Friday, 31 July 2020

What did Caligula think of his nickname?

He wasn’t called Caligula, he didn’t go mad after spending three months in a coma, and he didn’t make his horse a senator. There are so, so many myths about this emperor. Some are distortions, some are baseless, some are outright fabrications. Of the fabrications, some are ancient, some modern: even Suetonius’ lurid stories aren’t enough for modern TV and cinema writers.

We’ll stick to just two fabrications today:
  1. The nickname ‘Caligula’, little boot.
  2. The three month coma.
Left: Gaius (12–41 CE) as depicted in antiquity, copy with colour restored by Stiftung Archäologie, Munich, based on particles preserved in the marble (original: Archäologisches Institut der Universität Göttingen). Right: Gaius as reimagined by @royalty_now_ (Becca Saladin).

1. His name

‘Caligula’ rolls off the tongue nicely, doesn’t it? But he wasn’t called that. He was ‘Gaius’. Contemporary writers, later writers, they all called him Gaius. He wasn’t called anything else until three centuries after his death.

The nickname ‘Caligula’ was only when he was a toddler. His father’s soldiers used it when his parents dressed baby Gaius up in miniature military gear. Several sources mention the story —
Caligulae cognomen castrensi ioco traxit, quia manipulario habitu inter milites educabatur.

He got the nickname ‘Caligula’ as a bit of fun in camp, because he was brought up among the soldiers wearing military uniform.
Suetonius, Caligula 9.1 (tr. Gainsford)
There’s just one reported instance of someone using the nickname when Gaius was an adult. He didn’t like it.
At idem Gaius omnia contumelias putabat, ut sunt ferendarum inpatientes faciendarum cupidissimi: iratus fuit Herennio Macro, quod illum Gaium salutaverat, nec inpune cessit primipilari quod Caligulam dixerat; hoc enim in castris natus et alumnus legionum vocari solebat, nullo nomine militibus familiarior umquam factus, sed iam Caligulam convicium et probrum iudicabat cothurnatus.

The same Gaius took everything as an insult: those who are keenest on offering them are least tolerant of receiving them. He was angry at Herennius Macer when he greeted him as 'Gaius'. And he didn't let a chief centurion get away with it when he called him 'Caligula': he was born in an army camp and was regularly called that as a favourite of the legions, and that was the name by which he was always most affectionately known to the soldiers. But by now, wearing grown-up shoes, he took 'Caligula' as accusatory and belittling.
Seneca, On constancy 18 (tr. Gainsford)
Gaius may have been more tolerant when on campaign with the army, we don’t know.

But this story is even more striking for showing that he didn’t like ‘Gaius’ either. Probably for the same reason: his praenomen may have seemed just as over-familiar as a childhood nickname.

His own preference for a short-form name, I suggest, would probably have been ‘Germanicus’, a cognomen inherited from his father. That’s the name that takes up most space on his coins. And when Gaius renamed the month of September after himself (don’t worry, it didn’t last), ‘Germanicus’ is the name he gave it. But ‘Germanicus’ was too strongly associated with his father — the Germanicus — and Gaius’ reign was too short for him to succeed in co-opting the name for himself. (Suetonius opens his biography of Gaius with a mini-biography of Germanicus. Way to throw shade!)
An inscription dated to ‘the 17th day before the Kalends of Germanicus’, that is, the 15th of August. The inscription could be from Gaius’ lifetime, or from the reign of Domitian, who renamed September to ‘Germanicus’ too. (CIL xi.5745; photo: Bill Thayer’s website)
Contemporary writers invariably call him ‘Gaius’ (Philo, Seneca, Pliny), and it’s the same for the 300 years following his death (Josephus, Suetonius, Dio, Eusebius). ‘Caligula’ gets mentioned only in the specific context of the story of Gaius’ toddler uniform.

The second half of the 300s is when his name changes. Eutropius introduces him as ‘Gaius Caesar, Caligula by nickname’. Aurelius Victor and the Historia Augusta call him ‘Caligula’ consistently; Orosius calls him ‘Gaius Caligula’. There’s no indication of what it was that prompted the change, other than a general trend of belittling him — the Historia Augusta treats him as a byword for a bad emperor — but someone must have started it.
Note. Eutropius, Breviarium 7.12; Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus 3, epit. 3; Hist. Aug. Marc. Aur. 28.10, Avid. Cass. 8.4, Commodus 10.2, Heliogab. 1.1, 34.1, Aurelian 42.6.; Orosius, Hist. adv. paganos 7.5.5–7.
The dissonance is especially striking in Suetonius. If it had been a thing in Suetonius’ time to use a belittling nickname for Gaius, Suetonius would definitely have done it. And the surviving manuscripts of Suetonius do use the title ‘Caligula’ — but only in the headings. The main text always uses ‘Gaius’. It’s clear that ‘Caligula’ isn’t Suetonius’ own title for the biography.
The oldest extant manuscript of Suetonius’ Lives, showing the end of ‘Tiberius’ and the heading for ‘Caligula’. (Cod. Paris. lat. 6115, 9th cent.)

2. His coma

To decide whether Caligula was mad is a problem which requires a much fuller and more thorough discussion than it can be given here. For the moment, it is enough to recognize that the illness of September A.D. 37 was purely physical. Let us hope that the myth of Caligula’s ‘nervous breakdown’ can now be consigned to the oblivion it so richly deserves.
Morgan 1973: 329
Such sadly unprophetic words. If only it were consigned to oblivion. If only, if only.

But it isn’t. It has been revived bloody well yet again by a Netflix docudrama series, which determinedly ignores everything that actual historians have said about Gaius over the last half century, in favour of the most sensationalist nonsense they could find.

The series depicts Gaius becoming ill and falling into a coma for three months. This illness is what supposedly damages his sanity and turns him into a cartoon villain.
The death of Tiberius vaults Caligula to power as Rome’s new emperor, a role at which he initially excels — until an illness unhinges his mind.
Roman Empire, blurb for S03E02 ‘A new hope’ (2019)
All right, the illness was real. The coma and the unhinging ... were not.

