Y.H. Choi, K. Crane, S. Menjivar, and F. Semere

In the ancient world of Greece and Rome, Ancient Ethiopia had a complicated history with regards to its relationship between Mediterranean powers. Ancient Greek and Roman authors praised Ethiopia for its antiquity, and criticized it for the cultural practices and people.. Although praise was common, ancient authors followed it up with clear disdain for their background. Furthermore, we can understand the views presented by the Ancient world through various forms by looking upon their areas of trade, citizenry, alliances, and colonies.

To understand the origin of prejudice towards Ancient Ethiopians, we need to look at the origin and manifestation of Greek identity. Greek identity was something that was at the center of their worldview. Herodotus wrote, “Greekness is a matter of having the same blood and language, shared temples and rituals, and customs of the same sort” (Herodotus 8.) This identity informed their conduct, their approach to other cultures, and even how they carried themselves. When ancient Greek  authors are exposed to other cultures such as the Ancient Ethiopians, their thoughts centered around comparing the outside culture to their own. Using this as a stepping stone, we can see how views of ancient Ethiopia might be twisted and convoluted by ancient authors.

Another idea we must take a look at when understanding ancient authors and their views towards Ethiopians is the distorted rationale when describing others of regions on the outskirts of their understanding. In the case of Greece, when a culture is situated geographically furthest from them and at the edge of what they consider the known world, their views of said culture is twisted and even more negative. The Romans also shared that sentiment, as reflected in the writings of Pliny who writes, “To the west are the Nigroi, whose king is said to have a single eye in his forehead, the Agriophagi, who live for the most part on the flesh of panthers and lions, the Pamphagi, who eat everything, the Anthrophagi, who eat human flesh, the Cynamolgi, with dog heads, the Tettarabitae who have four legs and move like animals,….A certain part of the Ethiopians live only on smoked and salted locusts, preserved for a years use. These people live for a maximum of forty years” (Pliny NH 6.194). This shows us that the point of view from which ancient authors discuss about Ethiopia is that of a lack of belief that those in the far reaches of their world are barely considered human. They don’t address cultures south of Egypt in Africa as anything that has substance and believe that their ideas of what people must look like there are without a doubt correct. Furthermore, Pliny has gone on to say that, “It is hardly surprising that the far reaches of the world produce humans and animals with monstrous shapes, since fire’s mobility is skilled at forming bodies and designing shapes. There certainly are reports of people from the eastern interior who have no nose and whose whole face is a flat plane, some lacking the upper lip and others a tongue” (Pliny NH 6.187). These ideas of deformities which have zero evidence to be backed up are common in the writings of Pliny which can be regarded as fact to many in this era. Having said this, we can infer that the actions taken by ancient authors such as Pliny when issuing statements such as these that their knowledge about Ancient Ethiopians is very subjective and can be possibly wrong. Subsequently, this presents us with the worldview from writers that their thoughts are partly formed through prejudice and that their first hand accounts are written through the lens of their Greek identity.

Language was a basis of how Greek civilization has deemed whether a culture was barbaric in its habits. In the case of cultures outside of Greek society that could be considered barbaric, authors tended to focus on the stark difference from Greek: “Barbarian language is animal like is part of a larger tendency to assimilate barbarians and animals” (Tuplin p 50). This shows us how the distinction between languages is put up as a barrier to separate and might prejudge against ancient Ethiopians simply for having a language that is different. Furthermore, even though there is not much information in regards to the languages spoken by ancient Ethiopians, with the flow of logic how ancient authors described barbaric language, they have the high possibility of having the same thoughts towards Ethiopians.

There are several stories from Herodotus of early journeys to Africa. These include descriptions of the route taken around the Cape of Africa (“they had the sun on their right hand”) and of Xerxes’ punishment of Sataspes following a similar path. It is noteworthy that most of the early accounts were based on sea voyages rather than going by land through the African continent. The only specific accounts of early Roman presence in Africa are Pliny and Ptolemy’s stories of the capturing of the city of Garama, capital of the Garamantian tribe. These limited interactions indicate that most people in Greece or Rome would have known very little about any of the Ethiopian peoples, the notable exception being the influence of trade. Some of the most important goods flowing in the trans-Saharan trade were animals, gold, ivory, and slaves. However, the Garamantes served as middle-men, reducing the direct contact between Mediterraneans and Ethiopians (Swanson).

