previous next


Eth. MACRO´BII (Hdt. 3.17-25; Plin. Nat. 6.30. s. 35, 7.1. s. 2; Solin. 30.9; Mela, 3.9.1), or the long-lived, might have been briefly enumerated among the numerous and obscure tribes which dwelt above Philae and the second cataract of the Nile, were it not for the conspicuous position assigned to them by Herodotus. He describes the Macrobii as a strong and opulent nation, remarkable for its stature, beauty and longevity, and, in some respects, as highly civilised. According to this historian, a rumour of the abundance of gold in the Macrobian territory stimulated the avarice of the Persian king, Cambyses, who led a great army against them: but in his haste he omitted to provide his host with food and water, and the city was distant many days' journey, and between the Macrobian land and Egypt lay sandy wastes, and the Persians perished through drought and hunger, Cambyses alone and a small residue of his army returning to Egypt. In the description of Herodotus, the most important point is the geographical position assigned to them. It is in the farthest south (ἐπὶ τἧ νοτίἡ θαλάσσἡ, c. 17, τὰ ἔσχατα τῆς γῆς, c. 25) the limits of the habitable world, according to the knowledge of Herodotus. The Macrobian land was accordingly beyond the Arabian Gulf, on the shores of the Indian ocean, and in that undefined and illimitable region called Barbaria by the ancient cosmographers.

Travellers and writers on geography have advanced several theories respecting their position in Africa. Bruce (Travels, vol. iv. p. 43) supposes the Macrobii to have been a tribe of Shangalla or lowland blacks. Rennell (Geogr. System of Herod. ii. p.29, 2nd edit.) identifies them with the Abyssinians; Heeren (African Nations, vol. ii. pp. 321--338) believes them to have been a branch of the Semâleh who occupied the maritime district around Cape Guardafui: while Niebuhr (Dissertation on the Geog. of Herod. p. 20) objects to all these surmises, as taking for granted too much knowledge in Herodotus himself. In the story, as it stands, there is one insurmountable objection to the position in the far south assigned to them by the historian, and too readily accepted by his modern commentators. No army, much less an oriental army with its many incumbrances, could have marched from Egypt into Abyssinia without previously sending forward magazines and securing wells. There were neither roads, nor tanks of water, nor corn land nor herbage to be found in a considerable portion of the route (Ψάμμος, c. 25). Even at the present day no direct communication exists between Aegypt and the land of the Nubians of Somâleh. No single traveller, no caravan, could adventure to proceed by land from the cataracts to Cape Guardafui. An army far inferior in numbers to the alleged host of Cambyses would in a few days exhaust the grass and the millet of Nubia [p. 2.241]wherein the only productive soil for some hundreds of miles south of Philae consists of narrow slips of ground adjacent to and irrigated by the Nile. From the southern frontier of Egypt to the nearest frontier of Abyssinia the only practical road for an army lies along the river bank, and the distance to be traversed is at least 900 miles.

We must therefore abandon the belief that the Macrobians dwelt in the farthest south. But there are other suspicious features in the narrative. Similar length of days is ascribed by Herodotus to the Tartessians (1.163; comp. Anacreon, ap. Strab. 3.2), nor should it be overlooked that the Hyperboreans in the extreme north are also denominated Macrobii. We may also bear in mind the mythical aspect of Homer's Aethiopians (Iliad, 1.423) in which passage the epithet “faultless” (ἀμύμονες) implies not moral but physical superiority comp. Herod, 3.20: μέγιστοι καὶ κάλλιστοι ἀνθρώπων πάντων). “Men,” as Dr. Kenrick justly remarks, “groaning under the burden of the social state, have in every age been prone to indulge in such pictures of ease and abundance as Herodotus, in the passages cited, and Pindar (Pind. P. 10.57) draw of countries beyond the limits of geographical knowledge and of times beyond the origin of history.”

If, then, we do not yield up the Macrobii to myth or fable altogether, we must seek for them in some district nearer Aegypt. Whatever tribe or region Cambyses intended to subdue, gold was abundant, and brass, or rather copper, scarce among them. Now the modern inhabitants of Kordofan (15° 20′--10° N. lat., 28°--32° E. long.) are commonly called Nobah, and Nob is an old Aegyptian word for gold. Again, the Macrobii were singularly tall, well proportioned and healthy; and Kordofan has, from time immemorial, supplied the valley of the Nile with able-bodied and comely slaves of both sexes (Hume, ap. Walpole, Turkey, p. 392). Moreover, the caravans bear with them, as marketable wares, wrought and unwrought copper to this district. In 1821 Mohammed Ali achieved what Cambyses failed in attempting. With less than 7000 men, half of whom indeed perished through fatigue and the climate, he subdued all the countries contiguous to the Nile as far as Sennaar and Kordofan inclusive: and the objects which stimulated his expedition were gold and slaves. We shall therefore perhaps not greatly err in assigning to the Macrobii of Herodotus a local habitation much nearer than Abyssinia to the southern frontier of Aegypt, nor in suggesting that their name, in the language of the Greeks, is a corruption of the Semitic word Magrabi, i. e. the dwellers in the west. A position west of the Nile would account also for the knowledge possessed by the Ichthyophagi of Elephantis (Bojah or Bisharye Arabs) of the languages of the Macrobii.

The modern Bisharyes occupy the country east of the Nile from Aegypt to Abyssinia; and their trade and journeys extend from the Red Sea to Kordofan. If then we regard the Macrobii (the Magrabi) and the Ichthyophagi (the Bisharye) as respectively seated on the east and west banks of the Nile, the latter people will have been the most available guides whom Cambyses could employ for exploring the land of the Macrobians.

It should be remembered, however, that Herodotus derived his knowledge of the Persian expedition either from the Persian conquerors of Aegypt, or from the Aegyptian priests themselves: neither of whom would be willing to disclose to an inquisitive foreigner the actual situation of a land in which gold was so abundant. By placing it in the far south, and exaggerating the hardships endured by the army of Cambyses, they might justly hope to deter strangers from prying into the recesses of a region from which themselves were deriving a profitable monopoly.

Upon the wonders of the Macrobian land it would be hardly worth while to dwell, were they not in singular accordance with some known features in the physical or commercial character of that region. In the southern portion of Kordofan the hills rise to a considerable height, and iron ore in some districts is plentiful. The fountain of health may thus have been one of several mineral springs. The ascription of extreme longevity to a people who dwelt in a hot and by no means healthy climate may be explained by the supposition that, whereas many of the pastoral tribes in these regions put to death their old people, when no longer capable of moving from place to place, the Macrobians abstained from so cruel a practice. The procerity of the king seems to imply that the chieftains of the Macrobii belonged to a different race from their subjects (compare Scylax, ap. Aristot. vii. p. 1332). “The Table of the Sun” is the market-place in which trade, or rather barter, was carried on with strangers, according to a practice mentioned by Cosmas, the Indian mariner, who describes the annual fairs of southern Aethiopia in terms not unlike those employed by Herodotus in his account of the Macrobians (pp. 138,139).


hide References (4 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (4):
    • Herodotus, Histories, 3.17
    • Herodotus, Histories, 3.25
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 6.30
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 6.7
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: