previous next

A description of Egypt, and of the Nile, the crocodile, the ibis, and the Pyramids.


Accordingly, since the occasion seems to demand it, let us touch briefly on matters Egyptian, of which I discoursed at length in connection with the history of the emperors Hadrian and Severus, 1 telling for the most part what I myself had seen. [2] The Egyptian nation is the most ancient of all, except that in antiquity it vies with the Scythians. 2 It is bounded on the south 3 by the Greater Syrtes, the promontories Phycus and Borion, by the Garamantes 4 and various other nations. Where it looks directly east it extends to Elephantine and Meroë, cities of the Aethiopians, to the Catadupi 5 and the Red Sea, and to the Scenitic Arabs, whom we now call the [p. 281] Sercacens. 6 On the north it forms part of the boundless tract from which Asia and the provinces of Syria take their beginning. On the west its boundary is the Issiac Sea, which some have called the Parthenian. 7

[3] Now it will be in place to touch briefly on the most helpful of all rivers, the Nile, which Homer calls the Aegyptus, 8 and then to describe other remarkable things to be found in those lands. [4] The origin of the sources of the Nile (so at least I am wont to think) will be unknown also to future ages, as it has been up to the present. But, since the poets' tales and dissenting geographers give varying accounts of this unknown subject, I shall succinctly set forth such of their views as in my opinion approach the truth. [5] Some natural philosophers affirm that in the tracts lying beneath the north, when the cold winters freeze everything, great masses of snow are congealed; that afterwards when these are melted by the heat of the blazing sun, they form clouds filled with flowing moisture, which are then driven towards the south by the Etesian winds, 9 and when melted by the excessive warmth, are believed to cause the rich overflow of the Nile. [6] Others assert that it is by the Aethiopian rains, which are said to fall in abundance in those regions in the season of torrid heat, that its floods are raised at the appointed season of the year; but both these reasons seem to [p. 283] be out of harmony with the truth. For it is reported that in the land of the Aethiopians rains fall either not at all or at long intervals of time. [7] Another, more widespread opinion is, that when the Prodromoi blow and after them the Etesians for forty-five consecutive days, since they drive back the course of the river and check its speed, it swells with overflowing waves; and while the contrary wind blows against it, it increases more and more, since on the one side the force of the wind hurls it back and on the other the flow of its perennial springs forces it onward; and rising high it covers everything, and hiding the ground, over the low-lying plains it has the appearance of a sea. [8] But King Juba, 10 relying upon the testimony of Punic books, thinks that the Nile rises in a mountain situated in Mauritania and looking down upon the ocean, and he says that this is proved by the fact that in those marshes 11 are found fishes, plants, and animals like those of the Nile. [9] But the river, flowing through the regions of Aethiopia, and going under various names, which many nations have given it in its course over the earth, swelling with its rich flood, comes to the cataracts, which are steep rocks, from which it plunges headlong rather than flows; for which reason the Ati, who formerly lived nearby, since their hearing was impaired by the continual roar, were forced to change their abode to a quieter spot. [10] Flowing more gently from there, through seven [p. 285] mouths, each of which has the appearance of an uninterrupted river, and is equally usable, it empties into the sea without being increased by any tributaries in Egypt. And besides many streams which flow from the main channel and fall into others nearly as great, seven are full of surges and navigable, and to them the ancients gave the following names: the Heracleotic, Sebennytic, Bolbitic, Pathmitic, Mendesian, Tanitic, and Pelusiac. 12 [11] Rising, then, in the quarter which has been mentioned, it passes from the marshes 13 as far as the cataracts and forms many islands, some of which (it is said) extend over such wide-spread spaces that the stream hardly leaves each of them behind on the third day. [12] Of these two are famous, namely Meroë and Delta, the latter clearly so-called from the form of the triangular letter. 14 But when the sun has begun to ride through the sign of the Crab, the river increases until it passes into the Balance 15 ; then, flowing at high water for a hundred days, the river becomes smaller, and as the weight of its waters decreases, it shows the plains that before were navigable for boats now suitable for riders on horseback. [13] However, too great a rise of the Nile is as harmful to the crops as too small a one is unfruitful. For if it soaks the land for too long a time with an excess of water, it delays the cultivation of the fields; but if the rise is too small, it threatens a bad harvest. No landowner has ever wished for a higher rise than sixteen cubits. But if there is a more moderate rise, seeds sown on a [p. 287] place where the soil is very rich sometimes return an increase of nearly seventy-fold. And it is the only river that does not raise a breeze. 16

[14] Egypt abounds also in many animals, some of which are terrestrial, some aquatic; and there are others which live both on land and in the water, and hence are called amphibious. And on the dry plains roebucks feed and antelopes and spinturnicia, 17 laughable for their utter ugliness, and other monsters, which it is not worth while to enumerate.

