Aethiopia (Greek: Αἰθιοπία Aithiopia) first appears
as a geographical term in classical documents in reference to the
Nile region, as well as all certain areas south of the Sahara
desert and south of the Atlantic Ocean. Its earliest mention is in the
works of Homer: twice in the Iliad, and three times in the
Odyssey. The Greek historian
Herodotus specifically uses the
appellation to refer to such parts of
Africa as were then known within
the inhabitable world.
In classical antiquity,
Africa (or Ancient Libya) referred to what is
now known as the
Maghreb and south of the
Libyan Desert and Western
Sahara, including all the desert land west of the southern
Geographical knowledge of the continent gradually grew, with the first
century AD Greek travelogue the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea
describing areas along the
Red Sea (Erythraean Sea). The Greek name
Αἰθιοπία (from Αἰθίοψ, Aithiops, 'an Ethiopian') is a
compound word, derived from the two Greek words, from αἴθω +
ὤψ (aitho "I burn" + ops "face"). According to the Perseus Digital
Library, the designation properly translates as Burnt-face in noun
form and red-brown in adjectival form. It was used as a vague term
for dark-skinned populations since the time of Homer. It was
applied to such dark-skinned populations as came within the range of
observation of the ancient geographers i.e. primarily in what was then
Nubia, and with the expansion of geographical knowledge, successively
extended to certain other areas below the Sahara.
1 Before Herodotus
2 In Herodotus
3 Other Greco-Roman historians
4 Greek and medieval literature
5 See also
Homer (c. 8th century BC) is the first to mention "Aethiopians"
(Αἰθίοπες, Αἰθιοπῆες); he mentions that they are
to be found at the east and west extremities of the world, divided by
the sea into "eastern" (at the sunrise) and "western" (at the sunset).
Hesiod (c. 8th century BC) speaks of Memnon as the "king of
In 515 BC, Scylax of Caryanda, on orders from
Darius I of the
Achaemenid Empire, sailed along the Indus River,
Indian Ocean and Red
Sea, circumnavigating the Arabian Peninsula. He mentioned
"Aethiopians", but his writings on them have not survived. Hecataeus
of Miletus (c. 500 BC) is also said to have written a book about
Aethiopia, but his writing is now known only through quotations from
later authors. He stated that
Aethiopia was located to the east of the
Nile, as far as the
Red Sea and Indian Ocean; he is also quoted as
relating a myth that the Skiapods ("Shade feet") lived there, whose
feet were supposedly large enough to serve as shade.
In his Histories (c. 440 BC)
Herodotus presents some of the most
ancient and detailed information about "Aethiopia". He relates that
he personally traveled up the
Nile to the border of Egypt as far as
Elephantine (modern Aswan); in his view, "Aethiopia" is all of the
inhabited land found to the south of Egypt, beginning at Elephantine.
He describes a capital at Meroë, adding that the only deities
worshipped there were
Zeus (Amun) and
Dionysus (Osiris). He relates
that in the reign of Pharaoh
Psamtik I (c. 650 BCE), many Egyptian
soldiers deserted their country and settled amidst the Aethiopians.
Herodotus tells us that king
Cambyses II (c. 570 BC) of the Achaemenid
Empire sent spies to the Aethiopians "who dwelt in that part of Libya
(Africa) which borders upon the southern sea." They found a strong and
healthy people. Although Cambyses then campaigned toward their
country, by not preparing enough provisions for the long march, his
army completely failed and returned quickly.
In Book 3,
Herodotus defines "Aethiopia" as the farthest region of
"Libya" (i.e. Africa): "Where the south declines towards the setting
sun lies the country called Aethiopia, the last inhabited land in that
direction. There gold is obtained in great plenty, huge elephants
abound, with wild trees of all sorts, and ebony; and the men are
taller, handsomer, and longer lived than anywhere else."
Other Greco-Roman historians
The Egyptian priest
Manetho (c. 300 BC) listed Kushite (25th) dynasty,
calling it the "Aethiopian dynasty". Moreover, when the Hebrew Bible
was translated into Greek (c. 200 BC), the Hebrew appellation "Kush,
Kushite" became in Greek "Aethiopia, Aethiopians", appearing as
"Ethiopia, Ethiopians" in the English King James Version.[citation
Agatharchides provides a relatively detailed description of the gold
mining system of Aethiopia. His text was copied almost verbatim by
virtually all subsequent ancient writers on the area, including
Diodorus Siculus and Photius.
