Into the unknown.
Nero’s Nile expedition of 62 AD was a small affair, part geographic philanthropy part Reconnaissance for conquest. Lead by two Praetorian Centurions it had travelled down the Nile through Egypt into modern Sudan, which was as war torn then as it is now, and reached the prosperous capitol of the Kingdom of Kush, Meroe. It was a time of stabilising relations between Rome and Meroe. After sporadic conflicts, it is known that trade was already beginning to flourish again between the province of Egypt and Kush. The Romans were well treated by Kandake Amanikhatashan, who had only recently ascended the throne and wished friendly relations with her powerful Roman neighbour in Egypt. This was fortuitous for Nero had sent the mission not just to find the source of the Nile but to suss out Kush for conquest. The centurions gathered supplies and information and were once more on their way into the unknown.
Once they left Meroe, continuing by boat, the land became less prosperous again. The landscape ahead was split by the strong wide waters of the river showed little sign of life save that of the animals and plants. Towns and villages were scarce from then on however they must have been in contact with some people, otherwise Amanikhatashan wouldn’t have bothered giving them passes and introductions, also Seneca suggests they spoke with locals in remote areas.
When they came up with modern Khartoum, they discovered that the Nile broke in two, and that the water changed colour from brown to a dark blue, this is of course the Blue Nile, that flows into the highlands of Ethiopia (real Ethiopia not the Roman generic term for everything south of Egypt). Choosing to continue down the White Nile they approached southern Sudan. In doing so they became first Europeans to officially penetrate so far south into the African interior. The knowledge of these parts was scanty, and came second hand from traders, merchants, possibly from the intrepid boatmen that Pliny talks about that shot rapids south of Egypt in two man boats, who seemed to provide him with his information about the Nile, and older explorers.
This was a land of mystery and fable where amongst the bushy tangle of papyrus, tribes of Pygmy’s battled with migrating cranes. The Egyptians called the tribes of these lands “burnt faced tribes” (Aethiopes) who lived to the east and west on the border of the Ocean River. These two people’s may actually have been real, the Pygmy’s could be the Akka of inner Africa and the Aethiopes possibly tribes from Somalia. But no one reported that the Roman’s encountered any of them as they travelled south, maybe hunting for extra food on the shore to supplement their supplies. As they progressed the landscape they travelled through became increasingly wet, watered and green, bringing with it added dangers. The Romans must have negotiated the territory of Hippo’s with their spears clutched tightly, and they doubtless had to camp ashore, in the tough military contibernum tents they had drawn as supplies back in Egypt. It was either that or brave the unknown currents, tributaries and unseen curves of the river in the dark, which in other words committing suicide. As they pushed on no other human sound greeted them for many miles at a time, only the splash and wash of the river, and the sounds of animals in the dark, the wingbeat of birds that they scared from the marshy banks, and their high repeating calls as flocks of sacred Ibis rose in their hundreds out of the tall grasses into the brilliant blue sky.
For every familiar sight, most urban Romans knew what a crocodile, lion or elephant looked like but was the strange and unusual for them too. Like the prehistoric looking Egyptian shoebill. Drifting down the river it might be seen standing tall and perfectly still on it’s long legs amongst the stands of reeds and Papyrus. Like a creature from mythology, it appears as the guardian or minion of some malevolent river-god from the lush vegetation. Deathly grey, amongst the green, with it’s giant, unblinking eye watching knowingly from it’s oversized head, the thin sinister smile curving along it’s beak silently watching them pass. That is if they didn’t shoot it for dinner.
From Meroe they travelled some 600 miles down what was becoming a seemingly unending river. The monotony was broken however when it began to widen and break off into many root like tributaries. Islands emerged magically out of the path of the stream, high and towering tangles of feather headed papyrus swaying like the tail of a peacock. Landing on them, perhaps for the night, they would have found the roots were so matted together that they formed floating platforms and that their tops rose high above their heads, some twice the size of a man. Indeed these Islands are habitable and often support small communities. Very soon progress would have slowly started grinding to a halt as their boats began to drag and catch on thick rope like tendrils of water hyacinths. Now the expedition was suddenly threatened with becoming lost in the swampy maze of floating islands, byways and tangled roots. Seneca quotes one of the expedition as saying:
“And indeed we came to immense marshes, the outcome of which, neither the inhabitants knew nor anyone hope to know, in such a way are the plants entangled with the waters, not to be struggled through on foot or in a boat, because, Because the marsh, muddy and and blocked up, does not admit any unless it is small and holding one person”
Seneca’s witness, apart from tacitly acknowledging that their boats were fairly heavy and large, and that there were people around to ask, can only be describing the mighty marshes of the Bahr El Jebel. The Sudd in modern southern Sudan. A great swathe of swampy floodwater, that due to the soft, wet, makeup of its bottom forms a complex and ever shifting mass of islands. From the air it is a giant green patch in the Middle of the baked desert, dotted with dark pools of water. This vast network of unknown swamps and thick vegetation, was what stopped the expedition. Despite their best efforts to fight through the Sudd, they could not make it in their boats or on foot. The ancient guardian of the source of the Nile, the ram headed Khnum, was not ready to give up the secret of the origin of its sacred headwaters. Though some say that they crossed the Sudd during the dry season and got as far as Murchison Falls, which they seem to have vaguely described: “We saw two rocks from which a great force of river water came falling”. Which gave Seneca to think this was the source of the Nile itself bubbling up from the depths of the earth.
I side with those scholars that calculate that the distance they travelled, and the overwhelming testimony that they where barred from continuing by an enormous swamp, that they must have been stopped at the Sudd. The mysterious falls, then must be something they heard about from those adrenaline junky boatmen Pliny talks about, and decided to add it to the report as a plausible origin point for the river. It also put the patina of success on the mission. Having exhausted all their options the Roman’s decided to turn back, and follow the current and the prevailing winds back to Meroe, then retrace their path to Alexandria having penetrated further into Africa than any European in known history, over 2,400 miles, yet the men who undertook this epic journey are both nameless and faceless, not even the Centurion’s are known except that they where praetorians sent by the Emperor and even that is not totally certain. Based on their evidence Nero did not invade “Ethiopia” and perhaps as a consequence the story of the Roman search for the source of the Nile just became another footnote in the Imperial records, now almost totally forgotten. It would take until the mid 19th century for the old adage still in use by early Victorians to disappear, when in 1858 Speke and Burton, later confirmed by Stanley in 1875, stared speechless upon the waters of Victoria Falls.
“Facilius sit Nili caput invenire” – It would be easier to find the source of the Nile! It had not been easy at all.
Thanks for reading. See you all again soon for another adventure in Historyland.
I Believe that there was probably two expeditions, but not two expeditions of discovery/espionage, later expeditions would likely be solely diplomatic or punitive, whereas this was ostensibly to find the source of the Nile. All the sources are similar in general terms, and vary only in a few respects such as there being a King of Ethiopia in one and Queen Candace (Kandake Amanikhatashan) in another. This of course adds credence to the overall course of events as true sources never agree entirely.
As to these discrepancies, I can offer little explanation, the mysterious Ethiopian King could be another ruler they met further on down the Nile, but there is no evidence that I can find for a town or city between Meroe and the Sudd that would not come under the control of Kush, yet Amanikhatashan did offer letters of passage to someone, perhaps a vassal. There is an argument that Seneca is actually talking about the Kandake, because in the way he is using “Ethiopia” he is certainly using the Roman term of all the people south of Egypt, and there was obviously no such person as a King of Ethiopia in the way he means it. However in terms of Pharaonic civilisation, which Kush took ancestry from, and which was still alive in Meroe at the time, there is no such thing as a Queen of Egypt either in the literal sense, there was only female Pharaoh’s. Essentially female King’s, a King could have a queen but a queen could not rule as a queen, only as a Pharaoh. The most famous female Pharaoh’s are arguably Hatshepsut and Cleopatra, but being a Pharaoh was defined by ancient standards, and as such was traditionally thought of as masculine role, but would Seneca be so exact about Egyptian traditions? It’s certainly possible.
Thanks for reading, see you again for another adventure in Historyland.
Read Part One here.
Read Part Two here.
Sources used in this series:
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.