Libyans / Africans: Pliny on various peoples and strange customs (first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Libyans / Africans: Pliny on various peoples and strange customs (first century CE),' Last modified January 16, 2023,

Ancient authors: Various authors used by Pliny the Elder, Natural History 5.1-48 (link to Latin text and full translation).

Comments: Pliny the Elder’s somewhat extensive section on what Greeks and Phoenicians called “Libya” and Romans called “Africa” is among the most important outlines of the numerous peoples vaguely known to live in what is now modern Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. In dealing with districts that were sometimes also called Mauretania and Numidia, Pliny intersperses references to various peoples but rarely with any details about their customs or ways of life. This is likely because Pliny’s sources provided names without much details. But at least we’ve got a catalogue of sorts from a somewhat distant Roman perspective. Sallust who spent time in the region may fill in some information, but not a lot (link). Many of these peoples would be enveloped within the broader linguistic group now called “Berbers,” although that term – which likely originates as a denigrating outsider designation (i.e. “barbarian”) – is not used in the ancient sources of our period.

The only time Pliny finally turns to customs is with the most fantastic peoples mentioned in his sources who are characterized as uncivilized or animalistic. That finale sounds a lot like Pliny’s other passage on unbelievable peoples of Ethiopia and India, on which go to this link.

Works consulted: Michael Brett and Elizabeth Fentress, The Berbers (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1996), 1-80.

Source of the translation: H. Rackham, W.H.S. Jones, and D.E. Eichholz, Pliny: Natural History, 10 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1938-1962), public domain (Rackham passed away in 1944, Jones passed away in 1963, copyright not renewed as well), adapted by Harland.


Book 5

[Introduction to Africa / Libya]

(1) The Greeks give to Africa the name of “Libya,” and they call the sea lying in front of it the Libyan sea. It is bounded by Egypt. No other part of the earth has fewer bays or inlets in its coast, which stretches in a long slanting line from the west. The names of its peoples (populi) and towns are absolutely unpronounceable except by the natives. The rest of the population mostly reside in fortresses.

[Mauretania: Peoples and Roman colonies]

(2) The list of its countries begins with the two called Mauretania, which down to the time of Gaius Caesar, the son of Germanicus, were kingdoms, but by his cruelty were divided into two provinces. The outermost promontory projecting into the ocean is named by the Greeks Ampelousia. Beyond the Pillars of Hercules there were once the towns of Lissa and Cotte, but today there is only Tingi, which was originally founded by Antaeus and subsequently entitled Traducta Julia by the emperor Claudius when he established a colony there. It is thirty miles away from the town of Baelo in Baetica, where the passage across is shortest. On the Atlantic coast twenty-five miles from Tingi is Julia Constantia Zulil, a colony of Augustus, which is exempt from the government of the native kings and included under the jurisdiction of Baetica. Thirty-five miles from Zulil is Lixus, made a colony by the emperor Claudius, about which the most marvellous legends are told by the old writers. . . [material omitted].

(5) In the interior, forty miles from Lixus, is another colony of Augustus, Babba, called Julia-on-the-Plains, and seventy-five miles further, a third, Banasa, which has the surname of Valentia. Thirty-five miles from Banasa is the town of Volubilis, which is at the same distance from the coasts of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. On the shore, fifty miles from Lixus, is the river Sububus, flowing by the colony of Banasa, a fine river available for navigation. The same number of miles from the Sububus is the town of Sala, situated on the river of the same name; this town is on the very edge of the desert, and is beset by herds of elephants, but much more seriously harried by the Autololes descent group, through whose territory lies the road to Mount Atlas, which is the subject of much the most marvellous stories of all the mountains in Africa. . . [details about the mountain omitted].

(8) There were also once extant some notes of the Carthaginian commander Hanno, who at the most flourishing period of the Punic state was ordered to explore the circuit of Africa. It is Hanno whom the majority of the Greek and Roman writers have followed in the accounts that they have published of a number of cities founded by him there of which no memory or trace exists, not to speak of other fabulous stories [link to Hanno’s ostensible travelogue] .

(9) Scipio Aemilianus, during his command in Africa, placed a fleet of vessels at the service of the historian Polybios for the purpose of making a voyage of discovery in that part of the world. After sailing round the coast, Polybius reported that beyond Mount Atlas in a westerly direction there are forests teeming with the wild animals that Africa engenders. . . . [material omitted].

