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Desert Legions: The Romans in Africa

The River Nile and a thirst for commerce and land led the armies of Rome deep into Africa. Raoul McLaughlin investigates.

The Roman Empire was just one of many powerful regimes of the classical era. Romans were aware of this fact and saw evidence of the wider world in busy urban centres, where Arabian incense was burnt at religious altars and Indian spices added to the flavour of the Mediterranean diet. Many wealthy Romans wore clothes of Chinese silk and purchased imports from Africa, including valuable ivory and ebony from Meroe. 

Like its northern neighbour Egypt, the Kingdom of Meroe had a long and complex history, which predated the Roman conquest of the Mediterranean by several centuries. The wealth and fertility of Meroe depended on the Nile, which flowed from sources deep within Africa. The White Nile emerges nearly 4,000 miles south of the Mediterranean coast and surges north to join with the soil-rich Blue Nile in the Sudan. From there it flows across a series of rapids, known as ‘cataracts’, before entering Egypt near the ancient frontier city of Syrene (modern Aswan). 

Meroe was part of the region known as Nubia, where the Nile flows through narrow gorges flanked by cliffs. The early Egyptians described Nubia as desolate, but it produced gold and its inhabitants brought African goods to the First Cataract, including ivory, leopard pelts, slaves, ebony and Somali incense. At the time of the pharaohs these territories were dominated by an African people called the Kush, who had their capital at Napata (northern Sudan). Most of the early history of Kushite civilisation is recorded in Egyptian hieroglyphics, but the Greeks also heard stories about them. They called the Kush ‘Aethiopia’, a name which the Romans adopted as ‘Ethiopia’.  

The Kushites were among the tallest peoples of the ancient world and their warriors were renowned for their strength, with their king chosen as the strongest among all contenders. They were described in Greek accounts as possessing remarkably slender bodies with an athletic physique and very dark skin. They served in the Egyptian army as specialist archers, as their height and strength allowed them to handle palm-wood bows, which were up to six feet long. They also carried spears and studded clubs carved from knotted wood. According to classical accounts, many warriors wore clothing fashioned from the skins of leopards and lions, giving them a distinctive appearance on the battlefield. They used red and white war paint and Herodotus describes their characteristic appearance, ‘painted half with gypsum and half with vermilion’. The historian Diodorus writes: 

When their arrows are exhausted they finish the fight with wooden clubs. They also arm their women. They set an age limit for female service and most of them observe the custom of wearing a bronze ring in their lip.

During the New Kingdom (1552-1070 BC) Egyptian pharaohs conquered Nubia as far south as the Fourth Cataract and imposed many of their own political structures and customs on Kushite society. The Kushite ruling class adopted Egyptian culture and, when the power of the pharaohs began to decline in the eighth century BC, they led their African armies north to take control of Egypt. The Kings of Kush established a dynasty of African pharaohs that ruled both kingdoms between 751 and 656 BC. 

After the Assyrians invaded Egypt in 671 BC, the Kush retreated back into Nubia. In 592 BC they moved their capital south to a site called Meroe, between the Fifth and Sixth Cataracts. There the Kush constructed sophisticated temple buildings and followed Egyptian burial practices, constructing steep stone pyramids for their royal dead. 

Funeral pyramids and temples from the Kingdom of Kush dating from 800 BC to AD 350 at Meroe, Sudan

When the Persian King Cambyses II conquered Egypt in 525 BC he sent spies south with gifts, offering friendship to King Amaninatakilebte of Meroe, who scorned all but the wine and accused the Persians of deceit. Herodotus describes how the king produced an enormous bow and said: 

When the Persians can string this bow, they can come against us. But come with many soldiers, for the Ethiopians do not die easily. Until then, the Persian King should thank the gods that we, sons of Ethiopia, do not covet lands that are not ours.

Despite this, Cambyses led an army south to attack Meroe, but the Persians were unprepared for the lengthy desert march and turned back when their supplies were exhausted. Nevertheless, part of northern Nubia appears to have been added to the Persian Empire, since King Darius (522-486 BC) received tribute from this region and soldiers were levied to fight for the Persians. Herodotus reports that when Xerxes invaded Greece in 480 BC a large contingent of African troops were present in his army. Herodotus visited Egypt in 450 BC and travelled south as far as Syrene and the island of Elephantine at the First Cataract, which may have got its name for its role in the ivory trade, or because the large boulders found on its shores resemble the hunched shapes of crouching elephants.

