The Journey to Meroe.
In AD 62 Nero sent two Praetorian Centurions to Egypt to explore the Nile, and scout out the land for possible conquest. They arrived in Egypt and gathered a small, well equipped expedition, kitted out with military equipment from local Legion bases and hired civilian boats to carry them, and guides to lead the way. Thus prepared they set off on the journey to Meroe.
The Roman Expedition followed the path of the Nile down from Alexandria, through the winding veins of the Delta and onto the smoother, broader parts in between the major centres where the river traffic diminished but did not entirely disappear. Lines of Nile Barques, shallops and local fishing boats, threaded their way down the sacred river every day to sell wares and ply their trade, effortlessly navigating the treacherous currents and cursed whirlpools, while long flat transport barges flowed along with the stream loaded with heavy goods. The dangers of the Nile are not confined to demonic whirlpools and currents that overturn boats and drown their crews, but the animals that inhabit the water and infest the reed covered banks. The serrated back’s and bumpy nose’s of Crocodiles would have been a familiar sight to the expedition as they travelled. Mosaics in Leptis Magna and in Italy itself testify to the interest that the Romans took in the wildlife of the Nile. The crocodiles sun themselves on the sandbars and smooth banks in the heat of the day, or lie at the surface of the water like logs watching for prey. The telltale S pattern of a Croc cutting the through the water, propelled its powerful rudder like tale is a sight not to be forgotten. But though these ancient predators appear to be the most obvious danger of the life giving waters, the actual fear of any Nile boatman comes from a much more sedentary looking animal. The broad plate back and odd half horse half cow shaped head of a Hippopotamus, emerging like a lump of glistening purple marble from the water was a warning as clear as day to a veteran sailor. To this day the most dangerous animal in Africa is the deceivingly benign Hippo, the name is Greek for River Horse, and they have the power to overturn large boats and trample people underfoot, even before you get to the giant tusk like incisors of a bull.
The man made sights they passed where already centuries old, the Pyramid’s where long behind them before they came in sight of the temples of Memphis, Elephantine Island, and the sacred pillars of Karnak at Thebes on the verge of Upper Egypt, a somber reminder that no civilisation lasts forever.
As they reached the 1st cataract, the river banks rose into red Granite walls that echoed to the thunder of the foaming river that carved them. The water was channeled through these canyons at an furious rate and was certain destruction to any ancient craft caught in it, unless ropes were be attached on either side of the boats, and they were warped up the stream. This obstacle would have taken some 4 days to pass. Once clear they disembarked and traveled to Pselchis, on the caravan route, and from there trekked 40 days through the Nubian desert to Premnis. The desert is a lonesome place but it is alive in many ways. With their camels and mules laden with gear, and perhaps the centurions mounted on horseback, the bearers and guides walked. The spectacle of a lone Oryx sometimes being the only thing to draw the eye, while sand snakes, and lizards would have provided nights full of alarms. Did the wild beauty of the adventure strike the Romans? How could it not? As each burning day lead into a molten sunset where the simmering disc of the sun slides to meet the distant hills from a purple sky, giving way to the cold of the desert night. At last these days and nights brought them to Abu Hamed, and then Premnis, a strongly defended town on the second curve of the Nile’s great S bend. It had been taken by the governor of Egypt, Publius Petronius, during the Nubian campaign against Kush (25-21 BC), in which he also sacked the “small city” of Napata (the old Kushite capitol in the days of Piankhi) in 22 BC. Ever since then things had been relatively quiet in Nubia. Despite the defeat they had suffered the Kushites had rebuilt and gone on as they always had. Premnis was a perfect place to resupply after the desert trek. From there they could rejoin the river which took them further and further away from their known world and into Modern Sudan, to the city of Meroe, capitol of Kush since 300 BC.
