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Roman sea expeditions

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

In addition to many land expeditions, the Romans also undertook several sea expeditions in southern directions. Greek scholars did not realize that the African continent stretches south of Libya, they believed that Libya was flowing around the ocean – according to Plutarch, Alexander the Great considered circumnavigating Libya as a shorter alternative to a trip by land from the Indus estuary to Macedonia.

Even Eratosthenes (276–194 BCE) believed that the African land ends near the Horn of Africa (the modern Somali Peninsula). The Romans significantly expanded their knowledge of the African coast, and they did not have great faith in Greek reports. According to Pliny the Elder, a Roman expedition departed from Mogador (today Es-Suwajra) around the year 10 CE and reached the Canary Islands and Madeira. Apparently found only ruins, without any local population, the islands were inhabited by dogs – hence the name Canary Islands, from the Latin word canis (“dog”). The historian also mentions the story of Xenophon of Lamsakos about islands one day sailing from the West Horn, or Cape Verde, on which it is believed today that it could have been about Cape Verde.

According to Xenofornt, Carthaginian general Hanno visited these islands, where he encountered a tribe whose women were completely covered with fur. Apparently, until Rome’s conquest of Carthage, two such women were exposed to public view in the city. To the Hesperides, now identified with São Tomé and Príncipe and Bioko, shipping would take 40 days, which shows Roman knowledge of the western coast of Africa as distant as Equatorial Guinea. This partly confirms the finding of Roman coins from the reign of Trajan in Congo, Nigeria, Niger, Guinea, Togo and Ghana. However, it cannot be unequivocally determined that such coins did not appear in this area much later, as there is no evidence of the presence of African products from this area in Roman areas.

In the east, the Romans probably reached Rapta in Azania, today’s Tanzania, perhaps at the mouth of the Rufidji River, opposite the Mafia Island on south of Zanzibar. Periplus of the Eritrean Sea (“navigate around”, a navigation treaty describing individual ports and characteristic elements of the coast taking into account the distance between them) from the turn of the first and second century CE and a map prepared by Claudius Ptolemy in the 2nd century CE prove that the Romans had reached far further south-east than west, but there is nothing certain about the news to the south of the Equator. By the third century CE, the Chinese had learned about this area, as the author of Weilue argues in the Western Peoples.

In year 1 CE, Augustus decreed that an attempt should be made to circumnavigate Africa. It was inspired by finding a ship from the region of southern Spain near today’s Djibouti. The planned route led from there to Sala Colonia (modern Rabat) and Mogador, but the attempt never came to fruition. Despite Rome’s long history, sea expedition attempts were completed relatively early, and subsequent rulers focused on land conquests and then maintaining territorial gains.

Author: Jakub Ernt
  • Dr. Felix Chami, The Graeco-Romans and Paanchea/Azania: sailing in the Erythraean Sea, 2002
  • Pliny the Elder, Natural History
  • Plutarch, Lifes
  • The Peoples of the West, Weilue, 239-265 n.e., tłumaczenie John E. Hill, 2004
  • Image: Horace Leonard Jones (translator), The Geography of Strabo, Volume I.

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