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Roman expeditions to Sub-Saharan Africa west of the Nile river
Roman expeditions to Sub-Saharan Africa west of the Nile river

Between the first century BC and the fourth century AD, several expeditions and explorations to Lake Chad and western Africa were conducted by groups of military and commercial units of Romans who moved across the Sahara and into the interior of Africa and its coast. The primary motivation for the expeditions was to secure sources of gold and spices.[1]


The Romans organized expeditions to cross the Sahara along five different routes:

All these expeditions were supported by legionaries and had mainly a commercial purpose. Only the one conducted by emperor Nero seemed to be a preparative for the conquest of Ethiopia or Nubia; in 62 AD, two legionaries explored the sources of the Nile.[3]

One of the main objectives of the explorations was to locate and obtain gold, using camels to transport it overland back to Roman provinces on the Mediterranean coast.[4]

The explorations near the coasts were supported by Roman ships and deeply related to overseas commerce.

Main explorations

The Romans conducted five main explorations: two in the western Sahara, two in the central Sahara, and one in the area of Lake Chad.

Western Sahara expeditions

In western Sahara there were two Roman expeditions, just south of the Atlas mountains:

From the first century AD there is evidence (coins and fibulae) of Roman commerce and contacts in Akjoujt and Tamkartkart near Tichit in Mauritania.

Central Sahara expeditions

The two main explorations/expeditions in the central Sahara were:

Niger river area

However some historians (like Susan Raven[9]) believe that there was even another Roman expedition to sub-saharan central Africa: the one of Valerius Festus, that could have reached the equatorial Africa thanks to the Niger river.

Maritime explorations

The Roman vassal king Juba II organized successful trade from the area of Volubilis. Pliny the Elder, who was not only an author but also a military officer, drawing upon the accounts of Juba II, king of Mauretania in the first century AD. Pliny stated that a Roman expedition from Mauritania visited the islands of the archipelago of the Canaries and Madeira around 10 AD and found great ruins but no population, only dogs (the basis of the name the Canaries).

According to Pliny the Elder, an expedition of Mauretanians sent by Juba II to the archipelago visited the islands: when King Juba II dispatched a contingent to re-open the dye production facility at Mogador (historical name of Essaouira, Morocco) in the early 1st century AD, Juba's naval force was subsequently sent to explore the Canary Islands, and possibly Madeira, using Mogador as their base.

Other Roman coins have been found in Nigeria and Niger, and also in Guinea, Togo and Ghana. However, it is much more likely that all these coins were introduced at a much later date than that there was direct Roman intercourse so far down the western coast. No single article unmistakably originating in Africa south of the Equator has been discovered in the Graeco-Roman world or in contemporary Arabia, nor is there any mention of such an article in written records: while the coins are the only ancient European or Arabian articles that have been found in the central parts of Africa.[12]

The Romans had two naval outposts in the Atlantic coast of Africa: Sala Colonia near present Rabat and Mogador in southern Morocco (north of Agadir). The island of Mogador prospered from the local purple dye-making industry (highly esteemed in imperial Rome) from the reigns of Augustus until Septimius Severus. Augustus, based on the discovery of a sunken merchant ship from southern Hispania in the Djibouti area (done by his adoptive son Gaius Caesar when he sailed toward Aden), wanted to organize an expedition from Egypt to Mogador and Sala around Africa, but it seems that it never took place.

See also


  1. ^ Roman objects are, indeed, found in the Sahara, and, significantly, along the western caravan route. Numerous Roman artifacts have been found at the Garamantes’ capital of Germa in the Fezzan. Most striking is the large Roman-syle mausoleum found there, evidence either of Roman presence or of Romanization of the elite. Between Germa and Ghat in the Hoggar have been found Roman ceramics, glass, jewelry and coins dating from the 1st to the 4th centuries. Farther down the route, at the oasis of Abelessa, is the site known locally as the Palace of Tin Hinan. There is a charming local legend about it, but it seems to have been a fortress, in one room of which was found the skeletal remains of a woman, along with a number of Late Roman objects, including a lamp, a golden bracelet and a 4th century coin. Finally, there was a cache of Roman coins found at Timissao only 600 kilometers from the Niger. Heinemann-University of California-UNESCO (p.514 Map)
  2. ^ Romans in Azania/Raphta
  3. ^ Buckley, Emma; Dinter, Martin (3 May 2013). A Companion to the Neronian Age. John Wiley & Sons. p. 364. ISBN 9781118316535.
  4. ^ Roth, Jonathan 2002. The Roman Army in Tripolitana and Gold Trade with Sub-Saharan Africa. APA Annual Convention. New Orleans.
  5. ^ Balbus expedition and successive expeditions, with map
  6. ^ John Coleman De Graft-Johnson, "African Glory: The Story of Vanished Negro Civilizations", p. 26
  7. ^ Agisymba and Maternus
  8. ^ Raffael Joorde, "Römische Vorstöße ins Innere Afrikas südlich der Sahara: die geheimnisvolle Landschaft Agisymba", Dortmund: 2015
  9. ^ Susan Raven, Susan, Rome in Africa, 3rd ed. London, 1993
  10. ^ Pliny the Elder. "Naturalis Historia", V, 5.36
  11. ^ Cambridge History of Africa, p. 286
  12. ^ Walker, Eric Anderson (1963). The Cambridge History of the British Empire. CUP Archive. p. 69.