. One thing more also I can add concerning this region, namely, that, so far as our knowledge reaches, four nations, and no more, inhabit it; and two of these nations are indigenous, while two are not. The two indigenous are the Libyans and Ethiopians, who dwell respectively in the north and the south of Libya. The Phoenicians and the Greek are in-comers. It seems to me that Libya is not to compare for goodness of soil with either Asia or Europe, except the Cinyps region, which is named after the river that waters it. This piece of land is equal to any country in the world for cereal crops, and is in nothing like the rest of Libya. For the soil here is black, and springs of water abound; so that there is nothing to fear from drought; nor do heavy rains (and it rains in that part of Libya) do any harm when they soak the ground. The returns of the harvest come up to the measure which prevails in Babylonia. The soil is likewise good in the country of the Euesperites; for there the land brings forth in the best years a hundred-fold. But the Cinyps region yields three hundred-fold.

The country of the Cyrenaeans, which is the highest tract within the part of Libya inhabited by the wandering tribes, has three seasons that deserve remark. First the crops along the sea-coast begin to ripen, and are ready for the harvest and the vintage; after they have been gathered in, the crops of the middle tract above the coast region (the hill-country, as they call it) need harvesting; while about the time when this middle crop is housed, the fruits ripen and are fit for cutting in the highest tract of all. So that the produce of the first tract has been all eaten and drunk by the time that the last harvest comes in. And the harvest-time of the Cyrenaeans continues thus for eight full months. So much concerning these matters.

Strabo: Geography, c. 22 A.D.,

The writers who have divided the habitable world according to continents divide it unequally. Africa wants so much of being a third part of the habitable world that, even if it were united to Europe, it would not be equal to Asia; perhaps it is even less than Europe; in resources it is very much inferior, for a great part of the inland and maritime country is desert. It is spotted over with small habitable parts, which are scattered about, and mostly belonging to nomad tribes. Besides the desert state of the country, its being a nursery of wild beasts is a hindrance to settlement in parts which could be inhabited. It comprises also a large part of the torrid zone. All the sea coast in our quarter, situated between the Nile and the Pillars (of Hercules), particularly that which belonged to the Carthaginians, is fertile and inhabited. And even in this tract, some spots destitute of water intervene, as those about the Syrtes, the Marmaridae, and the Catabathmus.

The shape of Africa is that of a right-angled triangle, if we imagine its figure to be drawn on a plane surface. Its base is the coast opposite to us, extending from Egypt and the Nile to Mauretania and the Pillars; at right angles to this is a side formed by the Nile to Ethiopia, which side we continue to the ocean; the hypotenuse of the right angle is the whole tract of sea-coast lying between Ethiopia and Mauretania. . . .Here dwell a people called by the Greeks Maurusii, and by the Romans and the natives Mauretanii, a populous and flourishing African nation, situated opposite to Spain, on the other side of the strait, at the Pillars of Hercules, which we have frequently mentioned before. On proceeding beyond the strait at the Pillars, with Africa on the left hand, we come to a mountain which the Greeks call Atlas, and the barbarians Dyris. Thence projects into the sea a point formed by the foot of the mountain towards the west of Mauretania, and called the Coteis [modern Cape Espartel]. Near it is a small town, a little above the sea, which the barbarians call "Trinx"; Artemidorus, "Lynx"; and Eratosthenes, "Lixus" [modern Tangiers]. It lies on the side of the strait opposite to Gades [modern Cádiz], from which it is separated by a passage of 800 stadia, the width of the strait at the Pillars between both places. To the south, near Lixus and the Coteis, is a bay called Emporicus [situated between modern Salee and el-Harâch], having upon it Phoenician mercantile settlements. The whole coast continuous with this bay abounds with them. Subtracting these bays, and the projections of land in the triangular figure which I have described, the continent may rather be considered as increasing in magnitude in the direction of south and east. The mountain which extends through the middle of Mauretania, from the Coteis to the Syrtes, is itself inhabited, as well as others running parallel to it, first by the Mauretanii, but deep in the interior of the country by the largest of the African tribes, called Gaetuli.

