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pg 266 pg 267Appendix

The Source of the Nile

The source of the Nile was a notorious conundrum much debated in Antiquity, and bedevilled by erroneous geographical theories and by the belief that the Nile was the only river in which crocodiles and hippopotami were to be found. Various theories attributed the source to points east, west, and south of its course through Egypt.1 Some of these theories involved 'antichthonian' elements, such as the claim of Juba II (fr. 38a, repeated in Latin translation at Plin. NH 5. 51–4) that the Nile rose in the Atlas Mountains beyond a lake called Nilides, and flowed alternately through a series of lakes and underground channels before re-emerging in upper Egypt. This theory was perhaps developed to link the native land of Juba's wife, Cleopatra Selene, with her adoptive home in Mauretania.2

In evaluating the state of knowledge achieved through journeys of exploration down to the Flavian era, we can probably discount the investigations overland from Dar-es-Salaam by an explorer called Diogenes that are reported in the Antonine period by Ptolemy in his Geography (1. 9. 3–4, 4. 7. 23–4, 4. 8. 3–6). Ptolemy was relying in turn on Marinos of Tyre, who compiled his work during the reign of Trajan. We do not know the date of Diogenes' journeys, but they cannot be shown to have had any impact on the expedition sponsored by Nero, which was one of two major expeditions conducted by the Roman administration. It is therefore highly unlikely that Diogenes' claims were known in Martial's Rome.

In 25 BC the governor of Egypt, P. (or C.) Petronius, launched a punitive expedition to avenge an attack by Queen Candace of Aethiopia on Syene and its environs, 964 km south of Cairo: see Fig. 2. In a major show of strength and a questing spirit he pressed on to sack Napata, and eventually penetrated 870 Roman miles (1,288 km) beyond Syene (Strabo 17. 1. 54, Plin. NH 6. 181–2, Dio 54. 5. 5). Since Napata is already 430 Roman miles (636 km) past Syene, Petronius evidently went twice as far from Syene as that and pressed on towards Meroe before the arid conditions forced him to turn back. Whether or not Augustus had aspired to annex Aethiopia it is impossible to say; but Petronius' mission, and the more or less simultaneous expedition to the Red Sea by his contemporary, Aelius Gallus, provided a major boost to the trade-route between Rome and India.3

According to Seneca, it was in a spirit of pure enquiry ('ueritatis in primis amantissimus', NQ 6. 8. 3) that Nero launched an expedition under two centurions to investigate the source of the Nile. Others alleged military expansionism and vague pg 268

Fig. 2. The course of the Nile

Fig. 2. The course of the Nile

pg 269territorial ambitions on Nero's part (Plin. NH 6. 181, 12. 19, Dio 63. 8. 1); Pliny mentions a detachment of praetorians under the command of a tribune. Despite these apparent discrepancies, a single expedition must be involved, to be dated between 61 and 63.4 Seneca quotes verbatim from the centurions' description of the impasse that they reached (NQ 6. 8. 4): 'peruenimus ad inmensas paludes, quarum exitum nec incolae nouerant nec sperare quisquam potest: ita implicatae aquis herbae sunt et <herbis> aquae, nec pediti eluctabiles nec nauigio, quod nisi paruum et unius capax limosa et obsita palus non fert.' This description matches the swamps in southern Sudan in the general area known as El Sudd, which is the Arabic word for the decayed plant-material that chokes the water south of the confluence of the Bahr el Ghazal with the White Nile (especially along the upper reaches known as Bahr el Jebel).5

Nero's officers had advanced nearly 900 km south of Khartoum. When they presented their report, it included a map (Plin. NH 12. 19): 'cognita Aethiopiae forma, ut diximus, nuper allata Neroni principi raram arborem Meroen usque a Syene fine imperii per DCCCCLXXXXVI m.p. nullamque nisi palmarum generis esse docuit.' It has been suggested that this map was inscribed on bronze and lodged in the archives at Rome.6 But there was apparently no consensus that the members of Nero's expedition had indeed found the source of the Nile. A vague phrase in Pliny may reflect a belief that they had (NH 6. 188): 'inter paludis ex quibus Nilus oriretur'. But Seneca puts forward three possibilities, phrased as two pairs of alternatives (NQ 6. 8. 5): 'sed siue caput illa, siue accessio est Nili, siue tunc nascitur, siue in terras ex priore recepta cursu redit'. It is at any rate clear from Claudian's flattering prediction about Honorius (quoted in the note on Spect. 3. 5) that in the fourth century the source was still regarded as an unsolved mystery (even by a man from Alexandria), and Martial's reference to 'deprensi … Nili' should be taken as hyperbole evoking an exceedingly distant people rather than endorsing the success of Nero's mission. Implicit is the connection between exploration and empire.7pg 270


1 Lloyd on Hdt. 2. 28–34, RE xvii/1. 555–66 s.v. Nil (E. Honigmann), Postl (1970: 11–36).

2 Roller (2003: 181–2, 184 [map], 192–6).

3 Desanges (1978: 314).

4 Ibid. 323–5.

5 RE xvii/1. 560, Cary–Warmington (1929: 165–78).

6 Sherk (1974: 559–60).

7 Nicolet (1991: 85–94), Romm (1992: 149–56).

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