1898 reconstruction of Pomponius Melas’ map of the world.

Since it is known that Greeks and Romans sailed around Africa, one would think that they would have some fairly good idea of the shape of the continent. However, maps of the time, such as the one drawn by Roman Pomponius Melas’, depict a very distorted picture. Africa appears roughly one-fifth its actual size relative to Europe. While sailors may not have ventured very far into the continent, surveyors could have accurately described the shape of Africa’s coast as seen from the Atlantic and Indian oceans. If unintentional, this could probably be explained by the quality of information available to Pomponius. If this is an intentional omission, it may be due to several reasons. Pomponius may have purposefully compressed his map in the regions where less was known, or less was present. Another, more sinister reason for the size of Africa may be a reluctance to correctly show Africa as much larger than Italy and its surrounding regions. In the presence of an idea that size is power, it would be desirable to diminish the scale of other places.

There are significant gaps in knowledge about ancient region of Ethiopia,  accentuated by a lack of clear definition of the said region. The Nubian parts of Ethiopia were known to the Greeks no later than Psammetichus II’s reign in Egypt in the early 6th century B.C.E. Little was known about the highlands even as the Nubian and coastal Ethiopia grew more familiar to the Greeks after the Macedonian conquest of the Persian Empire and the subsequent rise of the Diadochi kingdoms (Goldman 1977, 187). In fact, the highland Ethiopia was entirely unknown to the classical author Aeschylus, who was only a few decades before Herodotus (Gardner 1977). Herodotus mentions Ethiopians in his Histories where the Ethiopians meet the Persian envoys of Cambyses. Herodotus mentions them as the ichthyophagi (Ἰχθυοφάγοι), or fish-eaters, which suggests that the Ethiopians described are of the coastal region. In any case, the Ethiopians were considered to be living at the edge of the world, which is not especially surprising given the hostile deserts to the south of North Africa. The language of the Ancient Ethiopians is still shrouded in mystery, with only the Nubian languages preserved.

Fragment of parchment in Old Nubian Language from 9th-10th century. Greek influence is clear.

Archaeological evidences show that the Ethiopians adopted cultural elements of their northern neighbors as they saw fit. The Taharqa Kiosk reveals that the Nubians worshipped the Egyptian god Amun, as both his humanoid and animalized form are present in the kiosk. They chose to adopt Egyptian gods, but they held on to their own as well at least in the time of Dynastic Egypt as evident by the presence of distinctly “negroid” divinities alongside the adopted Egyptian ones (van Wyk Smith 235). Nevertheless, these adopted gods retained prominence for a very long time, while the native gods would be forgotten in time as evidences of their worship in the Classical period is scant at best. Isis and Osiris were worshipped by the Ethiopians even in the time of the Romans. The temple of Isis at Meroe even had a statue of a black king there, signifying that the cult of Isis had at least had followings amongst royalty (Snowden 112-113). The adoption of native gods to legitimize their rule is another instance of appropriation. The Diadochi were willing to adopt indigenous gods and syncretize them with their own Greek gods as well, as exemplified by the cases of Serapis and Zeus-Ammon in Ptolemaic Egypt. The Nubians also adopted some elements of Egyptian architecture. The Kerma deffufa, a brick built temple, shares some elements of Egyptian temples, most notably its shoebox shape. Inside it retained a distinctly Nubian identity with its walls covered with arts of animals in a style not seen in Egyptian temples (van Wyk Smith 244). The Kushite Ethiopians had their own language, but initially adopted the Egyptian hieroglyphs to write their script, and later on adopted the Egyptian demotic script and even the Greek script. The archaeological evidence is found by Dr. Karl Schmidt, who found a parchment with the word “ΗΡΩΔΗΟΥΡΟΥ” written on it. The said word has no Greek meaning, but it is suggested to be a compound of Herod’s name and the Nubian word uru (ουρου). The Old Nubian language survives in an alphabetical script derived from the Greek one (Breasted 380). However, a more compelling evidence in favor of Erich Gruen’s argument of different people appropriating from each other is the Aksumite appropriation of the mystical “Ethiopians” of the Greco-Roman world. The Aksumites appropriated the term for their own ethnicon Ityopya which is attested by Ge’ez documents from the 4th century C.E.. By adopting the term and image that Greco-Roman and Biblical literatures ascribe to them, the Aksumites could go on  to be recorded in the narratives of the Greco-Romans and later Christian history. (Selden 322-340)

Execration texts listing enemies and troublesome neighbors of Egypt.