Historians, beginning with the voyage of Ophelas (Apellas?), have invented a great number of fables respecting the sea-coast of Africa beyond the Pillars. We have mentioned them before, and mention them now, requesting our readers to pardon the introduction of marvelous stories, whenever we may be compelled to relate anything of the kind, being unwilling to pass them over entirely in silence, and so in a manner to mutilate our account of the country. It is said that the Sinus Emporicus (or merchants' bay) was a cave which admits the sea at high tide to the distance even of seven stadia, and in front of this bay was a low and level tract with an altar of Hercules upon it, which, they say, is not covered by the tide. This I, of course, consider to be one of the fictitious stories. Like this is the tale that on other bays in the succeeding coast there were ancient settlements of Tyrians, now abandoned, which consisted of not less than three hundred cities, and were destroyed by the Pharusii and the Nigritae. These people, they say, are distant thirty days' journey from Lixus.

Writers in general are agreed that Mauretania is a fertile country, except a small part which is desert, and is supplied with water by rivers and lakes. It has forests of trees of vast size, and the soil produces everything. It is this country which furnishes the Romans with tables formed of one piece of wood, of the largest dimensions, and most beautifully variegated. The rivers are said to contain crocodiles and other kinds of animals similar to those in the Nile. Some suppose that even the sources of the Nile are near the extremities of Mauretania. In a certain river leeches are bred seven cubits in length, with gills, pierced through with holes, through which they respire. This country is also said to produce a vine, the girth of which two men can scarcely compass, and bearing bunches of grapes of about a cubit in size. All plants and pot-herbs are tall, as the arum and dracontium [snake-weed]; the stalks of the staphylinus [parsnip?], the hippomarathum [fennel], and the scolymus [artichoke] are twelve cubits in height, and four palms in thickness. The country is the fruitful nurse of large serpents, elephants, antelopes, buffaloes, and similar animals; of lions also and panthers. It produces weasels (jerboas?) equal in size and similar to cats, except that their noses are more prominent, and multitudes of apes, of which Poseidonius relates that when he was sailing from Gades to Italy, and approached the coast of Africa, he saw a forest low upon the sea-shore full of these animals, some on the trees, others on the ground, and some giving suck to their young. He was amused also with seeing some with large dugs, some bald, others with ruptures and exhibiting to view various effects of disease.

Above Mauretania, on the exterior sea (the Atlantic), is the country of the western Ethiopians, as they are called, which for the most part is badly inhabited. Iphicrates says that camel-leopards are bred here, and elephants, and the animals called rhizeis [the rhinoceros], which in shape are like bulls, but in manner of living, in size, and strength in fighting resemble elephants He speaks also of large serpents, and says that even grass grows upon their backs; that lions attack the young of the elephants and that when they have wounded them, they fly on the approach of the dams; that the latter, when they see their young besmeared with blood, kill them; and that the lions return to the dead bodies, and devour them; that Bogus king of the Mauretanii, during his expedition against the western Ethiopians, sent, as a present to his wife, canes similar to the Indian canes, each joint of which contained eight choenices [about six quarts], and asparagus of similar magnitude.

On sailing into the interior sea, from Lynx, there are Zelis [modern Arzila], a city, and Tingis [modern Tangiers], then the monuments of the Seven Brothers [the Septem-Fratres of Pliny], and the mountain lying below, of the name of Abyle [modern Jebel-el-Mina or Ximiera, near Ceuta], abounding with wild animals and trees of a great size. They say that the length of the strait at the pillars is 120 stadia, and the least breadth at Elephas [Gibraltar] 60 stadia. On sailing further along the coast, we find cities and many rivers, as far as the river Molochath [the modern Moulouya], which is the boundary between the territories of the Mauretanii and of the Masaesyli. Near the river is a large promontory, and Metagonium [modern Mostaganem in Algeria], a place without water and barren. The mountain extends along the coast, from the Coteis nearly to this place. Its length from the Coteis to the borders of the Masaesylii is 5000 stadia. Metagonium is nearly opposite to Nova Carthago [modern Cartagena]. Timosthenes is mistaken in saying that it is opposite to Massillia [modern Marseilles]. The passage across from Novo Carthago to Metagonium is 3000 stadia, but the voyage along the coast to Massillia is above 6000 stadia.