After setting off again, presumably once more by boat, they saw evidence of the decline of the Nubian state. Pliny says that they reported “Many old towns on the way to Meroe had disappeared and there where wildernesses” in the Kingdom. This was perhaps to do with the hand of Rome, but perhaps there is more too it, recent archaeological studies have revealed that most of modern day Sudan had once been fertile grazing land, which was slowly claimed by the desert. Already this seems to have forced the Nubians to retreat further south and make their new Capitol at Meroë. Whatever kind of Egypt the Romans thought they had conquered, it was a pale shadow to what had formerly been, little did they know that they were soon to catch a glimpse of that lost world, beyond the 4th Cataract.
The further south they went the greener it got, by the time they reached Dangeil with its palace and temple to Amun, things were looking up. Then after 12 days sailing they came to river port of the “Island of Meroe”, what Herodotus called the mother city of the “Ethiopians”. It stood just north of modern Khartoum with the Nile to the west and the Atbara river to the south. There is some contention as to whether it was really an island. Some arguing that silt deposits and the position of temples point to a long dried up Nile tributary along its eastern side, others saying that the island refers to the Butana Steppe in between the Nile and the Atbara.
Irrespective of this, Compared to the war scorched regions they had just crossed through it seemed like an oasis to the travellers. Watered by the two rivers and lesser tributaries, the city walls rose out of the alluvial plain on a lush meadow that visitors called the Plain of the Sun. On the verge of the papyrus swathed banks, shaded by date palm, they had found evidence of the grazing of Rhinoceros and Elephants. After a mile’s march they entered the city, and they could see immediately that it was old and steeped in tradition. Three cemeteries of sombrely dignified pyramids stood sentinel 3 miles to the east, the memories of their ancestors guarding the citizens from evil. The Kingdom of Kush was a survivor, for centuries a great succession of Pharaoh’s had marched south to suppress and conquer “Vile Kush” but no matter how many times the Lord’s of Two Lands returned to kill and burn, the Kushites always came back. Indeed they had accepted northern culture into their own, and even freed Egypt from the Libyans and ruled as Kings over both kingdoms until about 653 BC. Therefore some of the mummies interred in those enigmatic, kiln like pyramids where Pharaoh’s.
So too, everything about Meroe was a strange mix of ancient Egyptian and tribal Kushite, with touches of modern Greek infiltrating here and there. They were likely expected, as word would have reached Meroe of their approach from Dangeil. When they arrived they might have been met by a troop of warriors. Impressive men tattooed and scarred after tribal tradition sporting ostrich feathers in their hair, the best warriors carrying iron axes and spears with a few swords, but the majority still armed with bronze weapons. As might have been expected bows and oxhide shields were plentiful. The Romans where taken into the palace of for an audience.
To get there they passed through the small ordinary buildings made of local mud bricks and interwoven pieces of split palm wood that rambled in mazy streets, hugging the walls and housing the majority of the people. Closer in to the battlements they reached the industrial and merchant quarter, filled with the hammering of forge’s and the roar of blast furnaces. A mixture of Iron mongers, cattlemen and farmers crowded the markets, which were filled with lowing cattle and carts and baskets of crops, flour and grain.
They passed through one of the four Egyptian influenced pylon gates, and into a bustling world of priests, workers and travellers that gleamed and shone. Fragrant incense curled into the air from the temples, (including a small one to Amun) built of brick, sandstone and limestone. They had pylon entrances and enclosure walls, carved with intricate scenes of royal and military events. The sound of water trickled from the royal baths (or water sanctuary), decorated with plaques, carvings and statues, fed by an brick lined aqueduct that flowed only when the Nile was high and thus was associated with the ancient Egyptian belief that the monarch could influence the inundation. What the Romans took to be baths and the aqueduct were not the only familiar structures. Hellenistic influences were seen also in some of the temples. A recently restored temple to the sun, a kilometre out from the town featured a podium structure with a colonnade running around its sanctuary, this place held a secret beneath its altar that would not be discovered for thousands of years.
Meroe was a city of temples and tombs as well as iron mongers and traders. Outside the east gate, tucked away in its own separate enclosure, was the temple to Amun, the biggest building in the city, and rival to Gebel Barkal, made of red and mud brick, sporting pylons and columns and a sanctuary built out of Nubian sandstone with guardian ram and minor temples lining the route to its door. Lion temples to the war god Apedemak and many of the old gods of Egypt were prevalent around the city.