No ancient source says that his supposed madness was caused by illness. No ancient source says that his illness provoked any kind of transformation of character. No ancient source says that he suffered from headaches. No ancient source describes any symptoms of his illness. No ancient source mentions a coma, let alone a coma lasting three months. It’s all 20th century supposition.
Caligula (John Hurt) begins having headaches, a symptom of his supposed mental illness, watched anxiously by his sister Drusilla (Beth Morris). BBC, I Claudius (1976), episode 9 ‘Zeus, by Jove!’ The story is based on Robert Graves’ novel (1934), but even Graves, creative though he was, didn’t make up the headaches: they were invented for the TV series.
Over the last century several candidates have been proposed for the disease of 37 CE, and for the cause of his supposed madness:
  • combination of alcoholism and epilepsy (Jerome 1923: 419)
  • schizophrenia, or ‘dementia praecox’ (Esser 1958: 134–136)
  • encephalitis lethargica, or ‘sleeping sickness’ (Sandison 1958)
  • psychopathy (Lucas 1967)
  • thyrotoxicosis (Katz 1972, 1977)
  • an anxiety disorder (Massaro and Montgomery 1978)
  • interictal temporal lobe epilepsy (Benediktson 1989)
  • herpetic encephalitis (Ferreira Camargo and Ghizoni Teive 2018)
The problem is that there is precisely zero evidence for any symptoms of the illness that struck Gaius in late 37 CE. All that the sources tell us — Philo, Suetonius, and Dio — is that he became ill, that the illness lasted long enough for news to spread all round the empire, that there was fear he might die, and that he got better.

That. Is. All. No coma. No epileptic seizures.

Everything else is a crumbly edifice built on a hodgepodge of details strewn across all the rest of Gaius’ lifespan. Suetonius mentions that he suffered from comitialis morbus as a child, a sickness characterised by lethargy: the phrase is sometimes translated as epilepsy, but it’s very inexact, and it was confined to his childhood in any case. Katz’ diagnosis of hyperthyroidism relies very heavily on Suetonius’ physical description of Gaius, a description that is demonstrably false (Morgan 1973; notwithstanding Katz’ denial of this when he revisited the subject in 1977). The headaches invented for the 1976 BBC series I, Claudius are surely based on Sandison’s theory of encephalitis: that must also be where the coma story comes from. (Though it’s also possible that the headaches are an attribution error: there’s some indication that the dictator Julius Caesar suffered from migraines.)

The idea of a transformation in Gaius’ character comes from Philo’s report that he became licentious upon becoming emperor, and that he returned to licentiousness and savagery after recovering from the illness. That is, as far as Philo is concerned, the illness was an interruption to the licentiousness: and the licentiousness caused the illness, not the other way round.

If you want a reliable account of Gaius, don’t rely on Netflix. I don’t particularly recommend Stephen Dando-Collins’ 2019 book either: he at least doesn’t make things up, but it’s still terribly sensationalist. For a balanced treatment, which doesn’t play up Gaius’ supposed insanity, and which doesn’t downplay his corruption either, the best is still Anthony Barrett’s Caligula: the abuse of power (2015, 1st edition 1989).

Here’s Philo’s description of the illness. This is as much detail as we get. Take a look and see if you think it justifies a diagnosis of rare forms of encephalitis or epilepsy.
But in the eighth month Gaius was struck down by severe sickness. He had exchanged the recent more homely and, therefore, healthier way of life which he had followed while Tiberius was alive, for one of extravagance. Hard drinking, luxurious feeding and appetites still unsatisfied when the cavities were stuffed full, hot baths, ill-timed, and acting as emetics, followed at once by renewed toping and gormandizing in its train, lasciviousness venting itself on boys and women, and everything else that can destroy soul and body and the bonds in both which keep them together, joined in the assault. Self-restraint is rewarded by strength and health, incontinence by infirmity and sickness bordering on death.
Philo, Embassy to Gaius 14 (tr. Colson)
Now, there are plenty of lurid things to say about Gaius that are solidly grounded in Philo’s and Suetonius’ testimony. Maybe at a later date we’ll come back and look at the business of Gaius’ horse Incitatus, or his supposed declaration of war on the god Neptune. Suetonius’ stories aren’t remotely trustworthy, but still, he does at least attest these things.

But you can’t base any kind of sensible diagnosis on Philo’s vague description. Reading through these articles by modern pathologists feels like watching one of the crazier episodes of House, M.D. Real life isn’t like that.

Or if it is, then I’ll finish by offering my own diagnosis: clearly, it must have been lupus. It’s always lupus.


  • Barrett, A. A. 2015 [1989]. Caligula. The abuse of power (orig. Caligula. The corruption of power). Routledge.
  • Benediktson, D. T. 1989. ‘Caligula’s madness: madness or interictal temporal lobe epilepsy?’ Classical World 82.5: 370–375.
  • Esser, A. 1958. Cäsar und die julisch-claudischen Kaiser im biologisch-ärztlichen Blickfeld. Brill.
  • Ferreira Camargo, C. H.; Ghizoni Teive, H. A. 2018. ‘Searching for neurological diseases in the Julio-Claudian dynasty of the Roman empire.’ Arquivos de Neuro-Psiquiatria 76.1: 53–57.
  • Jerome, T. S. 1923. Aspects of the study of Roman history. G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
  • Katz, R. S. 1972. ‘The illness of Caligula.’ Classical World 65.7: 223–225.
  • —— 1977. ‘Caligula’s illness again.’ Classical World 70.7: 451.
  • Lucas, J. 1967. ‘Un empereur psychopathe. Contribution à la psychologie du Caligula de Suétone.’ L’antiquité classique 36: 159–189.
  • Massaro, V.; Montgomery, I. 1978. ‘Gaius — mad, bad, ill, or all three?’ Latomus 37.4: 894-909.
  • Morgan, M. G. 1973. ‘Caligula’s illness again.’ Classical World 66.6: 327–329.
  • Sandison, A. T. 1958. ‘The madness of the emperor Caligula.’ Medical History 2.3: 202–209.

Monday, 13 July 2020

Stripping myths down to a historical core (part 2)

Part 1 | Part 2

Myths contain stuff that has been transmitted from generation to generation, century to century, to some extent even millennium to millennium. But old doesn’t mean real. It doesn’t even mean inspired by something real.
Left: a cyclops. Centre: the skull of a dwarf elephant, a species that lived on Mediterranean islands up until about the mid-Mesolithic. Right: a euhemerised cyclops designed for A Total War Saga: Troy (forthcoming August 2020). Was the mythical cyclops inspired by the skull’s nasal cavity, as famously argued by Mayor 2000? Well, it’s possible. But the nature of myth is that there’s no expectation that it needs to be based on anything real.
Also, some stuff is better at surviving than other stuff. If you want to understand the potential of myths to preserve historical information, it matters which kind of information you’re talking about.
Note. This would be my main concern about the kind of model of oral history that Echo-Hawk 2000 proposes. Echo-Hawk’s ideas about oral traditions are, not exactly all-or-nothing, but they’re not fine-grained. Human bodies are real; eyes are real; but the fact you can put those two things together doesn’t mean you can say the Cyclops has a historical basis.
For example, Homeric epic shows an outstanding survival rate for place names. This includes at least one town that had been abandoned since the time of the Mycenaean palace culture (Eutresis, in Boeotia: TH Ft 140, Iliad 2.502). Narrative tale-types, poetic devices, linguistic formulae also do impressively well, though very unevenly. Some elements are recent, others are extremely ancient. Some story elements and theological concepts are evidently inherited from Bronze Age Mesopotamia (via the Hittites or the Phoenicians); a handful of linguistic and metrical elements go back to Proto-Indo-European (ca. 4000 BCE [edit: or 3000 BCE: see the response from Timo below]); and one or two tale-types might be even older still — like the story of a hero who escapes a cave by blinding a one-eyed giant, a tale-type found in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

But material culture, etiquette, military tactics, burial practices, legal and political framework, kinship, marriage, inheritance customs ... not so much. With just a couple of exceptions, what we have in these categories looks like contemporary practices, usually dating to the first half of the 600s BCE or a bit earlier, heavily altered by false archaisms to give them an artificial flavour of age. And while some of Homer’s place names are genuinely archaic, his geography and topography are a mess.

