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Transsaharan Expeditions


Statuette of a dromedary. Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Köln (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering.
Statuette of a dromedary
(Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne)
In the mid-second century CE, the great Alexandrine scientist Ptolemy published his Geography, in which he gave the coordinates of many cities of the ancient world. The book, based on the investigations by Marinus of Tyre, also contains information about explorers who visited faraway countries. Two of these expeditions took place in the last quarter of the first century, when people from Lepcis Magna tried to organize the Transsaharan trade in wild animals like rhinoceroses.

Section 1.8.4 of Ptolemy's Geography is offered here in the translation by E.L. Stevenson.

At the outset, when writing of the journey from Garama to Ethiopia, he [the geographer Marinus] says that Septimius Flaccus, having set out from Libya with his army, came to the land of the Ethiopians from the land of the Garamantes in the space of three months by journeying continuously southward. He says furthermore that Julius Maternus, setting out from Lepcis Magna and Garama with the king of the Garamantes, who was beginning an expedition against the Ethiopians, by bearing continuously southward came within four months to Agisymba, the country of the Ethiopians where the rhinoceroses ought to be found.

Each of these statements, on the face of it, is incredible, first, because the Ethiopians are not so far distant from the Garamantes as to require a three months' journey, seeing that the Garamantes are themselves for the most part Ethiopians, and have the same king;[1] secondly, because it is ridiculous to think that a king should march through regions subject to him only in a southerly direction when the inhabitants of those regions are scattered widely east and west,[2] and ridiculous also that he should never have made a single halt that would alter the reckoning. Wherefore we conclude that it is not unreasonable to suppose that those men either spoke in hyperbole, or else, as rustics say, "To the south," or "Toward Africa" to those who prefer to be deceived by them, rather than take the pains to ascertain the truth.

Note 1:
This is incorrect. Like many ancient authors, Ptolemy found it difficult to conceptualize the topography of Black Africa, believing that all Ethiopians (litt. "black faced people") were one nation. The Garamantes were a tribe living in Sahara; there is still an oasis named Garma.

Note 2:
The route to the south was an old one, and led from the Garamantes through the Grand Erg de Bilma to Lake Chad.
Online 2007
Revision: 27 Dec. 2007
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