Ancient Rome and The Search for The Source of The Nile

Since the time of the Pharaohs, the Nile was iconic for the ancients. The Romans too, were interested in the great river, organizing an expedition to find its source.

Aug 23, 2021By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History
ancient rome search source of the nile
Bronze head from an over life-sized statue of Augustus, found in Meroë, 27-25 BCE, The British Museum; with Fresco fragment with Nilotic landscape, ca. 1-79 CE, via the J. Paul Getty Museum


In the mid-nineteenth century, European explorers and geographers were obsessed with one thing: finding the source of the Nile. But they were not the only ones obsessed with this quest. Long before Henry Morton Stanley reached the shores of Lake Victoria, ancient Rome also tried to find the source of the mighty river.


It should not come as a surprise that the Nile held a special place in the minds of the ancients. From art and religion to economics and military triumphs, the mighty river found its reflection in all aspects of Roman social and political life. Under Emperor Nero, two expeditions tried to find the mythical source of the Nile. Although these Neronian explorers never reached their goal, they became the first Europeans to venture deep into equatorial Africa, leaving us a detailed account of their journey.


Ancient Rome And The Source Of The Nile

Nilotic mosaic showing the course of the river from its mythical source to the Mediterranean, discovered at the Temple of Fortuna Primigenia in Praeneste, 2nd century BCE, Museo Nazionale Prenestino, Palestrina


The Greek historian Herodotus famously called Egypt the “gift of the Nile”. Without the powerful river and its regular floods that left behind new layers of fertile black silt, there would have been no ancient Egyptian civilization. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Nile acquired a mythical status, becoming a central element of the Egyptian mythology. A symbol of rebirth, the river had its own deity, devoted priests, and lavish ceremonies (including the famous Hymn to the Nile).


One of the pharaoh’s main responsibilities was to ensure that the annual flood proceeded smoothly. When the Romans took over, Egyptian mythology was incorporated into the ever-growing Roman pantheon. More importantly, the “gift of the Nile” became the breadbasket of the Roman Empire.


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The Romans’ interest in this exotic land and its mighty river, however, predated the conquest by at least a century. Already in the second century BCE, the Roman elites developed a fascination with the wealthiest region of the Mediterranean. For a century and a half, powerful figures within the Roman Republic were content to influence the politics of the Ptolemaic kings from afar. The collapse of the First Triumvirate and the death of Pompey the Great in 48 BCE signaled a profound change. The arrival of Julius Caesar to Egypt marked the direct Roman involvement in the affairs of the ancient region. This meddling culminated with the Roman annexation of Egypt in 30 BCE.


vatican nile source of the nile
Personification of the Nile, once displayed in Rome’s Iseum Campense with Tiber, his companion, ca. 1st century BCE, Musei Vaticani, Rome


When Octavian (soon to become Augustus), celebrated the takeover of the wealthy province with a triumph in Rome, the personification of the Nile was one of the central elements of the procession. To the spectators, it served as a clear proof of Roman superiority, a visual representation of the expanding empire. The victory parade offered a window into the vast world under the control of ancient Rome, and the Nile Statue was accompanied by exotic animals, people, and a vast amount of loot.


The populus enjoyed these carefully orchestrated displays of power, getting a glimpse of the remote province, most of them would never visit. The Roman elites reacted to this new conquest by decorating their lavish mansions and palaces with motifs representing Egypt, giving rise to  so-called Nilotic art. This specific art style became popular during the first century CE and introduced the exotic into the domestic setting. Nilotic art spoke of the Roman imperial power that had tamed the wild and strange land, and its mighty gift-giving river.


The Southernmost Border Of The Empire

ancient rome nero hippo coin
Copper coin minted in Alexandria, showing the bust of Emperor Nero on the left, and the image of the hippopotamus on the right, symbolizing the Nile, ca. 54-68 CE, The British Museum


By the time Emperor Nero (54-68 CE) came to power, Egypt had been an integral part of the Empire for almost a century. For most Romans, it still remained an exotic land, and Nilotic landscapes found in the villas and tombs of the wealthy and powerful supported that image of a distant and mysterious province. But ancient Rome always wanted more, to expand beyond Egypt and to find the source of the Nile river.


Already in 25 BCE, Strabo, a Greek geographer, and Aelius Gallus, the Roman governor of Egypt, followed in the steps of the Hellenistic explorers, traveling upriver as far as the First Cataract. In 33 CE, the Romans went even further. Or so claims an inscription found in Pselchis that mentions a soldier who made a map of the area. Around that time the great Temple of Dakka got its walls, marking the southernmost point of the Roman dominion.


The fort at Pselchis was, however, just an isolated outpost with a token garrison. We are not sure if it was even continuously manned. The actual southernmost border of the Roman Empire was the imposing fortress at Syene (modern-day Aswan). It was here that tolls and customs were levied on all the boats passing along the Nile, both southwards and northwards. It was here that Rome stationed soldiers from one of its legions (most probably from III Cyrenaica) with the task to guard the border. That task was not always easy to accomplish, and on more than one occasion the area was overrun, plundered by southern invaders.


meroe augustus source of the nile
Bronze head from the over-life-sized statue of Augustus, found in Meroë, 27 – 25 BCE, The British Museum


One such attack occurred in 24 BCE, when the Kushite forces looted the area, bringing back to Meroë, a larger-than-life bronze head of Augustus. In response, the Roman legions invaded Kushite territory and reclaimed many looted statues. The conflict is recorded in Augustus’ Res Gestae, a monumental inscription of the emperor’s life and accomplishments, installed in all the major cities of the Empire following his death. The Romans, however, never reached Meroë, where the large statue head was buried under the temple staircase until it was excavated in 1910. Following the punitive expedition under Augustus, the hostilities ceased as Kush became a client state of Rome, and trade was established between the two powers. The Romans, however, did not travel further than Pselchis until the reign of Nero.


The Quest For The Source Of The Nile

roman nubia map source of the nile
The map of Roman Egypt and Nubia, showing the Nile up to the Fifth Cataract and the Kushite capital of Meroë, Wikimedia Commons


When Nero ascended the throne, the southern border of Roman Egypt enjoyed a period of peace. This looked like a perfect opportunity to organize an expedition into the unknown. Nero’s exact motives are unclear. The expedition could have been a preliminary survey for a full-scale Southern campaign. Or it could have been motivated by scientific curiosity. In both cases, the expedition had to sail southwards, up the gift-giving river, to find the source of the Nile. We do not know the size or composition of the crew. Nor are we certain if there were one, or two separate expeditions. Both of our sources, Pliny the Elder and Seneca, give us slightly different information about the course of the endeavor. If there were indeed two expeditions, the first one was undertaken around 62 CE, while the second took place five years later.


We do not know the names of the expedition leaders. What we know, however, are their ranks. The expedition was led by two centurions of the Praetorian Guard, commanded by a tribune. This choice is not surprising, since the Guard consisted of the Emperor’s most trusted men, who could be handpicked and briefed in secret. They also had the necessary experience and could negotiate with the rulers encountered on the journey up the Nile. It would be logical to assume that not too many people embarked on this perilous journey. After all, a smaller force facilitated logistics, transport, and assured the secrecy of the mission. Instead of maps, the Romans relied on pre-existing itineraries based on the data gathered by various Graeco-Roman explorers and travelers from the south. During their journey, the Neronian explorers recorded the routes and presented them upon their return to Rome, along with oral reports.


ancient rome pliny the elder
Illustration of Pliny the Elder, 1584, via the British Museum


The important details of this report are preserved by Pliny in his Natural History, while the fullest description comes from Seneca. We know that Seneca was fascinated by the Nile, which he mentioned many times in his works. Seneca’s attraction to the great African river could have been partly inspired by his stoic philosophy. Besides having spent a part of his youth in Egypt, the philosopher used this time to do his research on the area. Seneca played a prominent role at Nero’s court, becoming an éminence grise, and he may even have been the instigator of the journey.


The Gifts Of The Nile

nilotic landscape source of the nile
Fresco fragment with Nilotic landscape, ca. 1-79 CE, via the J. Paul Getty Museum


The sources do not mention the initial part of the journey, which would have led the Neronian explorers across the Roman border and through an area in which the Empire held some degree of influence. It would be reasonable to assume that the centurions made use of the river, which would have been the easiest and most efficient way to travel in the area. They would cross the border at Syene, passing Philae, before leaving imperial territory. The islands of Philae were at the time an important sanctuary in Egypt, but they were also a commercial center, a place to exchange various goods from Roman Egypt and the far south. More importantly, it was also a hub, where information could be obtained and where one could find a guide who knew the area. Reaching Pselchis with its small Roman garrison, the expedition would have to travel overland to Premnis, as this part of the Nile was difficult and dangerous to navigate.


nilotic scene ancient rome relief
Relief (“Campana Plate”) with Nilotic Landscape, 1st century BCE – 1st century CE, Vatican Museums


At Premnis, the expedition boarded boats that took them further South. This area was outside of  nominal Roman control, but following the Augustan campaign, the Kingdom of Kush became a client state and ally of Rome. Thus, the Neronian explorers could count on local help, supplies, water, and additional information to get closer to the source of the Nile. Further, diplomatic agreements could be made with the representatives of the local tribes. It was during this section of the trip that the centurions started recording their journey in more detail.


They described the local fauna, including slender crocodiles, and giant hippos, the most dangerous animals of the Nile. They also witnessed the decline of the mighty kingdom of Kush, observing as the old towns deteriorated and wilderness took over. This decay could have been a result of the punitive Roman expedition undertaken more than a century ago. It could also have been a consequence of the desertification of the area. Moving South, the travelers visited the “small town” of Napata, which had once been the Kushite capital before its sack by the Romans.


