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  • American Indians in Roman Europe? June 6, 2010

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback









    Beachcombing always enjoys attempts by Euro-Asia-Africa’s various ethnic factions to claim the discovery of the New World. Put even a gingerly query into a search engine and you will soon find that, over the years, the Basques, the Welsh, the Babylonians, the Israelis, the Bantu and just about every other imaginable group have credited themselves with being the first there. These claims may have some anthropological interest (why lie?) but they have little to do with history and so Beachcombing steers clear. However, in his cellar, behind the old pram and the broken ping-pong table, Beachcombing has a bulging filing cabinet draw on a related and far less voguish theme: the possibility that North American Indians got to Europe before Columbus.

    Beachcombing thought that he would give the evidence here for one such case of trans-Atlantic shenanigans. There follow two passages describing said case: one from Pomponius Mela’s writings (obit c. 45) and the other from Pliny’s Natural History (obit 79) –  who both, by the by, believed that the world was a sphere.

    Pomponius 3, 5: ‘However, as well as the ancient philosophers and Homer, who said that the world was surrounded by ocean, there is Cornelius Nepos who, being more recent has greater authority. Here Cornelius Nepos offers the account of Q. Metellus Celer from whom he had heard the following. When Celer was consul in Gaul some Indians were given to him by the king of the Boii. When he tried to discover from where they had come they answered that they had been driven by storms from Indian waters and having crossed the spaces between they had arrived on the coasts of Germany.’

    Pliny 2, 170: ‘The same Nepos notes concerning the northern parts that Quintus Metellus Celer, colleague of Afranius in the consulship and at that time Proconsul in Gaul, was given certain Indians by the king of the Sueves, who, trading out of India, had been driven by storms and thrown up in Germany. And so the sea flowing on all parts around this globe of earth, split into small portions, keeps us from areas of the world, so it is not possible to go from here to there or from there to here easily.’

    Beachcombing, grumpy old sod that he is, would normally discard this kind of nonsense in a flash. But inconveniently there is an excellent ‘chain of custody’ between the event and the writers. Pomponius and Pliny draw from a now lost work of Cornelius Nepos (c. 100-24? B.C), possibly the Chronica or a forgotten work on Geography. Cornelius refers in the passage to Quintus Metellus Celer who was made governor of Cisalpine Gaul (essentially northern Italy) in 62 BC and who would have become governor of Transalpine Gaul (approx modern France) if he had not died in 59 BC. And we have reason to believe that Cornelius was on speaking terms with Q. Metellus Celer. The only fly wiggling its bottom around in the ointment is the inconsistency in the name of the tribe that sent these ‘Indians’ south: but the mention of Germany means that there can be no mistake as to the general region – there must have been a scribal error, an all too common fate for unpronounceable tribes. Then quite why the Sueves/Boii had decided to send the Indians to a Roman official in northern Italy rather than one on the other side of the Alps is another question and one that Beachcombing will cowardly back away from.

    Beachcombing can kick and scream as much as he likes. But these ‘Indians’ clearly existed and are not about to go away. There is though a problem. Pliny and Pomponius Mela did not know it, but the Americas intervene between India and Europe so there is not possibility of a ‘round the back of the world trip’: unless some Thor-Heyerdahlloon wannabe intends to get really creative. Beachcombing would discount too the possibility that these ‘Indians’ had made their way around the Cape of Good Horn. An overland route likewise seems to be ruled out by the texts and common sense.

    In other words, these are not Indians. Their ‘Indian’ origins was Roman wishful thinking, understandable when one remembers that the Romans saw the Indians as a civilised people with whom comparison was worthwhile: in other words they were not tribal Germans.

    As to the ‘Indians’’ real identity Beachcombing throws up his hands in despair. The ‘Indians’ were exotic enough on the Free German coast to be seen as a prize rather than wrecking fodder or a fisherman’s snack. They had then to belong to a people who were never seen in those parts and this probably rules out Gaels, Britons and Scandinavians, while the fact that the Romans could call them ‘Indians’ suggests that they were not Caucasian. Are we perhaps dealing with Lapps or another sub Arctic people? Are we dealing with native peoples of the Americas (Inuit?) who got lost in a mother of all storms and somehow survived to wash up where the Rhine spills into the sea? More modern accounts – that time allowing Beachcombing will sooner or later publish on this blog – suggest that it would just be possible to make it alive through such a journey. Though, of course, this is not ‘discovery’ but accidental, irrelevant and fatal bumbling. Any other views for this mysterious and much discussed passage would be most welcome: [drbeachcombing[AT]yahoo[DOT]com]

    Beachcombing likes the idea of that rather unpleasant Roman Q. Metellus Celer reaching for his Iroquois dictionary as a handful of terrified other-worlders were ushered into his room.

    Pomponius 3, 5: Sed praetor physicos Homerumque qui uniuersum orbem mari circumfusum esse dixerunt, Cornelius Nepos ut recentior, auctoritate sic certior; testem autem rei Quintum Metellum Celerem adicit, eumque ita rettulisse commemorat: cum Galliae pro consule praeesset Indos quoddam a rege Boiorum dono sibi datos; unde in eas terras deuenissent requirendo congnosse, vi tempestatium ex Indicis aequoribus abreptos, emensosque quae intererrant, tandem in Germaniae litora exisse

    Pliny 2, 170:  idem Nepos de septentrionali circuitu tradit Quinto Metello Celeri, Afrani in consulatu collegae, sed tum Galliae proconsuli, Indos a rege Sueborum dono datos, qui ex India commercii causa navigantes tempestatibus essent in Germaniam abrepti. sic maria circumfusa undique dividuo globo partem orbis auferunt nobis, nec inde huc nec hinc illo