[15] Now among aquatic animals crocodiles abound everywhere in that region, a destructive four-footed monster, a curse to the land, accustomed to both elements. It has no tongue, and moves only its upper jaw; its teeth are arranged like those of a comb, and whatever it meets it persistently attacks with destructive bites. It produces its young from eggs resembling those of geese. [16] And, if besides the claws with which it is armed it also had thumbs, its strength would be great enough to overturn even ships; for it sometimes attains a length of eighteen cubits. At night it remains quiet in the water; in the daytime it suns itself on land, trusting to its hide, which is so strong that its mail-clad back can hardly be pierced by the bolts of artillery. [17] Now, savage as these same beasts always are, during the seven festal days on which the priests at Memphis celebrate the birthday of the Nile, as if by a kind of military truce they lay aside all their [p. 289] fierceness and become mild. [18] Besides those that lose their lives through accident, some are destroyed by creatures resembling dolphins, which are found in that same river and with sawlike dorsal fins tear the crocodiles' soft bellies; and others die in the following manner. [19] The trochilus, a little bird, as it looks for bits of food, flutters and plays about the crocodile as it lies outstretched, and pleasantly tickling its cheeks, makes its way as far as its throat. Seeing this going on, a water rat, a kind of ichneumon, enters the opening of the crocodile's mouth, to which the bird has shown the way, and after lacerating its belly and tearing its vitals to pieces, forces its way out. 18 [20] Yet daring as this monster is towards those who run from it, when it sees that it has a daring opponent it is most timorous. It has sharper sight when on land, and during the four winter months it is said to take no food.

[21] Hippopotami also, or river-horses, 19 are produced in those parts, animals sagacious beyond all unreasoning beasts, with cloven hooves like horses and short tails. Of their cunning it will suffice for the present to give two instances. [22] This monster makes its lair amid a thick growth of high and rough reeds and with watchful care looks about for a time of quiet; when free means are offered, it goes forth to feed upon the cornfields. And when it has finally begun to return, gorged with [p. 291] food, it walks backward and makes several paths, for fear that hunters, following the lines of one direct course, may find and stab it without difficulty. [23] Also, when by excessive greed it has made its belly bulge and grown sluggish, it rolls its thighs and legs on freshly cut reeds, in order that the blood flowing from its wounded feet may relieve its repletion; and it keeps the injured parts covered with mud until the raw places scab over. [24] This monstrous and once rare kind of beast the Roman people first saw when Scaurus was aedile, the father of that Scaurus in whose defence Cicero spoke 20 and bade the Sardinians also to conform with the authority of the whole world in their judgement of so noble a family; and for many ages after that more hippopotami were often brought to Rome. But now they can nowhere be found, since, as the inhabitants of those regions conjecture, they were forced from weariness of the multitude that hunted them to take refuge in the land of the Blemmyae. 21

[25] Among Egyptian birds, the variety of which is countless, the ibis is sacred, harmless, and beloved for the reason that by carrying the eggs of serpents to its nestlings for food it destroys and makes fewer those destructive pests. 22 [26] These same birds meet the winged armies of snakes which issue from the marshes of Arabia, producing deadly poisons, and before they leave their own lands vanquish [p. 293] them in battles in the air, and devour them. And it is said of those birds that they lay their eggs through their beaks. 23 [27] Egypt also breeds innumerable serpents, surpassing all their destructive kind in fierceness: basilisks, amphisbaenae, scytalae, acontiae, dipsades, vipers, and many others, 24 all of which are easily surpassed in size and beauty by the asp, which never of its own accord leaves the bed of the Nile. 25

[28] Many and great things there are in that land which it is worth while to see; of these it will be in place to describe a few. Everywhere temples of vast size have been erected. The Pyramids have been enrolled among the seven wonders of the world, 26 and of their slow and difficult construction the historian Herodotus tells us. 27 These are towers higher than any others which can be erected by human hands, extremely broad at the base and tapering to very pointed summits. [29] The figure pyramid has that name among geometers because it narrows into a cone after the manner of fire, which in our language is called πῦρ; for their size, as they mount to a vast height, gradually becomes slenderer, [p. 295] and also they cast no shadows at all, in accordance with a principle of mechanics. 28

[30] There are also subterranean fissures and winding passages called syringes, 29 which, it is said, those acquainted with the ancient rites, since they had fore-knowledge that a deluge was coming, and feared that the memory of the ceremonies might be destroyed, dug in the earth in many places with great labour; and on the walls of these caverns they carved many kinds of birds and beasts, and those countless forms of animals which they called hierographic writing. 30

[31] Then comes Syene, 31 where at the solstice, to which the sun extends its summer course, its rays surround all upright bodies and do not allow their shadows to extend beyond the bodies themselves. 32 At that time if one fixes a stake upright in the earth, or looks at a man or a tree standing anywhere, he will observe that the shadows are lost in the outer circumference of the figures. The same thing is said to happen at Meroë, a part of Aethiopia lying next to the equinoctial circle, where for ninety days the shadows fall on the side opposite to ours, for which reason those who dwell there are called Antiscii. 33 [32] But since there are many such wonders, which extend beyond the plan of my [p. 297] little work, let me refer them to lofty minds, since I wish to tell a few things about the provinces.

