The Macrobians (Μακροβίοι), meaning long-lived, were a legendary tribe of Aethiopia and kingdom positioned in the farthest land towards the western sunset south of ancient Libya (Africa). According to Herodotus they dwelt geographically along the sea south of Libya on the Atlantic. This Libya was far south of the Pillars of Hercules and Atlas Mountains along the Atlantic coast, while the northern Libyan sea coast was the Mediterranean Sea that stretched from Egypt to Morocco in an east to west direction. Concerning the southern sea, Herodotus places the Persians east of the southern sea in Asia, the Arabians & East Africans south of the sea in Arabia and the Macrobians west of the southern Sea in Libya. Herodotus also stated that the Macrobian Ethiopians were indigenous to southern Libya while the Libyans along the Mediterranean Sea were indigenous to northern Libya. Later authors such as Scylax in his periplus also place them south of the pillars of Hercules, and Scylax also reported a trade taking place between Phoenicians (Carthaginians) and tall Ethiopians (Macrobians). Herodotus also mentions a silent trade of gold that took place between Carthaginians and natives south of Libya (Ethiopians) beyond the Pillars of Hercules; it was also this gold trade that motivated Cambyses, the King of Persia, to plan a land and sea expedition against both the Carthaginians and Macrobian Ethiopians. Pliny in his natural histories places them west of Meroe, far west of Meroe beyond the deserts of Chad that is. The Macrobians are one of the legendary peoples postulated to exist at the extremity of the known world (from the perspective of the Greeks), in this case in the extreme west towards the sunset beyond the Pillars of Hercules in Libya (Africa), contrasting with India towards the sunrise in the extreme east of Asia, and southern Arabia & the east African coast towards the extreme south of the Erythraean Sea. The clues given by Herodotus placing the ancient Macrobians in the southern land toward the far west of Africa place them in territory of modern-day Senegal and the Niger river region of Africa, also known to geographers as the Negro lands.
Their name is due to their legendary longevity, an average person supposedly living to the age of 120. They were said to be the "tallest and handsomest of all men". The Macrobian tradition as being the most handsome of all men is a tradition still practiced today amongst the Wodaabe tribe of the Niger, Nigeria and Chad in their Gerewol festival, like the Macrobians the Wodaabe are also tall in stature and most handsome of men. And the tradition of the Macrobians choosing their Kings based on superior strength is also practiced amongst the wrestlers of Senegal, who ever is the strongest wrestler amongst them, he is crowned champion. At the same time, they were reported as being physically distinct from the rest of mankind.
According to Herodotus' account, the Persian Emperor Cambyses II upon his conquest of Egypt (525 BC) sent ambassadors to Macrobia, bringing luxury gifts for the Macrobian king to entice his submission. The Macrobian ruler, who was elected based on his stature and beauty, replied instead with a challenge for his Persian counterpart in the form of an unstrung bow: if the Persians could manage to draw it, they would have the right to invade his country; but until then, they should thank the gods that the Macrobians never decided to invade their empire.
According to Herodotus, the Macrobians practiced an elaborate form of embalming. The Macrobians preserved the bodies of the dead by first extracting moisture from the corpses, then overlaying the bodies with a type of plaster, and finally decorating the exterior in vivid colors in order to imitate the deceased as realistically as possible. They then placed the body in a hollow crystal pillar, which they kept in their homes for a period of about a year. Macrobia was also noted for its gold, which was so plentiful that the Macrobians shackled their prisoners in golden chains.
Geography of Cambyses's journey to Ethiopia
According to Herodotus, Cambyses, after conquering Egypt and while still in Memphis, had planned three expeditions, a fleet expedition against the Carthaginians west of the Mediterranean sea and a land expedition against the Ammonians of Siwa west of Egypt in Libya and against the Macrobians farther southwest of Libya towards the ends of the earth (the Atlantic Ocean). According to Herodotus the Pillars of Hercules and the Atlas pillar of the sky marked the western boundary for the continent of Libya (Africa). While the Erythraean sea (Indian Ocean) of Arabia (east of the Nile) marked the southern boundary for Africa. So Cambyses, instead of crossing the western desert directly from Memphis to attack the Ammonians and Macrobians of Libya, decided first to go south to Thebes where he fought no battle and plundered the old abandoned city of Amun. While in Thebes Cambyses sent an army of 50,000 troops west to the Siwa Oasis with orders to conquer and enslave the Ammonians of Siwa and burn the oracle of their God Ammon (the new city of Amun).