How about a historical Trojan War? Who knows. But in terms of popularity, in the Archaic period the Trojan War had a similar standing to the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece. In terms of prevalence in the epic tradition, it was on a similar level to the war between the gods and the Titans. These comparisons aren’t encouraging.

With myths, just because some elements are old, that doesn’t mean any particular aspect of the myth is real. There’s no principled reason to infer, purely from internal evidence, that a myth originated in historical events. If the extant evidence shows a really good survival rate for some kind of stuff, as with Homer’s toponyms and language, it’s reasonable to expect that other toponyms and linguistic forms stand a decent chance of being old, even if we don’t have external corroboration. But if there’s an area where there’s no track record — like, um, almost everything else — then it’s bad methodology to assume it’s a faithful representation of anything at all.
Lara Croft, tomb raider and arch-euhemerist. In her career Lara has visited Atlantis, a Polynesian settlement in Antarctica, Niflheim, and Yamatai, and she has handled the Spear of Destiny, Excalibur, and Mjöllnir. In one game it is ‘revealed’ that the Midgard Serpent of Norse myth was actually the movement of the earth’s tectonic plates.

Part 2. Euhemerism

‘Myths are usually based on some version of the truth,’ Lara Croft says at the start of the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot. Lara’s sentiment is a nice illustration of a deep-running human impulse: the drive to dig through fantastic elements from a myth, to find a kernel of historical reality buried inside.
Note. Actually, in Lara’s specific case, her argument does potentially hold water. It’s her phrasing that’s the problem. She isn’t actually talking about myths, but about Yamatai, a place named in ancient Chinese historical records. And the Records of the Three Kingdoms may or may not be accurate, but it isn’t at all the same kind of thing as a mythological allusion like Callimachus’ Minotaur, or an allegory like Plato’s Atlantis, or even an anachronism like Strabo’s and Plutarch’s stories of inspired speech resulting from psychoactive gases at Delphi.
Well, if you’re designing a game, like Tomb Raider or Total War Troy, you have that freedom. But for history, don’t go relying on fictional characters for your methodology.

The methodology is called ‘euhemerism’. Maya Georgieva, director of Total War Troy, explicitly invokes euhemerism for the game’s design.
Euhemerism and authenticity
One of the key pillars of Total War games is authenticity — the ambition of creating the game’s sandbox in a manner that feels natural and true to its source while also accommodating all the eventualities that didn’t necessarily occur in history.

Maya acknowledges this, saying: ‘It is an important challenge — to capture the spirit of the source while also providing the necessary gameplay freedom that allows for anything to happen. So it was quite a relief when I realised our grounded approach to myths is not alien to the classical Greeks’ understanding of their legendary past — to the contrary, it is actually very fitting with their own mindset.’
Maya Georgieva in interview, May 2020
Euhemerus of Messene was the (probably pseudonymous) author of the Sacred Record, written sometime around the early 200s BCE. The book doesn’t survive, but we have second-hand reports. The Roman poet Ennius wrote a Latin version, the Sacred History, which was also very influential. On his travels, Euhemerus supposedly
saw a temple dedicated to Zeus that stood in the middle of an idyllic landscape (the whole island was exceptionally fertile). Inside the temple an inscription on a pillar told of the history of the cult of the gods of Olympus: these had been mortals who had been deified because of their extraordinary services to human civilization.
New Pauly s.v. ‘Euhemerus’ (see originally Diodorus of Sicily, Library 6 fr. 1.1–10 = BNJ 63 F 2)
It’s almost certainly Euhemerus that wrote about a gravesite of Zeus on Crete as well.

The basic idea of euhemerism is to take a myth, strip away the fantastic bits, and treat the result as history. It was a natural extension of earlier rationalisations of myths, and in particular of the gods. Here’s Aristotle on the subject:
It has been passed down from the ancients, even the most ancient, and left to later people in the form of a myth, that (heavenly bodies) are gods, and that divinity encompasses all of nature. And the other stuff got tacked on, mythically, to persuade the masses, and for the sake of laws and expedience: for example, they say that these (gods) have human shape, and are like other animals. The rest follows on from that and from other similar things. If we strip away this material, and take only the basic principle — that they consider the primordial beings to be gods — then we would regard that as a divinely inspired statement.
Aristotle, Metaphysics 1074b (12.8)
Euhemerism, or more generally rationalising interpretations of myth, had an instant and universal appeal. Ancient Christians loved it too: they drew on Euhemerus to reject all pagan gods and myths as distorted pictures of ordinary mortals, not actual gods.
Note. On Euhemerus and the grave of Zeus, see Winiarczyk 2013: 33–41. For a Christian writer playing Euhemerus as a ‘pagan gods are fake’ card, see e.g. Lactantius, Divine Institutes 1.11. (The irony of Lactantius trying to pull this was completely lost on him.)
Georgieva gives several illustrations. Hephaestus’ fall from heaven might have been a metal-rich meteorite; the monster Typhoeus might be a volcanic eruption; the Chimaera’s fiery breath could be natural gas vents; the Minotaur could be a man wearing a bull’s skull over his face, Centaurs could be skilled horse-riders with shaggy clothes, the Cyclops could be a man wearing a dwarf elephant skull. And so on.

The assumption behind euhemerism is that, if a myth has been passed down, it must have started somewhere. There must be a source, a first mover, a seed. And that seed is supposedly still there under all the impossible elements.

And there’s absolutely no reason to expect that reasoning to work. In Euhemerus’ own case this is perfectly clear. The Olympian gods as fantasy-coated versions of historical kings may sound neat, but we, nowadays, know that ‘Zeus’ is a reflex of a Proto-Indo-European root *dyēus, meaning ‘sky, day’, and that his function as a sky god has analogues in several other ancient cultures who spoke Indo-European languages. He definitely wasn’t a mortal king, he didn’t live on the island of Panchaea, and there wasn’t a real gravesite on Crete. In a similar way, the classical Greeks believed Dionysus was a recent arrival in their pantheon from Thrace; now we know that isn’t true either, because he’s there in Linear B tablets. He was baked into the Greek pantheon all along.