1 In lost books.

2 Cf. Justinus, ii. 1, 5.

3 The account of Ammianus is very confused and inexact.

4 A nomadic people of Libya.

5 At the cataracts of the Nile.

6 Cf. xiv. 4, 1 ff.

7 See xiv. 8, 10, note, and Index I., vol. i.

8 Cf. Odyss. iv. 477. On the Nile and its floods, see Hdt. ii. 19, 20; Diod. Sic. i. 36; Strabo, xvii. 1, 5; Pliny, N.H. v. 51 ff.

9 Periodic winds which blow yearly in the dog-days, according to Colum. xi. 2, 56, from August 1 to 30; cf. Pliny, N.H. ii. 124; xviii. 270 f. The Prodromoi, “forerunners,” mentioned below in section 7, begin eight days earlier.

10 The one whom Julius Caesar led in triumph; Octavian later made him his friend and restored his kingdom to him; Pliny, N.H. v. 16.

11 Those from which the river flows.

12 Not all writers give the same names. We have for instance Canopic and Naucratic.

13 Ammianus seems to accept King Juba's opinion; cf. section 8, above.

14 Greek δ (inverted on our maps).

15 That is, from the summer solstice until the autumnal equinox.

16 The meaning is not clear; it may mean because it flows so slowly in the lower part of its course, or because it is spread over the plains by canals.

17 A kind of monkey.

18 As a matter of fact, the ichneumon destroys only the eggs of the crocodile; cf. Diod. Sic. i. 35, 7; Solinus, 32, 25, agrees with Ammianus, and in 32, 26, tells of the destruction of crocodiles by dolphins with sharp dorsal fins.

19 Cf. Hdt. ii. 71; Diod. Sic. i. 35, 8; Pliny, N.H. viii. 95.

20 We have fragments of the oration Pro M. Aemilio Scauro, delivered in 54 B.C. The Scaurus who gave magnificent games when aedile was the same as the one defended by Cicero. His father, who was an aedile in 123 B.C. was poor at the time, and nothing is said of his games, while those of his son were famous. Pliny, N.H. viii. 96, says: eum (= hippopotamum) et quinque crocodiles Romae aedilitatis suae ludis M. Scaurus temporario euripo ostendit. It seems natural to apply this to the man defended by Cicero, and temporario euripo may have been a feature of the temporary theatre which he built on that occasion.

21 A people of Aethiopia, near the cataracts of the Nile.

22 Cf. Cic., Nat. Deo. i. 36, 101.

23 See Aristotle, De Gen. iii. 6.

24 The basilisk was found principally in the Cyrenaica and got its name from a white spot on its head, resembling a diadem; Pliny, N.H. viii. 78. The amphisbaenae were so-called from moving forwards and backward. The scytalae were long and slender like a staff (σκυτάλη). The acontiae are called by Pliny (viii. 85) by the Latin name iaculus, “javelin.” The dipsades caused excessive thirst (δίψος). These snakes are not found in Egypt in modern times, and the ibis has gone to its native Aethiopia.

25 Apparently a misunderstanding of Lucan, xi. 704 f., ipsa caloris egens gelidum non transit in orbem sponte sua Niloque tenus metitur harenas, “needing heat, the asp never of its own accord passes into cold regions, but traverses the desert as far as the Nile and no farther” (Lucan, L.C.L., p. 557).

26 The lists of these vary; see Gellius, I, p. 10, note 2, L.C.L.

27 ii. 124.

28 This, of course, is true only when the sun stands directly over their tops.

29 σύριγγες, xvii. 7, 11, note.

30 Described in xvii. 4, 8 ff.

31 Modern Assouan.

32 That is, they cast no shadows. Macrobius, Somn. Scip. ii. 7, 15, limits this to eo die quo sol certain parter ingreditur Cancri, hora dies sexta; Strabo also limits the time to midday (xvii. 1, 48; L.C.L., viii. p. 129).

33 From ἀντί, “against,” “opposite,” and σκιά, “shadow.” Ammianus means that the locality is so far south that the sun for a time casts shadows southwards; cf. Pliny, N.H. ii. 183, per eos dies xc in meridiem umbras iaci, “the shadows are turned towards the south.”

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

load focus Introduction (John C. Rolfe, Ph.D., Litt.D., 1940)
load focus Introduction (John C. Rolfe, Ph.D., Litt.D., 1939)
load focus Introduction (John C. Rolfe, Ph.D., Litt.D., 1935)
load focus Latin (John C. Rolfe, Ph.D., Litt.D., 1935)
hide References (4 total)
  • Cross-references to this page (4):
    • Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854), ARA´BIA
    • Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854), COLCHIS
    • Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854), NILUS
    • Smith's Bio, Juba
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: