Scholia Reviews ns 9 (2000) 8.

Stanley M. Burstein (ed.), Ancient African Civilizations: Kush and Axum. Princeton, New Jersey: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1998. Pp. vii + 166. ISBN 1-55876-148-9. US$16.95.

John Hilton
University of Natal, Durban

Students of the early history of Africa include romantics 'who fill their charts of the African past with tales of Sheba and Ophir, of strange Phoenicians building cities in Rhodesia, and mysterious peoples "from the north" who came and stayed but altogether vanished', enthusiasts such as Emil Torday, who dated the chronology of the kings of Congo by the solar eclipse of 1680, and imperialists who believe that ancient Africa was an island of primitive savagery in a world of ever-increasing enlightenment and progress.[[1]] Burstein, an ancient historian from Los Angeles with an established publication record in the field of Greek relations with north-east Africa,[[2]] does not belong to any of these categories; instead he has made the evidence for the kingdoms of Kush and Axum available in readable translations so that English readers can discover for themselves the fragmentary but growing body of source material for these impressive civilizations.

Information about this region in antiquity is tenuous, despite the fact that its monarchs conquered Egypt (Kush between 712-664 BC) and troubled Rome (Axum in AD 298); Burstein's selection of twenty- seven short texts covers a chronological span of approximately one thousand years and encompasses the historical periods of Egyptian and Greek explorations to the south beginning in the third millenium BC (pp. 23-52), Roman imperial hegemony in the first and second centuries (pp. 55-75), Axumite regional supremacy in the third century (pp. 79-10), and the Christianization of Nubia up to the end of the sixth century (pp. 103-31). Nevertheless, the present collection represents a significant increase in the range of texts included in it by comparison with what was previously available in various English translations and conveniently gathers rather inaccessible material together under one cover. The book has the added benefit of being produced by an experienced editor with a good knowledge of the Greek sources.[[3]] There are, inevitably, still omissions; I would, for instance, have liked to have seen the story of the apostle Philip's conversion of the Ethiopian ambassador (Acts 18.27-40) included. There are also the references to the Blemmyes and Axumites in Vopiscus' life of Aurelian (33.4), paralleled in Heliodorus' fiction, the Ethiopian Story (10.27.1), though generally the latter should not be taken as a significant historical source for Axumite history. Other collections feature texts not included by Burstein, such as the correspondence between the emperor Constantius and Ezana (Migne PG 25 coll. 636f.).[[4]] There appears to be a need for greater coordination of scholarship relating to the compilation of source material for the history of this region in antiquity.

Interest in cultural relations between the Mediterranean and Africa has increased dramatically in the last decades of the twentieth century.[[5]] This has been due not only to the heat generated by the debate over Bernal's Black Athena, but also to progress in the archaeology and historiography of the hinterland of the horn of Africa, despite the instability of the area in modern times.[[6]] Indeed, in his valuable introduction (pp. 3-21), Burstein regards the reconstruction of the history of Kush as 'one of the triumphs of twentieth- century historiography' (p. 5). It is no surprise that the civilizations of the Nile and its tributaries should be the main focus of this revival. Not only did this river provide the Mediterranean peoples with economic access to central Africa (and vice versa), otherwise prevented by the Sahara desert, but it is also situated adjacent to the Red Sea, the gateway to the Indian Ocean and the trade routes to the east. Consequently, it is not entirely unexpected, although admittedly rather incongruous, to find a bronze head of Augustus looted from Meroe in 25 BC from the same region as later Indian and even Chinese artefacts.[[7]] Archaeology is not the concern of this book but the rulers of Axum from the second to the fourth centuries were clearly aware of the importance of the region for international trade, as Ezana's inscription recording the punishment of a tribe that had raided a merchant caravan (pp. 89f.) aptly illustrates.

This collection provides many insights into the culture of Kush and Axum. The complexity of relations between the Roman authorities in Egypt and their southern neighbours is neatly illustrated by the fragment of Priscus' account of the treaty (c. 453 AD) between Maximinus, the Roman governor of the Thebaid, and the Blemmyes and Nobatai, allowing them access to the temple of Isis and its statue of the goddess 'in accordance with the ancient law' (pp. 106f.). The hymn to the Nubian Sun god, Mandulis, by Paccius Maximus, a Roman soldier of Nubian descent, uses Greek poetic convention in referring to Calliope, Pythian oracles, and the Muses (pp. 66-68). The reader will be reminded of the Greek education of the Axumite king, Zoscales, in the Periplus Maris Erythraei (5): 'miserly in his ways and always striving for more, but otherwise upright, and acquainted with Greek literature' (p. 81). Local knowledge of Greek is also attested by the many inscriptions in the region that use the Greek alphabet rather than any of the indigenous writing systems. Agatharchides' description of the harsh conditions in the Nubian gold mines (pp. 31-36) and the contract for the sale of a twelve year-old Nubian slave girl to enable Isidora 'to acquire, to possess, to use her and, with God willing, her children' are shocking reminders of the iniquitous and long- standing exploitation of slaves in ancient north-east Africa. The trade in human-beings from Nubia and further south is repeatedly emphasised in this collection.