There’s no need for a first mover, there’s no expectation that there’s a historical kernel. It can just as easily be encrustations all the way down. And it probably is.

Euhemerism means choosing any pseudo-historical explanation of a myth, rather than admitting that we don’t have good enough data to draw any conclusions. I’m not saying a myth is never based on historical events. For all I know, the Lelantine War may have been a real thing. As a matter of fact I think it probably was. But assuming the war happened, simply because we don’t have any competing high-quality evidence about relations between Chalcis and Eretria around 700 BCE, is garbage reasoning.

Euhemerism isn’t a tool for turning bad data into good data. It’s an excuse to carry on using bad data.
People can go to great lengths to resist the idea that a story was just ... made up. This tweet (July 2020) treats an image from a 2013 Photoshop contest as evidence of a cover-up conducted by the Catholic Church and scientists. He gets very angry at the people pointing out that it’s a photoshop. This doesn’t bode well for the author’s state of mind, but it’s also unsurprising: it’s part-and-parcel of the human habit of expecting a kernel of reality even in material that’s totally invented. (Thanks to David S. Anderson for publicising this.)

Phlegon on giant bones

There are always going to be people who find the Trojan War appealing, simply because Troy is real — even if the same logic does imply that The Avengers (2012) is a docudrama. And Georgieva is absolutely right that euhemerism is in keeping with the way some Greeks saw their own myths. It’s just that it’s hopeless as a method for finding out anything real.

And that’s why I find it perplexing when I see bits of Phlegon of Tralles treated selectively as reliable reports. Phlegon, who worked for the Roman emperor Hadrian for a while in the 2nd century CE, wrote a short book called On Wonders which is full of truly weird stories. One part has attracted more attention than any other: a section where Phlegon reports on discoveries of giant bones.

Adrienne Mayor, in her 2000 book The First Fossil Hunters, documents widespread Greco-Roman interest in the remains of species that no longer existed in their environment. Many subsequent writers have taken that as licence to treat Phlegon’s account as true to reality — so long as he’s talking about giant bones.
The huge bones were evidently prehistoric fossils which, compared to the skeletal remains of normal size, were in antiquity identified as relics of extinct races, usually those of giant heroes.
Doroszewska 2016: 129

Unlike many of the strange phenomena Phlegon reports in Mir., the existence of such giant bones can be easily confirmed and explained. As Mayor has persuasively demonstrated after considering a wide variety of evidence, the bones interpreted as the skeletons of giants by the people of the ancient Mediterranean were actually fossilized bones of giant mammals left in Europe after the last Ice Age (e.g. mammoths).
Shannon-Henderson 2019 (on Phlegon, On Wonders §11–16)
Just for reference, Phlegon also tells stories like:
  • People return from the dead, and a decapitated head delivers prophecies in verse (On Wonders §1–3).
  • Spontaneous sex changes of both mythical and contemporary figures (§4–9).
  • Contemporary children born with multiple heads, extra limbs, and growing to maturity; women giving birth to a monkey, a dog-headed child, and snakes; men giving birth (§20–27).
  • The king of Saune, supposedly a city in Arabia, captures a live centaur, which ends up embalmed and on display in a palace in Rome (§34–35).
But why assume Phlegon’s stories are based on anything real at all? If there’s some reason to think that he’s telling a distorted version of some real phenomenon, then bones of large extinct species could be a good candidate. But Phlegon’s material doesn’t encourage me to expect that anything should be taken as reflecting reality in any particular way. I don’t see why we should even be looking for the city of ‘Saune’, which doesn’t appear in any other source.
Giant bones reported by Phlegon, On Wonders 11–19. Immediately after this bit, Phlegon reports on a child with four heads ‘and a corresponding number of other limbs’ who grew to adulthood during the emperor Nero’s reign.
Even in the bit about the giant bones, it’s clear that Phlegon is describing complete skeletons, and there’s no hint that they’re anything other than human-shaped. Even if they were non-human, there are other details which make it hard to reconcile them with mammoths — let alone dinosaur, let alone complete skeletons of the very largest dinosaur species.

One of Phlegon’s complete skeletons is far, far longer than any land-based species that has ever existed outside the Americas:
[T]here is a certain island near Athens, and ... the Athenians wished to fortify it. When they were digging the foundations for the walls, they discovered a coffin measuring a hundred cubits, in which was a skeleton as large as the coffin. Inscribed on the coffin was the following:
       I, Makroseiris, have been buried upon a large island,
       after living five times one thousand years.
Phlegon, On Wonders §17 (tr. Shannon-Henderson)
A hundred ancient Greek cubits comes to 44.4 metres. The only land-based species ever to reach that length was Barosaurus, native to the Midwest of North America. No one should be imagining a complete Barosaurus skeleton in Greece. In a coffin, no less. And with an inscription in classical Greek. (Several others of Phlegon’s giant bones come in coffins too; one of them comes in a jar, labelled with the occupant’s name.)

I find it a bit perplexing that people can look at this, and still say ‘Yes Phlegon talks a lot of nonsense, but when it comes to these specific bits he’s actually based in reality.’ I mean ... why? If his material is that bizarre, why imagine any basis in reality at all?

As we saw above, the nature of the source makes a difference. When Lara Croft argues in favour of Yamatai, she’s drawing on sources that purport to be records of actual historical events. Even in cases like Ctesias and Megasthenes, who believed real dog-headed people lived in India, or Pliny the Elder, who believed the Alps were 75 km high, at least in principle there’s a possibility of sifting out material that reflects reality from distortions and misunderstandings.

Pliny, too, reports, on giant bones, and that should be taken much more seriously. But he doesn’t talk about ribs that are far bigger than any real rib bones that have ever existed. I think it makes no sense to take someone like Phlegon, seize upon the one bit that seems plausible (given a bunch of assumptions), and then say that bit is the one bit that isn’t completely made up.

Phlegon is an extreme case. But the point has a much more general applicability. Whenever you see a news-item on geomythology (myths supposedly based on geological events tens of thousands of years ago), or on Atlantis, or any claim that myths were once ‘true’ — well, that’d be a good occasion to stop and think to yourself:
OK, there’s a passing resemblance ... but why should we expect that the myth is based on anything real in the first place?


  • Croft, Richard J. 2015. Truth behind myth. Osiris Publications.
  • Doroszewska, Julia 2016. The monstrous world. Corporeal discourses in Phlegon of Tralles’ Mirabilia. Peter Lang.
  • Echo-Hawk, Roger C. 2000. ‘Ancient history in the New World: integrating oral traditions and the archaeological record in deep time.’ American Antiquity 65.2: 267–290.
  • Mayor, Adrienne 2000. The first fossil hunters. Paleontology in Greek and Roman times. Princeton University Press.
  • Ogden, Daniel 2013. Dragons, serpents, and slayers in the classical and early Christian worlds. Oxford University Press.
  • Shannon-Henderson, Kelly E. 2019. ‘Phlegon of Tralleis (1667).’ Die Fragmente der Griechischen Historiker Part IV. DOI link (retrieved July 2020).
  • Winiarczyk, Marek 2013. The ‘Sacred History’ of Euhemerus of Messene. De Gruyter.

