The African Kingdom of Kush that Humbled Rome: Legions in the Sands

Following the annexation of Egypt, the Roman army attempted to push the border south. But the warlike kingdom of Kush fought back, forcing Rome to abandon its plans for good.

Sep 19, 2022By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History

kushite kingdom roman legions


The infamous Battle of Teutoburg Forest is widely known as the event that halted the Roman Empire’s expansion. While the battle had far-reaching consequences, keeping the Romans on the western bank of the Rhine, it was not the first defeat of the Roman army. Nor was it the first time that the Roman expansion came to a halt. Two decades before Varus’ legion perished in the thick forests of Germania, Roman military might was checked in the sands of Nubia. A combination of pride and paranoia weakened the Roman border defenses in freshly annexed Egypt, allowing the vengeful queen of the warlike kingdom of Kush to fight back against the Roman army and humiliate the Emperor Augustus himself.


While the Romans did their best to restore control (and their pride), the fierce resistance of the Kushites forced the emperor to abandon the war effort and offer generous peace terms. As a result of this forgotten conflict, the Romans never ventured deeper into Africa, establishing a permanent southern border that would remain unchanged until the end of Roman rule.


The Roman Army in Egypt Before the War With the Kingdom of Kush

Golden coin of Augustus, showing the crocodile with the legend Aegypto Capta (“Egypt Captured”), 27 BCE, via the British Museum


In 30 BCE, following his triumph at Actium, Octavian arrived in Egypt at the head of his army. Cleopatra’s suicide ended the Ptolemaic dynasty, leaving the throne vacant. Octavian, however, refused the royal crown. Instead, he made Egypt a Roman province. Three years later, Octavian was given the name Augustus. Egypt and its vast wealth became the emperor’s private property.


To protect his “crown jewel,” Augustus stationed three legions in Egypt. Their main task was to keep the internal peace and patrol the southern border. We know the names of two of the legions: the Legio III Cyrenaica and the Legio XXII Deitoriana. The name of the third is lost to history. In total, in 30 BCE, Rome had approximately 15, 000 troops in the province. Most of the soldiers were based around Thebes, the old capital, and near Alexandria, on the Mediterranean coast. In the case of an enemy attack, these troops would march south and rend aid to the border garrisons.

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The Perils of Ambition

Portrait head, probably depicting Gaius Cornelius Gallus, ca. 30 BCE, via the Cleveland Museum of Art


Determined to prevent another civil war, Augustus monopolized control over the imperial army. All the legions now answered directly to their commander-in-chief — the emperor. However, due to Egypt’s immense importance to the Empire’s economy and its strategic role, Augustus appointed his close supporter, Gaius Cornelius Gallus, as the first governor of Roman Aegyptus. Unlike other provincial governors, he was also given the personal command over the three legions. Gallus had hardly settled in when a revolt broke out in the south, around Syene (modern-day Aswan). We should not forget that Egypt had just gone through a regime change, and not every Egyptian was happy with their new masters.


Gallus, however, was more than successful. After quelling the revolt, he moved further south, crossing the First Cataract and seizing the island fortress of Philae in lower (northern) Nubia. To celebrate his achievements, Gallus erected a monument at Philae. However, he did not stop there. According to historian Dio Cassius, the proud governor continued to build monuments in his honor across Egypt, inscribing the list of his achievements even at the top of the pyramids (!). Unsurprisingly, this did not go down well with the emperor, who perceived Gaius as a potential threat. It did not help that Gallus was a learned man, a poet, who enjoyed a high reputation among Rome’s elites.


The island of Philae, just above the First Cataract, near present-day Aswan, Egypt, via the Austrian Academy of Sciences


The result was a personal tragedy for Egypt’s first Roman governor. Disgraced, stripped of his wealth, and fearing for his life, Gallus committed suicide. Not willing to take the risk, Augustus filled the vacant position with a more pliable and less ambitious man called Aelius Gallus. Unlike his predecessor, Aelius’ first military command, the expedition to Arabia Felix in 25 BCE, was a complete failure. To make matters worse, many of the soldiers stationed in Egypt were transferred to the expeditionary force, leaving the southern border exposed to the hostile attack.


