This is the story of an attempt to find the source of the Nile. Because Emperor Nero couldn’t make do with Garum.
Part 1: Go Find the Nile.
People said things differently in Ancient Rome. Apart from it being Latin and not English, but the way people expressed themselves reflected the world around them, just as it does today, and the world back then was very different.
In Ancient Rome if you wanted to express the idea of an impossible dream (Without breaking into a number from the Man from La Mancha) you might say: “Facilius sit Nili caput invenire” – It would be easier to find the source of the Nile!
Today we might have said “Easier said than done” or “And why don’t you walk on water while your at it” or something equally sobering or disheartening that would serve the same purpose as a bucket of ice water. But that’s because we all know that the source of the Nile originates just above Lake Victoria in Tanzania; the Romans did not. And centuries of searching confirmed that it could not be found.
During their many wars with the powerful Kingdom of Kush, the Egyptians had gotten as far as Nubia. The Babylonians had not particularly cared and the Persians penetrated a tad further down than most. Yet still wild ideas where passed around as to why the great river flooded, and what its origins were. In about 460 BC Herodotus theorised that the source of the Nile came from massive mountains beyond the reach of the civilised world.
One of the first things Alexander the Great did when he arrived was to order an investigation into the Nile’s life giving flood that made Egypt so fertile, but conqueror that he was, he stayed only long enough to consult an oracle about his destiny then set off, never to be seen in the west again. After his death the Ptolemaic dynasty managed to stretch further than any Greek had before. They sent an overland expedition lead by a man named Dalion who pushed beyond Meroe, Capitol of Kush, but nothing much came of this except to open it up to some Hellenistic influence. Therefore Nilotic knowledge did not go much further than this until the Romans came. At first the Romans were more concerned with annexing Egypt, and then fighting each other for control of the new Empire, than doing exploring. This attitude changed when the last of the Julio Claudio dynasty came to the throne in the form of Nero, the 5th Emperor of Rome.
Not that the Romans had just sat twiddling thumbs during the interim, in AD 33 under the reign Tiberius a survey had been conducted beyond the frontier of Greek knowledge, certainly to Pselchis near the 1st Cataract. Here an inscription tells that a soldier of the 3rd Legion Cyrenaica named Titus Servillus made a district map in the twentieth year of Tiberius Caesar Augustus on the 26th of July.
By the time Nero appears, Egypt was secure enough for the Emperor to consider an investigation into the unknown. At some time between AD 60 and 67 an imperial expedition was organised to find the source of the Nile.
The discrepancy in date is because no one seems to be able to get a fix on it, and experts and scholars are unsure and varied in their interpretation. Some say that the tale told here was actually two different expeditions, one occurring in about AD 62 and the other in AD 67 or 70, because Pliny the Elder and Seneca (the two classical sources) seem to at once show two different operations, and then the same basic format and outcome. I favour the single operation and that is the story I’m going to tell here, but there will be time to discuss the different arguments later. I have chosen AD 62 as the date of the expedition, (Certainly 69 and 70 would be after the death of Nero).
However the merry lire player may not have just been concerned with expanding the knowledge of science and geography, it was thought that he was planning to go to war in Ethiopia or Abyssinia, and he needed information of the unknown lands and kingdoms of the south so that he could use the current peace to launch an invasion. Whatever its subtext the official blurb was that the expedition was to travel south from Roman territory and map the land, the ultimate goal being to find the source of the Nile. Whenever visitors came to Egypt the first thing they did was ask about the Nile, and the Romans wanted to be the ones to answer their questions.
The commanders of the expedition were two centurions of the Praetorian Guard, trusted men, and nameless as far as records go, who would likely have a secret brief from the Emperor to scout out the land, identify resources, and possibly open negotiations with the southern powers should they deem it favourable for the future of Rome.
In one of the frequent tantalising gaps in ancient history, nothing is known about the size or composition of the force, as if writing about a little known event wasn’t hard enough! Therefore what follows is essentially my own supposition and I cannot stress too highly the amount of conjecture I am putting in here. Suffice to say I have troweled it on.
