History: Roman exploration of Central Africa

The Roman exploration of Central Africa is a fascinating chapter in history, shedding light on the ancient world’s curiosity and thirst for discovery.

Roman reached Lake Chad and Murchison Falls in Uganda, along the western coast of Africa, toward the Sénégal River along the coast of the Red Sea, toward the Horn of Africa, and modern Zanzibar.


During the reign of Augustus, Lake Chad was a huge lake and two Roman expeditions were carried out in order to reach it: Septimius Flaccus and Julius Maternus reached the “lake of hippopotamus” (as Lake Chad was called by Ptolemy). They moved from coastal Tripolitania and passed near the Tibesti mountains. Both did their expeditions through Garamantes’ territories, and were able to leave a small garrison on the “lake of hippopotamus and rhinoceros” after 3 months of travel in desert lands. Ptolemy wrote that in 50 AD Septimius Flaccus carried out his expedition in order to retaliate against nomad raiders who attacked Leptis Magna, and reached Sebha and the territory of Aozou. He then reached the rivers Bahr Erguig, Chari and Logone in the lake Chad area, described as the “land of Ethiopes” (or black men) and called Agisymba.


Ptolemy wrote that around 90 AD Julius Maternus (or Matiernus) carried out a mainly commercial expedition. From the Sirte gulf he reached the Oasis of Cufra and the Oasis of Archei, then arrived -after 4 months travelling with the king of the Garamantes- to the river Bahr Salamat and Bahr Aouk, near modern-day Central African Republic in a region then called Agisymba. He went back to Rome with a rhinoceros with two horns, that was shown in the Colosseum.


Pliny wrote that in 70 AD a legatus of the Legio III Augusta named Festus repeated the Balbus expedition toward the Niger river. He went to the eastern Hoggar Mountains and the entered the Air Mountains as far as Gadoufaoua plain. Gadoufaoua (Touareg for “the place where camels fear to go”) is a site in the Tenere desert of Niger known for its extensive fossil graveyard, where remains of Sarcosuchus imperator, popularly known as SuperCroc, have been found). Festus finally arrived in the area in which Timbuktu is now located. Some academics, such as Fage, think that he only reached the Ghat region in southern Libya, near the border with southern Algeria and Niger. However, it is possible that a few of his legionaries reached as far as the Niger river and went down to the equatorial forests navigating the river to the estuary in what is now Nigeria. Something similar may have occurred in the exploration of the Nile done under Emperor Nero in Uganda.

Emperor Nero around 61 AD sent a small group of praetorian guards to explore the sources of the Nile River in Africa. He did this in order to obtain information for a possible conquest of Ethiopia, as was called Equatorial Africa (and everything south of Egypt) by the Romans. Roman legionaries navigating the Nile from southern Egypt initially reached the city of Meroë and later moved to the Sudd, where they found huge difficulties in going further.

Seneca wrote about this exploration and detailed that the sources were from a big lake in central Africa, south of the swamp region now called “the Sudd” in South Sudan. But other Roman historians, such as Pliny, suggest that the exploration was done in order to prepare a conquest of Ethiopia by Nero’s legions.

However, death of Nero prevented further explorations of the Nile as well as a possible Roman conquest south of their Roman Egypt. Some historians suggest that the Roman legionaries of Nero probably reached the Murchison Falls in Uganda (but there is a major controversy about this very difficult achievements.

Src: archaeohistories

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