Libyans and Maurians: Corippus’ poetic survey of northern African peoples in the tale of John Troglita (after 548 CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Libyans and Maurians: Corippus’ poetic survey of northern African peoples in the tale of John Troglita (after 548 CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 4, 2023,

Ancient author: Corippus (sixth century CE), Tale of John, or On the Libyan War / Iohannis, seu de Bellis Libycis 2.28–161 (link to Latin text).

Comments: Although somewhat late (after a triumphal celebration ca. 548 CE), Corippus’ poetic catalogue of Libyan or Maurian peoples (sometimes called “the catalogue of tribes”) in connection with the victory of John Troglita (emperor Justinian I’s chosen general) is very important for ethnographic questions relating to northern Africa or Libya. There are notable cross-overs from other earlier sources: e.g. the Ausourianians or Austurians as in Ammianus Marcellinus (link) and Synesios (link) and the Marmaridians in Diodoros (link). However, in Corippus there are also many, many other named, unnamed, or characterized peoples not known from other sources. Corippus does also describe some of the military equipment and dress of certain peoples. Overall, there is a stress on the “savage” or wild nature of these Libyan peoples which is sometimes matched with rough environments.

Works consulted: A. Merrills, “Corippus’ Triumphal Ethnography: Another Look at Iohannis II.28–161,” Libyan Studies 50 (2019): 153–63; Shea (see below).

Source of the translation: Translation reproduced (and slightly modified with respect to Anglicizing peoples and translating gens as “people” rather than “tribe” or “race”) with permission from George W. Shea, Corippus, The Iohannis, or, De Bellis Libycis (Lewiston, NY: Mellen Press, 1998).


[Context of Maurian aggression, ca. 540s CE]

. . . Provoked by the death of his brother, Antalas, prince of the Maurians (or: Moors / Mauretanians), was the first to go to war. Once subject to the Roman imperial court, he was a favourite of the captains and loyal companion of our own leaders. Now, raging like a fiend, he lifted his tough right hand and advanced to battle on every front, wherever, like a whirlwind, he drove all his bronze-clad peoples on to the prizes of war. When peace had been agreed upon in Libya, he had been loyal and had remained so for a full ten years. Alas, what a war did the poor judgement of that ignorant leader bring about then and what fires, but recently extinguished, did it make flame up again! The madness of war, tentative at first, took root. Anger provided the cause of his perfidy and the seeds of that wholesale slaughter.

[Frexians, Sinusdisians, Silvacians, Naffurians, Silcadinetians]

Fiercer than ever, he set in motion the bitter peoples (gentes) of Libya and threw the whole world into confusion with the bloodshed he caused. The Frexians (Frexes) followed him, their kindred bands in close formation, and with their proud necks high, saluted their leader. They were a brave people (gens), hardened in might and savage in the tumult of war, whether on the battlefield they advanced boldly through their enemy on foot or struck with their heels the shoulders of their raging horses. The swift bands of cavalry who rode with Sidifan also carried arms from that region. Confident in his mount, their savage captain swept through the middle of their ranks, then roused and drove the armed phalanx on relentlessly. He was a man whom no one had ever beaten and he hurtled now this way now that over the broad plain. Here came the cohorts of the Sinusdisians (Sinusdisae) speeding into the fray and with them the savage Silvacians (Silvacae), the Naffurians (Naffur) in their cruel arms and the wild Silcadinetians (Silcadinet), who in the remote glens of tall forests made ready a kind of warfare that was fearful for its treachery. They would strike fear into their enemy with their ambushes and then sweep onward in a rage, bold but blind.

[Autilitenians, Silvaians, Macarians, Caunians, Silzactians]

Next came those who inhabit the mountains of Gurubum and its evil valleys, the hills of Mercury and Ifera with its dense forests [i.e. an unnamed people]. With them stem Autilitenians (Autiliten), no gentler than his father in bold deeds, rode as a combat commander, a faithful companion to none. He let loose the mighty reins of criminality, setting everything around him afire, plundering, savage that he was, slaughtering and dragging out his captives. Next came the nomad Silvaian and the Macarians (Macares), who live secure beneath the shade of a projecting cliff and build their crude huts on high mountain precipices and in thick forests. The swift Caunians (Caunes) and Silzactians (Silzactae) followed, between whom the Vadara river lets the waters of its current flow, where from a mountain peak it guides its stream between curving banks and their meadows, spreading it as it flows over broad and level fields. The peoples which Agalumnus supports came to the battle, Agalumnus which you can see lifting its lofty peak amid the clouds and Macubius, which holds up the very stars of the wide sky.

[Astricians, Anacutasurians, Celianians, and Imaclasians]

Next came those whom Sascar nourishes, binding up the thorny land’s pityful sheaves of barley with thick stalks. And summoned from lands far away, the Astricians (Astrices) gathered, with Anacutasurians (Anacutasur), Celianians (Celianus) and Imaclasians (Imaclas). The grim warriors whom bristling Zersilis supports with its narrow fields unholy Gallica lost no time in sending, and plains that would prove unlucky dispatched an unending stream of men whom their nurse Tillibaris received from the Talalatean fields and for whom Marta, the moth of all evil, extended their desert land until it reached the sea. The Roman band have avoided the sight of those sad fields, had fate, which is often hostile even to good, granted the breaking of its deadly threads. That, almighty Father, was pleasure, however, and the object of your commands.