***

The Ptolemaic Cleopatra VII (r. 51-30 BC) was the last Greek ruler of Egypt. In the final civil war of the Roman Republic, she and the Roman general Mark Antony were defeated by Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who by 30 BC had annexed Egypt and established it as the richest and most productive province of the Roman Empire. In 27 BC Octavian became the first Emperor of Rome, taking the name ‘Augustus’.

Gaius Cornelius Gallus, a military colleague of Augustus, was appointed the province’s first governor. Of equestrian rank, Cornelius Gallus was also a poet much admired by Virgil and of whom Ovid predicted ‘literary fame extending as far as his military commands, but enduring longer’. When Gallus took office in Egypt he led Roman forces south to suppress a revolt in Syrene. During these operations he crossed the First Cataract and seized the island temple site of Philae in northern Nubia. The local ruler accepted Roman terms and representatives of King Teriteqas of Meroe arrived to meet Gallus. 

Marble head believed to be of Cornelius Gallus, governor of Egypt under Augustus, Greek c.30 BC
Marble head believed to be of Cornelius Gallus, governor of Egypt under Augustus, Greek c.30 BC

To celebrate his exploits Gallus had a trilingual inscription erected in Philae, with messages in Egyptian hieroglyphics, Latin and Greek. It records in Greek how Gallus received the title of proxenia (political associate) from the Meroitic ambassadors. In the Latin text, however, he claims to have accepted Meroe into Roman protection as a vassal state. Gallus continued to celebrate his exploits with grandiose monuments and Dio Cassius describes how ‘he set up images of himself practically everywhere in Egypt and inscribed a list of his achievements, even upon the very pyramids’. But after two years in office Gallus was accused of disrespect towards the emperor and, when Augustus renounced their friendship, Gallus was threatened with numerous private lawsuits. He committed suicide rather than forfeit his family estates. His death left any future settlement between Rome and Meroe undecided.

In 27 BC Augustus had three legions, approximately 15,000 troops, stationed in Egypt. However, many of these soldiers were transferred during the attempted Roman conquest of southern Arabia. This presented the rulers of Meroe with an opportunity to challenge Roman power in the region and in 25 BC they launched a large-scale military attack against southern Egypt. The Greek author Strabo reports that: ‘the Aethiopians were emboldened because part of the Roman force in Egypt had been taken away to wage war against the Arabians.’ 

There was a small Roman garrison of three cohorts, perhaps 1,500 troops, stationed at Elephantine Island to maintain order in nearby Syrene. Teriteqas led 30,000 warriors north to the First Cataract, where he attacked Philae. The Meroitic army overran Syrene and stormed the garrison on the island, destroying the symbols of Roman administration. Strabo, who was living in Alexandria, reports that the Africans ‘enslaved the inhabitants and tore down statues of Caesar Augustus’ before retreating south with Roman prisoners and thousands of Egyptian captives.

***

When the first reports of the attack reached Alexandria the acting governor, Petronius, set out for the Egyptian frontier with a retaliatory force of 10,000 infantry and 800 cavalry. By then the Meroitic army had withdrawn to the city of Pselchis (Dakka), 60 miles south of the First Cataract. Petronius pursued them, sending envoys to question why they had begun a war and demanding the return of the captives. But the envoys found that there was nobody in command of the Meroitic army.

Teriteqas had died suddenly, of sickness or injury, and Meroitic representatives told Petronius that the attack was in retaliation for abuses carried out by Egyptian nomarchs (administrators). They alleged that the officials had exceeded their established authority by enforcing unjust taxation. Petronius explained that the nomarchs were answerable to the Roman emperor and would be punished for their transgressions. The representatives asked for three days to deliberate, perhaps hoping that the royal family in Meroe would send instructions. But, when the time period lapsed without response, Petronius took the initiative and attacked Pselchis. 

Meroitic warriors had assembled at Pselchis, each carrying a large oblong shield made of raw ox hide and armed with an array of axes, pikes and swords. They outnumbered the Romans almost three to one, but Strabo reports that they were ‘poorly marshalled and badly armed’, compared with heavily armoured, well-drilled legionary ranks. The Meroitic forces were driven into retreat and fled into the city or to the desert. Some warriors escaped the battle by wading into the Nile at a fording point with few crocodiles and where the river current was weak. They re-assembled on a small island, but the Romans secured rafts and boats and crossed the river, taking them prisoner.

