Show Summary Details

Page of

 PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, CLASSICS ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited. Please see applicable Privacy Policy and Legal Notice (for details see Privacy Policy).

Subscriber: null; date: 26 September 2017

Africa (Libya), exploration

Africa was distinguished from Asia as the third continent by c.500 bce, with the Nile, later usually the Red Sea, as divider; but its interior and, even at the most extended period of knowledge, its coasts south of Cape Delgado on the east and Cape Yubi on the west, remained substantially unknown, locations of marvels and geographical features uncertainly identifiable (Ptol. Geog. 4). Some believed it circumnavigable (Hdt. 4. 42) and triangular in shape (Strabo 17. 3. 1), but no circumnavigation is satisfactorily attested (see hanno (1); eudoxus (3)), and there are modern scholars who think it impracticable for ancient ships; pure theorizing could account for the traditions. An inconsistent belief in a land bridge from Africa to Asia in fact prevailed (Ptol. 7. 3. 6).

In Egypt, and to some extent in Cyrenaica, Greeks could supplement autopsy with local information, cf. Herodotus on the Nile valley (2. 29–31), the inland route therefrom, via oases, possibly to the Atlas (4. 181–3), and a Libyan foray perhaps reaching the Niger, more probably Chad (not the Nile as he supposed; 2. 32–3). Extended knowledge of the Red Sea and NE coasts came from Alexander (3) the Great's Indian expedition, more under Ptolemaic rule in Egypt, and still more in Roman times as a result of increasing trade with India (see especially, Peripl. M. Rubr.; Ptol. Geog. 4). Penetration up the Nile valley was furthered under Augustus by the campaign of C. Petronius against the Ethiopians (Strabo 17. 1. 54) and an investigative mission which probably reached southern Nubia in Nero's reign (Sen. QNat. 5. 8. 3–5); but it was checked by swamps; Ptolemy (4), however, recorded lakes sighted by a sailor driven off course near Zanzibar, which he took to be the source of the Nile (Geog. 1. 9; presumably Victoria and Albert Nyanza) and had also heard of the Mountain of the Moon whose snows fed them (Geog. 4. 8. 2; perhaps Mt. Kilimanjaro).

In the north-west, local knowledge, both of the coastal hinterland and of the west coast, may have been less readily available before the fall of Carthage. What became known then (see hanno (1)) was soon supplemented by Roman exploration, often undertaken for military purposes. Already in 146 bce Scipio Aemilianus had despatched Polybius (1) with a fleet down the west coast (Plin. HN 5. 9, 10). Later landmarks were the Jugurthine War (but Sallust's account is disappointing); campaigns by L. Cornelius Balbus (2) under Augustus and Valerius Festus under Vespasian against the Garamantes in the Fezzan (Plin. HN 5. 36–8), and by Suetonius Paulinus under Claudius in the Atlas mountains (ibid. 5. 14–5); investigative missions, probably under Domitian, attributed to Iulius Maternus and Septimius Flaccus (perhaps identical events), from Tripolitania via the Garamantes, possibly to Chad (Ptol. Geog. 1. 8. 4).

Archaeological evidence, constantly accruing, is not always easy to interpret since artefacts might penetrate further than travellers in the packs of native traders and raiders; but a scatter of recently reported inscriptions may suggest Mediterranean contacts further south than expected, e.g. in the Fezzan, the Hoggar mountains of Algeria, the Canaries while the announcement of Roman pottery found on Zanzibar accords with the literary record. See geography; maps.


Studies and texts

M. Cary and E. H. Warmington, The Ancient Explorers (1929).Find this resource:

    R. K. Sherk, Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt 2. 1 (1974), 537–543.Find this resource:

      P. Pédech, La Géographie des Grecs (1976).Find this resource:

        J. Desanges, L'Activité des Méditerranéens aux confins de l'Afrique (1978).Find this resource:

          J. Desanges, in H. Durchardt, J. A. Schlumberger, and P. Segl (eds.), Afrika, Entdeckung und Erforschung eines Kontinents (1989).Find this resource:

            L. Casson, The Periplus Maris Erythraei: Text with Introduction, Translation and Commentary (1989).Find this resource:

              S. M. Burstein, Agatharchides of Cnidos: On the Erythraean Sea (1989).Find this resource:


                General: R. E. M. Wheeler, Rome Beyond the Imperial Frontiers (1954).Find this resource:

                  East Coast: M. C. Smith and H. T. Wright, Azania 1988, 115–141.Find this resource:

                    J. Desanges, E. M. Stern, P. Ballet, Sur les routes antiques de l'Azanie et de l'Inde, Mémoires des inscriptions et belles-lettres (1993).Find this resource:

                      M. Reddé, Journal of Roman Archaeology 1994, 454–456.Find this resource:

                        West Coast: R. Rebuffat, Antiquités Africaines 1974, 25–49.Find this resource:

                          J. Onrubia Pintado, Encyclopédie Berbère 11 (1992), 1731–1755, “Canaries (Îles).”Find this resource:

                            Interior: M. Reddé and J.-C. Golvin, Karthago (1986–7), 59–63.Find this resource:

                              W. Y. Adams, Journal of the American Research Centre in Egypt 1983, 93–104.Find this resource:

                                Reports to the Members of the Egypt Exploration Society, most recently 1991–2, 12–13.Find this resource:

                                  For biennial reports on discoveries at Primis (Qasr Ibrim), see

                                  C. M. Daniels, Libyan Studies 1989, 45–61.Find this resource:

                                    R. Rebuffat, Comptes rendus de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-lettres 1982, 188–199.Find this resource:

                                      Sahara (Milan) 1990, 1121991, 154 with plate before p. 33.

                                      Notes on a Latin inscription in ,

                                      V. Beltrami, Africa Romana 1994.Find this resource:

                                        Do you have feedback?