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This webpage reproduces a section of
The Geography


published in Vol. VIII
of the Loeb Classical Library edition,

The text is in the public domain.

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(Vol. VIII) Strabo

p127 Book XVII Chapter 2

1 (821) In the earlier parts of my work I have already said many things about the Aethiopian253 tribes, so that the description of their country may be said to be included with that of Aegypt. In general, the extremities of the inhabited world, which lies alongside the part of the earth that is not temperate and habitable, because of heat or cold, must needs be defective and inferior to the temperate part; p143and this is clear from the modes of life of the inhabitants and from their lack of human necessities. They indeed live a hard life, go almost naked, and are nomads; and their domestic animals — sheep, goats, and cattle — are small; and their dogs are small though rough254 and pugnacious. And perhaps it is from the natural smallness of the people that men have conceived of Pygmies and fabricated them; for no man worthy of belief professes to have seen them.

2 The Aethiopians live on millet and barley, from which they also make a drink; but instead of olive-oil they have butter and tallow. Neither do they have fruit trees, except a few date-palms in the royal gardens. But some use grass as food, as also tender twigs, lotus, and reed-roots; and they use meats, blood, milk, and cheese. They reverence as gods their kings, who generally stay shut up at home. Their greatest royal seat is Meroê, a city bearing the same name as the island. The island is said to be like an oblong shield in shape. Its size has perhaps been exaggerated: about three thousand stadia in length and one thousand in breadth. The island has both numerous mountains and large thickets; it is inhabited partly by nomads, partly by hunters, and partly by farmers; and it has mines of copper, iron, gold, and different kinds255 of precious stones. It is bounded on the Libyan side by large sand-dunes, and on the Arabian side by continuous p145precipices, and above, on the south, by the confluence of the three rivers — the Astaboras, 822 and the Astapus and the Astasobas256 and on the north by the next course of the Nile, which extends to Aegypt along the aforesaid windings of the river. In the cities the dwellings are made of split pieces of palm-wood woven together, or of brick. And they have quarried salt, as do the Arabians. And, among the plants, the palm, the persea,257 the ebony, and the ceratia258 are found in abundance. And they have, not only elephants to hunt, but also lions and leopards. They also have serpents, the elephant-fighters, as also many other wild animals; for the animals flee for refuge from the hotter and more arid regions to those that are watery and marshy.

3 Above Meroê lies Psebo, a large lake containing an island that is rather well settled. And since the Libyans hold the land on the western side of the Nile and the Aethiopians that on the opposite side, it comes to pass that they take turns in dominating the islands and the river-land, one of the two being driven out and yielding place to those who have proved stronger. The Aethiopians also use bows, which are four cubits long, are made of wood, and are hardened by fire; and they arm the women also, most of whom have a copper ring through the lip; and they wear sheep-skins, since they have no wool, their sheep having hair like that of goats; and some go naked, or wear round their loins small sheep-skins p147or girdles of well-woven hair. They regard as god the immortal being, whom they consider the cause of all things, and also the mortal being, who is without name and not to be identified. But in general they regard their benefactors and royal personages as gods: of these the kings as the common saviours and guardians of all, and special individuals as in a special sense gods to those who have received benefactions from them. Among those who live near the torrid zone, some are considered atheists, since it is said that they hate even the sun, and revile it when they behold it rising, on the ground that it burns them and carries on war with them, and flee for refuge from it into the marshes. The inhabitants of Meroê worship Heracles, Pan, and Isis, in addition to some other, barbaric, god.259 As for the dead, some cast them into the river, others enclose them in glass260 and keep them at home; but some bury them around the temples in coffins made of clay; and they exact fulfilment of oaths sworn over the dead,261 and consider them the most sacred of all things. They appoint as kings those who excel in beauty, or in superiority in cattle-breeding, or in courage, or in wealth. In Meroê the highest rank was in ancient times held by the priests, who indeed would give orders even to the king, sometimes ordering him through a messenger to die, and would appoint another in his stead; 823 but later one of the kings broke up the custom by marching with armed men against the temple where the golden shrine is and slaughtering all the priests. The following is also an Aethiopian p149custom: whenever any one of the kings is maimed in any part of his body in any way whatever, his closest associates suffer the same thing, and they even die with him; and hence these men guard the king most carefully. This will suffice on the subject of the Aethiopians.

