Monday 18 March 2024


Greco-Roman Acquaintance with African Ethiopians extract from BLACKS IN Antiquity Book by Frank M. Snowden, Jr.

The purpose of this post is to trace the manner in which Greeks and Romans widened their knowledge of African Ethiopians and to indicate the regions of Africa in which they located Ethiopians. It concludes with a brief consideration of the Ethiopians who lived south of Egypt because these Ethiopians, more than those of other regions of Africa, figured most prominently in Greco-Roman records and contributed significantly to the classical image of Ethiopians.

The earliest Greek poets mentioned Ethiopians. Their observations, however, as to the physical characteristics and provenience of these peoples were either sparse or vague. Beginning with the fifth century B.C., the Greek writers were more generous in providing anthropological and geographical details concerning African Ethiopians. Although as early as Herodotus Ethiopia was believed to be in the south and India in the farthest east, subsequently India and Ethiopia were at times confused in the minds of some, despite increased geographical knowledge. Yet it is often possible to determine whether a writer was referring to Ethiopians or Indians.

(1). The first Greek poet had heard of Ethiopians. Not only does Homer mention Ethiopians but he describes a well-known herald of Odysseus as black-skinned and woolly-haired. It is uncertain whether Homer's Ethiopians were African and whether Odysseus' herald was Ethiopian. According to the evidence, however, the former may have been African, and the latter, Ethiopian.

(2). Homer's Ethiopians are remote peoples, sundered in twain, the farther most men, some dwelling where the sun rises and others where it sets. Their home is by the streams of Ocean. Menelaus, having wandered over Cyprus, Phoenicia, and Egypt, visited other peoples, the first mentioned being the Ethiopians," and the routes by which he reached Ethiopia were discussed seriously by later writers.

(3). Although Homer says nothing of the physical characteristics of his Ethiopians, there is substantial reason to believe that by Homer's day the Greeks had heard of blacks, by direct or indirect accounts, and that the Ethiopians of his epics were black. 

(4). Eurybates, the herald of Odysseus, who had accompanied him from Ithaca to Troy, was black-skinned and woolly-haired. A black-skinned, woolly-haired individual, we have seen, was to the Greeks an Ethiopian. The only person so described in Homer, Eurybates was apparently well known. For it was in reply to Penelope's request for a description of the comrades accompanying her husband that the disguised Odysseus mentioned Eurybates. The mention of Eurybates was one of the sure tokens which Penelope recognized as proof of her husband.* Nor should it be overlooked that one of the Ithacan lords was named Aegyptius."

(5). Although the significance of Aegyptius should not be overemphasized in this case, it is perhaps not stretching the evidence too much to suggest, in the light of both Eurybates and Aegyptius, that the Ithacans had some special experience with or specific knowledge of both Ethiopians and Egyptians.

(6). After all, Homer had heard of pygmies, who also dwelt by the streams of Ocean, and before Homer's time black men depicted in Minoan and Pylos frescoes were known outside of Africa.

(7). Furthermore, among the names of individuals mentioned several times in the Pylos tablets was that of ai-ti-jo-qo (Aithiops). On the basis of the total evidence from this early period it is not possible to determine the precise meaning of ai-ti-jo-qo in the Pylos texts. Whether this personal name indicates a Negroid type from Africa or merely an individual of dark color, perhaps from Asia, is uncertain. At any rate, the possibility that the name indicated a Negro or Negroid type cannot be excluded and has been noted by Dihle."

(8). As to the location of the Homeric Ethiopians, the ancient evidence is not precise; and modern scholars differ. One view holds that the Homeric Ethiopians dwelling near the rising sun were Negroes who inhabited the regions near Egypt, while those in the vicinity of the setting sun dwelt near the Pillars of Hercules. Other scholars identify the eastern branch as Negroes of the Somali coast and the westerners as occupants of the Sudan whose land stretched westward ad infinitum from the Nile valley. Still another view places Homer's eastern Ethiopians near the Red Sea and the western branch not far west of the upper Nile.

(9). Hesiod (Hesiod was an ancient Greek poet generally thought to have been active between 750 and 650 BC, around the same time as Homer.) is the first to group Scythians with Ethiopians, peoples who later came to be cited frequently as examples of racial and geographical extremes-northerners and southerners. In this instance Hesiod does not describe his Ethiopians, but elsewhere he mentions a people and city of dark men." Though Eos and Tithonus, the parents of Memnon, according to early Greek poets, dwelt, like Homer's Ethiopians, by the streams of Ocean at the ends of the earth, there is no precision in these poets as to where Memnon lived.

