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Discovery of sources of Nile by Romans

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Nile in the satellite photo
Nile in the satellite photo

The problem of the sources of the Nile has been in the minds of the ancients since the times of the Pharaohs of Egypt. After all, the existence of the fertile Nile valley, the basis of Egyptian rule, was dependent on the annual flooding of this world’s longest river. Egypt’s fate would be doomed if one day the source of the Nile dried up. That is why for many generations of ancient researchers – Egyptians, Greeks, and later Romans, the problem of the sources of the Nile was so important.

Sources of the Nile

Map showing the course of the Nile.
Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

We know very little from the earliest times. It is difficult to say how long the Nile was known in the kingdom of the pharaohs. The first significant mention of the sources of this river comes from a Greek historian and geographer, Strabo (63 BCE – 20 CE). He wrote that the Nile flows from the great lakes to the south, one of which is called Psebo. Today’s science estimates that he meant the source of the Blue Nile, the largest right-hand tributary of the Nile and, more importantly, the river that supplies nearly 90% of all the water that later reaches Egypt. In fact, it can be said that the actual source of the Nile is the Blue Nile. In that case, Lake Psebo could be identified with Lake Tana in present-day Ethiopia.

Contacts between Greece, and later Rome, with Abyssinia, were quite frequent, due to the Romans’ continued interest in ivory, as well as live elephants, thousands of which reached the arenas throughout the Empire. In addition, the rulers of Egypt (who were replaced by the Romans from 30 CE) tried to maintain friendly relations with the king of Abyssinia, who could after all “turn off the tap” and make the Nile dry.

Nero’s Journey

Bust of Nero

Despite Strabo’s account, the problem of the sources of the Nile has not been resolved. The turning point was the idea of ​​Emperor Nero (ruled CE 54-68) to send two praetorians, under the command of a tribune, with the mission of finally establishing the sources of the Nile (as gives Seneca) or a possible assessment of whether it is worth conquering the lands south of Egypt (after Pliny)1. The expedition started around 60 CE and was led by Ethiopian guides. It probably reached the 5th latitude, reaching the Nile gorge near today’s Juba in South Sudan. It was an amazing feat, considering that for the second such trip you had to wait until 1863!

Unfortunately, we do not know the names of the soldiers who did it. We only know that they managed to happily return to Rome. Seneca says they reported that they personally saw two rocks from which a huge amount of water was escaping. They also collected very accurate information about the real sources of the great river, which were later used by great Roman scholars. The Roman philosopher and historian, Seneca the Younger (died in 65 CE) wrote that the White Nile is powered by water by Crocodile Lake and Waterfall Lake. They are identified respectively as Lake Victoria (which actually gives rise to the Nile; although the Kagera River flowing into this lake is considered the source section) and the Ripon Waterfall. Seneca knew more: “water flows into these lakes from huge snow-covered mountains”2. A hundred years later, Claudius Ptolemy (2nd century CE) once again stated that the ice and snow masses from the Moon Mountains were the actual source of the Nile. And that’s the truth. The Ruwenzori Massif, the slopes of which flow into Lake Alberta and further down the Nile, as well as the Mutumba Mountains in Rwanda and Burundi, are the cause of the Nile.

The Nile near Aswan (southern Egypt). The life of ancient Egyptians focused around the delta and valley of the lower Nile.
Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.
Lake Victoria

Modern Europeans did not reach these conclusions until the 1890s. Even in 1854, an English geographer said from behind his desk that there could be no snow on the equator, so there could be no glaciers that could give rise to the Nile. Decades later, Roman scholars were completely rehabilitated.

We are perplexed by the feat of the Roman legionaries, who managed to break through the Nubian Desert and the Sudd Swamp and the Bahr -el- Ghazal River. Some researchers believe that the Roman expedition even managed to reach the Murchison Falls in Uganda.

How could they, in such ancient times, accomplish such a difficult thing that modern science did not repeat until eighteen century? It is only good to bow your forehead in recognition of the perfection of formation, the bravery, and endurance of soldiers, as well as the prudence of commanders. Besides, as it turns out, Nero also has his merits in discovering the sources of the Nile.

  1. Pliny the Elder Natural history, VI.XXXV
  2. Seneca the Younger, Dialogues, VI.8.3
  • Emma Buckley, Martin Dinter, A Companion to the Neronian Age
  • Aleksander Krawczuk, Poczet cesarzy rzymskich, Warszawa 2004

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