(11) The first occasion on which the armed forces of Rome fought in Mauretania was in the principate of Claudius [41-54 CE], when king Ptolemy had been put to death by Gaius Caesar and his freedman Aedemon was seeking to avenge him. It is an accepted fact that our troops went as far as Atlas mountain in pursuit of the routed natives. And not only were the ex-consuls and generals drawn from the senate who commanded in that campaign able to boast of having penetrated the Atlas range, but this distinction was also shared by the Roman knights who subsequently governed the country. (12) The province contains, as we have said, five Roman colonies. . . [material omitted]

(14) Suetonius Paulinus, who was consul in our own times [66 CE], was the first Roman commander who actually crossed the Atlas range and advanced a distance of many miles beyond it. His report as to its remarkable altitude agrees with that of all the other authorities, but he also states that the regions at the base of the range are filled with dense and lofty forests of trees of an unknown kind, with very tall trunks remarkable for their glossy timber free from knots, and foliage like that of the cypress except for its oppressive scent, the leaves being covered with a thin downy floss, so that with the aid of art a dress-material like that obtained from the silk-worm can be made from them. The summit (the report continued) is covered with deep snowdrifts even in summer. (15) Ten days’ march brought him to this point and beyond it to the river called the Ger, across deserts covered with black dust occasionally broken by projections of rock that looked as if they had been burnt, a region rendered uninhabitable by its heat, although it was winter time when he explored it.

Paulinus states that the neighbouring forests swarm with every kind of elephant and snake, and are inhabited by a descent group (genus) called the Canarians (Canarii), owing to the fact that they have their diet in common with canines and share with it the flesh of wild animals. (16) It is well ascertained that next to them are the Ethiopian descent group (gens) called the Perorsians (Perorsi). Juba [II, king of Numidia, ca. 30-25 BCE], the father of Ptolemy, who was the first ruler to hold sway over both the Mauretanias [reigned as client king ca. 25 BCE-23 CE], and who is even more distinguished for his renown as a student than for his royal sovereignty, has published similar facts about Atlas mountain, and has stated in addition that a plant grows there called the euphorbia, named after his doctor who discovered it. In a volume devoted solely to the subject of this plant he sings the praises of its milky juice in very remarkable terms, stating it to be an aid to clear sight and an antidote against snakebite and poisons of all kinds. This is enough, or more than enough, about Atlas mountain.

(17) The province of Tingitana [northern Morocco] is 170 miles in length. It contains the following descent groups: the Maurians (Mauri) – from whom Mauretania takes its name – which many writers call the Maurusians (Maurusii) were formerly the leading descent group, but they have been thinned by wars and are now reduced to a few families. Next to this was previously that of the Masaisylians (Masaesyli), but this group has been wiped out in a similar manner. The country is now occupied by the Gaitulian descent groups, the Baniurians (Baniurae) and the Autololians (Autololes), by far the most powerful of them all, and the Nesimians (Nesimi), who were formerly part of the Autololians, but have split off from them and formed a separate group of their own in the direction of the Ethiopians. . . . [omitted geographical description and lists of further Roman colonies].

[Numidia: Peoples]

(22) At the river Ampsaga begins Numidia, a country rendered famous by the name of Masinissa. The Greeks called it Metagonitis, and they named its people the “nomads,” from their custom of frequently changing their pasturage, carrying their “maptdia,” that is their homes, about the country on wagons. The towns are Chullu and Sgigada, and in the interior about forty-eight miles from the latter the colony of Cirta, called Cirta of the Sitianians and another colony further inland, Sicca, and the free town of Bulla Regia. On the coast are Tagodet, Hippo Regius, the river Armua, and the town of Thabraca, which has Roman citizenship. The boundary of Numidia is the river Tusca. The country produces nothing remarkable beside the Numidian marble and wild beasts.

(23) Beyond the Tusca is the district of Zeugitana and the region properly to be called “Africa.” Three promontories run out into the sea, White Cape and then the Cape of Apollo facing Sardinia and the Cape of Mercury facing Sicily; these form two bays – the Bay of Hippo next to the town called Hippo Dirutus, in Greek Diarrhytus, which name is due to its irrigation channels, and adjacent to this, further from the coast, Theudalis, a town exempt from tribute. (24) Then there is the Cape of Apollo, and on the second bay Utica, which has the rights of Roman citizenship. It is famous as the scene of the death of Cato. Then there is the river Bagrada, the place called the Camp of Cornelius, the colony of Carthage on the site of Great Carthage, the colony of Maxula, the towns of Carpi, Misua and Clypea, the last a free town on the Cape of Mercury, where are also the free towns Curubis and Neapolis.