While sending his troops west, Cambyses himself decided to go further south of Thebes to the city of Elephantine. According to the Elephantine Papyri, Cambyses and his army of Persians had "knocked down all the temples of the Gods of Egypt". After Cambyses had plundered the city of Elephantine he went further south to conquer the Ethiopians that bordered Egypt near the 1st Cataract of the Nile and the Ethiopians of Nysa in Napata who dwelt beyond Egypt further south near the 4th Cataract. According to later Greek historians such as Diodorus, Siculus, and Strabo, Cambyses had reached Meroe and gave it its name.
After conquering all Ethiopia south of Egypt as far as Meroe with no food provision and no baggage beast, and just as his Persian army crossed the western desert back in Thebes, Cambyses also entered upon the desert west of Meroe in order to try and reach the Macrobians dwelling at the ends of the earth or the opposite end of the continent, but after getting deeper into the desert and only accomplishing a fifth of the distance, the army of Cambyses resulted to cannibalism on their own fellow troops. When Cambyses heard of his army eating each other, he immediately stopped his expedition against the Macrobians and marched the remnant of his army back to the Nile river at Meroe, and from Meroe the Persians marched north along the Nile and reached Thebes, and from there they finally returned safely to Memphis, where he ordered his Greek mercenaries to return to their homes. Cambyses, from Meroe, later took the same western route as his army did from Thebes attempting to reach the Siwa Oasis, and according to the ancient geographer Strabo, Cambyses from Ethiopia had crossed the same western desert that his army had crossed from Thebes when "they were overwhelmed when a wind-storm struck them".
According to Herodotus in a later chapter when he is describing the eastern, southern and western (Asia, Arabia, Libya) ends of the inhabited Earth, he makes it known that the Macrobians dwelt the farthest towards the sunset (west) of the southern Nile river beyond the western Sahara. Herodotus also makes it known that only two tribes accomplished this long journey from the Nile river to the western ends of the earth beyond the vast desert Sahara, these two tribes were known as the Libyan Nasamones, who spoke an alien language to the inhabitants, and the Ichthyophagi of Elephantine, who spoke the same language as the inhabitants, but Cambyses with his huge army failed to accomplish what the Nasamones and Ichthyophagi had already completed.
Cambyses, after being insulted by the tallest and long-lived (Macrobian) Ethiopian King of the west, he eagerly wanted to conquer and subdue all people of Amun and destroy all temples of the God, but failed in his desperate attempt. And although Cambyses had departed from Susa to invade and conquer the land of Egypt by crossing the Sinai desert and afterwards departing from Egypt to reach the deep southern realms of Meroe, he was still far away from the land of the Macrobians, who dwelt beyond the vast Sahara desert at the ends of the earth as far as the Ocean towards the western sunset.
- Herodotus, the Histories book 3.114
- Herodotus the histories, book 3.17.
- Herodotus the Histories, 4.196.
- Herodotus, book 4.197
- Periplus of Scylax
- Pliny, Natural History, book 6.35.
- Herodotus, book 3.114-115
- The Geography of Herodotus: Illustrated from Modern Researches and Discoveries by James Talboys Wheeler pg 528. The British Critic, Quarterly Theological Review, And Ecclesiastical Record Volume 11 pg 434
- Wheeler pg 526
- Herodotus, the Histories, book 3.20
- John Kitto, James Taylor, The popular cyclopædia of Biblical literature: condensed from the larger work, (Gould and Lincoln: 1856), p.302.
- Society of Arts (Great Britain), Journal of the Society of Arts, Volume 26, (The Society: 1878), pp.912-913.
- Herodotus the Histories, book 4.181
- Herodotus the Histories book 4.108
- Elephantine Papyri 401 B.C.E, petition to restore temple at Elephantine
- Herodotus, the Histories book 3.97
- Strabo Geography 17.1.5
- Herodotus the Histories, book 3.25
- Strabo Geography, book 17.1.54