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Romans in Sub-Saharan Africa were a group of expeditions and explorations to Lake Chad and western Africa. These expeditions were conducted by groups of military and commercial units of Romans who moved across the Sahara and into the interior of Africa and its coast. They occurred between the first and the fourth century AD. The primary motivation for the expeditions was to secure sources of gold and spices.
The Romans organized expeditions to cross the Sahara along five different routes:
- through the western Sahara, toward the Niger river, near modern Timbuktu
- through the Tibesti mountains, toward Lake Chad and modern Nigeria
- up the Nile valley through Egypt, toward the Great Rift Valley
- along the western coast of Africa, toward the Sénégal River
- along the coast of the Red Sea, toward the Horn of Africa, and perhaps modern Zanzibar.
All these expeditions were supported by legionaries and had mainly a commercial purpose. Only the one conducted by emperor Nero seemed to be a preparative for the conquest of Ethiopia or Nubia; in 62 AD, two legionaries) explored the sources of the Nile.
The explorations near the coasts were supported by Roman ships and deeply related to overseas commerce.
The Romans conducted five main explorations: two in the western Sahara, two in the central Sahara, and one in the area of Lake Chad.
Western Sahara expeditions
In western Sahara there were two Roman expeditions, just south of the Atlas mountains:
- Cornelius Balbus expedition: The first expedition done by Romans in the Sahara—according to Plinius—was the one of Cornelius Balbus, who in 19 BC probably reached the river Niger near Timbouctou. He moved from Libyan Sabratha and conquered with ten thousand legionaries the Garamantes capital in Fezzan and sent a small group of his legionaries further south across the Ahaggar mountains in order to explore the "land of the lions": they found a huge river (the Niger) that in their opinion was going toward the Nile river. Indeed in 1955, many Roman coins and some Latin ceramics were found in the area of Mali.
- Suetonius Paulinus expedition: The second was done in the year 41 AD by Suetonius Paulinus, a Roman Consul, who was the first of the Romans who led an army across the Atlas range. At the end of ten days' march he reached the mountains summit covered by snow and later he arrived at a river called Gerj. He then penetrated into the semi deserted country south of Morocco and some of his legionaries probably went near the river Daras (modern Senegal river).
Central Sahara expeditions
The two main explorations/expeditions in the central Sahara were:
- Flaccus expedition: During Augustus times lake Chad was a huge lake and two Roman expeditions were carried out in order to reach it: Septimius Flaccus and Julius Maternus reached the "lake of hippopotamus" (as Lake Chad was called by Claudius Ptolomeus). They moved from coastal Tripolitania and passed near the Tibesti mountains. Both did their expeditions through the Garamantes' territories, and were able to leave a small garrison on the "lake of hippopotamus and rhinoceros" after 3 months of travel in desert lands.
Ptolemy wrote that in 50 AD Septimius Flaccus carried out his expedition in order to retaliate against nomad raiders who attacked Leptis Magna, and reached Sebha and the territory of Aozou. He then reached the rivers Bahr Erguig, Chari and Logone in the lake Chad area, described as the "land of Ethiopes" (or black men) and called Agisymba.
- Matiernus expedition: Ptolomeus even wrote that around 90 AD Julius Maternus (or Matiernus) did a mainly commercial expedition. From the Sirte gulf he reached the Oasis of Cufra and the Oasis of Archei, then arrived -after 4 months travelling with the king of the Garamantes- to the river Bahr Salamat and Bahr Aouk, near the actual Central African Republic in a region then called Agisymba. He went back to Rome with a rhinoceros with two horns, that was shown in the Colosseum.
According to Raffael Joorde, Maternus was a diplomat who explored with the king of Garamantes the territory south of the Tibesti mountains, while this king did a military campaign against rebellious subjects or as a "razzia".
Niger river area
However some historians (like Susan Raven ) believe that there was even another Roman expedition to sub-saharan central Africa: the one of Valerius Festus, that could have reached the equatorial Africa thanks to the Niger river.
- Festus expedition: Plinius wrote  that in 70 AD a legatus of the Legio III Augusta named Festus repeated the Balbus expedition toward the Niger river. He went to the eastern Hoggar Mountains and the entered the Air Mountains until the Gadoufaoua plain (full of dinosaur fossils). Gadoufaoua (Touareg for “the place where camels fear to go”) is a site in the Tenere desert of Niger known for its extensive fossil graveyard, where remains of Sarcosuchus imperator, popularly known as SuperCroc, have been found. Festus finally arrived to the area were now there it is Timbouctou. But a few academics -like Fage- think that he only reached the Ghat region in southern Libya, near the border with southern Algeria and Niger (however it is possible that a few "explorers" of his legionaries reached the Niger river and went down to the equatorial forests navigating the river to the estuary in actual Nigeria, like happened in the Nile river exploration done under Nero emperor when Roman centurions reached the lake Victoria region).
The Roman vassal king Juba II organized successful trade from the area of Volubilis. Pliny the Elder, a 1st-century Roman author and military officer, drawing upon the accounts of Juba II, king of Mauretania, stated that a Roman expedition from Mauritania visited the islands of the archipelago of the Canaries and Madeira around 10 AD and found great ruins but no population, only dogs (from those animals he called the islands, using the Latin word "canarius" or "canis" for dog).