Petronius captured several African generals, who told him that a queen named Candace had assumed power in Meroe. Inscriptions from Meroe suggest that ‘Candace’ (Kdke) was a royal title and possibly signified ‘Queen Mother’, as it appears alongside the Meroitic word ‘Ruler’ (Qore). In this period a queen named Amanirenas is recorded as regent for a young prince named Akinidad, who resided in the former capital, Napata. Strabo describes her as ‘a masculine sort of woman who was blind in one eye’. Her ‘masculine character’ could refer to her physical height, or her commanding presence as a war leader.

Painted wooden model of Nubian soldiers found in an Egyptian tomb, Middle Kingdom, c.2100-1990 BC
Painted wooden model of Nubian soldiers found in an Egyptian tomb, Middle Kingdom, c.2100-1990 BC

When Petronius learned that the Egyptian captives had been taken to Napata, he began the march south into unknown terrain. The Roman troops struggled across large sand dunes as they marched along the banks of the Nubian Nile. Almost midway between the First and the Second Cataract they reached the fortified town of Premnis (Qasr Ibrim) on a cliff top overlooking the river. The Romans took the city with their first assault, then continued their march, seizing a succession of towns and expelling their Meroitic garrisons.

As the Roman army approached Napata, Amanirenas sent messengers asking for an end to hostilities and ‘offering to return the captives and the trophies taken from Syrene’. Petronius dismissed the opportunity to negotiate and immediately attacked the city. Akinidad escaped, but hundreds of the city’s inhabitants were seized for transportation to Egypt as slaves. 

By now the Romans had marched 870 miles south from Syrene, but were still more than 70 miles from the capital at Meroe. The African summer was approaching and Petronius could not be certain what terrain lay ahead. He, therefore, decided that he had inflicted sufficient reprisals and returned to Egypt. Strabo reports: 

When they had burned Napata to the ground and enslaved its inhabitants, Petronius returned with the plunder. He determined that the regions beyond would be difficult to traverse. 

Dio Cassius adds: 

Petronius was unable to advance farther on account of the sand and the heat. There was no advantage to be gained by remaining where he was with his entire force, so he withdrew, taking the greater part of the army with him. 

BC his return Petronius established a Roman garrison of 400 men on the cliff-top city of Premnis, leaving them with enough supplies for two years. The entire punitive military expedition was concluded in a matter of months. 

When Petronius returned to Alexandria he sent reports and war trophies to Rome, including a thousand African prisoners. Peace seemed secured with new territories added to the empire, but two years later, in 22 BC, Amanirenas led a large army north to the Second Cataract. She did not, however, attack the fortress at Premnis, which gave Petronius time to arrive with war machines and reinforcements. When Amanirenas learned that a senior Roman commander was present, she sent envoys to re-open negotiations. 

Amanirenas asked for a permanent peace settlement and requested more information about Rome. Petronius, perhaps mindful of the fate of Gallus, explained that her envoys would have to present their case directly to the emperor. The envoys ‘claimed they did not know who this “Caesar” was, or where they could find him’, so Petronius gave them escorts. At that time Augustus was on the Greek island of Samos, formulating a permanent settlement with the Parthian empire, and had just received ambassadors from India. The emperor treated the Meroitic envoys favourably and granted all of Amanirenas’ demands, including a Roman withdrawal from the Nubian territories claimed by Meroe. Strabo reports that: ‘When the ambassadors had obtained everything in their appeal, Augustus went further and remitted the tributes that he had imposed upon them.’ Perhaps Augustus had seized an opportunity to display his statesmanship, or perhaps he recognised that Nubia would be difficult to garrison. Good diplomatic relations with Meroe also had a financial benefit, since the Romans could collect lucrative customs taxes on goods that crossed from Nubia into Egypt. 

Detail of a Roman fresco from Pompeii, showing a Nilotic landscape with pygmies, first century AD.

By 20 BC Roman troops had left the Nubian town of Premnis and withdrawn 60 miles north to Hiera Sycaminos (Maharraqa). The Meroitic kingdom reclaimed supremacy over the region and became responsible for protecting the Nile route from hostile desert tribes. It was a peaceful re-occupation, but Meroitic warriors symbolically toppled and beheaded statues of the emperor in the reclaimed towns. One was placed beneath the threshold of a temple to the Meroitic god of victory. In 1910 a team of archaeologists from Liverpool University discovered the bronze head in the ruins of ancient Meroe. It is now in the British Museum and, although the bright metal surface has tarnished, the coloured glass eyes still stare out, vivid and clear. 

