Pliny the Elder

Natural History

Book V

The Continent of Africa

[Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) was a Roman historian and scientist who held a number of offices in Gaul, Africa, and Spain. His only surviving work, the Natural History, is a compilation of natural and scientific knowledge taken from ancient and contemporary sources. True to his curiosity and self-calling as scientist, Pliny died in AD 79, asphyxiated by the sulpherous fumes after getting too close to the eruption of Vesuvius.]

Africa and the two Mauretanias

      1. Africa was called Libya by the Greeks, and the sea in front of it the Libyan Sea; it shares a boundary with Egypt. No other part of the world has fewer bays, and the coast stretches obliquely from the west. The names of its peoples and towns are completely unpronounceable except by the natives.

      2. To begin with there are the two countries called Mauretania, which were kingdoms until the time of the emperor Caligula, but, thanks to his cruelty, were divided into provinces. Beyond the Pillars of Hercules there used to be the towns of Lissa and Conte, but now there is only Tingi, originally founded by Antaeus and afterwards named Traducta Julia by the Emperor Claudius when he established a colony there. Sicty-two miles from Tingi is Lixus, made a colony by the same emperor, a town about which writers of old recount very many legends.

      3. This was the site of Antaeus' palace, where the struggle with Hercules took place, and the location of the Gardens of the Hesperides. A channel flows inland from the sea with a wandering course that, as people nowadays explain, looks like a snake guarding the place. It encompasses an island that is the only part not flooded by the tides, even though the neighbouring area is higher. On this island there is also an altar of Hercules, but nothing else, except wild olive trees, remains of that famous grove which, according to the legend, bore golden apples.

      4. No doubt the outregeously false Greek stories about these snakes and the River Lixus occasion less wonder to people who reflect that we, not very long ago, have recorded stories about them that are little less fantastic. Acocrding to these accounts, the city of Lixus is very powerful and greater than Great Carthage, and moreover is on the same meridian as Carthage, and almost immeasurable distance from Tingi. All this, and more, Cornelius Nepos believed with very great relish.

Mount Atlas

      6. Mount Atlas has attracted more legends than any other mountain in Africa. Men report that it rises out of the middle of the sands into the sky, rugged and jagged on the side facing the coastline of the ocean to which it has given its name, while on the side facing the hinterland of Africa it is shaded by woods and irrigated by gushing springs. Fruits of all kinds grow spontaneously there in such profusion that pleasure is always satisfied.

      7. It is said that not a single inhabitant is seen during the day and everything is quiet with a chilling silence like that of the desert; an apprehensiveness that renders one speechless steals over those who approach the mountain, and similarly a fear of the peak soaring above the clouds and reaching almost to the moon. At night Atlas flashes with many fires, so men say, and is filled with the wanton frolics of the Goat-Pans and Satyrs and resounds with the music of flutes, pipes, drums and cymbals. Famous authors have published these stories in addition to the exploits of Hercules and Perseus that took place there. Mount Atlas is a tremendous distance away and approached across uncharted terrrain.

The exploration of Africa

      8. Some notes have survived by the Carthaginian commander Hanno, who, in the heyday of Carthage, was ordered to circumnavigate Africa. The majority of Greek and Roman writers follow Hanno both in their legendary stories and in their accounts of the many settlements founded by him in Africa; neither memory nor trace of these settlements now exists.

      9-10. While Scipio Aemilianus was commander in Africa, the historian Polybius was given a fleet to explore that part of the world. Sailing around the coast, Polybius reported that west of Mount Atlas there are forests full of the wild animals that Africa produces. In the River Bambolus there are many crocodiles and hippopotamuses.

      11. The first time Roman forces fought in Mauretania was during the principate of Claudius. King Ptolemy had been put to death by Caligula and his freedman Aedemon was seeking to avenge him; it is generally accepted that our soldiers went as far as Mount Atlas, and at this point the natives fled.

      12. There are five Roman colonies in that province. According to widespread reports it might seem to be an accessible region; but, put to the test, this view is found to be almost completely fallacious; persons of rank, although unwilling to track down the truth, are not ashamed to tell falsehoods because they cannot bear to admit their ignorance. Credibility never more readily falls flat on its face than when an authority of weight supports a false assertion. As for myself, I am less surprised that certain matters are unknown to persons of the equestrian order--indeed some now enter the Senate--than that anything should be unknown to Luxury, which is a very great and influential power inasmuch as men scour forests for ivory and citrus-wood and all the rocks of Gaetulia for the murex and for purple.

      14. Suetonius Paulinus, consul in my time, was the first Roman commander actually to cross the Atlas Mountains, and he went some miles further. His estimate of their height agrees with that of other authorities, but he further adds that the lower slopes are filled with dense forests of tall trees of an unknown species: they have very tall trunks notable for their sheen and freedom from knots. Their leaves, like those of the cypress except for the heavy scent, are covered with a thin down, from which, with a suitable technique, clothing can be made just like that derived from the silkworm. The summit of Mount Atlas is covered with deep snow, even in summer.

      15. Suetonius Paulinus reached there in ten days, and travelled beyond to the River Ger, across deserts of black dust, with projecting rocks in some places that looked as if they had been burnt--a place uninhabitable because of the heat, although it was winter when he experienced it. The Canarii live in the neighbouring forests, which are full of every species of elephant and snake.


      33. The territory of Cyrene is considered good, to a depth of 15 miles from the coast, for even growing trees, but a further 15 miles inland, for growing only corn; then there is a strip 30 miles wide and 250 miles long, suitable only for silphium.

