Libyans, Maurians and Ausourianians: Ammianus Marcellinus on their savage behaviour and banditry (late fourth century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Libyans, Maurians and Ausourianians: Ammianus Marcellinus on their savage behaviour and banditry (late fourth century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified August 2, 2023,

Ancient authors: Ammianus Marcellinus (late fourth century CE), Roman Antiquities / Res Gestae, portions of 27.9 and 28.6 (link).

Comments: As we know very little regarding the specific peoples that fell under the broader category of Libyans, it is particularly important to pay attention to passages like these ones that focus on Ausourianians or Ausurians (a sub-set of Maurs or Moors from Mauretania, which were sometimes subsumed within the etic category of Libyans and, later, “Berbers”). Here Ammianus Marcellinus depicts this people as particularly savage and, once again, deploys the notion of a bandit-people that we have seen elsewhere (link), including in Ammianus’ own discussion of Isaurians (link). The Ausourianians also appear in Synesios’ letters regarding incursions around Cyrenaica (link) and in Corripus’ poetic description of many Maurian or Libyan peoples (link).

Source of translation: J. C. Rolfe, Ammianus Marcellinus: Roman History, 3 volumes, LCL (Cambridge: HUP, 193539), public domain (Rolfe passed away in 1943), adapted by Harland.


[For Ammianus’ previous discussion of Romans, go to this link.]

[Mauretanian or Moorish peoples in northern Africa]

(27.9.1-2) But Africa from the very beginning of Valentinian’s reign [364-368 CE] was very distressed by the madness of the barbarians, who made daring incursions and were eager for wholesale bloodshed and robbery. This evil was increased by the laziness of the [Roman] army and its greed for seizing the property of others, and especially by the conduct of the governor, named Romanus. With an eye on the future and adept at shifting blame to others, Romanus was hated by many because of his cruel disposition, but especially for his quickness in outdoing the enemy in devastating the provinces. He relied especially on his relationship with Remigius, then chief marshal of the court, who sent in false and contradictory reports. So the emperor [Valentinian], in spite of the great caution which in his own opinion he exhibited, for a long time remained unaware of the sad losses of the people of Africa. I will explain the complete series of events in those regions, the death of the governor Ruricius and of the ambassadors and the other sad occurrences when my organization calls for it. But since I have a free opportunity of saying what I think, I will declare openly that Valentinian was the first of all emperors to increase the arrogance of the [Roman] military, to the injury of the community, by excessively raising their rank and power . . . [omitted following material].

[For Ammianus’ subsequent discussion of Isaurians, go to this link.]


[For Ammianus’ previous discussion of , go to this link.]

[Ausourianians / Austorianians among Mauretanians]

(28.6.1-5) Moving to another part of the world from here [Gaul], so to speak, let us come to the sorrows of the African province of Tripolis [ca. 363 CE and on], over which I think even Justice herself has cried. From what cause these sorrows blazed out like flames will appear when my narrative is completed. The Ausourianians (here: Austoriani), who are neighbours to those regions [a subset of Mauretanians in northern Africa for this author, as in 26.4.5], are barbarians that are always ready for sudden raids and accustomed to live by murder and robbery. These were subdued for some time, but then returned to their natural turbulence. They seriously gave this alleged reason: A certain man of their country named Stachao was wandering freely in our territory during a time of peace. This man committed some violations of the laws, among which the most conspicuous was that he tried by every kind of deceit to betray the province, as was proved by most trustworthy testimony. Accordingly he was burned to death.

Under the pretext that he was a countryman of theirs and had been unjustly condemned, like beasts aroused by madness they avenged his execution by attacking from their homes while Jovian was still ruling. Fearing to come near Lepcis [Khoms, Libya], a city strong in its walls and population, they encamped for three days in the fertile districts near the city. There they slaughtered the peasants (whom sudden fear had paralysed or had forced to take refuge in caves), burned a large amount of furniture which could not be carried off, and returned carrying immense spoils. They also took Silva with them as prisoner; Silva was the most eminent of the local magistrates who happened to be found in the country with his wife and children.

The people of Lepcis, greatly alarmed by this sudden disaster (before the evils which the terrible behaviour of the barbarians threatened to increase), asked for the protection of Romanus, the newly-promoted commanding-general for Africa. As soon as he arrived, leading his military forces, and was asked to lend his aid in these troubles, he declared that he would not move his camp unless provisions in abundance were first brought and four thousand equipped camels. The unhappy citizens were stunned by this answer and declared that, after suffering from fires and pillage, they could not procure a remedy for their tremendous losses by providing such enormous supplies. At that point the general, after deluding them by spending forty days there, marched away without actually attempting to do anything.

The people of Tripolis [Tripoli, Libya] were disappointed in their hope and fearing the worst. So when the lawful day for the popular assembly (which with them comes once a year) had arrived, they appointed Severus and Flaccianus as envoys who were to take to the emperor Valentinian golden statues of Victory because of his accession to power and were to tell him fearlessly of the lamentable ruin of the province. As soon as Romanus heard of this, he sent a swift horseman to Remigius, the chief- marshal of the court, a relative of his by marriage and a partner in his robberies, asking him to see to it that the investigation of this affair should be assigned by the emperor’s authority to the deputy governor Vincentius and himself.

The envoys came to the court, and being given audience with the emperor, stated orally what they had suffered. They presented decrees, containing a full account of the whole affair. After reading these, the emperor neither believed the communication of the marshal, who considered these misdeeds of Romanus possible, nor the envoys, who gave contrary testimony, a fall investigation was promised. However, the investigation was delayed in the way in which supreme powers are usually deceived among the distractions to which the powerful are liable.

While the people of Tripolis were long in a state of anxiety and suspense, looking for some help from the emperor’s military support, the armies of barbarians again came up, given confidence by what had happened before. After overrunning the territory of Lepcis and Oea with death and devastation, went away again, laden with vast piles of plunder. A number of decurions were put to death, among whom the former high-priest Rusticianus and the civic aedile Nicasius were conspicuous. But the reason why this incursion could not be prevented was that, although at the request of the envoys the charge of military affairs also had been entrusted to the governor Ruricius, it was soon afterwards transferred to Romanus. Now when the news of this newly inflicted catastrophe was sent to Gaul, it greatly angered the emperor. Accordingly, Palladius, a tribune and secretary, was sent to pay the wages that were due the soldiers in various parts of Africa, and to investigate and give a completely trustworthy report of what had happened at Tripolis.

However, during such delays caused by consultations and waiting for replies, the Ausourianians, made arrogant by two successful raids, flew to the spot like birds of prey made more savage by the smell of blood and, after slaying all those who did not escape danger by flight, carried off the plunder which they had previously left behind. They also cut down the trees and vines. Then one Mychon, a high-born and powerful townsman, was caught in the suburbs but gave them the slip before be was bound. Because he was lame and it was completely impossible for him to succeed in escaping, he threw himself into an empty well. However, the barbarians pulled him out with his rib broken, and placed him near the city gates. There, at the pitiful entreaties of his wife, he was ransomed but was drawn up by a rope to the battlements, and died after two days. Then the savages, roused to greater persistence, assailed the very walls of Lepcis, which re-echoed with the mournful wailing of the women, who had never before been besieged by an enemy and were half-dead with a terror with which they were not accustomed. But after blockading the city for eight days together, during which some of the besiegers were wounded without accomplishing anything, they returned in saddened mood to their own homes. . . [omitted following material].

[For Ammianus’ subsequent discussion of Huns and Alans, go to this link.]

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