***

At a shrine just south of Meroe two large stone stelae were found by the same team, commemorating a military victory. Written in cursive Meroitic script, only the proper nouns can be deciphered. The panels commemorate the victory of Amanirenas and Akinidad over Arme (Rome). In 1911, when British archaeologists were excavating a nearby temple, they unearthed wall paintings showing foreign prisoners brought to Meroe. The site of these ancient paintings has been destroyed by floods, but watercolour copies made by visiting scholars confirm details of the scene. The images showed fair-haired, white-skinned captives dressed in tunic-like clothes, bound in chains and being made to kneel before a Meroitic deity. 

Between 1960 and 1970 the Aswan High Dam was built and the Nile valley between the First and Second Cataracts was flooded to create Lake Nasser. The cliff-top fortress at Premnis remained as an island and archaeologists have undertaken excavations at the site. Along with coins, lamps, papyri documents and scraps of clothing, they found thousands of stone ballistae that had been delivered for the fortress catapults in the time of Petronius. The most extraordinary find among the Roman debris was a fragment of papyrus scroll, which is one of the oldest surviving manuscripts written in Latin. It contains a few lines of verse copied from the writings of Cornelius Gallus, the disgraced governor of Egypt. This document represents almost all that is left of his once celebrated works and refers to Julius Caesar’s ambition to conquer Persia (44 BC). Cornelius Gallus writes:

My fortunes will be blessed, Caesar, when you dominate Roman history. When you return, I will admire the temples of many gods enriched with your trophies.

Julius Caesar was assassinated by his colleagues before he could undertake any further conquests and Cornelius Gallus was destined to suffer an ignominious death at his own hands. But some unknown soldier had carried those words as inspiration in the dry heat of ancient Premnis. 

Meroe, indeed all of Nubia, depended on the Nile and the flood created by its main tributaries. Yet no one knew where the Nile began, or how far it extended into Africa, a mystery that fascinated the Romans. As Pliny the Elder explains: ‘The sources for the Nile have not been ascertained. It flows through scorching deserts for an immensely long distance and it has only been explored by civilian investigators. We have discovered all other countries because of war.’ 

Roman accounts as to what might be found in central Africa were fanciful. There were tales of ‘flourishing forests filled with ebony trees’ and ‘a mountain called Chariot of the Gods which rises to great height and glows with eternal fires’ (probably the volcano at Erta Ale). Pliny repeated stories about ‘Pygmies who live among the marshes where the Nile rises’ and ‘Goat-Pans and Satyrs that dwell in shady thickets’ in the hills of Ethiopia.

By AD 60 the Emperor Nero and his advisers were searching for new forms of revenue to fund their spending plans. Territories in Africa seemed an attractive addition to the empire, as they offered abundant new sources of wealth and a route into unconquered regions. Nero decided to send an expedition to determine opportunities for a military venture in Africa and discover the source of the Nile. A party of explorers was recruited from the Praetorian Guard, under the command of senior centurions and a tribune. In AD 61 the group left Roman territory in Egypt and headed south to seek an audience with the king of Meroe, Amanikhabale. 

The Roman statesman Seneca, keen to ingratiate himself with Nero, wrote: 

I have myself heard from their own mouths the story told by the two officers sent to investigate the sources of the Nile by our good Emperor Nero, a ruler devoted to virtue in every form, but especially solicitous in the interests of truth. 

But Pliny hints at the true purpose of the mission when he writes:

An exploring party of Praetorian troops under the command of a tribune has been recently dispatched by the Emperor Nero. It seems that, among his other wars, he is actually contemplating an attack on Ethiopia.

Posing as diplomats and explorers, the Roman party took a note of distances and resources on an estimated 945-mile trek from Syrene to Meroe. The group had used Greek and Egyptian texts to assemble a list of about 25 urban centres on the Nubian Nile, but discovered that most of these had long been abandoned due to a deteriorating environment. They reported that ‘in present times hardly any of these sites still exist on either side of the river’. Examining the ruins more closely, the Romans realised that this decline had occurred many centuries before. Pliny thought that Nubia might have been decimated by ancient conflicts between African kings and Egyptian pharaohs. He argued that ‘it was not Rome that made this country a desert: Ethiopia was worn out by alternate periods of dominance and subjection in a series of wars with Egypt, having been a famous and powerful country even down to time of the Trojan Wars’ (ninth century BC). 