Monday, 29 June 2020

Stripping myths down to a historical core (part 1)

Part 1 | Part 2

In a few weeks the game A Total War Saga: Troy will come out, the latest installment in the long-running Total War series. The game’s director, Maya Georgieva, had this to say about it recently:
[W]e decided to draw from [classical-era Greek legend] — very carefully and concisely, by separating the impossible from the still less probable but feasible, until we could filter out a core that could be at the heart of a great new Total War game. We’re guided and reassured in this by the success of pioneers such as Heinrich Schliemann, who believed that there was substance behind those old tales and went on to prove this by excavating the sites of Troy and Mycenae ...
Maya Georgieva in interview, May 2020 (my emphasis)
A Total War Saga: Troy (2020) uses an ancient technique called ‘euhemerism’ to treat myth as a model of reality. Here, euhemerism takes the form of rationalising the mythical Minotaur as a man wearing a bull’s skull over his face.
There are some important historical concepts here. Do myths really grow from a historical core? Are there ways of stripping away the crust to reveal that core? Can a myth be treated as a historical document, to some extent?

The answers are: not normally, no, and never.

It’s imaginable that a myth might coincide with some things that actually happened. But even in those exceptionally rare situations, the myth isn’t evidence about the historical event. That’s backwards. Evidence is always external — archaeology, or historical linguistics, or documentary records. Without those things, a myth is just a myth.

As a game, Total War: Troy has no obligation to be rigorous. Verisimilitude is fine. No complaint. This verisimilitude is based on popular understandings of the relationship between the subject matter and actual history. But ‘popular understandings’ is the key phrase. My concern here is about two big misconceptions at the heart of the popular understanding:
  • The idea that there’s a historical core there to filter out.
  • The idea that Schliemann proved there was substance to a legend.
Today we’ll deal with the second one, because it’s more concrete.
Troy never needed to be ‘proved’, until 1791, when a debate temporarily obscured its location. Left: a coin from Ilium dating to ca. 165–150 BCE, inscribed ‘of Athena Ilias’: Ilium’s main civic cult was devoted to Athena. Right: a coin from Sigeium, dating to ca. 350–300 BCE, also showing Athena. Sigeium, on the west coast, was where ancient tourists could visit Achilles’ supposed gravesite.

Part 1. ‘The place is real, therefore so is the myth’

The first idea is that Schliemann’s excavation proved a legend true. All it really proves is that Heinrich Schliemann was good at PR.

It isn’t exactly unusual for a myth to be set in a real place. Troy is real? Fine! Lerna is real too, but that doesn’t mean Heracles is real and that he actually fought the Lernaean Hydra there. Nottingham is real, but that doesn’t mean Robin Hood is real. New York is real, but that doesn’t mean King Kong, Sesame Street, and the Avengers are real.

That, in a nutshell, is my response to the misconception about Schliemann.

But let’s carry on a bit: the fallacy is especially glaring, because Schliemann didn’t even discover Troy. He obfuscated a real debate. Troy was never lost.

An awful lot of people assume Ilium (to give it its strict name) was an empty hilltop from the Bronze Age until Schliemann ‘discovered’ it in the 1870s. It wasn’t. It was a sizeable city from the 700s BCE until around 500 CE, and it wasn’t abandoned until close to the 1300s. The city was in the northwest corner of Anatolia. Its citadel, or upper city, was on a hill that is now called Hisarlık, but the lower city sprawled far beyond that. There is precisely zero doubt about any of this.

Ancient people were mostly happy to regard their Ilium as the setting of the Iliad, in the same way that New York is the setting for The Avengers. Today, if you want to be a Robin Hood tourist, you’ll visit the real Nottingham: Ilium was like that for the classical Greeks. It was a tourist hotspot, visited by the likes of Xerxes, Alexander, and Scipio. As late as 1463 Sultan Mehmed II toured the ruins and the supposed gravesites of Achilles, Patroclus, and Antilochus on the coast.

But in the 1790s a debate arose, based on an alternate tradition. The 1st century geographical writer Strabo had accepted a theory that Ilium moved around a bit over the ages. Strabo thought ‘ancient Ilium’ had been a few kilometres further inland. In 1785 a French diplomatic aide named Jean-Baptiste Le Chevalier visited, armed with a copy of Strabo, and he decided that Strabo’s ‘ancient Ilium’ was on a hill next to the modern village of Pınarbaşı.

We now know that Le Chevalier was wrong, but the argument carried on for a few decades. Ilium itself wasn’t lost. But there was a genuine doubt, at least among western Europeans, that classical Ilium was the same place as ‘Homer’s Ilios’, the fictionalised city in the Iliad. Troy was only really ‘lost’ from 1791 until 1822.

Then in the 1870s Schliemann came along. And somehow everyone got the idea that before him, no one had believed Ilium ever even existed.

The thing Schliemann really proved was that Strabo was wrong: the city hadn’t moved around, it stayed in one spot. But the impression everyone got was that he had discovered Ilium itself, out of thin air. Schliemann didn’t work hard to avoid this misconception. And, worse, he did work hard to conflate the pre-classical historical city with the city where the Iliad was set.

‘Homeric Troy’ is a slippery phrase. It gets used to mean three distinct things: the real Bronze Age city; the real city at the tme the Iliad was composed, which Homer might in principle have visited; and the city depicted in the Iliad. Schliemann exploited that confusion.

Schliemann succeeded in refuting Strabo, and that success got people thinking he was also right about blurring the lines between history and the Iliad — between the different ‘Homeric Troys’. But that isn’t right. It makes no more sense than finding out Hamelin is a real place, then thinking that means the Pied Piper story must have a historical core.
Strabo’s preferred site was a village ca. 5.5 km away (30 stadia), in the direction of Mount Ida/Kaz, that is to say, at a bearing of 119° from classical Ilium. This would imply a spot near the E87 road, about 3 km north of Taştepe. Le Chevalier got the site of classical Ilium wrong — he put it much closer to the coast, 5 km northwest of the actual site — and he put Strabo’s ‘ancient Ilium’ at Pınarbaşı, nearly 14 km from where he thought classical Ilium was.