[Ilaguasians and Austurians / Ausourianians]

A messenger riding to the farthest regions of Libya, summoned these invincible peoples to a battle far away from their homes. The Ilaguasians (Ilaguas), who had never been conquered before, gathered in innumerable thousands and, sweeping forward, terrified the whole world. The savage Austur, letting out their horses’ reins and relying upon their brute strength, followed them, the Austurians (Auster) [i.e. Ausourianians], men brave in arms and in number beyond all counting. The Austurian warrior, who hesitates to join in a doubtful battle on the open plains, will draw together his camels, build his walls and trenches and place his various flocks in a tight protective ring so that he can entangle his battling enemy with such barriers and crush him in his confusion. It is at that moment that the cruel Ilaguasians run to the slaughter and lay low the ranks that are trapped within their narrow barricades. Then, wreaking devastation, they approach the plains in security, pursue their foe and press on with renewed bloodshed, as they rage through the wretched ranks of the enemy. They also have the ram, an engine of hideous warfare, and set up tents decorated with the ensigns planted before them. They are a horrid people of hardy men who have been made bold by countless triumphs and who, both cruel and unholy, never desist from making war. They fear no destruction, although they might well have feared and will nevertheless rightly and justly grieve for having pursued their madness so long. For in time the brave Ilaguasians, finally laid low by a wound received on these broad plains, surrendered his cruel lances and refrained at last from plundering and war. Fierce Ierna was its leader and the priest of god Gurzil. The people tell that horned Ammon is this god’s father and a wild heifer his mother. Such is the madness of their blind minds! Ah, this is the way their divinities deceive these poor people!

[Ifuracians, Muctunians, Barcaeans, and Maurians / Moors]

Then came the Ifuracians (Ifuraces) who are skilled in the use of their deadly weapons. Soldiers noted for their shields and weapons and powerful at sword-play, they leap up and down as they make their way toward a fierce enemy. The Muctunians (Muctuniana), who inhabit the wastes of Tripolis [now Tripoli, Libya], descended from its steamy homeland, Gadabis sent men from its evil citadel and unholy Digdiga, bristling with cruel fortifications, provided a front-line unit from the neighbouring land. Then gathered the peoples who sweep over the lakes in their Velanidean boats, skimming over the water skillfully and tossing their bent hooks at the trembling fish. The Barcaeans (Barcaei), frenzied as ever, lost no opportunity to go on the rampage. They deserted their own lands and prepared to make for ours. War and its fury and their own hardy stock put weapons in their hands. They do not bind their shields and menacing swords to their sides in the accustomed manner; rather a bracelet rings their arms tightly with its little circle and in this way they fit their sheaths to hang from their bare limbs. The Maurians (or: Moors) neither cover their arms with a tunic’s sleeve nor fasten belts with studs of any kind around them. Ungirt, they drive their wild companies into battle, carrying a pair of spears with blades of special strength. A shaggy garment, hanging from their bound-up limbs, droops from their shoulders, while a linen cloak is drawn over their foul heads and supported by a tight knot, and their black feet tread upon crude Maurian sandals.

Such was the number of the Marmaridian peoples which Africa endured in this war. Who would imagine that the poor land could survive? But even this was not enough, oh powers above!

[Other unnamed and named peoples from the “other end” of Africa]

For now the bold leader from the other end of Africa rose up in the lands on the opposite flank. He was seething with indignation over the destruction the Roman army had earlier wreaked upon him in bloody combat. Yes, that was the source from which that savage leader summoned his mighty wrath. Countless peoples accompanied him as he went, those who dwell in Gemini Petra and in the over-grown outlands of Zerquilis, those who inhabit the awful mountains and wastes of gloomy Navusum and those whom the untended land of abominable Arzugis nourishes. (For these are the names the ancients assigned to these place). The Aurasitanians (Aurasitana) came down from its highlands too. Their units cannot engage in combat as infantry but they put up a powerful fight as horsemen. They fix two-ended lance with sharp blades in sturdy juniper, and often a glistening short shield lies lightly on their brawny backs or fells dangling to their sides, while a blade as bright as lightning, attached by a cord, hangs from their left shoulders. Beside them the Maurian ploughman who twice in the year harvests the crops of balmy Vadis and twice ties his barley sheaves up with straw, raged, alas, over the dry sands that must endure their burning sun. How great indeed is the love of spoil, when this farmer will bear the scorching sun, suffer hunger and thirst and the glowing heat of the land, all for the love of savage war and the desire for foul profit!

Now the brave Roman army, as it hurried on, saw that this close-ranked enemy was on the tops of all the hills and mountains, that the terrain was enveloped in smoke and flame and that the forests, now hidden by thick lines of soldiers, seemed to be without horizon. All their huts lay hidden and on all sides their voices sounded through the air in a continuous savage roar. . . [omitted remainder of the poem].

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