Ancient Aethiopia (Greek Αἰθιοπία) first appears as a geographical term in classical sources in reference to the Upper Nile region, as well as all certain areas south of the Sahara desert and south of the Atlantic Ocean. 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 within the inhabitable world.
In classical antiquity, Africa (or Libya) referred to what is now known as Northwest Africa (Maghreb) and south of the Libyan desert and Western Sahara, including all desert land west of the southern Nile river. Geographical knowledge of the continent gradually grew, with the 1st century AD Greek travelogue the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea describing areas as far south as Zimbabwe. Αἰθίοψ (Aithiops), meaning "burnt-face", was used as a vague term for dark-skinned populations since the time of Homer. It was applied to such dark-skinned populations as came within the range of observation of the ancient geographers i.e. primarily in what was then Nubia, and with the expansion of geographical knowledge, successively extended to certain other areas below the Sahara.
Homer (c. 8th century BC) is the first to mention "Aethiopians" (Αἰθίοπες, Αἰθιοπῆες); he mentions 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). 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, there were 18 "Aethiopian" Pharaohs before the Sabacos Kushite dynasty (i.e. the Memnon or 18th 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.
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.
With regard to the Ethiopians, Strabo indicates that "those who are in Asia, and those who are in Africa, do not differ from each other." Pliny in turn asserts that the place-name "Aethiopia" was derived from one "Aethiop, a son of Vulcan" [the smith-god Hephaestus]. He also writes that the "Queen of the Ethiopians" bore the title Candace, and avers that the Ethiopians had conquered ancient Syria and the Mediterranean. Following Strabo, the Greco-Roman historian Eusebius notes 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.
The 1st century AD Greek travelogue the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea first describes the Horn of Africa littoral, based on its author's intimate knowledge of the area. The Periplus does not mention any dark-skinned "Ethiopians" among the area's inhabitants. They only later appear in Ptolemy's Geographia, but in a region far south, around the "Bantu nucleus" of northern Mozambique. According to John Donnelly Fage, these early Greek documents altogether suggest that the original inhabitants of the Azania coast, the "Azanians", were of the same ancestral stock as the Afro-Asiatic populations to the north of them along the Red Sea. Subsequently, by the 10th century AD, these original "Azanians" had been replaced by early waves of Bantu settlers.
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. Cepheus and Cassiopeia, parents of Andromeda, were named as king and queen of Aethiopia. 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.
- Fage, John. A History of Africa. Routledge. pp. 25–26. ISBN 1317797272. Retrieved 20 January 2015.
- Herodotus Histories III.114.
- 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.
- 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.
- Pliny the Elder Natural History VI.35. "Son of Hephaestus" was also a general Greek epithet meaning "blacksmith".