Timeline: Hisarlık vs. Pınarbaşı

  • ca. 20. Strabo, Geography 13.1.35, states that ‘ancient Ilium’ was 30 stadia inland from the classical city.
  • 1740. Richard Pococke states that Troy was buried underneath classical Ilium.
  • 1769. Robert Wood, after visiting the Troad in 1750, notes that Homer’s descriptions don’t match the real topography.
  • 1791. Jean-Baptiste Le Chevalier, after examining the area in 1785, argues that Homer’s Troy was at a hill on the south side of the village of ‘Bunarbashi’, and that classical Ilium was just a stone’s throw from the coast, at the mouth of the Scamander (modern Menderes). He accepts Strabo’s idea that the site had moved over time, but rejects most of Strabo’s details, in the belief that he had a poor understanding of the topography.
  • 1795. Jacob Bryant criticises Le Chevalier’s argument, mainly using Homeric references. The argument continues in subsequent years, with Le Chevalier backed up by his former boss, Choiseul-Gouffier.
  • 1801. Edward Daniel Clarke visits the Troad and correctly identifies Hisarlık as (part of) classical Ilium.
  • 1822. Charles Maclaren argues that both ‘the Ilium of Homer’ and classical Ilium were at Hisarlık.
  • 1842. P. W. Forchhammer writes a survey labellng Hisarlık as ‘New Ilium’ (Ilium Novum), Pınarbaşı as ‘Troy, or Old Ilium’ (Troja vel Ilium Vetus), and labels Strabo’s preferred site separately in the hills south of Dümrek.
  • 1850s. John Brunton excavates at Hisarlık and finds a column capital and a Roman mosaic.
  • 1862. Frank Calvert, after investigating Hisarlık and Pınarbaşı, opts for Hisarlık.
  • 1864. Johann Georg von Hahn, an Austrian consul, excavates at Pınarbaşı and finds ‘nothing but the natural soil.’
  • 1865. Calvert excavates at Hisarlık and finds parts of a temple and a wall.
  • 1868. Heinrich Schliemann arrives in the Troad and investigates Pınarbaşı, until Calvert persuades him that Hisarlık is the correct spot.
  • 1871, Schliemann starts uncovering evidence of a Bronze Age city under the classical city, proving Strabo (and Le Chevalier) wrong.
For more details see Rachel B. Davies, Troy, Carthage and the Victorians. The drama of classical ruins in the nineteenth-century imagination (Cambridge, 2018), 67–74 on the 19th century ‘battle of Bunarbashi’.

Next time: Euhemerus, Phlegon of Tralles, and Lara Croft.

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Asia and Europe

The idea that Asia and Europe are distinct continents is a funny thing. They’re joined at the hip, with a land boundary more than 3,500 km long. But the names are very firmly ingrained. And, like so many traditions, the distinction comes from ancient Greece.
Count the major landmasses.
The more you think about it, the sillier it seems. Boundaries at the Ural and Caucasus mountains? Why? You wouldn’t say Oregon and Montana are on separate continents. The Urals don’t even extend all the way along the supposed Asia-Europe boundary: south of Orenburg and the Ural River they’re more gentle rolling hills.

The names aren’t going to go away, but let’s look at where the tradition comes from. We’ll finish off with a look at the linguistic origins of ‘Asia’, ‘Europe’, and ‘Africa’.

A cultural divide?

I imagine some people might take the line that ‘Europe’ and ‘Asia’ are culturally distinct, and that is a good reason to distinguish them. Of course that means ignoring the colossal cultural variation within both Asia and Europe.

And it means ignoring the linguistic links between India, Persia, Armenia, and most of Europe. It means ignoring the folktales, mythology, and poetic conventions that go along with them. Indian mythology has more in common with Greece and Ireland than with China.

Just in case you haven’t seen this kind of thing before, take a look at the verb ‘to be’ in five Indo-European languages — three Asian, and two European. Each column shows the personal forms of the present tense (‘I am’, ‘you are’, ‘she is’, ‘we are’, ‘y’all are’, ‘they are’).
Vedic Sanskrit Avestan Hittite Early Greek (selected dialectal forms) Lithuanian
asmi ahmi esmi eimi, emmi esmi
asi esi essi esi
asti asti eszi esti esti
smas eimes, emmes esme
stha este este
santi hanti asanzi enti esti
Sanskrit is from ancient India, Avestan from Iran, Hittite from Turkey. Lithuanian and Greek are obvious. The gaps are places where the relevant forms don’t appear in any surviving evidence. (Some parallels crop up in English too, but much less clearly: am/is come from the Indo-European es- stem; are is less certain. Be and was/were come from two other separate roots.)

Anyway, that’s just a taster. The iceberg goes down very, very far. And linguistic parallels come with baggage. Ancient Vedic poetry has metrical features in common with Aeolic Greek, just as Latin Saturnian verse has with Old Irish heptasyllabic verse; there are parallels between the legends of the Irish hero Cú Chulainn, the Greek Odysseus, the Persian Rostam, and the Indian Arjuna. Odysseus, Arjuna, and Rama all compete for a woman’s hand in marriage in an archery contest, with a bow that only they can wield. It’s easy to push the parallels too far, but there’s no denying they’re substantial.

This is just a long-winded way of saying that there’s no tidy cultural divide.

The history of the names

Since the divide is arbitrary, its history is really a history of the names, not of the landmasses or the people who live on them. Let’s start in the Roman era and work our way backwards.

Ancient geographical writers used the same names. The 1st century writer Strabo, Geography 11.1.1, states that the boundary between Eurōpē and Asia is at the river Don (ancient Greek Tanais), in the southwest corner of modern Russia. Ptolemy does the same in the 2nd century: he calls the region west of the Don ‘Sarmatia’ (Ptol. Geog. 3.5), and the east ‘Sarmatia in Asia’ (Geog. 5.9). (See here for a map based on Ptolemy’s coordinates.)
Strabo’s and Ptolemy’s division of Europe and Asia.
But Strabo also goes on to say (11.1.2) that Asia is split down the middle by the Taurus mountains. The Taurus range is in Turkey, or Anatolia to use the geographical name. That is: when Strabo thinks of ‘Asia’, he’s mainly thinking of Anatolia. He does include regions further afield in Asia too, east of the Caspian Sea and as far as India, but his attitude is a nice illustration. When people referred to ‘Asia’ in ancient Greek, they didn’t mean what we mean today. Mostly, they meant Anatolia.

And that makes complete sense if you think about it from the point of view of earlier Greeks, before the time of Alexander’s conquests. For them ‘Europe’ and ‘Asia’ simply meant the lands on either side of the Aegean Sea. It’s just that as their interests expanded further afield, it ended up not working so well.

This early usage, Asia = Anatolia, has stuck around in the phrase ‘Asia Minor’ (‘smaller Asia’). The scope of ‘Asia Minor’ varies depending on who’s talking. Sometimes people mean Anatolia; sometimes just western Anatolia. Modern historians writing about classical Greece often use it to refer to the Greek colonies on the west coast, as opposed to non-Greek areas further east.