The Warriors of the South

Pyramid ruins in the Kushite capital of Meroë, Sudan, via Britannica


Among his many achievements, the ill-fated Cornelius Gallus mentions the tribute made by Meroite ambassadors, who had visited the governor during his stay at Philae. According to the triumphal inscription, the Kushite Kingdom of Meroë became a vassal state to Rome. However, not everyone agreed with this statement. Perhaps Gallus was lucky not to live long enough to see his triumph turning into a disaster. The Roman victory stirred trouble in the south, provoking the anger of the proud and fierce warrior people.


Long before the Roman conquest, a series of impassable rapids, known as the First Cataract of the Nile, demarcated the border between Egypt, in the north and Nubia, in the south. While Nubia was less fertile than its northern neighbor, it was a land rich in resources, such as gold, ivory, ebony, and incense. The area was inhabited by the Kush — dark-skinned, tall people — who, through frequent contact with the ancient Egyptians, gradually adopted their culture. They worshipped Egyptian gods and followed Egyptian burial practices, constructing majestic pyramids for their royals’ afterlife. The Kushite kings even managed to take the throne of Egypt, ruling as the official 25th dynasty.


Religious procession, led by the Kushite king, Illustration by Gregory Manchess, via TV Tropes


While northern armies, from the soldiers of the pharaohs to the Persians, were able to conquer parts of Nubia, those were only temporary gains. The infamous loss of the Cambyses’ army, swallowed by the sands, shows the value of the desert borderland and its role in keeping the Kushite heartland out their enemies’ reach. If an enemy somehow managed to overcome nature, he had to confront these fearsome warriors. Renowned for their strength and archery skills, led by kings and queens (the warlike culture did not discriminate based on gender), the Kush — known to the Romans as the Meroe — were a fearsome opponent.


To Humiliate an Empire

Bronze head from the over-life-sized statue of Augustus, found in Meroë, 27 – 25 BCE, via the British Museum


Like the previous rulers of Egypt, the Romans fantasized about Nubian gold and the other riches of Africa. After seizing Philae, it seems that those dreams would soon be realized. The Romans, however, badly miscalculated. Before embarking on his ill-fated expedition to Arabia, Aelius Gallus levied a tax on areas traditionally considered to be part of the Kingdom of Kush. According to Strabo, our primary source for the conflict, the act enraged the Kushite leader — the Queen Amanirenas. Strabo calls her “Kandake.” We are unsure if that means “Queen Mother” or “Ruler.” We know for certain that Amanirenas was a fearsome leader — a warrior queen who fought back against the Romans and humiliated an Empire.


In 24 BCE, exploiting the absence of legions, the queen  “a masculine woman … who had lost an eye”, led her army north to the First Cataract. The Kushite army quickly overran the Roman garrison at Philae and entered the imperial territory, advancing as far as Syene and Elephantine. Then, they retreated south with loot, Roman prisoners, and thousands of Egyptian captives. As a last insult, the Kush lopped off and carried away the head of a statue of Augustus. Larger-than-life, the emperor’s bronze head was found in 1910, buried beneath the steps of the Temple of Amun in Meroë, the capital of the Kingdom of Kush. The location was chosen carefully, ensuring that everyone who entered the building would trample the image of Emperor Augustus — a powerful reminder of the Kushite victory over the Roman monarch.


