The Roman Expeditions of the Nile River

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Between 62 and 67 AD the Roman emperor Nero sent a small group of Praetorian guards to explore the sources of the Nile River in Africa.

According to most scholars, the expedition was organized to obtain information for a possible conquest of Ethiopia.

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Exotic animal transportation, Villa del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily, Italy. Rare scene of two separate events on a single tableau, a common narrative technique in Roman visual arts.

It is part of a series of expeditions, conducted between 19 a.C. and 86 AD, aimed at the exploration and acquisition of control of the caravan routes through the Sahara, which guaranteed trade between the Mediterranean coast and sub-Saharan Africa; among these, the Roman expedition towards Lake Chad and the river Niger.

Around 62 d.C. Seneca wrote that Nero had sent some legionaries to the city of Meroe in Nubia, in order to explore the south of that capital. This expedition was commissioned by the Roman emperor to obtain information on equatorial Africa and its possible riches.



“Are you unaware that among the various” theories explaining how the summer flooding of the Nile occurs there is this one: that the river gushes of the earth and rises with water not from above but from deep within? I heard two centurions whom Nero Caesar, great lover of the other virtues and especially of truth, had sent to search for the source of the Nile. They told how they made a long journey, when they were provided with assistance by the king of Ethiopia, were given recommendations to the neighboring kings, and penetrated further inland. “Then,” they said, “we reached interminable marshlands. The local people had not discovered where they ended, nor can anyone hope to do so: weeds are so entangled with the water and the water “with weeds”, they are impassable either on foot or by boat; only a small, one-man craft can manage on the muddy, overgrown swamp. There, “he said, “we saw two crags from whhich a huge volume of river water cascaded down.” Whether that is the source of the Nile or a tributary, whether it first emerges there or returns to the surface after being swallowed underground in its earlier course, do you not believe that this water, whatever it is, rises from a great lake within the earts? For the earth must contain liquid, both dispersed in many places and concentrated in a single place, to be able to disgorge it with such force. Seneca, Natural Questions, Book VI, On Earthquakes, 8.1, pag. 96-96. L. Annaei Senecae Naturalium quaestionum

In a 1996 article published in the magazine Nigrizia, Giovanni Vantini, a scholar belonging to the order of the Comboni fathers, identified in Meroe the city where the Romans met the king of Ethiopia. According to him, the description of the swamp made by the centurions is a clear reference to the lake No, formed by the confluence of the Bahr el Ghazal with the white Nile.

According to Vantini the expedition possibly arrived also in Ugandan territory, interpreting as a reference to the Murchison Falls, known in the past as Kabalega, the following passage reported by Seneca “We have seen two rocks, from which the force of the river escaped with power “(Ibi, inquit, uidimus duas petras, ex quibus ingens uis fluminis excidebat). The description given by Seneca still corresponds today, according to the Comboni scholar Father Giovanni Vantini, at Lake No, an immense swamp, 2-5 meters deep, formed by the confluence of the river Bahr el Ghazal with the Nile coming from the Equator. The scenario would be that of the Murchison Falls, today Kabalega, where the Nile coming from Lake Victoria, plunges into Lake Albert, with a jump of 100 meters, in a gorge of just 60-70 meters. Some historians, like the great Meroitist F. Hintze, even believe that Nero sent two successive expeditions, because the first of 61 AD, reported by Seneca, speaks of a “king of Ethiopia” who “provided aid and commendatizie” to the centurions. ; the other of 66-67, reported by Pliny, instead mentions a queen (Candace).

Roman mosaic at Villa del Casale, Sicily. Author: Urban

Pliny the elder

Another expedition, recorded by Pliny the Elder in 67, was probably intended to gather information for a possible conquest by Nero of what is now Sudan.

These are the names of places given as far as Meroë: but at the present day hardly any of them on either side of the river are in existence; at all events, the prætorian troops that were sent by the Emperor Nero under the command of a tribune, for the purposes of enquiry, when, among his other wars, he was contemplating an expedition against Æthiopia, brought back word that they had met with nothing but deserts on their route. The Roman arms also penetrated into these regions in the time of the late Emperor Augustus, under the command of P. Petronius, a man of Equestrian rank, and prefect of Egypt. That general took the following cities, the only ones we now find mentioned there, in the following order; Pselcis, Primis, Abuncis, Phthuris, Cambusis, Atteva, and Stadasis, where the river Nile, as it thunders down the precipices, has quite deprived the in- habitants of the power of hearing: he also sacked the town of Napata. The extreme distance to which he penetrated beyond Syene was nine hundred and seventy miles; but still.

Pliny the elder, Naturalis Historia, Liber VI, XXXV, 181

But all this difference is lately determined by the Report of those Travellers whom Nero sent to Discover those Countries, who have related that it is 862 Miles from Syene in this manner : from Syene to Hiera-Sycaminon, Fifty-four Miles ; from thence to Tama, Seventy-five Miles ; from Tama to the Euonymites Country, the first of the Ethiopians, 120 ; to Acina, Fifty-four; to Pitara, Twenty-five; to Tergedum, 106 Miles. That in the midst of this Tract lieth the Island Gagandus, where they first saw the Birds called Parrots; and beyond another Island called Attigula they saw Monkeys ; beyond Tergedum they met with the Creatures Cynocephali. From thence to Napata Eighty Miles, which is the only little Town among all the beforenamed ; from which to the Island Meroe is 360 Miles. They reported, moreover, that about Meroe, and not before, the Herbs appeared greener ; and the Woods shewed somewhat in comparison of all the way besides ; and they espied the Tracts of Elephants and Rhinoceroses.

Pliny the elder, Natural history, book VI

Images: 1 , 2 , 3 (from Le Musée absolu, Phaidon, 10-2012)


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