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The inhabited world according to Herodotus: Libya (Africa) is imagined as extending no further south than the Horn of Africa, terminating in the uninhabitable desert. All peoples inhabiting the southernmost fringes of the inhabitable world are known as Ethiopians (after their dark skin). At the extreme south-east of the continent are the Macrobians, so-called for their longevity.

Ancient Aethiopia, (Greek: Αἰθιοπία, romanizedAithiopía; also known as Ethiopia) first appears as a geographical term in classical documents in reference to the upper Nile region of Sudan, areas south of the Sahara, and certain areas in Asia. Its earliest mention is in the works of Homer: twice in the Iliad,[1] and three times in the Odyssey.[2] The Greek historian Herodotus uses the appellation to refer to such parts of sub-Saharan Africa as were then part of the known world.[3]


The Greek name Aithiopia (Αἰθιοπία, from Αἰθίοψ, Aithíops, 'an Ethiopian') is a compound derived of two Greek words: αἴθω, aíthō, 'I burn' + ὤψ, ṓps, 'face'. According to the Perseus Project, this designation properly translates in noun form as burnt-face and in adjectival form as red-brown.[4][5] As such, it was used as a vague term for darker skinned populations than the Greeks since the time of Homer.[i][6] The term was applied to such peoples within the range of observation of the ancient geographers, primarily in what was then Nubia (in ancient Sudan). With the expansion of geographical knowledge, the exonym successively extended to certain other areas below the Sahara. In classical antiquity, the term Africa did not refer to any part of sub-Saharan Africa, but in its widest sense to instead to Ancient Libya - what is now known as the Maghreb and the desert to the south.

Before Herodotus[edit]

Homer (c. 8th century BC) is the first to mention "Aethiopians" (Αἰθίοπες, Αἰθιοπῆες), writing that they are to be found at the east and west extremities of the world, divided by the sea into "eastern" (at the sunrise) and "western" (at the sunset). In Book 1 of the Iliad, Thetis visits Olympus to meet Zeus, but the meeting is postponed, as Zeus and other gods are absent, visiting the land of the Aethiopians.

And in Book 1 of the Odyssey, Athena convinces Zeus to let Odysseus finally return home only because Poseidon is away in Aithiopia and unable to object.

Hesiod (c. 8th century BC) speaks of Memnon as the "king of the Aethiopians."[7] In The Catalogues of Women, he stated that the Egyptian king Epaphus was the progenitor of the Aethiopians and other dark-skinned tribes of Libya. He wrote:

The Sons of Boreas pursued the Harpies to the lands of the Massagetae and of the proud Half-Dog men, of the Underground-folk and of the feeble Pygmies; and to the tribes of the boundless Black-skins and the Libyans. Huge Earth bare these to Epaphus -- soothsaying people, knowing seercraft by the will of Zeus the lord of oracles, but deceivers, to the end that men whose thought passes their utterance might be subject to the gods and suffer harm -- Aethiopians and Libyans and mare-milking Scythians. For verily Epaphus was the child of the almighty Son of Cronos, and from him sprang the dark Libyans, and high-souled Aethiopians, and the Underground-folk and feeble Pygmies. All these are the offspring of the lord, the Loud-thunderer.[8]

The Assyrian king Esarhaddon when conquering Egypt and destroying the Kushite Empire states how he "deported all 'Aethiopians' from Egypt, leaving not one to pay homage to me". He was talking about the Nubian 25th Dynasty rather than people from modern Ethiopia.

In 515 BC, Scylax of Caryanda, on orders from Darius I of the Achaemenid Empire, sailed along the Indus River, Indian Ocean, and Red Sea, circumnavigating the Arabian Peninsula. He mentioned "Aethiopians", though 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 in which the Skiapods ('Shade feet'), whose feet were supposedly large enough to serve as shade, lived there.[citation needed]

In Herodotus[edit]

In his Histories (c. 440 BC), Herodotus presents some of the most ancient and detailed information about "Aethiopia".[3] He relates that he personally traveled up the Nile to the border of Egypt as far as Elephantine (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 Meroë, 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 BCE), many Egyptian soldiers deserted their country and settled amidst the Aethiopians.

Herodotus also remarked on shared cultural practices between the Egyptians and Ethiopians:

For it is plain to see that Colchians are Egyptians; and this that I say I myself noted before I heard it from others. When I began to think on this matter, I inquired of both peoples; and the Colchians remembered the Egyptians better than the Egyptians remembered the Colchians; the Egyptians said that they held the Colchians to be part of Sesostris' army. I myself guessed it to be so, partly because they are dark-skinned and woolly-haired; though that indeed goes for nothing, seeing that other peoples, too, are such; but my better proof was that the Colchians and Egyptians and Ethiopians are the only nations that have from the first practised circumcision”.[9]

Herodotus further states that that out of "three hundred and thirty kings" of Egypt, there had been 18 Ethiopian kings, one native Egyptian queen, and the rest had been Egyptian men.[9]

Herodotus tells us that king Cambyses II (c. 570 BC) of the Achaemenid Empire 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.[10]

In Book 3, Herodotus defines "Aethiopia" as the farthest region of "Libya" (i.e. Africa):[10]

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.