The Empire Strikes Back

The ruins of the temple of Amun in Napata, destroyed by the Romans in 22 BCE, near Jebel Barkal, Sudan, via Wikimedia Commons


Such humiliation could not be tolerated, and Rome had to respond. The new governor, Petronius, assembled a large army, over 10, 000 strong, and marched south, entering Nubia. The two armies met near Pselchis, 100 km (62 miles) south of the First Cataract. Although the enemy outnumbered the Romans almost three to one, the better armored and more disciplined legions won the battle. Baying for blood, Petronius pressed further south, into the desert. Their progress, however, was hampered by the large sand dunes as the army marched along the banks of the Nile. Between the First and Second Cataract, the Romans seized the town of Premnis.


Finally, the Roman army reached Napata, the former capital of the Kingdom of Kush. Rejecting Amanirenas’ peace offer, the Romans razed the city, enslaving hundreds of its inhabitants. However, the unknown terrain, the severe heat, and the risk of pestilence prevented Petronius from progressing further in the hostile territory. Instead, he decided to turn back, considering the destruction of the enemy’s capital an adequate punishment for those who dared to challenge Roman power. On the way, Petronius left a small Roman garrison in Premnis, extending the Roman frontier into lower Nubia. Upon his return to Alexandria, Petronius sent war trophies and thousand of enemy prisoners to Rome. The Empire restored its honor.


Relief from the south wall of funerary chapel of a Meroë Queen, 2nd century BCE, via the British Museum


However, Petronius was wrong. The success of the punitive Roman expedition frightened local tribes, who allied with the vengeful queen, strengthening her army. Amanirenas reignited the conflict, leading her soldiers north. She besieged the Roman garrison at Premnis but failed to take the fort. Determined to defeat the Kush once and for all, Petronius marched south once again. The details are murky, but by 21 BCE, both armies were exhausted. When Amanirenas offered peace, Petronius accepted. Mindful, perhaps, of the fate of Gallus, the governor advised the envoys to address their case directly to the emperor.


Victory in the Kingdom of Kush: The Roman Army Humbled

The map of Roman Egypt, via Ancient World Mapping


At that time, Augustus was on the Greek island of Samos, busy making a settlement with the Parthian Empire. The emperor’s preoccupation with Parthia, Rome’s powerful eastern rival, could help to explain why Augustus granted both of Amanirenas’ demands, including the withdrawal of all Roman armed forces from the contested territories in Nubia. It may also explain why on his own initiative, Augustus revoked the tributes previously imposed upon the Kush. The distant African kingdom was a minor nuisance, compared with neighboring Parthia, which not so long ago annihilated an entire Roman army, led by the il-fatted Crassus.


Moreover, peace stabilized the southern frontier, allowing Augustus to transfer the legions elsewhere, while the Kush reclaimed their status as a regional power. Both sides also profited from the trade. The Romans collected lucrative customs taxes, and the Kingdom of Kush secured a steady source of revenue. Beneficial alliance aside, the fact remains, the one-eyed warrior queen Amanirenas and the fierce resistance of her people had humbled the Roman army and halted the Roman expansion. Following the withdrawal of Roman forces, the Kushites symbolically toppled and beheaded statues of the emperor in the reclaimed towns.


Pylons of the Lion Temple at Naqa, depicting Queen Amanitore and King Natakamani smiting enemies, early 1st century CE, Sudan, via Atlas Obscura


Rome too, continued to harbor plans for a new offensive. Half a century after Augustus’ death, his great-great-grandson Nero dispatched a small expedition deep into the heart of Africa. While officially, its task was to discover the source of the Nile, it seems that the mission had a more nefarious purpose. Led by the elite military unit — the Praetorian Guard (an unusual choice) — the explorers made a detailed record of their voyage, including a description of the Kushite capital Meroë.


The relocation of military units to Egypt, including Legio XV Apollonia and the newly raised Ala Siliana, further suggests that Nero planned a fully-fledged military campaign. However, the emperor’s suicide, and the bloody civil war that followed, shelved the plans for good. The Roman army would never again enter Nubia, and the kings and queens of Kush would never have to cede land, convey its resources, or pay tribute to Rome.

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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.