The inference is that the expedition was small. From what I’ve found out, the voyage can be split into three parts, that from Alexandria to Pselchis, then overland to Premnis (Primis Magna) where they picked up the river to Meroe and then from Meroe into the unknown. The first leg could have been made on either single masted Roman merchant ships, which could navigate both the sea and the canals and rivers that lead into the major cities they took goods to, or high prowed, high sterned square rigged Egyptian ships. The comfortable width of the Nile in the early stages makes it almost impossible to guess. In planning the route the Romans could draw on experience from past campaigns in Upper Egypt, they knew that there is a loop in the Nile between Pselchis and Premnis. This deviation forms a taught bow into the western desert and not only lengthens the journey and considered impassable to boats travelling south. Therefore they would get off the river at Pselchis and then march on a direct line down to Premnis, essentially drawing a bowstring on the bow, and picking up the river again there. Baggage animals like mules and camels would be needed to haul supplies, and to avoid delay’s they would probably have been contracted ahead of time, but they could not lug their ships over the desert as such a feat would surely have been recorded.
So whatever ships they used to get to Pselchis at the 1st Cataract of the Nile, they must have left them there and picked up replacements at Premnis. As any traveller knows planning ahead is vital for such trips. Premnis appears to be under Roman control at this time and these boats would probably have been different to the ones used hitherto, most likely native Egyptian craft. Egyptian boat building did not change much over time, so they would be travelling in something like single trunk canoes or shallops made out of Papyrus, all Egyptian boats had a relatively shallow draught and this would help no end, but this obviously had the effect of splitting the expedition into a little flotilla.
Experienced Nile guides and pilots with Greek and Egyptian translators would need to be hired, arrangements for resupply, especially with water, made up to the verge of Roman control, their supplies probably took the form of basic Roman Military rations based on wheat, to make bread with, but on campaign they could be issued with hard tack, sour wine, bacon and olive oil and of course water, all of these thing’s would need to be ready for them at all their expected stops too. Since it was the army that was in charge of the expedition, most of the equipment would have been requisitioned from the legion bases through the province.
In circa AD 67 (towards the far end of the spectrum but near enough to speculate) there where two Legions in Egypt (one apparently helping suppress the Jews) and Tacitus say’s that there had been two stationed there since AD 23 (Annals 4:5) the 3rd Cyrenaica (definitely in Egypt AD 33 see above, had been previously stationed at Thebes) and 22nd Deiotariana both where based at Alexandria and it was probably from these units, that supplies and equipment where drawn. The gear was built for campaigning, it was durable and effective. Map making and surveying gear and the hardy leather mess tents that slept eight men to a tent were brought.
It is also possible that some troops where sent with them, but none are recorded as going, and if any did it would be safe to assume there where not many, the amount of supplies required for such a mission, assures me that the head count was kept to a minimum as allot of soldier’s would have attracted undue attention, yet some must have gone with the Centurion’s, probably a Vexillation from one of the above Legion’s accompanied them as a guard, if I had to guess I’d plump for the 3rd Legion Cyrenaica, because they seem to have been there the longest, there is evidence of their making maps and they where the senior unit. The planning and gathering of supplies at different points must have taken a considerable time in itself, but I assume that it was done with typical Roman efficiency to provide for every eventuality. So at last, after much preparation, they were ready for the Journey to Meroe.
See you again next time for another Adventure in Historyland.
The Ancient Explorers: M. Cary & E.H. Warmington.
The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: Toby Wilkinson.
Explorers of the Nile: Toby Wilkinson.
The Annals of Ancient Rome: Tacitus.
Digitalised texts of Pliny the Elder and Seneca.
The Complete Roman Army: Adrian Goldsworthy.
Ancient Greece & Rome at War: Peter Connelly.
Roman Legionary 58 BC – AD 69: Ross Cowan.