Herodotus also wrote that the Ammonians of Siwa Oasis are "colonists from Egypt and Ethiopia and speak a language compounded of the tongues of both countries".[11][12]

Herodotus also refers to "the Ethiopians of Asia" (or "Ethiopians of the East"), who are said to be straight-haired, whereas the Ethiopians from Libya (Africa) have "the woolliest hair of all men".[13][14]

Other Greco-Roman historians and primary accounts[edit]

The Egyptian priest Manetho (c. 300 BC) listed Kushite (25th) dynasty, calling it the "Aethiopian dynasty," and Esarhaddon the early 7th century BC ruler of the Neo-Assyrian Empire describes deporting all "Aethiopians" from Egypt upon conquering Egypt from the Nubian Kushite Empire which formed the 25th 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.[15]

Agatharchides provides a relatively detailed description of the gold mining system of Aethiopia. His text was copied almost verbatim by virtually all subsequent ancient writers on the area, including Diodorus Siculus and Photius.[16]

Diodorus Siculus reported that the Ethiopians claimed that Egypt was an early colony and that the Ethiopians also cited evidence that they were more ancient than the Egyptians as he wrote:

"The Ethiopians say that the Egyptians are one of their colonies which was brought into Egypt by Osiris".[17]

Diodorus Siculus also discussed the similar cultural practices between the Ethiopians and Egyptians such as the writing systems as he states "We must now speak about the Ethiopian writing which is called hieroglyphic among the Egyptians, in order that we may omit nothing in our discussion of their antiquities".[18]

Achilles Tatius described the complexion of the Egyptian herdsmen near Alexandria as "dark-coloured (yet not absolutely black like an Indian but more like a bastard Ethiopian)".[19][20]

Strabo discussed migrations between Egypt and Ethiopia in his book, Geography, and noted that "Egyptians settled Ethiopia and Colchis".[17] With regard to the Ethiopians, Strabo indicates that they looked similar to Indians,[21] remarking "those who are in Asia (South India), and those who are in Africa, do not differ from each other."[22] Pliny in turn asserts that the place-name "Aethiopia" was derived from one "Aethiop, a son of Vulcan"[22] (the Greek god Hephaestus).[23] He also writes that the "Queen of the Ethiopians" bore the title Kandake, and avers (incorrectly) that the Ethiopians had conquered ancient Syria and the Mediterranean. Following Strabo, the Greco-Roman historian Eusebius claims that the Ethiopians had emigrated into the Red Sea area from the Indus Valley and that there were no people in the region by that name prior to their arrival.[22]

Physiognomonics, a Greek treatise traditionally attributed to Aristotle, but now of disputed ownership made an observation on the physical nature of the Egyptians and Ethiopians with the view that "Those who are too black are cowards, like for the instance, the Egyptians and Ethopians"[24]

The Greek travelogue from the 1st-century AD, known as the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, initially describes the littoral, based on its author's intimate knowledge of the area. However, the Periplus does not mention any dark-skinned "Ethiopians" among the area's inhabitants. They only later appear in Ptolemy's Geographia in a region far south, around the "Bantu nucleus" of northern Mozambique.

Arrian, wrote in the 1st-century AD that "The appearance of the inhabitants is also not very different in India and Ethiopia: the southern Indians are rather more like Ethiopians as they are black to look on, and their hair is black; only they are not so snub-nosed or woolly-haired as the Ethiopians; the northern Indians are most like the Egyptians physically".[25][26]

Also the Roman Christian historian and theologian Saint Jerome along with Sophronius referred to Colchis as the "second Ethiopia" because of its 'black-skinned' population.[27]

Stephanus of Byzantium, from the 6th-century AD, had written that "Ethiopia was the first established country on earth; and the Ethiopians were the first to set up the worship of the gods and to establish laws."[28][29]

Manilius, a Roman poet wrote in his Astronomicon "The Ethiopians stain the world and depict a race of men steeped in darkness; less sun-burnt are the natives of India; the land of Egypt, flooded by the Nile, darkens bodies more mildly owing to the inundation of its fields: it is a country nearer to us and its moderate climate imparts a medium tone."[30]

Philostratus (c. 170 – c. 245 AD) had written in his journeys and life of Apollonios of Tyana, he had at one point arrived at "the crossing point between Ethiopia and Egypt, which is called Kaminos", where at a marketplace the Ethiopians and Egyptians would trade and barter products. It was seen that "those who live at the border of the two countries are not quite black, but of the same color as each other, since they are less black than the Ethiopians, but more so than the Egyptians."[31]

In literature[edit]

Several personalities in Greek and medieval literature were identified as Aethiopian, including several rulers, male and female:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ ΑἰθιοπῆεςHomer, Iliad, 1.423, whence nom. “ΑἰθιοπεύςCall.Del.208: (αἴθω, ὄψ):—properly, Burnt-face, i.e. Ethiopian, negro, Hom., etc.; prov., Αἰθίοπα σμήχειν 'to wash a blackamoor white', Lucian, Adversus indoctum et libros multos ementem, 28. (Lidell and Scott 1940). Cf. Etymologicum Genuinum s.v. Αἰθίοψ, Etymologicum Gudianum s.v. Αἰθίοψ. "Αἰθίοψ". Etymologicum Magnum (in Greek). Leipzig. 1818.