With regard to the Ethiopians,
Strabo indicates that they looked
similar to Indians, remarking "those who are in Asia (Indus), and
those who are in Africa, do not differ from each other." Pliny in
turn asserts that the place-name "Aethiopia" was derived from one
"Aethiop, a son of Vulcan" [the smith-god Hephaestus]. He also
writes that the "Queen of the Ethiopians" bore the title Kandake, and
avers that the Ethiopians had conquered ancient
Syria and the
Mediterranean. Following Strabo, the Greco-Roman historian Eusebius
notes that the Ethiopians had emigrated into the
Red Sea area from the
Indus Valley and that there were no people in the region by that name
prior to their arrival.
The first century AD Greek travelogue known as the Periplus of the
Erythraean Sea first describes the Horn of
Africa littoral, based on
its author's intimate knowledge of the area. The Periplus does not
mention any dark-skinned "Ethiopians" among the area's inhabitants.
They only later appear in Ptolemy's Geographia, but in a region far
south, around the "Bantu nucleus" of northern Mozambique. According to
John Donnelly Fage, these early Greek documents altogether suggest
that the original inhabitants of Azania, the "Azanians", were of the
same ancestral stock as the Afroasiatic-speaking populations to the
north of them in the ancient Barbara region along the Red Sea.
Subsequently, by the tenth century, these original "Azanians" had been
replaced by early waves of Bantu settlers.
Greek and medieval literature
Several notable personalities in Greek and medieval literature were
identified as Aethiopian, including several rulers, male and female:
Memnon and his brother Emathion, King of Arabia. Cepheus and
Cassiopeia, parents of Andromeda, were named as king and queen of
Homer in his description of the Trojan War mentions several
other Aethiopians. In some cults of the youngest Olympian god,
Dionysus, his maternal origins are believed to be Aethiopia.[citation
Ptolemy the geographer and other ancient Greek commentators
believed that the "Aethiopian Olympus" was where the gods lived when
they were not in Greece.
History of Ethiopia
Index of Ethiopia-related articles
Black people in Ancient Roman history
Iliad I.423; XXIII.206.
Odyssey I.22-23; IV.84; V.282-7.
^ a b For all references to
Ethiopia in Herodotus, see: this list at
the Perseus project.
^ Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert. "Aithiops". A Greek-English
Lexicon. Perseus. Retrieved 2 December 2017.
^ Αἰθίοψ in Liddell, Scott, A Greek–English Lexicon:
"Αἰθίοψ , οπος, ὁ, fem. Αἰθιοπίς , ίδος, ἡ
(Αἰθίοψ as fem., A.Fr.328, 329): pl. 'Αἰθιοπῆες'
Il.1.423, whence nom. 'Αἰθιοπεύς' Call.Del.208: (αἴθω,
ὄψ):— properly, Burnt-face, i.e. Ethiopian, negro, Hom., etc.;
prov., Αἰθίοπα σμήχειν 'to wash a blackamoor white',
Luc.Ind. 28." Cf.
Etymologicum Genuinum s.v. [[:wikt:Αἰθίοψ]],
Etymologicum Gudianum s.v.v. Αἰθίοψ. "Αἰθίοψ".
Etymologicum Magnum (in Greek). Leipzig. 1818.
^ a b Fage, John. A History of Africa. Routledge. pp. 25–26.
ISBN 1317797272. Retrieved 20 January 2015.
Herodotus Histories III.114.
^ Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland.
Cambridge University Press for the Royal Asiatic Society. 1892.
p. 823. Retrieved 20 January 2015.
^ a b c Turner, Sharon (1834). The Sacred History of the World, as
Displayed in the Creation and Subsequent Events to the Deluge:
Attempted to be Philosophically Considered, in a Series of Letters to
a Son, Volume 2. Longman. pp. 480–482. Retrieved 20 January
Pliny the Elder
Pliny the Elder Natural History VI.35. "Son of Hephaestus" was also
a general Greek epithet meaning "blacksmith".
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