[Peoples in other parts of Libya / Africa]

Then comes another section of Africa proper. The inhabitants of Byzacium are called Libyphoenicians, Byzacium being the name given to a region measuring 250 miles round, a district of exceptional fertility, the soil paying the farmers interest at the rate of a hundredfold. (25) Here are the free towns of Leptis, Hadrumetum, Ruspina, Thapsus, and then Thenae, Aces, Macomades, Tacape and Sabrata on the edge of the Lesser Syrtis. From the Ampsaga to this point the length of Numidia and Africa is 580 miles and the breadth so far as ascertained 200 miles. The part that we have called Africa is divided into two provinces, the Old and the New. The boundary between these, as agreed between the younger Scipio and the kings, is a dyke running right through to the town of Thenae, which is 216 miles from Carthage.

(26) The third gulf is divided into two bays, which are rendered formidable by the shallow tidal waters of the two Syrtes. The distance between the nearest Syrtis, which is the smaller of the two, and Carthage is said by Polybius to be 300 miles; and he gives its width across as 100 miles and its circuit as 300 miles. There is however also a way to it by land, that can be found by observation of the stars, across a desert abandoned to the sand and swarming with serpents. Next come forests filled with a multitude of wild beasts, and further inland desolate haunts of elephants, and then a vast desert, and beyond it the descent group of Garamantians (Garamantes), at a distance of twelve days’ journey from Auguli. (27) Beyond these was formerly the Psyllian (Psylli) descent group, and beyond them Lycomedis lake, surrounded by desert.

Augilae itself is situated almost in the middle, at an equal distance on either side from the Ethiopia that stretches westward and from the region lying between the two Syrtes. But by the coast between the two Syrtes it is 250 miles; here are the independent city of Oea, the river Cinyps and the district of that name, the towns of Neapolis, Taphra, Habrotonum and the second Leptis, called Great Leptis. Then comes the Greater Syrtis, measuring 625 miles round and 312 wide at the entrance, near which dwells the descent group of the Cisippadians (Cisippades). (28) At the end of this gulf was once the Coast of the Lotus-eaters, the people called by some the Machroians (Machroae), extending to the Altars of the Philaeni – are formed of heaps of sand. After these, not far from the shore of the mainland, there is a vast swamp into which flows the river Tritonis, the name of which it bears. Kallimachos calls it the lake of Pallas. He places it on the nearer side of the Lesser Syrtis, but many writers put it between the two Syrtes. The promontory shutting in the Greater Syrtis is called Cape Borion. Beyond it is the province of Cyrenaica.

(29) Between the river Ampsaga and this boundary Africa contains 516 peoples that accept allegiance to Rome. These include six colonies, Uthina and Thuburbi, in addition to those already mentioned; fifteen towns with Roman citizenship . . . [lists of cities omitted]. Of the remaining number most can rightly be entitled not merely cities but also descent groups, for instance the Natabudians, Capsitanians, Musulamians, Sabarbarians, Massylians, Nicivians, Vamacurians, Cinithians, Musunians, Marchubians, and the whole of Gaitulians as far as the river Nigris, which separates Africa from Ethiopia.

(31) Notable places in the district of Cyrenaica (the Greek name of which is the Pentapolis) are the Oracle of Ammon, which is 400 miles from the city of Cyrene, the Fountain of the Sun, and especially five cities, Berenice, Arsinoe, Ptolemais, Apollonia and Cyrene itself. Berenice is situated at the tip of the horn of the Syrtis; it was formerly called the City of the Hesperides, mentioned above, as the myths of Greece is often change their locality . . . [material omitted]. The inhabitants of this coast are the Marmaridians (Marmaridae), reaching almost all the way from the region of Paraetonium to the Greater Syrtis. (33) After these are the Acraucelians (Acrauceles) and then on the edge of the Syrtis the Nasamonians (Nasamones), formerly called by the Greeks Mesammonians by reason of their locality, the word meaning “in the middle of the sands.” The territory of Cyrene for a breadth of fifteen miles from the coast is thought to be good even for growing trees, but for the same space further inland to grow only corn, and afterwards over a strip thirty miles wide and 250 miles long nothing but silphium.

(34) After the Nasamonians, we come to the dwellings of the Asbytians (Asbytae) and Macians (Macae). Beyond them, twelve days’ journey from the Greater Syrtis, the Amantians (Amantes). These also are surrounded by sands in the western direction, but nevertheless they find water without difficulty at a depth of about three feet, as the district receives the overflow of the waters of Mauretania. They build their houses of blocks of salt quarried out of their mountains like stone. From these it is a journey of seven days in a south-westerly quarter to the Troglodytes (literally “Cave-dwellers”), with whom our only intercourse is the trade in the precious stone imported from Ethiopia which we call the carbuncle.

