Aethiopia (Greek Αἰθιοπία) first appears as a geographical term in classical sources, in reference to the Upper Nile region, as well as all the regions south of the Sahara desert. Its earliest mention is in the works of Homer: twice in the Iliad, and three times in the Odyssey. The Greek historian Herodotus specifically uses it to refer to such parts of Sub-Saharan Africa as were then known parts of the inhabitable world.
In classical antiquity, Africa (or Libya) referred to what is now known as Northwest Africa (excluding Egypt). Geographical knowledge did not extend south of the Sahara, and the only part further known to the ancient Greeks was the Horn of Africa. Αἰθίοψ (Aithiops), meaning "burnt-face", was used as the term for black African since the time of Homer and was applied to such black populations as came within the range of observation of the ancient geographers, i.e. primarily of the population of what is now northern Sudan (Nubia), and with the expansion of geographical knowledge successively extended to other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. In his description of India, Herodotus (3.101) notes as a common feature of its inhabitants that "they have also all the same tint of skin, which approaches that of the Ethiopians".
Homer (c. 8th century BC) is the first to mention "Aethiopians" (Αἰθίοπες, Αἰθιοπῆες); he mentions that they are to be found at the southern extremities of the world, divided by the sea into "eastern" (at the sunrise) and "western" (at the sunset). Hesiod (c. 8th century BC) speaks of Memnon as the "king of Aethiopia".
In 515 BC, Scylax of Caryanda, on orders from Darius the Great of Persia, sailed along the Indus River, Indian Ocean and Red Sea, circumnavigating the Arabian peninsula. He mentioned Aethiopians, but his writings on them have not survived. Hecataeus of Miletus (c. 500 BC) is also said to have written a book about Aethiopia, but his writing is now known only through quotations from later authors. He stated that Aethiopia was located to the east of the Nile, as far as the Red Sea and Indian Ocean; he is also quoted as relating a myth that the Skiapods ("Shade feet") lived there, whose feet were supposedly large enough to serve as shade.
In his Histories (c. 440 BC) Herodotus presents some of the most ancient and detailed information about "Aethiopia". He relates that he personally traveled up the Nile to the border of Egypt as far as Elephantine Island (modern Aswan); in his view, "Aethiopia" is all of the inhabited land found to the south of Egypt, beginning at Elephantine. He describes a capital at Meroe, adding that the only deities worshipped there were Zeus (Amun) and Dionysus (Osiris). He relates that in the reign of Pharaoh Psamtik I (c. 650 BC), many Egyptian soldiers deserted their country and settled amidst the Aethiopians. He further wrote that of Egypt's 330 Pharaohs, 18 were "Aethiopian" (i.e. the "Kushite dynasty"). He asserts that Aethiopia was one of the countries that practiced circumcision.
Herodotus tells us that king Cambyses of Persia (c. 570 BC) sent spies to the Aethiopians "who dwelt in that part of Libya (Africa) which borders upon the southern sea." They found a strong and healthy people. Although Cambyses then campaigned toward their country, by not preparing enough provisions for the long march, his army completely failed and returned quickly.
In Book 3, Herodotus defines "Aethiopia" as the farthest region of "Libya" (i.e. Africa): "Where the south declines towards the setting sun lies the country called Aethiopia, the last inhabited land in that direction. There gold is obtained in great plenty, huge elephants abound, with wild trees of all sorts, and ebony; and the men are taller, handsomer, and longer lived than anywhere else."
Other Greco-Roman historians
The Egyptian priest Manetho (c. 300 BC) listed Egypt's Kushite (25th) dynasty, calling it the "Aethiopian dynasty". Moreover, when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek (c. 200 BC), the Hebrew appellation "Kush, Kushite" became in Greek "Aethiopia, Aethiopians", appearing as "Ethiopia, Ethiopians" in the English King James Version.
Greek and Roman historians of a later era, such as Diodorus Siculus and Strabo, confirmed much of Herodotus' account of several distinct nations within the vast region of "Ethiopia" south of the Sahara desert, such as the Troglodytae and Ichthyophagi, described as living all along the African Red Sea coast (in modern Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia), as well as several other peoples farther west. These authors also described second-hand stories of the mountainous part of Ethiopia where the Nile was said to rise. Strabo also stated that some previous authors had considered Aethiopia's northern border to begin at Mount Amanus, thus including all of Syria, Israel and Arabia.
Pliny the Elder described Adulis, which port he said was the Ethiopians' principal trading town. He names one Aethiops (i.e. "burnt-face") as the eponymous ancestor of the Aethiopians, fittingly said to be a son of the smith-god Hephaestus (aka Vulcan).
Greek and medieval literature
Several notable personalities in Greek and medieval literature were identified as Aethiopian, including several rulers, male and female: Memnon and his brother Emathion, King of Arabia. Homer in his description of the Trojan War mentions several other Aethiopians. Ptolemy the geographer and other ancient Greek commentators believed that the "Aethiopian Olympus" was where the gods lived when they were not in Greece.
- Homer Iliad I.423; XXIII.206.
- Homer Odyssey I.22-23; IV.84; V.282-7.
- For all references to Ethiopia in Herodotus, see: this list at the Perseus project.
- Αἰθίοψ in Liddell, Scott, A Greek–English Lexicon: "Αἰθίοψ , οπος, ὁ, fem. Αἰθιοπίς , ίδος, ἡ (Αἰθίοψ as fem., A.Fr.328, 329): pl. 'Αἰθιοπῆες' Il.1.423, whence nom. 'Αἰθιοπεύς' Call.Del.208: (αἴθω, ὄψ):— properly, Burnt-face, i.e. Ethiopian, negro, Hom., etc.; prov., Αἰθίοπα σμήχειν 'to wash a blackamoor white', Luc.Ind. 28." Cf. Etymologicum Genuinum s.v. Αἰθίοψ, Etymologicum Gudianum s.v.v. Αἰθίοψ. "Αἰθίοψ". Etymologicum Magnum (in Greek). Leipzig. 1818.
- Herodotus Histories III.114.
- Pliny the Elder Natural History VI.35. "Son of Hephaestus" was also a general Greek epithet meaning "blacksmith".