Despite the Nubian eagerness to adopt and adapt Egyptian (and later, Greek) culture, the political relationship between Ancient Egypt and Nubia was far less amiable. The execration texts (lists of the enemies or troublesome neighbors of Egypt) frequently targeted Nubians. As such, there was some element of xenophobia from Egypt towards Kushite Nubia that predates the Persian, Greek and later Roman hegemony in the Mediterranean. This would only be exacerbated by the Kushite occupation of Egypt that resulted in the formation of the 25th Dynasty of Egypt. The monuments of Kushite Egyptian kings were destroyed by the succeeding 26th dynasty, marginalizing them once again from the scope of the Mediterranean world (van Wyk Smith 253). It was clear that the Egyptians saw the Kushite Nubians as the ‘other’ and the Egyptians maintained signs of difference as it suited them. The Egyptians saw the Nubians as meaningfully different people, and the Nubians were not only frequent targets of the aforementioned execration texts, but also targets of Egyptian propaganda and campaigns, however trivial some of them turned out to be.

The Greco-Roman understanding of the region of Ethiopia encompasses the Nubian/Kushite region. The Red Sea coast region and the highland region were quite distinct from each other, so this is not an accurate generalization. Herodotus does attempt to distinguish them, albeit crudely. As stated above, he mentions the ichthyophagi, but he also distinguishes Ethiopians by hair. He states there are Ethiopians who have straight hair and those with the “wooliest hair of all mankind.” The Greeks were as curious about the region as they were with most of the edge of the known world, and speculated about some of the geographic elements such as the Nile river. Euripides, in his play Helen, speaks about the source of the Nile being from white snow. The river was dubbed Aigyptos in Homer’s work, while Arrian states in Indica that the source of the Nile river is the summer rains in the Ethiopian hills which then empties into the Nile river (Gardner 1977).

The Greeks saw Ethiopians as a fascinating, exotic people, and this was reflected in their literature. In the Iliad, Homer writes of the Ethiopians in a mythical manner, being the first to coin the term Aithiopis while calling them the farthest of all men (ἔσχατοι ἀνδρῶν), (Johnson 2007) while the Odyssey also includes a passage in which Menelaus describe the wealth he picked up while visiting the Ethiopians, who lives in a place where the gods go to feast (MacLachlan 1992). Herodotus’ description of the Ichthyophagoi as the tallest and most beautiful of all men who are under laws that are different from all others thus has a basis on the exotic image first painted by the Homeric literature (Herodotus, Histories 3.20). Diodorus Siculus similarly calls them not only autochthonous, but also describes them as the first of all men. Indeed, the Greek perception of the Ethiopians was filled with imagination since their contacts with the Ethiopians were limited. Here Gruen’s argument about appropriation and projection come to play, as the Greeks projected their values upon them. Diodorus Siculus did this when he mentioned the Ethiopians as autochthonous, a very Greek concept. Meanwhile, the biblical scholar, Eusebios, also made an interesting case in his interpretation of Psalms 73:14, where he likens the Ethiopians to the birds who ate the carcasses of the Egyptians trying to stop the Jewish exodus. Johnson suggests that this may be based on the Homeric passage in which the Ethiopians join the Trojan War on the Trojan side led by Memnon, as the Ixeutikon mentions bird named Memnones which migrates from Ethiopia to Thrace to visit Memnon’s tomb, suggesting that those birds were metamorphosed Ethiopians who visited the tomb to honor their fallen king (Johnson 2007, 308-309). Johnson states that Eusebios is an unusual case, as one of the only biblical scholars to allude and quote the classic works like the Iliad. It is interesting to see the Greco-Roman perception of the Ethiopians having a basis on their own literary heritage, which is likely derived from Egyptian transmission of lore about the people to their South.