Some of the translations have been done especially for this book; others are revisions of existing versions, such as Schoff's in the case of Periplus Maris Erythraei.[[8]] Occasionally, the use of earlier versions results in quaint English (e.g. 'wine, beer and flesh' [p. 71]; 'the Nile resembles the letter N' [p. 29, 'the Greek letter nu' would be more helpful]; and finally, 'In Aithiopia there are many islands' [p. 35] has lost the necessary qualification 'in the river'). The translations are clearly aimed at a general readership: line numbers of the original editions have been omitted throughout; details are omitted concerning the exact length of longer documents from which excerpts have been taken--only about half of the sixth century contract for the sale of a Nubian slave girl has been given (pp. 118-20) but this has not been indicated; abridgements, such as those of Strabo and Diodorus of Agatharchides, have been blended together to make a more readable text; and information concerning the source of each document has been relegated to endnotes. The result is a useful introductory text that students will find attractive but they should also be encouraged to discover for themselves the complex transmission of much of the material and the difficulties of its interpretation. Information of this kind might have been provided in the notes, rather than being omitted entirely.

The book could have been improved in a number of ways: the illustrations that accompany the texts appear to have fallen victim to modern publishing technology, with the misleading result that Sidebotham's photograph of the royal pyramids at Meroe, in particular (facing p. 11), looks as though it was taken in moonlight; the map (facing p. 3) is regretably deficient as it fails (to take just one example) to identify the location of the river Atbara, which is mentioned in the text; I find the renumbering of notes (but not documents) within each of the four sections, without any indication of the change, rather confusing; the notes should possibly be fuller and more numerous; the introduction needs to refer more to the texts that follow; and the bibliography at the end of the book does not include references made in the notes.[[9]] These minor criticisms aside, this is a readable, and indeed fascinating collection of texts, that should prove to be extremely useful to students entering newly- devised courses (some of which are already running in South African universities) on the cultural linkage between the ancient African civilizations of Meroe and Axum and the Mediterranean. This would appear to be a text to herald the recently much-discussed concept of an African Renaissance to a wide general readership.


[[1]] The quotation is from Basil Davidson, Old Africa Rediscovered (London 1960) 21f., who also refers (p. 25) to the researches of Emil Torday, On the Trail of the Bushongo (London 1925), and the comments of imperial British governors of Africa (p. 20). The date of the book is underlined by the reference to Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, but similar attitudes to the African past persist.

[[2]] Cf., e.g., Graeco-Africana: Studies in the History of Greek Relations with Egypt and Nubia (New Rochelle 1995), Agatharchides of Cnidus: On the Erythrean Sea (London 1989).

[[3]] Compare the dozen or so documents collected by Basil Davidson, African Civilization Revisited (Trenton, New Jersey 1991) 54-73. The unreliability of African historians in matters of Greek literature may be illustrated by Davidson's note (p. 59) describing the prose writer Heliodorus as a poet who work might have illustrated Meroitic life. A full, scholarly edition of the sources for the history of this region is given by T. Eide, T. Hägg, R.H. Pierce, and L. Török, Fontes Historiae Nubiorum: Textual Sources for the History of the Middle Nile Region between the Eighth Century BC and the Sixth Century AD. 2 Vols. (Bergen 1996).

[[4]] Cf. B. Hendrickx, Official Documents Written in Greek Illustrating the Ancient History of Nubia and Ethiopia: 3rd century BC - 6th century AD (Johannesburg 1984). The terms 'Axumite', 'Nubian', 'Meroitic', and 'Ethiopian' are, of course, hard to use with precision, but concerns with relevance may have determined the omission of some texts.

[[5]] Besides the works mentioned by Burstein in his bibliography, the reader should note David Phillipson's authoritative work, Ancient Ethiopia (London 1998) which contains much of interest on Meroe and Aksum. Reference to James Romm, The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought (Princeton 1992) might also have been enlightening.

[[6]] M. Bernal, Black Athena: the Afro-Asiatic Roots of Civilization. 2 Vols. (London 1987-). For a review of the controversy, see Burstein's article, 'The Debate over Black Athena', Scholia ns 5 (1996) 3-16.

[[7]] For the importance of Axum in international trade see David Phillipson, [5] 63-70.

[[8]] W.H. Schoff, The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea: Travel and Trade in the Indian Ocean by a Merchant of the First Century (London, Bombay & Calcutta 1912). References to the standard work by L. Casson, Periplus Maris Erythraei (Princeton 1989) are made in the notes.

[[9]] There are very few misprints in the book, but note 'in the late first or early first century' (p. 66).