Beyond the Fourth and Fifth Cataract the explorers passed tree-lined islands in the Nile inhabited by parakeets, monkeys and baboons. The Nubian Desert ended near the outskirts of Meroe, where the land became fertile and forested. They noted that ‘greener herbage begins near the city and stretches of forest come into view where the tracks of rhinoceroses and elephants can be seen’. The Romans learned there were other towns in the region, connected by river tributaries and overland trails. 

At Meroe the Roman party was given an audience at the royal court and received approval for their mission to explore the southern reaches of the Nile. The king offered them support, including letters of recommendation to guarantee their safe passage through vassal states on the southern parts of his realm. He may have provided the Romans with guides and perhaps a military escort. Seneca reports that ‘the king supplied them with assistance and gave them letters of introduction to the neighbouring rulers. Then they set out on their long journey into the centre of Africa’.

From Meroe the Roman party travelled 600 miles up the White Nile, until they reached the swamp-like Sudd in what is now southern Sudan, a fetid wetland filled with ferns, papyrus reeds and thick mats of rotting vegetation. In the rainy season it covers an area larger than England, with a vast humid swamp teeming with mosquitoes and other insects. The only large animals in the Sudd were the crocodiles and hippos that occupied the muddy pools within its vast expanse. Those who entered this region had to endure severe heat and risk disease and starvation.

The Sudd was discovered to be too deep to be crossed safely on foot, but its waters were also too shallow to be explored any further by boat. The Romans ‘reached an area where the swamp could only bear a small boat containing one person’. At this point the party despaired of ever finding a definite source for the Nile and turned back reluctantly to report their findings to the emperor in Rome. They had probably reached a position nearly 1,500 miles south of the Roman-Egyptian border.

On their return to Italy, the explorers told Seneca: 

We came to great swamps, the borders of which even the natives did not know. We could not find the limits of this place. The river was completely entangled with vegetable growth, and the waters were impassable by foot because of the muddy overgrowth.  

***

The soldiers were questioned about the source of the Nile by Nero himself. They prudently told him: ‘We personally saw two rocks from which an immense quantity of water issued.’ Seneca was sceptical and, although he remained silent, he thought that this might be one of several rivers rising from some underground origin. From the reports given by the party, Roman cartographers prepared a diagram that outlined the main routes into sub-Saharan Africa. Pliny describes this object as ‘the schematic plan of Ethiopia recently presented to the Emperor Nero’. 

Despite these reports of deserts and swamps, Nero still had ambitions for an African conquest and sent imperial agents into the Meroitic kingdom to determine opportunities for further action. Dio Cassius explains that the emperor hoped that the region might ‘submit to him of their own accord’ through a process of increasing political contacts. But Nero’s spies reported that the ‘subjugation of these regions would demand extensive time and effort’. Meanwhile, the emperor had staged dramatic events in Rome, where he appeared surrounded entirely by African subjects. Dio Cassius describes how Nero arranged for the benefit of the visiting King of Armenia ‘a most brilliant and costly affair, when on a single day only Ethiopians – men, women, and children – were permitted into the theatre’. 

Preparations for war began when Nero transferred military units into Egypt, including the 15th Apollonian Legion and the newly raised Ala Siliana auxiliary unit. In AD 64 Nero exiled Caecina Tuscus, governor of Egypt, for daring to use the imperial bathhouse constructed for his arrival in Alexandria. Tacitus describes how Nero became obsessed with his ‘secret plans for eastern provinces, especially Egypt’ and on one occasion he notified the citizens in Rome that he was going away.

Nero’s departure was postponed after he was overcome with fear on a visit to the Temple of Vesta in Rome, where he began to tremble. Nero claimed that his presence was needed with his people. He might still have launched his African campaign, but in AD 66 Roman military attention became focused on a major Jewish revolt in the Near East. Nero was deposed and committed suicide in AD 68 and the empire descended into civil war with the ‘Year of the Four Emperors’. Roman ambitions to occupy and possess the wealth of distant African kingdoms remained unfulfilled.

Raoul McLaughlin is a tutor at Queen’s University, Belfast.

Desert Legions: The Romans in Africa

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