(10). It should be noted that, according to Athenaeus, Archilochus mentioned an Aethiops of Corinth, who participated in the founding of Syracuse. Even if an Aethiops actually lived in Corinth at the period of the establishment of Syracuse (ca. 734 B.C.), we do not have sufficient evidence to know precisely what the word Aethiops meant at that time. We can say, however, that the physical characteristics of Eurybates as recorded by Homer and Hesiod's mention of dark men give some indications as to the possible meaning of Aethiops in the time of Archilochus. Whether Aethiops of Corinth was from the east or the west we do not know.

(11). Mimnermus (was a Greek elegiac poet from either Colophon or Smyrna in Ionia, who flourished about 632–629 BC.) locates his Ethiopians in the east, when he describes the sun as being carried from the country of the Hesperians to the land of the Ethiopians.

(12). Aeschylus is the first Greek to locate Ethiopians definitely in Africa. According to the prophecy of Prometheus, was to visit a distant country, and a black people, who lived by the waters of the sun, where the Ethiopian river flowed, and was to go to the cataract where the Nile sent forth its stream from the Bybline Mountains.

(13). It is not at all surprising that Aeschylus places Ethiopians in Africa. Ionian and Carian mercenaries served under Psammetichus (Psamtik) I (663-609 B.C.).

(14). By the sixth century B.C. Greeks were well established in Naucratis (  Naucratis or Naukratis was a city and trading-post in ancient Egypt, located on the Canopic branch of the Nile river, south-east of the Mediterranean sea and the city of Alexandria) Greek residents of this community were in a position to acquire a sound knowledge of the country and its peoples, and it was no doubt through Naucratis that the Greeks developed the interest in the Negro reflected in the art of the sixth century. Further, if a mold of a Negro found at Naucratis (Figs. 78a-b) dating from the fifth century B.C. is representative, Greeks in Egypt at that time were well acquainted with the pronounced Negroid type. It has also been suggested that the Busiris legend came into being in the sixth century, perhaps at Naucratis, and was transmitted by Greek traders or travelers. 

Amasis, according to J. Boardman, was perhaps a dusky-skinned metic, born in Egypt of a mother herself Egyptian and grew up in all likelihood at Naucratis. He may have been Negroid, as I have argued above. Greek mercenaries, perhaps Egyptian-born and children of the mercenaries who had served under the earlier Psammetichus, had been employed by Psammetichus II (594-588 B.C.) in his Nubian campaign; inscriptions at Abu Simbel record the participation of Greek mercenaries in the campaign; and, according to one modern view, Psammetichus II reached the Fourth Cataract.

(15). By the time of Aeschylus, therefore, sufficient time had elapsed to allow for reports based on recently acquired 'Greek knowledge of Ethiopians to circulate in Greece. Further, Aeschylus himself had fought in the Persian wars. Perhaps his interest in Ethiopia may have derived from experiences with Ethiopians in the army of Xerxes.

Xenophanes, when he described Ethiopians as black-faced and flat-nosed, was the first to apply to an Ethiopian a physical characteristic other than color.

(16). In this connection it is interesting to note that one of the Greek mercenaries in the army of Psammetichus II who left his name at Abu Simbel was, like Xenophanes, Colophonian.

(17). A likely source, therefore, for Xenophanes' anthropological details was the account of some Colophonian mercenary who, upon his return to Ionia, entertained his friends with stories of the black, flat-nosed Ethiopians whom he had encountered.

(18). The anthropological characteristics mentioned by Xenophanes and the geographical details provided by Aeschylus were apparently reflections of an increased knowledge of Ethiopia and Ethiopians. Fifth-century dramatists, for example, wrote plays involving Ethiopian myths, made references to Ethiopians, and included intriguing geographical details such as snows in the Upper Nile which fed the waters of the Nile.

(19). It is obvious that from the fifth century onwards Ethiopians were without question an African reality. For example, it is reasonable to assume that the dramatists had not only received reports from Greeks with Egyptian and Ethiopian experience but had perhaps seen Ethiopians in Athens, including some captives taken after the defeat of Xerxes.

