Ethnic diversity in Libya / Africa: Sallust on legends of migration (mid-first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Ethnic diversity in Libya / Africa: Sallust on legends of migration (mid-first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 11, 2024,

Author: Sallust, War with Jugurtha 16-20 (link).

Comments: In the midst of his discussion of Roman interactions with king Jugurtha of Numidia (reigned 160-104 BCE), the Roman author Sallust (writing about 41-40 BCE) engages in a digression about the supposed origins of the peoples in northern Africa based on a writing attributed to a king Hiempsal of Numidia and on other native sources. Sallust or his source proposes migrations to Libya by Persian, Median, Armenian, and Phoenician peoples.


[Migrations and the peoples of Africa / Libya]

17 My subject seems to call for a brief account of the geography of Africa and some description of the descent groups (gentes) there with which the people of Rome has had wars or alliances. . . [material omitted]. . . What men inhabited Africa originally, and who came later, or how the two mingled, I will tell as briefly as possible. Although my account varies from the prevailing tradition, I give it as it was translated to me from the Punic books said to have been written by king Hiempsal, and in accordance with what those who live in that land believe. But the responsibility for its truth will rest with my authorities.

18 In the beginning Africa was inhabited by the Gaetulians and Libyans, rude and uncivilized folk, who fed like beasts on the flesh of wild animals and the fruits of the earth. They were governed neither by institutions, nor law, nor were they subject to anyone’s rule. A restless, wandering people, they had their abodes wherever night forced them to stop.

As the Africans believe, when Hercules died in Spain, the men of diverse descent groups who formed his army soon dispersed, now that their leader was gone and since there were many on every hand who aspired to succeed him. Of those who made up the army, the Medes, Persians and Armenians crossed by ships into Africa and settled in the regions nearest to our sea, the Persians closer to the Ocean. These people used as huts the inverted hulls of their ships, for there was no timber in the land and there was no opportunity to obtain it from the Spaniards by purchase or barter. This was because the wide expanse of sea and ignorance of the language hindered external relations. The Persians intermarried with the Gaetulians and were gradually merged with them, and because they often moved from place to place trying the soil, they called themselves “nomads.” It is an interesting fact that even to the present day the dwellings of the rustic Numidians, which they call mapalia, are oblong and have roofs with curved sides, like the hulls of ships.

But the Medes and the Armenians had the Libyans as their nearest neighbours. For that people lived closer to the African sea, while the Gaetulians were farther to the south, not far from the regions of heat. These three peoples soon had towns. Being separated from the Spaniards only by the strait, they began to exchange goods with them. The Libyans gradually altered the name of the Medes, calling them in their barbarian tongue Mauri [Moors].

Now the community of the Persians soon increased and, finally, the younger generation under the name of Numidians separated from their parents because of the excess of population and took possession of the region next to Carthage, which is called Numidia. Then both peoples, relying upon each other’s aid, brought their neighbours under their sway by arms or by fear and acquired renown and glory, especially those who had come near to our sea, because the Libyans are less war-like than the Gaetulians. Finally, the greater part of northern Africa fell into the hands of the Numidians, and all the vanquished were merged into the descent group under the name of their rulers.

19 Later the Phoenicians, sometimes for the sake of ridding themselves of the excess population at home and sometimes from desire for dominion which tempted the people who were desirous of a change, founded Hippo, Hadrumetum, Lepcis, and other cities on the coast. These soon became very powerful and were in some cases a defence and in others a glory to the mother city. As to Carthage, I think it better to be silent rather than say too little, since time warns me to hurry on to other topics.

In the neighbourhood of the Katabathmos, the region which separates Egypt from Africa, the first city as you follow the coast is Cyrene, a colony of Thera, and then come the two Syrtes with Lepcis between them. Next we come to the altars of the Philaeni, the point which the Carthaginians regarded as marking the boundary between their empire and Egypt. Then there are other Punic [Phoenician] cities. The rest of the region as far as Mauretania is held by the Numidians, while the people nearest Spain are the Moors. South of Numidia, we are told, are the Gaetulians, some of whom live in huts, while others lead a less civilized nomadic life. Still farther to the south are the Ethiopians, and then come the regions parched by the sun’s heat.

Now at the time of the war with Jugurtha, the Romans were governing through their officials nearly all the Punic [Phoenician] cities, as well as the territory which in their latter days had belonged to the Carthaginians. The greater number of the Gaetulians, and Numidia as far as the river Muluccha, were subject to Jugurtha. All the Moors were ruled by king Bocchus, who knew nothing of the Roman people save their name and was in turn unknown to us before that time either in peace or in war. This account of Africa and its peoples is enough for my purpose.


Source of the translation:  J.C. Rolfe, Sallust, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1921), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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