The Centurions were most likely received in an outer courtyard of the palace, which possibly stood on the south eastern side of the complex across from the baths and near the entrance to the Amun enclosure. If this outer room was anything like the one in Dangeil, they probably walked across the fine limestone floors and outside again into the sunlight, through a fruit orchard and into an enclosure that would have been half roofed by a wood and Palm frond ceiling, held up by columns. Seated in the shade on a raised dais was the Queen, surrounded by her most trusted guards, courtiers and attendants. Who was she? Records show that back in 25 BC Meroe was ruled by a woman named Candice, and the expedition would report that when they arrived in the early AD 60s, it was still ruled by a woman with that name. However this cannot be the same person, so one assumes that it was another Candice. But how does one make such mistake? Was it just a case of chronic name hand-me-downs? No, actually it’s simpler than that, a breakdown in communications befell the Romans and a mistranslation occurred.
Candice is not the name of a Queen at all, in fact it’s a title. Candice is the Greek word for Kandake or Kentake which is the what the Kushites called their queen’s and queen mother’s.
The actual name of the formidable opponent that Petronius fought at the end of the last century was Amanirenas She reigned from about 40 BC to 10 BC and thus died long before the expedition even set out. She was described as brave, and blind in one eye, not something that would have gone unnoticed. It is unlikely the present Kandake was any of her two next successors either. The woman the Roman explorers met when they came to Meroe was most probably Kandake Amanikhatashan who ruled from approximately AD 62 to 85 (This is another reason why I have dated the expedition to 62). She is famous for having sent her Kushite cavalry to help Titus during the Great Jewish Revolt in 70 AD, perhaps a fruit of this diplomatic overture. Kandake’s usually had husbands, but could rule independently as sovereign, or as consorts, who nevertheless often went into battle. Since no source mentions meeting a King or consort, we must assume that Amanikhatashan was sovereign ruler at the time. Wall carvings suggest that previous Kadake’s were preferred to be fashionably curvaceous or comfortably full bodied rather than slender, most likely this was the ideal that Kushite women aspired to.
The Kandake generously made the Roman’s recommendations and introductions to a number of southern rulers that they might encounter, which would hopefully prevent trouble once they left Kush, and she may well have supplied an escort to make sure. The Queen of Kush had, it seemed, seen the writing on the wall. Herodotus spoke of the piety of the city, of an oracle to Amun, and how the people would go to war on the whim of whatever a particular god ordained it, information gathering was a main goal of the expedition. However both Amanikhatashan’s predecessors had been bruised by warlike stances against Rome, therefore it seems as if she was trying a softer approach, but did the Centurions realise this?
How long the Romans stayed and where is anybody’s guess. I’d bank on it being in one of the temple precincts for a short period of time, probably with a royal guard in attendance. It is tempting to wonder therefore whether they visited any of the temples around the city, or visited the oracle. Beneath the altar one of those Temples was a bronze head of the Emperor Augustus, now in the British Museum, looted by the Kushites under Amanirenas in 25 BC. Since many heads of Augustus were retaken by Petronius, the Pretorians may indeed have tentatively asked about the ones that never came back, but they would only have received a small smile and an diplomatically apologetic denial in return. Little did they know it had symbolically placed under the feet of the gods of Kush.
Thanks for reading and see you soon for another adventure in Historyland.
With thanks to Sophie Hay of the British School in Rome, who allowed me to use her wonderful photographs of the Sudan. https://pompei79.wordpress.com
The Ancient Explorers: M. Cary E.H. Warmington Pelican Books 1963.
The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: Toby Wilkinson
Explorers of the Nile: Toby Spence
The Annals of Ancient Rome: Tacitus.
Various Academic articles online which reference Pliny the Elder and Seneca.
Online texts of Pliny the elder and Seneca.
The Complete Roman Army: Adrian Goldsworthy.
Ancient Greece and Rome at War: Peter Connelly.
Roman Legionary 58 BC–AD 69 Ross Cowan
Rome’s Enemies 5 The Desert Frontier: Davide Nicolle.
The Histories, Herodotus.