Like the Egyptians of the Dynastic period, Ptolemaic Egypt’s relationship with the Kushite Nubia had its share of cultural appropriation and political hostilities. The adoption of the Greek alphabet most likely took place in or sometime after the times of Ptolemaic Egypt, as some of the Meroitic nobility were educated in Greek during the time of the Ptolemies (van Wyk Smith 282). The development of the international trade network advanced the Greek knowledge of the Ethiopian region, and the knowledge of the Red Sea region increased under the Ptolemies as the Ptolemies established the town of Ptolemais Theron to control elephant hunting operations (Strab. 16.4.7). Despite this, the Greeks of the Hellenistic Period continued to cling to their preconceptions of the two Ethiopias. This involved the notion of ‘noble’ Ethiopians, which did not mesh well with Egyptian antipathy toward the Kushite Nubians borne of a period of occupation. Nevertheless, the Egyptians exerted an influence on the Greeks: the Egyptian hostility to the people of the south, combined with the resumption of good relations between the Ptolemies and Meroe ended up strengthening the Greek notion that the Meroitic Nubians were the noble Ethiopians, and the people below them savage. Diodorus Siculus corroborated this notion citing examples such as the long lifespans and advanced alphabet consisting of 28 characters (Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History 2.57), while other Ethiopians are depicted as savage people who possessed animal-like qualities. (Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History 3.8) The establishment of Ptolemais Theron had a military purpose, namely to secure elephants for the army. The rival Seleucid Empire had access to the Indian elephants while the Ptolemies did not, given that the transportation of elephants by sea was infeasible and the land route to India crossed lands of the Seleucids. The presence of elephants in Ptolemais Theron means that the Ptolemies must have had contact with the indigenous people who had experience hunting them. Another base from which Ptolemies hunted in this region was named Berenice Troglodytica. Troglodytica means “of hole dwellers” (Casson 1993, p249), a phrase which is often used derisively. While the Greek opinion of the Nubians was generally more positive, Diodorus mentions some practices that seem irrational. For example, he mentions that Nubian priests had the power to sentence a king to death, and the king would comply. Diodorus adds that the Nubians did not have the mental capability to recognize unreasonable orders. One exception to this was the Greek-educated king Ergamenes, who opposed his death sentence. Diodorus seems to imply that the Greek education supplanted his Nubian background, hinting that Nubians weren’t as sophisticated as Greeks (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 3.6).

The ancient Romans were also very distinct in their attitudes towards Black and non-black Africans. Romans made the acknowledgement that Ethiopians’ and other Black Africans’ looks were based on their climate and environment. Additionally, they did not like to give attention to regions outside north Africa. Romans noted that, “ tightly curled hair, swollen lips, dusky complexion, broad chest with pendulous breasts, belly rather pinched, thin legs, broad and ample feet… such a far cry was a figure from the Punic and Libyan elites of Roman North Africa” (van Wyk Smith 339). It exemplifies how little respect Romans had in regards to Black Africans in comparison to non-black North Africans. Furthermore, we can extend this to include how Ancient Ethiopians must have been treated by the Roman populace as simply inferior due to being from parts of inner Africa. Additionally, part of the sentiments were still carried to northern Africa. For example, Romans did not wish to assimilate any of their conquered lands in Africa as being Egyptian let alone African, “In the Roman period Alexandria was not treated as part of the imperial province of Egypt either in title or law” (van Wyk Smith 341). Herwig Maehler argued that Roman authors such as Horace and Juvenal didn’t even try to understand Egyptian culture which would have been more familiar to them, so it is safe to assume that the Romans cared even less about understanding the even more distant Ethiopians. Romans also adopted the Greek notion of the two Ethiopias, one noble, and one savage, and accordingly used terms like afer, niger, maurus, and melas, all meaning “black”, “dusty”, or “burnt” to describe darker-skinned people, while the term Aethiopiae was reserved for the same “noble” Ethiopians of the Greek tradition, who were still seen as the most foreign of all men. Thus to the Romans, African and Ethiopian were not interchangeable descriptions (Selden 2013, 331). While the Romans were generally more inclusive than their contemporary civilizations about the definition of “us,” dark-skinned people were typically excluded. North Africans were creolized, becoming part of the “us” in the Roman Empire. While notable Romans like the poet Terence, emperor Septimus and several jurists came from North Africa, the same could not be said of the sub-Saharan Africans. Nevertheless, the Ethiopians of Meroe and Aksum coped with this by appropriating the image of the “noble” Ethiopians, thus becoming the “other” and embracing the exotic yet positive image that the Greco-Roman world had envisioned for them.