Although the Mauretanii inhabit a country, the greatest part of which is very fertile, yet the people in general continue even to this time to live like nomads. They bestow care to improve their looks by plaiting their hair, trimming their beards, by wearing golden ornaments, cleaning their teeth, and paring their nails; and you would rarely see them touch one another as they walk, lest they should disturb the arrangement of their hair. They fight for the most part on horseback, with a javelin; and ride on the bareback of the horse, with bridles made of rushes. They have also swords. The foot soldiers present against the enemy, as shields, the skins of elephants. They wear the skins of lions, panthers, and bears, and sleep in them. These tribes, and the Masaesylii next to them, and for the most part the Africans in general, wear the same dress and arms, and resemble one another in other respects; they ride horses which are small, but spirited and tractable, so as to be guided by a switch. They have collars made of cotton or of hair, from which hangs a leading-rein. Some follow, like dogs, without being led. They have a small shield of leather, and small lances with broad heads. Their tunics are loose, with wide borders; their cloak is a skin, as I have said before, which serves also as a breastplate.

The Pharusii and Nigrites, who live above these people, near the western Ethiopians, use bows and arrows, like the Ethiopians. They have chariots also, armed with scythes. The Pharusii rarely have any intercourse with the Mauretanii in passing through the desert country, as they carry skins filled with water, fastened under the bellies of their horses. Sometimes, indeed, they come to Cirta [modern Constantine], passing through places abounding with marshes and lakes. Some of them are said to live like the Troglodytae, in caves dug in the ground. It is said that rain falls there frequently in summer, but that during the winter drought prevails. Some of the barbarians in that quarter wear the skins of serpents and fishes, and use them as coverings for their beds. Some say that the Mauretanii are Indians, who accompanied Hercules hither. A little before my time, the kings Bogus and Bocchus, allies of the Romans, possessed this country; after their death, Juba succeeded to the kingdom, having received it from Augustus Caesar, in addition to his paternal dominions. He was the son of Juba who fought, in conjunction with Scipio, against divine Caesar. Juba died lately, and was succeeded by his son Ptolemy, whose mother was the daughter of Antony and Cleopatra.

Next to Mauretania is the country of the Masaesylii, beginning from the river Molocath, and ending at the promontory which is called Tretum [modern Ebba-Ras], the boundary of the country of the Masaesylii and of the Masylies. From Metagonium to Tretum are 6000 stadia; according to others, the distance is less. Upon the sea-coast are many cities and rivers, and a country which is very fertile. It will be sufficient to mention the most renowned. The city of Siga [probably modern Tafna], the royal seat of Syphax, is at the distance of 1000 stadia from the above-mentioned boundaries. It is now razed. After Syphax, the country was in the possession of Masanasses, then of Micipsa, next of his successors, and in our time of Juba, the father of the Juba who died lately. Zama, which was Juba's palace, was destroyed by the Romans. At the distance of 600 stadia from Siga is Theon-limen (port of the gods); next are some other obscure places. Deep in the interior of the country are mountainous and desert tracts scattered here and there, some of which are inhabited and occupied by Gaetuli extending to the Syrtes. But the parts near the sea are fertile plains, in which are numerous cities, rivers, and lakes.

Poseidonius says, but I do not know whether truly, that Africa is traversed by few, and those small rivers; yet he speaks of the same rivers, namely those between Lynx and Carthage, which Artemidorus describes as numerous and large. This may be asserted with more truth of the interior of the country, and he himself assigns the reason of it, namely, that in the northern parts of Africa (and the same is said of Ethiopia) there is no rain; in consequence therefore of the drought, pestilence frequently ensues, the lakes are filled with mud only, and locusts appear in clouds. . . .