By now, the Romans faced terra incognita, with desert gradually receding before lush green land. From the boat, the crew could see parrots and the monkeys: baboons, which Pliny calls cynocephali, and sphynga, the small monkeys. Nowadays, we can identify the species, but in the Roman period those human or dog-headed creatures quickly entered the exotic bestiary. After all, the area the Praetorians were passing through was considered to be far beyond the edge of their “civilization”. The Romans called it Aethiopia (not to be confused with the present-day state of Ethiopia), the land of burnt faces—all the inhabited land found to the south of Egypt.


The Far South

ruins pyramids meroe
Pyramid ruins in the ancient city of Meroë, Sudan, via Britannica


Before they approached the island of Meroë, the Neronian explorers had an opportunity to see some of the biggest animals in Africa, including elephants and rhinoceroses. Located north of modern Khartoum, Meroë was a new capital of the Kushite kingdom. Nowadays,  ancient Meroë shares the fate that had befallen Napata, buried by the desert sands. In the first century, however, this was the largest city in the area, filled with monumental architecture that included the famed pyramidal tombs. The Kingdom of Kush was an ancient state that had faced waves of invaders, from armies of the pharaohs to Roman legions. Meroë, however, was a place the Romans had never reached before the arrival of the Neronian explorers.


It was in Meroë that the accounts of the expedition diverged. According to Pliny, the Praetorians met with the queen called Candice. Here we can see the breakdown in the communication/translation between the Roman expedition and the Kushite court. Candice is not a name, but a title, a Greek word for Kandake or Kentake. That was what the Kushites called their queens. The woman the Neronian explorers met was most probably Kandake Amanikhatashan who ruled from approximately 62 to 85 CE. She maintained a close relationship with Rome and is known to have sent Kushite cavalry to help Titus during the First Jewish-Roman War of 70 CE. Seneca mentioned that the Praetorians met a king of Kush instead. The Kushite monarch advised the Romans on a number of southern rulers that they might encounter on their journey further inland, as they headed closer to the source of the Nile.


relief meroe tomb
Relief from the south wall of funerary chapel of a Meroë Queen, 2nd century BCE, The British Museum


Once the Praetorians left Meroë, continuing upriver, the landscape changed again. Wild forests with few people replaced green fields. Reaching the area of modern Karthoum, the explorers discovered the place where the Nile broke in two, while the water changed color from brown to dark blue. They did not know it then, but we now know that the explorers found the Blue Nile that flows from the highlands of Ethiopia. Instead, the soldiers decided to continue down the White Nile, which took them to South Sudan. At this point, they became the first Europeans to penetrate this far south into Africa. For the Romans, this was a land of wonder, inhabited by fantastical creatures—tiny pygmies, animals without ears or with four eyes, people ruled by canine overlords, and burnt-faced men. Even the landscape looked otherworldly. The mountains glowed red as if they were set on fire.


Finding The Source of The Nile?

sudd sudan source of the nile
The Sudd in Uganda, via


As they progressed further south towards the source of the Nile River, the area through which the explorers traveled became increasingly wet, marshy, and green. Finally, the brave Praetorians reached an impassable obstacle: a vast swampy area, which was difficult to traverse. This is the region known today as the Sudd, a large swamp located in South Sudan.


The Sudd, appropriately, translates as ‘barrier.’ It was this barrier of thick vegetation that stopped the Roman expedition into equatorial Africa. The Romans were not the only ones who failed to pass the Sudd. Even when European explorers reached Lake Victoria in the mid-19th century, they avoided the area, reaching the great lake from the East. Yet, there is an interesting bit of information left by Seneca. In their report delivered to Nero, the explorers described the tall waterfall“two crags from which a huge volume of river water cascaded down” – which some scholars have identified as Murchison Falls (known also as Kabalega), located in Uganda.


murchison falls source of the nile
Murchison Falls, Uganda, photo by Rodd Waddington, via Flickr


If true, this would mean that the Romans came very close to the source of the Nile, as the Murchison Falls is located at the place where the White Nile, coming from Lake Victoria, plunges into Lake Albert. Whatever the furthest point the Roman explorers reached was, upon their return to Rome, the expedition was declared a great success. Nero’s death, however, prevented any further missions or potential campaigns in the south. His successors did not share Nero’s desire for exploration, and for almost two millennia, the source of the Nile remained out of European reach. It would take until the mid-19th century for the source of the Nile to reveal its last secret, first with Speke and Burton in 1858, and then with Stanley in 1875, who gazed speechlessly upon the waters of Victoria Falls. Finally, the Europeans had found the place where it all starts, the place from where the mighty Nile River brings its gifts to Egypt.

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By Vedran BiletaMA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in HistoryVedran is a doctoral researcher, based in Budapest. His main interest is Ancient History, in particular the Late Roman period. When not spending time with the military elites of the Late Roman West, he is sharing his passion for history with those willing to listen. In his free time, Vedran is wargaming and discussing Star Trek.