The ancient Greeks and Romans made it clear that they viewed the ancient Ethiopians as inherently inferior, and sometimes they went as far as describing them as less than human in some ways. They would frequently make remarks that alluded to them as being inferior culturally and physically. While the ancient Greeks and Romans would occasionally show praise, saying they “are the most beautiful people of all humanity” (Periplous, 112.8-12), they ultimately had more offensive things to say than positive comments. They would express their disapproval of cultural practices of the ancient Ethiopian people, and often making their skin color and other physical features the butt of their ‘humor’ (Satyricon 102.14-15), which is regularly the case with modern racism and anti-blackness against black people that we see today.

Racism is more of a modern problem; however, anti-blackness has been a global problem for centuries. Anti-blackness is the general dislike of Black people and things relating to Blackness and Black culture, it goes beyond simply not liking people of darker skin tones, because the concept of Blackness relates to culture as well. Whether the ancient Greeks and Romans were racist or not may be up for debate, there is no doubt that they had anti-black beliefs and tendencies. “For Europeans, ‘dark skin was both comic and horrifying. It embodied vice, sin, and terror” (Van Wyk Smith). In order to view one group as inferior, you have to see another group as superior. Ancient Greeks and Romans did not consider themselves to be white; whiteness and white supremacy were not concepts at the time. They did, however, have strong nationalistic values and viewed their personal and ethnic groups as superior to others.

It was common for people in the ancient Mediterranean to have their prejudices about other groups. The Greeks and Romans were especially prejudiced towards other groups that did not belong to their own. They had a lot of criticisms about specific cultural practices, that altered physical features, such as Jewish circumcision or Ethiopian women piercing their lips. However, when the ancient Greeks and Romans would write about Ethiopian people, they would have criticisms regarding their skin color, and saying that they were burnt by the sun. They would often compare their natural physical features to things that were considered bad, as opposed to just acknowledging their differences (Diodorus, 3.1-10). This indicates that anti-black ideologies started long before slavery and racism, because Blackness was often what people would write about in negative way.

In addition to anti-blackness being a general problem, there was also the issue of the dehumanization of Ethiopian people, which tends to go hand in hand with anti-blackness. Sometimes the dehumanization was for the sake of labeling ancient Ethiopian people as less than human, and sometimes they were trying to praise them and say that they were of some of the highest humans, saying “They are distinguished in beauty, and the whole shape of their bodies is harmonious” (Siculus, 2.5-60). This often happens today with how non-Black people view and talk about Black people. In addition to fetishization, they also would refer to Ethiopian people as “entirely wild” and say “they exhibit a bestial character” (Siculus, 3.1-10). It is common for there to be a division between fetishization and dehumanization, which can be uncomfortable and unsettling when in the shoes of the person experiencing such things. There was a focus on the tongues of Ethiopian people being different and possibly split, which lead writers to say that they were not as human as people without tongue deformities. They describe the Ethiopian people’s tongues as “forked” and they mention the result of their “forked” tongues giving them the ability to “mimic not only all human articulate speech but also the many sounds of birds” (Diodorus Siculus, 2.55-60), which is another example of the ancient Ethiopians being compared to and associated with animal-like characteristics. The ancient Greeks and Romans were explicit in their disdain for ancient Ethiopians and that can be traced to one of the early roots of anti-blackness, which continues to be an international problem in addition to racism today.

In sum, the relationships between the ancient region of Ethiopia and Egyptian, Hellenistic, and later Roman cultures were interesting and complicated. The people of the ancient Ethiopia were perceived as the ‘other’ by Egyptians, Greeks and Romans alike. Egyptians who were familiar with the Kushite Nubians, and were occupied by them once, they had a negative view of the Nubians. The Greeks were influenced by Egyptians’ perceptions of Ethiopians and mixed these with their curiosity to form their own view. The Romans adopted the Greek viewpoint to a large degree. On the other hand, the Ethiopians of Meroe and Aksum appropriated not only the cultural elements of the northerners, but also the romantic image of the “noble” Ethiopias and became an interesting case of the ‘other’ in the Greco-Roman world which weren’t seen as just savage barbarians. Yet, those outside the bounds of the “noble” Ethiopia were often were dehumanized and seen as beasts with monstrous traits. These ancient perceptions of Ethiopians can be understood as earlier examples of anti-blackness.


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