Somewhere there, also, are copper mines; and a spring of asphalt; scorpions of enormous size, both with and without wings, are said to be found there, as well as tarantulas, remarkable for their size and numbers. Lizards also are mentioned of two cubits in length. At the base of the mountains precious stones are said to be found, as those called Lychnitis (the ruby) and the Carchedonius (the carbuncle?). In the plains are found great quantities of oyster and mussel shells. There is also a tree called melilotus, from which a wine is made. Some obtain two crops from the ground and have two harvests, one in the spring, the other in the summer. The straw is five cubits in height, and of the thickness of a little finger; the produce is 250-fold. They do not sow in the spring, but bush-harrow the ground with bundles of the paliurus, and find the seed-grain sufficient which falls from the sheaves during harvest to produce the summer crop.

Procopius of Caesarea: History of the Wars, c. 550 CE

Books III.xxv.3-9;, vii.3, xi.16-20, xiii.26-29

For all those who ruled over the Mauretanii in Mauretania and Numidia and Byzacium sent envoys to Belisarius saying that they were slaves of the emperor and promised to fight with him. There were some also who even furnished their children as hostages and requested that the symbols of office be sent with them from him according to the ancient custom. For it was a law among the Mauretanii that no one should be a ruler over them, even if he was hostile to the Romans, until the emperor of the Romans should give him the tokens of the office. And though they had already received them from the Vandals, they did not consider that the Vandals held the office securely. Now these symbols are a staff of silver covered with gold, and a silver cap---not covering the whole head, but like a crown and held in place on all sides by bands of silver---a kind of white cloak gathered by a golden brooch on the right shoulder in the form of a Thessalian cape, and a white tunic with embroidery, and a gilded boot. And Belisarius sent these things to them, and presented each one of them with much money. However, they did not come to fight along with him, nor, on the other hand, did they dare give their support to the Vandals, but standing out of the way of both contestants, they waited to see what would be the outcome of the war. . . .

The Mauretanii live in stuffy huts both in winter and in summer and at every other time, never removing from them either because of snow or the heat of the sun or any other discomfort whatever due to nature. And they sleep on the ground, the prosperous among them, if it should so happen, spreading a fleece under themselves. Moreover, it is not customary among them to change their clothing with the seasons, but they wear a thick cloak and a rough shirt at all times. And they have neither bread nor wine nor any other good thing, but they take grain, either wheat or barley, and, without boiling it or grinding it to flour or barley-meal, they eat it in a manner not a whit different from that of animals. . . .A certain Mauretanian woman had managed somehow to crush a little grain, and making of it a very tiny cake, threw it into the hot ashes on the hearth. For thus it is the custom among the Mauretanii to bake their loaves. . . .

Now there are lofty mountains there, and a level space near the foothills of the mountains, where the Mauretanii had made preparations for the battle and arranged their fighting order as follows. They formed a circle of their camels, just as, in the previous narrative, I have said Cabaon did, making the front about twelve deep. And they placed the women with the children within the circle; for among the Mauretanii it is customary to take also a few women, with their children, to battle, and these make the stockades and huts for them and tend the horses skillfully, and have charge of the camels and the food; they also sharpen the iron weapons and take upon themselves many of the tasks in connection with the preparation for battle; and the men themselves took their stand on foot in between the legs of the camels, having shields and swords and small spears which they are accustomed to hurl like javelins. And some of them with their horses remained quietly among the mountains. . . .

And there are fortresses also on the mountain [called "Clypea" by the Romans], which are neglected, by reason of the fact that they do not seem necessary to the inhabitants. For since the time when the Mauretanii wrested Aurasium from the Vandals, not a single enemy had until now ever come there or so much as caused the barbarians to be afraid that they would come, but even the populous city of Tamougadis [Timgad], situated against the mountain on the east at the beginning of the plain, was emptied of its population by the Mauretanii and razed to the ground, in order that the enemy should not only not be able to camp there, but should not even have the city as an excuse for coming near the mountains. And the Mauretanii of that place held also the land to the west of Aurasium, a tract both extensive and fertile. And beyond these dwelt other nations of the Mauretanii, who were ruled by Ortaïas, who had come, as was stated above, as an ally of Solomon and the Romans. And I have heard this man say that beyond the country which he ruled there was no habitation of men, but desert land extending to a great distance, and that beyond that there are men, not black-skinned like the Mauretanii, but very white in body and fair-haired.




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. 279-284

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), II.201-203, 257-259, 265, 295-297, 321-323.

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

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