Herodotus, writing centuries earlier in the 420s BCE, is aware (4.36–4.45) of a conventional division of the known world into ‘Europe’, ‘Asia’, and Africa (named ‘Libya’ in ancient Greek) — but he, too, thinks the division is a bit silly.
I can’t conjecture why the earth, which is a single thing, has three women’s names; or why its boundaries are set at the river Nile in Egypt, and at the Phasis in Colchis [the river Rioni, western Georgia, which meets the sea just south of the Caucasus] — though some put the boundary at the Tanais [= Don] and the Cimmerian strait [= Kerch].
Herodotus 4.45 (trans. Gainsford)
That is, even in his time the division was purely a convention, and people disagreed on where to put the dividing line. Even more interestingly, he pauses to consider the names’ origins:
Most Greeks say that the name of Libyē [= Africa] comes from a woman of that land, and Asiē is named after the wife of Prometheus. But the Lydians play a part in this name too: they claim that it was called after Asias, son of Cotys, son of Manes, not after Prometheus’ wife; and that the Asiad clan in Sardis was named after him too. As for Eurōpē, no one knows ... where it got this name, nor who it was that apparently bestowed the name — unless we shall say that the region got the name from Europa of Tyre, and that it had been nameless previously, like the others. But Europa comes from Asia, obviously. She never came to this land, which the Greeks call ‘Europe’. She only travelled from Phoenicia to Crete, and from Crete to Lycia [in Anatolia]. Well, all right, enough said: we’ll use their conventional names.
Herodotus 4.45 (trans. Gainsford)
Asie. Here Asie is a sea-nymph, one of the Oceanids. Herodotus makes her Prometheus’ wife; in pseudo-Apollodorus 1.2.2 she’s Prometheus’ mother.

Europa. Europa is the mythical Phoenician princess that Zeus carried off in the shape of a bull, into the sea and all the way to Crete, where he raped her. Herodotus makes it clear that that’s just people’s best guess, and he doesn’t buy it. Some of his contemporaries agreed that it makes no sense: they tried changing things up in order to get a Europa on European soil. The epic poet Antimachus (fr. 3 Wyss = fr. 3 Matthews) had Zeus take her to Boeotia instead of Crete, while Hippias (BNJ 6 F 10) decided the name must come from a different woman named Europa. They’re pretty transparently just trying to rationalise a problem away. In any case the role of the bull and parallels with Pasiphaë strongly suggest that the story is closely associated with Crete, not the mainland (Beekes 2004: 167).
Left: Europa and the bull. Right: starting in 2013, the EU decided to commemorate a fictional Lebanese person on all its banknotes, because of a false etymology that even Herodotus didn’t believe.
Herodotus didn’t invent the division, of course: he hates it. The responsibility probably lies with Hecataeus, an ethnographer writing in the late 500s BCE. He seems to have been the first person to use ‘Europe’ and ‘Asia’ in something like their modern senses. Hecataeus’ Tour (Periegesis) is lost, but surviving geographical writers refer to it frequently, citing separate sections called ‘Europe’ and ‘Asia’. And for Hecataeus, these weren’t just Greece and Anatolia: he treated Italy and Ukraine as part of ‘Europe’, and India as part of ‘Asia’.

The organisation isn’t totally clear, though. Our sources cite Hecataeus on Africa too, and when they do, they sometimes cite the ‘Asia’ section, sometimes a Tour of Libya. And the citations show some vagueness about whether places in between the river Don and the Caucasus mountains belong in the ‘Europe’ or ‘Asia’ section.
Note. ‘Europe’ = BNJ 1 F 38 to F 192, ‘Asia’ = F 193 onwards. On the structure of Hecataeus see Pownall’s commentary on BNJ 1 T 15a. On the vagueness about whether the dividing line is at the Don or the Caucasus, see Pownall on F 191. There’s some doubt about whether Hecataeus’ ‘Tanais’ really is the Don.
Some popular accounts bring up Anaximander as another 6th century writer who divided the landmass into ‘Asia’ and ‘Europe’. This one is bogus. Anaximander is supposed to have drawn up a schematic map of the known world (fr. 12 A 6 Diels-Kranz), but there’s no indication he was in the business of naming continents.

Two sea-nymphs named Europa and Asia pop up in the Hesiodic Theogony (ca. 700 BCE), lines 357 and 359, but not as a pair: they’re in a long list of names of Tethys’ and Oceanus’ children. Let’s forget them.

The closest we get in Greek sources to the original ‘Europe’ and ‘Asia’ as geographical terms is in two poems of the 7th and 6th centuries BCE. First: ‘Asia’ appears in Homer as a place in western Anatolia (Iliad 2.461). The line refers to the ‘Kaystrian river in the meadow of Asias’, or possibly ‘in an Asian meadow’. The Kaystros (modern Küçük Menderes) is a river in western Anatolia to the south of Izmir. In antiquity it had the city of Ephesus at its mouth.

And second: ‘Europe’ appears as a relatively small region in northern Greece in the Hymn to Apollo. Cynaethus put the Hymn in its final form in the 520s BCE, but it’s pretty clear he used large chunks of older poetry. The Hymn refers twice to
the people who live in the rich Peloponnesos,
and those in Europe, and in the islands surrounded by sea
Cynaethus, Hymn to Apollo 250–251 = 290–291
This checklist seems to indicate the original state of things. Cynaethus isn’t listing continents, but chunks of the Greek mainland and the islands. The Peloponnesos and Europe are the southern and northern mainland respectively.
This is how the Greeks appear to have divided up their world before Hecataeus came along and got people thinking about huge tracts of land. The scope of ‘Europe’ is shrunk down even further by the extent of Eurōpos toponyms in northern Thessaly and Macedonia: see below. The ‘Asia’ circle is centred on Sardis; the Kaystros is further south, and the Hittite ‘Assuwa league’ extended much further, including all the way to Troy in the northwest.
This much more limited scope for ‘Europe’ is encouraged by some other places where Herodotus refers to ‘Europe’. At 6.43, Mardonius crosses the Hellespont then travels ‘through Europe’ as far as Thasos; at 7.8 Xerxes states his intent to cross the Hellespont and then travel ‘through Europe against Hellas’. This strongly suggests that it doesn’t just refer to the northern mainland, but maybe just the far north.

The actual origins of the names

The origins of ‘Asia’, ‘Libya’, and ‘Africa’ are pretty clear, even if a lot of details are missing. They all come from ethnic groups, or names for specific areas. None of them comes from a person’s name, mythological or otherwise. ‘Europe’ is more difficult.

Asia. This origin story is straightforward. (For details see Corcella 2007: 614–615; Brügger et al. 2010: 135–136). We’ve got Herodotus looking at Lydian customs; we’ve got Homer putting Asia/Asios on the banks of the Kaystros; we’ve got independent evidence of a real ethnic group called ‘Asias’ at Sardis, the Lydian capital in western Anatolia; and we’ve got a Hittite name that matches with all of these beautifully.