Of the Greek writers who visited Africa Herodotus is the first to whom we can turn for a substantial account of Ethiopians. He ascended the Nile as far as Elephantine and supplemented his personal observations by interviews with others who knew Ethiopia. His geographical knowledge, like that of many writers who followed him, leaves much to be desired. His picture, however, of black peoples living in various parts of Africa was important for its influence in molding the Greek image of Ethiopians not only in his day but later.

Although Herodotus makes brief mention of Asiatic Ethiopians, it is clear that he was writing primarily about African Ethiopians, the most woolly-haired of all men.

(20). Whom, together with the Libyans of the north, he classified as aboriginals of Libya.

(21). Herodotus wrote most fully of the Ethiopians who lived south and southeast of Elephantine, where the area, he noted, began to be occupied by Ethiopians.

(22). The information which Herodotus gave concerning the Ethiopians south of Elephantine includes the following:

(1). The capital of all Ethiopia was the great city of Meroë, situated at a distance of approximately two months' journey from Elephantine, the center of an established religion, which despatched its armies in obedience to its gods;

(2). Along the Nile about a two months' journey southwest of Meroë lived Ethiopians influenced by the customs and manners of the 240,000 Egyptian deserters, called Asmach, who had migrated and settled in the region in the reign of Psammetichus I;

(3). The Macrobian Ethiopians, the tallest and most handsome men on earth who chose the tallest as kings, against whom Cambyses made an expedition, dwelt on the sea to the south and lived at the extremity of the world; and 

(4). Cave-dwelling Ethiopians, the swiftest of men, whose diet included snakes and lizards and whose language resembled the squeaking of bats and was unlike any other in the world, lived south of the Garamantes.

(23). Herodotus reported the presence of Ethiopians elsewhere in Africa. Although the precise area is by no means clear, his account of small black men visited by the Nasamones refers to a region across the desert in central Africa, in the judgment of some.

(24). The little men who covered themselves with palm-leaf raiment, reported by Herodotus as seen by the Persian Sataspes (ca. 485- 464 B.C.) during a voyage down the west coast of Africa, have been interpreted as Negro tribes living in Senegal or perhaps Guinea.

(25). In short, Herodotus, in spite of an annoying geographical imprecision, preserves accounts of Ethiopians living in various regions south of Egypt and perhaps in central and even west Africa. In one instance he refers to the Ethiopian's woolly hair; in another, to his blackness. He located the Macrobian Ethiopians further south than later writers, and their Table of the Sun recalls the divine feastings of the Homeric gods. Yet it is clear that as early as the fifth century B.C., Ethiopians south of Egypt were no longer the rather vague, shadowy peoples of the earlier poets but an African reality.

Although Herodotus provided more details about these south- ern Ethiopians than any other single source of the fifth century, he recorded little about western Ethiopians.

His account of the circumnavigation of Africa reportedly undertaken in the reign of the Pharaoh Necho (the Necos of Herodotus, 609-594 B.C.). made no mention of peoples seen, and his description of the west African peoples encountered by Sataspes is meagre.

(26). A translation of an inquisitive Greek has preserved an account of the country and Ethiopian peoples whom Hanno the Carthaginian reportedly encountered during his voyage about 500 (?) B.C. down the west coast of Africa. Modern scholars differ as to the exact location of the coastal regions which Hanno visited and as to the southernmost point which he reached. In spite of uncertainty as to geography, however, the Greek translation of Hanno's voyage described some of the peoples seen: a wild tribe who inhabited a mountainous area swarming with wild beasts; Troglodytes of strange appearance able to run faster than horses; mountain- dwelling savages who prevented the Carthaginians from landing by hurling stones; a tribe who spoke a language unintelligible to the interpreters provided by the Lixitae and who fled at the sight of ships; and another people whose pipes, drums, and cymbals terrified the explorers.

(27). The island of Cerne ( of the Atlantic coast of Morocco ), mentioned by Hanno, was frequently referred to in the fourth century B.C. and later as a landmark of Ethiopians in the west. The Periplus of Scylax (fourth century B.C.), for example, describes Cerne as a market of a trade between Carthaginians and Ethiopians of the opposite coast who bartered skins of deer, lions, leopards, the hides and tusks of elephants, and wine for perfume, Egyptian stones, and Athenian pottery. These Ethiopians used ivory for cups and bracelets. #africa

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