4 But to my account of things Aegyptian I must add an enumeration of the things that are peculiar to that country, as, for example, the Aegyptian cyamus,262 as it is called, from which ciborium is derived, and the byblus, for the byblus is found only here and among the Indians; and the persea263 is found only here and among the Aethiopians — a large tree with large, sweet fruit; and the sycaminus that products the fruit called sycomorus, for it resembles a sycum,264 though it is not prized for its taste; and the corsium is also found here — a relish somewhat like pepper, but slightly larger. As for fish in the Nile, they are indeed many in number and different in kind, with a special indigenous character, but the best known are the oxyrynchus and the lepidotus, latus, alabes, coracinus, choerus, and phagrorius, also called phagrus, and, besides, the silurus, citharus, thrissa, cestreus, lychnus, physa, and bos; and, among shell-creatures, there are large conchliae which emit a sound like a croak. As for indigenous animals, Aegypt has also the ichneumon and the Aegyptian asp, which latter has a peculiarity as compared with the asp of other countries; but it is of two kinds, one only a span long, which causes a quicker death, and the other nearly a fathom, as is stated by p151Nicander,265 who wrote the Theriaca.266 Among the birds are found the ibis and the Aegyptian hierax, which latter is tame, like the cat, as compared with those elsewhere; and also nycticorax267 is here of a peculiar species, for in our country it has the size of an eagle and a harsh caw, but in Aegypt the size of a jackdaw and a different caw. The ibis, however, is the tamest bird; it is like a stork in shape and size, but it is of two kinds in colour, one kind like the stork and the other black all over.268 Every cross-road in Alexandria is full of them; and though they are useful in one way, they are not useful in another. The bird is useful because it singles out every269 animal270 and the refuse in the meat-shops and bakeries, but not useful because it eats everything, is unclean, but can only with difficulty be kept away from things that are clean and do not admit of any defilement.

5 The statement of Herodotus271 is also true, that it is an Aegyptian custom to knead mud with their hands, but suet for bread-making with their feet. 824 Further, kakeis is a peculiar kind of bread with checks the bowels; and kiki is a kind of fruit sown in the fields, from which oil is pressed, which is used not only in lamps by almost all the people in the country, but also for anointing the body by the poorer classes and those who do the heavier labour, p153both men and women; and further, the koïkina272 are Aegyptian textures made of some plant, and are like those made of rush or of the date-palm. And beer is prepared in a peculiar way among the Aegyptians; it is a drink common the many peoples, but the ways of preparing it in the different countries are different. One of the customs most zealously observed among the Aegyptians is this, that they rear every child that is born, and circumcise the males, and excise the females,273 as is also customary among the Jews, who also Aegyptians in origin, as I have already stated in my account of them.274 Aristobulus says that on account of the crocodiles no fish swim up into the Nile from the sea except the cestreus and the thrissa and the dolphin — the dolphin, because it is stronger than the crocodile, and the cestreus, because it is escorted by the choeri275 along the bank, in accordance with some natural affinity; and that the crocodiles keep away from the choeri, since the latter are round and have spines on the head which offer danger to the beasts. Now cestreus, he says, runs up the river in spring when it is carrying its spawn, but for the purpose of spawning comes down in schools before the setting of the Pleiad, at which time they are captured, being caught in schools by the fenced enclosures. And some such cause might be conjectured also in the case of the thrissa. So much for Aegypt.

The Editor's Notes:

253 See Index, s.v. "Aethiopians."

254 Possibly an error for "swift" (see critical note).

255 Diodorus Siculus (1.33) says "all kinds of precious stones."

256 Cp. 17.1.2.

257 This tree is carefully described by Pliny (N. H., 13.17).

258 The carob or locust-tree.

259 Diodorus Siculus (3.9.2) names Zeus in connection with the three others.

260 See 17.1.8 and footnote on "glass."

Thayer's Note: See also Diodorus II.15.1‑4 and the note there.

261 i.e. they make the oath binding by invoking the dead as witnesses.

262 See 17.1.15.

263 Cp. § 2 above.

264 i.e. "fig."

265 Theriaca 168.

266 A poem on poisonous animals, as the name implies.

267 i.e. "night-crow."

268 The former is the White or Sacred Ibis; it regularly visits Aegypt at the time of the inundation, coming from Nubia.

269 The translator conjectures that "baneful" has fallen out of the text after "every" (see critical note).

270 e.g. serpents (Josephus 2.10), scorpions (Aelian 10.29), locusts and caterpillars (Diodorus Siculus 1.87).

271 2.36.

272 See critical note.

273 i.e. remove portions of the nymphae, and sometimes of the clitoris, of the females. The operation is harmless, and analogous to that of circumcision.

274 16.2.34.

275 i.e. "pig" fish (see Athenaeus 6).

Page updated: 10 Sep 12