‘Asia’ comes from ‘Assuwa’, a region within the Hittite empire in the Bronze Age. Assuwa, too, was in western Anatolia. We don’t know that it was specifically at Sardis, but that’d be a decent guess. Hittite assus means ‘good’, so the name meant ‘good land’. The derivation went like this:
Hittite Assuwa (toponym)
> Mycenaean a-si-wi-yo (male personal name), *Aswia (presumed toponym)
> classical Greek Asios (male personal name), Asia (toponym)
Europe. The linguistic origin of this name is unknown, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. (For details see Beekes 2004.) But we do at least know that it’s linked to the northern mainland. See above on Herodotus using the name to refer to Thrace. In addition, Eurōpos was the name of two towns in Macedonia, one town in Thessaly on the river Peneios, and a tributary of the Peneios. From the 4th century onwards the Macedonian rulers Philip II and the Antigonid dynasty were referred to as ‘rulers of Europe’ (Hartmann 2012: 40, with references). All this suggests Europe was further north than Boeotia, which is what Beekes suggests: I doubt it included even southern Thessaly. Beekes suspects the name originated with a pre-Greek goddess or demigod, as some goddesses had cults with Europa or Europia as a title. But these cults weren’t in the north, so I doubt this too.
Note. Goddesses with the title ‘Europa’: see Beekes 2004: 168, citing a 1946 book by Ninck; Peeters 2009: 79 n. 10, citing a 1937 study by Technau, and a 1940 doctorial dissertation (in Dutch). Demeter Europa at Lebadeia, Boeotia; Europa Hellotis in Crete; Hera Europia in Argos. Peeters also mentions Lucian’s ‘Europa Astarte’, but as I mentioned above, that’s a crossover under the influence of the Europa myth.
So we can roughly outline where Europe originally was (maybe). But for its linguistic origin, we can’t say anything positive: we can only rule things out.

(1) It definitely doesn’t come from Greek euru- ‘broad, wide’. If it did, the second u would have been preserved, as in the Homeric adjective euruopa ‘far-seeing’.

(2) It definitely doesn’t come from a mythical Phoenician princess. The only way it could be linked to Europa is if the Greeks had transplanted Europa to Phoenicia from somewhere on the Greek mainland. That is a real possibility: there’s a variant where her father is Phoenix (Iliad 14.321), and that name could prompt thinking of a Phoenician setting. Once Europe was seen as potentially linked to the Phoenician princess, then people like Lucian started drawing links between Europa and Astarte (Ishtar); but that’s all post hoc. It can’t have been the case originally.

(3) It definitely has nothing to do with Akkadian erebu, Phoenician ʿereb ‘go down, set, evening, west’. That theory has found some support in Hesychius, and some modern scholars of the Near East, but no modern specialist in early Greek language thinks it’s at all likely. (And no, erebos ‘darkness of the Underworld’ doesn’t come from those words either: that one is Indo-European.) Quite aside from the implausible phonological shifts, this theory is ruled out anyway by the Eurōpos toponyms in Thessaly and Macedonia.

Libya. Libya isn’t originally Greek. (Again, for details see Corcella 2007: 614–615.) It’s a hellenised form of a name that appears as rbw in Egyptian texts from the 1200s and 1100s BCE. There it refers to a group that lived to the west of the Nile, who sometimes occupied or invaded the western Nile delta. The Greek use of Libyē to refer to the entire continent stems from the Greek colony at Cyrene, founded in 631 BCE.
The origin of ‘Africa’: the ancient Afri, in what later became the Roman province of Africa, superimposed on a map of modern Tunisia.
Africa. Africa comes to us via Latin. It’s an adjective derived from Afer, the Latin for an ethnic group in what is now northern Tunisia. (For details, see Vycichl 1985.) The core of Afer territory seems to have been between the river Bagradas (modern Medjerda) and modern Mateur, about 80 km west of Carthage. The name quickly expanded its scope in Roman thought to cover an entire province of the empire, and eventually an entire continent.

The Afri appear in Livy as vassals of the Carthaginians. Frontinus mentions an occasion when the Carthaginians repressed an Afri rebellion. Scipio’s victory at Zama in 202 BCE, a bit to the south of Afer territory, is one of the reasons for his agnomen Africanus. The most famous Afer was the comic playwright Terence, full name Publius Terentius Afer (first half of 100s BCE). ‘Terentius’ comes from his former Roman owner: most probably he was enslaved by Carthaginians, sold to a wealthy Roman at an extortionate price because of his exceptional education, then later manumitted.

The linguistic root is Berber fr, which still survives locally in the name Friguia, a valley that the Medjerda flows through. The a- is a nominal prefix that still appears in some dialects, with cognates in ifr-: most notably the Banū Īfran people who dominated parts of Algeria in the pre-Islamic period.
Note. See Vycichl 1985 on linguistic aspects, and the Afri as distinct from Carthage; Kotula and Peyras 1985 on the Afri politically and geographically. For an English-language treatment see Lipiński 2004: 199–200, who differs in some respects.


  • Beekes, R. S. P. 2004. ‘Kadmos and Europa, and the Phoenicians.’ Kadmos 43: 167–184. [Open access copy]
  • Corcella, A. 2007. ‘Book IV.’ In: Murray, O.; Moreno, A. (eds.) A commentary on Herodotus books I–IV. Oxford University Press. 543–721.
  • Brügger, C.; Stoevesandt, M; Visser, E. 2010. Homers Ilias. Gesamtkommentar, Bd. II, Fasz. 2, 2nd edition. De Gruyter.
  • Hartmann, A. 2012. ‘Europe and the Other: roots of European identity in Greco-Roman antiquity.’ In: Pinheiro, T.; Cieszynska, B.; Franco, J. E. (eds.) Ideas of | for Europe. An interdisciplinary approach to European identity. Peter Lang. 37–57.
  • Kotula, T.; Peyras, J. 1985. ‘Afri.’ In: Camps, G. (ed.) Encyclopédie berbère, vol. 2. Éditions Peeters. 208–215. [Open access copy]
  • Lipiński, E. 2004. Itineraria Phoenicia. Uitgeverij Peeters en Departement Oosterse Studies.
  • Peeters, M. C. 2009. ‘L’évolution du mythe d’Europe dans l’iconographie grecque et romaine des VIIe-VIe s. avant aux Ve-VIe s. de notre ère : de la «déesse au taureau» au rapt et du rapt au consentement.’ Dialogues d’histoire ancienne 35.1: 61–82. [Open access copy]
  • Pownall, F. 2013. ‘Hekataios of Miletos (1).’ Brill’s new Jacoby. [Subscription required]
  • Vycichl, W. 1985. ‘Africa.’ In: Camps, G. (ed.) Encyclopédie berbère, vol. 2. Éditions Peeters. 216–217. [Open access copy]