According to Pliny the Elder, an expedition of Mauretanians sent by Juba II to the archipelago visited the islands: when King Juba II dispatched a contingent to re-open the dye production facility at Mogador (historical name of Essaouira, Morocco) in the early 1st century AD, Juba's naval force was subsequently sent on an exploration of the Canary Islands, Madeira and probably the Cape Verde islands, using Mogador as their mission base.
It has been historically recorded that, according to Pliny the Elder, the Greek Xenophon of Lampsacus stated that the "Gorgades" (Cape Verde islands) were situated two days from "Hesperu Ceras" (modern day Cap-Vert), the westernmost part of the African continent, showing a knowledge of the area by the Romans.
Furthermore, according to Pliny the Elder and his citation by Gaius Julius Solinus, the sea voyaging time crossing the Gorgades (Cape Verde) to the islands of the Ladies of the West ("Hesperides", actual São Tomé and Príncipe and Fernando Po) was around 40 days: this fact has prompted academic discussions about the possibility of further Roman travels toward Guinea and even the Gulf of Guinea. A Roman coin of the emperor Trajan has been found in Congo. Other Roman coins have been found in Nigeria and Niger, but also in Guinea, Togo and Ghana. However, it is much more likely that all these coins were introduced at a much later date than that there was direct Roman intercourse so far down the western coast. No single article unmistakably originating in Africa south of the Equator has been discovered in the Graeco-Roman world or in contemporary Arabia, nor is there any mention of such an article in written records: while the coins are the only ancient European or Arabian articles that have been found in the southern parts of Africa.
Additionally it must be noted that Emperor Augustus decided that the circumnavigation of Africa should also be attempted (in 1 BC). Romans had two naval outposts in the Atlantic coast of Africa: Sala Colonia near present Rabat and Mogador in southern Morocco (north of Agadir). The island of Mogador prospered from the local purple dye-making industry (highly esteemed in imperial Rome) from the reigns of Augustus until Septimius Severus. Augustus, based on the discovery of a sunken merchant ship from southern Hispania (Spain) in the Djibouti area (done by his adoptive son Gaius Caesar when he sailed toward Aden), wanted to organize an expedition from Egypt to Mogador and Sala around Africa, which never bore fruit.
- Roman objects are, indeed, found in the Sahara, and, significantly, along the western caravan route. Numerous Roman artifacts have been found at the Garamantes’ capital of Germa in the Fezzan. There is evidence of Roman style irrigation being introduced and for at least some Garamantes adopting a sedentary and a town, if not urban, lifestyle. Most striking is the large Roman-syle mausoleum found there, evidence either of Roman presence or of Romanization of the elite. Between Germa and Ghat in the Hoggar have been found Roman ceramics, glass, jewelry and coins dating from the 1st to the 4th centuries. Farther down the route, at the oasis of Abelessa, is the site known locally as the Palace of Tin Hinan. There is a charming local legend about it, but it seems to have been a fortress, in one room of which was found the skeletal remains of a woman, along with a number of Late Roman objects, including a lamp, a golden bracelet and a 4th century coin. Finally, there was a cache of Roman coins found at Timissao only 600 kilometers from the Niger. Heinemann-University of California-UNESCO (p.514 Map)
- Romans in Azania/Raphta
- Roth, Jonathan 2002. The Roman Army in Tripolitana and Gold Trade with Sub-Saharan Africa. APA Annual Convention. New Orleans.
- Balbus expedition and successive expeditions, with map
- John Coleman De Graft-Johnson." African Glory: The Story of Vanished Negro Civilizations"; p.26
- Agisymba and Maternus
- Raffael Joorde." Römische Vorstöße ins Innere Afrikas südlich der Sahara: die geheimnisvolle Landschaft Agisymba", Dortmund, 2015 ()
- Raven, Susan. Rome in Africa. 3rd ed. London, 1993 ()
- Plinius the Elder. "Naturalis Historia", V, 5.36
- Cambridge History of Africa; p.286
- Some historians argue that the "Hesperides" of Solinus could have been the eastern Antilles
- Kelly Christopher. Republic of Congo ("Italy invades" section)
- Walker, Eric Anderson (1963). The Cambridge History of the British Empire. CUP Archive. p. 69.
- Coleman De Graft-Johnson, John. African glory: the story of vanished Negro civilizations. Black Classic Press. New York, 1986 ISBN 0933121032
- Fage, JD. The Cambridge History of Africa Volume 2. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, 1979 ISBN 0521215927
- Mattern, Susan. Rome and the enemy: imperial strategy in the principate. University of California Press. San Francisco, 2002 ISBN 0520236831
- Miller, J. Innes. The Cinnamon Route in the Spice Trade of the Roman Empire. University Press. Oxford, 1996 ISBN 0-19-814264-1
- Raven, Susan. Rome in Africa. Publisher Routledge. London, 2012 ISBN 113489239X
- Roth, Jonathan. The logistics of the Roman Army at war (264 B.C. – A.D. 235). Köln : Brill, 1998 (Columbia studies in the classical tradition ; Vol. 23) ISBN 90-04-11271-5
- The Cambridge History of Africa, Volume 2 (from CA. 500 B.C. to A.D. 1050). Michael Crowder (& J. Fage). Cambridge University Press, 1975 ISBN ISBN 052122215X