(35) Before reaching them, in the direction of the African desert stated already to be beyond the Lesser Syrtis, is Phazania, where we have subjugated the descent group of Phazanians (Phazanii) and the cities of Alele and Cibliba, as well as Cydamus in the direction of Sabrata. After these a long range stretches from east to west which our people from its nature call the “Black mountain,” as it has the appearance of having suffered from fire, or else of being scorched by the reflection of the sun. (36) Beyond this mountain range is the desert, and then a town of the Garamantians called Thelgae, and also Debris (near which there is a spring of which the water is boiling hot from midday to midnight and then freezing cold for the same number of hours until midday) and Garama, the celebrated capital of the Garamantians. All these places have been subdued by Roman armies, being conquered by Cornelius Balbus, who was given a triumph – the only foreigner ever so honoured – and citizen rights, since, although a native of Gades, he together with his great-uncle, Balbus, was presented with our citizenship. There is also this remarkable circumstance, that our writers have handed down the names of the towns mentioned above as having been taken by him, and have stated that in his own triumphal procession beside Cydamus and Garama were carried the names and images of all the other descent groups and cities, which went in this order: (37) the town of Tabudium, the Niteris descent group, the town of Miglis Gemella, the descent group or town of Bubeium, the descent group of the Enipians, the town of Thuben, the mountain known as the Black mountain, the towns called Nitibrum and Rapsa, the Viscerian descent group, the town of Decri, the river Nathabar, the town of Thapsagum, the Tamiagian descent group, the town of Boin, the town of Pege, the river Dasibari. Then there is a series of towns – Baracum, Buluba, Alasit, Galsa, Balla, Maxalla, Cizania – and Mount Gyri, its effigy preceded by an inscription that it was a place where precious stones were produced.

(38) Up until now, it has been impossible to open up the road to the Garamantian country, because bandits (latrones) of that descent group fill up the wells with sand. . . . [material omitted].

(39) The district that follows is called Libya Mareotis, which borders on Egypt. It is occupied by the Marmaridians (Marmarides), the Adyrmachidians (Adyrmachidae), and then the Mareotians (Mareotae). The distance between the Catabathmus and Paraetonium is 86 miles. Between them in the interior of this district is Apis, a place famous in Egyptian responsibilities towards the gods. . . [distances between different locales and further geographical information omitted].

(43) In the interior circuit of Africa towards the south and beyond the Gaetulians, after an intermediate strip of desert, the first inhabitants of all are the Egyptian Libyans, and then the people called in Greek the “White Ethiopians.” Beyond these are the Ethiopian descent groups of the Nigritians (Nigritae), named after the river which has been mentioned, the Pharusian Gymnetians (Gymnetes), and then bordering on the Ocean the Perorsians whom we have spoken of at the frontier of Mauretania. Eastward of all of these there are vast uninhabited regions spreading as far as the Garamantians, Augilians and the Troglodytes. The most reliable opinion is held by those who place two Ethiopias beyond the African desert, and especially Homer, who tells us that the Ethiopians are divided into two sections, the eastward and the westward.

(44) The river Niger has the same nature as the Nile: it produces reeds and papyrus, and the same animals, and it rises at the same seasons of the year. Its source is between the Ethiopian descent groups of the Tarraelians (Tarraelii) and the Oechalicians (Oechalicae). The town of the latter is Magium. In the middle of the desert some place the Atlantians (Atlantes), and next to them are the half-animal Goat-Pans, Blemmyians, Gamphasantians, Satyrs and Himantopodes (“Strap-feet” people).

[Customs of various “uncivilized” peoples]

(45) The Atlantians have degenerated below the level of human custom (ritus), if we can believe what is said. For they do not address one another by any names and, when they behold the rising and setting sun, they utter awful curses against it as the cause of disaster to themselves and their fields. When they are asleep, they do not have dreams like the rest of humanity.

The Troglodytes hollow out caves which are their dwellings. They live on the flesh of snakes, and they have no voice, but only make squeaking noises, being entirely devoid of intercourse by speech. The Garamantians do not practise marriage but live with their women promiscuously. The Augilians only worship the powers of the lower world. The Gamphasantians go naked, do not engage in battle, and do not interact at all with any foreigner. (46) The Blemmyians are reported to have no heads with their mouth and eyes being attached to their chests. The Satyrs have nothing of ordinary humanity about them except human shape. The form of the Goat-Pans is that which is commonly shown in pictures of them. The Himantopodes are people with feet like leather thongs, whose nature it is to crawl instead of walking. The Pharusians (Pharusi), originally a Persian people, are said to have accompanied Hercules on his journey to the Hesperides. Nothing more occurs to us to record about Africa.

(47) Joining on to Africa is Asia . . . [material omitted]. (48) The inhabited country next to Africa is Egypt, which stretches southward into the interior to where the Ethiopians border it in the rear. . . .[material omitted].

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