      34. Next after the Nasamones come the Asbytae and Macae; and beyond them, some twelve days' journey from the Greater Syrtes, are the Amantes. They are hemmed in by sand towards the west, but find water without difficulty in wells about 3 feet deep, since this place receives the overflow of water from Mauretania. The Amantes construct their houses of blocks of salt quarried out of their mountains like stone.

The interior of Africa

      44. The River Niger has the same nature as the Nile. It produces reeds, papyrus and the same animals, and rises at the same seasons. Some place the Atlas tribe in the middle of the desert and next to them the half-animal Goat-Pans, the Blemmyae, Gamphasantes, Satyrs and Strapfeet.

      45. The Atlas tribe is primitive and subhuman, if we believe what we hear; they do not call each other by names. When they observe the rising and setting sun they utter terrible curses against it, as the cause of disaster to themselves and their fields. Nor do they have dreams in their sleep like the rest of mankind. The Cave-dwellers hollow out caves which are their houses; their food is snake meat. They have no voice but make a shrill noise, thus lacking any communication by speech. The Garamantes do not marry but live promiscuously with their women. The Augilae worship only the gods of the lower world. The Gamphasantes wear no clothes, do not fight and do not associate with any foreigner.

      46. The Blemmyae are reported as being without heads; their mouth and eyes are attached to their chest. The Satyrs have no human characteristics except their shape. The form of the Goat-Pans is as commonly depicted. The Strapfeet are people with feet like thongs who naturally move by crawling. The Pharusi, formerly from Persia, are said to have been Hercules' companions on his journey to the Gardens of the Hesperides. I cannot think of any more to record about Africa.


      47-8. Asia is joined to Africa; the distance from the Canopic mouth of the Nile to the entrance of the Black Sea is given by Timosthenes as 2,638 miles. The inhabited country next to Africa is Egypt, which extends southwards into the interior, where the Ethiopians border it to the rear. Two branches of the Nile divide to the right and left, forming the boundaries of Lower Egypt: the Canopic mouth separates it from Africa, and the Pelusiac mouth separates it from Asia, with a space of 170 miles between the two. For this reason some authorities put Egypt among the islands because the Nile divides in such a way as to make a triangular shaped-area of land; consequently many have called Egypt after the Greek letter Delta.

      51. The sources of the Nile are uncertain, for it flows through burning deserts for a very great distance and is explored only by unarmed travellers, except in time of war; wars have brought all other countries to light. Its origin, as far as King Juba was able to discover, is in a mountain in Lower Mauretania, not far from the ocean; here it forms a stagnant lake named Nilides. Fish found in this are the alabeta, coracinus and silurus. A crocodile was brought from the lake by Juba to prove his theory and was placed as an offering in the temple of Isis at Caesarea, where it can be seen today. Moreover, it has been observed that the Nile rises when snow or rain in Mauretania floods it.

      53. The Nile separates Africa from Ethiopia, and, even though the river bank is not inhabited by humans, it is full of wild animals and large creatures and gives sustenance to forests. Where it cuts through the middle of Ethiopia it is called Astapus, which in the local language means 'water flowing from the shades'.

      54. From time to time the river is dashed against islands and spurred on by these obstructions until at last it is shut in by mountains; there its flow is faster than elsewhere and it is borne on rapidly to the place in Ethiopia known as Catadupi. Here, at the First Cataract, because of the crashing sound, it seems not to flow but to race between the rocks that stand in its way. Thereafter, it is gentle and the violence of its waters is broken and subdued; the river is also weary because of the distance it has travelled, and it discharges itself by its many mouths into the Mediterranean. However, when its volume is greatly increased, it spreads out for a certain number of days, flooding the whole of Egypt; in this way it fertilizes the land.

      55. People have advanced various explanations for the rising of the Nile, but the most likely are either the backflow caused by the Etesian winds which blow against the current of the river at that time of the year--the sea outside being driven into the mouths of the Nile--or the summer rains in Ethiopia, which are caused by the same winds bringing clouds there from the rest of the world.

      58. The Nile's increase is detected by wells that are marked with a scale. An average rise is 24 feet. A larger volume of water, by receding too slowly, stunts growth and detracts from the time available for sowing because the soil is wet, while a smaller volume does not irrigate everywhere and allows too little time because the soil is dry. The greatest rise to date was 27 feet when Claudius was emperor, the smallest, 71/2 feet in the year of the Battle of Pharsalus, as if the Nile were trying to avert the murder of Pompey by some portent. When the water has finished rising, the floodgates are opened and they release it. As each piece of land is freed from the onrush of water, it is sown. The Nile is the only river that does not give off vapours.

      59. Elephantis is an inhabited island some 4 miles below the Last Cataract and 16 miles above Syene. This is the limit of navigation in Egypt, some 585 miles from Alexandria. Elephantis is the place that Ethiopian ships make for, since they are collapsible and the crew carry them on their shoulders whenever they arrive at the cataracts.

      60. As well as other claims to glory in the past, Egypt had the distinction of having had 20,000 cities when Amasis was king and even today it has a very large number, but they are of no consequence.

      62. Alexandria, however, is justly worthy of praise; it was built by Alexander the Great on the Mediterranean coast 12 miles from the Canopic mouth towards Africa and next to Lake Mareotis. It was planned by the architect Dinochares, who was famous for a variety of talents. The town is 15 miles wide and, in plan, is the shape of a Macedonian soldier's cloak, with indents in its circumference and projecting comers on the right and left sides. A fifth of the site was set aside for the royal palace.

      Lake Mareotis, to the south of the city, sends traffic from the interior by means of a canal from the Canopic mouth of the Nile.

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