  1. ^ Homer Iliad I.423; XXIII.206.
  2. ^ Homer Odyssey I.22-23; IV.84; V.282-7.
  3. ^ a b For all references to Ethiopia in Herodotus, see: this list at the Perseus Project.
  4. ^ Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert. "Aithiops". A Greek-English Lexicon. Perseus. Retrieved 2 December 2017.
  5. ^ Liddell, Henry George, and Robert Scott. 1940. "Αἰθίοψ." In A Greek–English Lexicon, revised and augmented by H. S. Jones and R. McKenzie. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  6. ^ Fage, John (23 October 2013). A History of Africa. Routledge. pp. 25–26. ISBN 978-1317797272. Retrieved 20 January 2015.
  7. ^ Hesiod, Theogony, 984–85.
  8. ^ Hesiod, The Catalogues of Women
  9. ^ a b Herodotus. "The Histories Book II Chapters 99-182".
  10. ^ a b Herodotus Histories III.114.
  11. ^ Histories. Pekka Mansikka. 10 June 2021. pp. 117, 182. ISBN 978-952-69639-2-1.
  12. ^ Wood, Michael (1997). In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great: A Journey from Greece to Asia. University of California Press. p. 78. ISBN 978-0-520-21307-4.
  13. ^ "Herodotus, Histories Book VII:70".
  14. ^ "Hdt. 7.70.1".
  15. ^ KJV: Book of Numbers 12 1
  16. ^ Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Cambridge University Press for the Royal Asiatic Society. 1892. p. 823. Retrieved 20 January 2015.
  17. ^ a b Diop, Cheikh Anta (1974). The African origin of civilization: myth or reality (1st ed.). New York: L. Hill. pp. 1–10. ISBN 1556520727.
  18. ^ Diodorus Siculus. "The Library of History Book III Chapter 1-14".
  19. ^ Gaselee, S. (Stephen) (1917). Achilles Tatius. London : W. Heinemann ; New York : G.P. Putnam's. p. 155.
  20. ^ Mokhtar, Gamal (1990). General History of Africa volume 2: Ancient civilizations of Africa (Abridged ed.). London [England]: J. Currey. p. 38. ISBN 0852550928.
  21. ^ "Strabo, Geography, BOOK XV., CHAPTER I., section 13". Retrieved 2023-10-13. The inhabitants of the south resemble the Ethiopians in colour, but their countenances and hair are like those of other people. Their hair does not curl, on account of the humidity of the atmosphere. The inhabitants of the north resemble the Egyptians.
  22. ^ a b c Turner, Sharon (1834). The Sacred History of the World, as Displayed in the Creation and Subsequent Events to the Deluge: Attempted to be Philosophically Considered, in a Series of Letters to a Son, Volume 2. Longman. pp. 480–482. Retrieved 20 January 2015.
  23. ^ Pliny the Elder Natural History VI.35. "Son of Hephaestus" was also a general Greek epithet meaning "blacksmith".
  24. ^ Mokhtar, G. (1 January 1981). Ancient Civilizations of Africa. UNESCO. p. 37. ISBN 978-92-3-101708-7.
  25. ^ Celenko, Theodore (1996). Egypt in Africa. Indianapolis, Ind.: Indianapolis Museum of Art. p. 106. ISBN 0253332699.
  26. ^ Arrian. Indica. pp. 6:9.
  27. ^ English, Patrick T. (1959). "Cushites, Colchians, and Khazars". Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 18 (1): 49–53. doi:10.1086/371491. ISSN 0022-2968. JSTOR 543940. S2CID 161751649.
  28. ^ Levine, Donald N. (10 December 2014). Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society. University of Chicago Press. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-226-22967-6.
  29. ^ Houston, Drusilla Dunjee. Wonderful Ethiopians of the Ancient Cushite Empire. Library of Alexandria. pp. 10–15. ISBN 978-1-4655-1731-9.
  30. ^ Henderson, Jeffrey. "The Astronomica of Marcus Manilius: Book 4". Loeb Classical Library. pp. 280–281. Retrieved 2023-10-13.
  31. ^ Henderson, Jeffrey. "Book 6: Chapter 2: Section 2". Loeb Classical Library. pp. 94–95. Retrieved 2023-10-19.