Roman Empire vs Caliphate in Sub-Saharan Africa October 7, 2012Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval , trackback
By the mid first century AD the Roman Empire had run against four limits, limits that its subjects would never overcome: in the west, the Atlantic; in the north, the German tribes (thanks Varus); in the east, the ‘Persian’ Empire and its successors; and in the south, the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert beyond. There were footling exceptions, of course. The Romans explored up into the Baltic and sent their ambassadors into the east. With Africa particularly we have some fascinating clues of trade with Somalia and occasional missions into southern Egypt. But essentially Augustus’ consensus held: there would be no Roman province of Nigeria, though the very thought gets the novelist in Beach jumpy.
Fast forward now to the seventh century. The armies of Muhammad and his successors pass through the southern Mediterranean. By the eighth century Spain has fallen and Europe is born in the most unlikely circumstances. The old Roman provinces of the southern Mediterranean (to give them their modern names) had now become part of the caliphate. Empires fall, empires rise, there is nothing extraordinary here. But what is amazing (at least to Beach) is that the new conquerors did what the Romans had never dreamt of: they penetrated previously impassable boundaries and moved into Sub-Saharan Africa.
True these were not Islamic armies going to the south: we are probably right to think of merchants alone making the trip across the desert. But the effect was almost as impressive. By the eighth century there are clues that Islamic communities had been established to the south of the Sahara and from there Islam’s progress was surprisingly rapid and pilgrims made their way back across the desert on the extraordinary journey to Mecca from the African Atlantic coast. By the eleventh century we even hear of Takrur, a Muslim state in the mid Senegal valley! Another post, another day…
How is it that Islam succeeded where Romanitas so conspicuously failed? After all, even late Rome’s most important export Christianity did not, to the best of our knowledge, penetrate into the south of the Sahara. Is it possible that the Arab invaders were better able to integrate or to unite with the Berber nomadic tribes on the edge of the desert, nomads that the Romans had been able only to contain? Essentially nomads get on with nomads? Perhaps these nomads were able to give Arabs access to the south. Beach has not the slightest idea but would love to learn more: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
13 October 2012: Thanks to readers for their comments here. Two important themes came out here. Roman penetration down the east coast of Africa (which is unquestionable) though the mechanisms by which this penetration took place are obscure and the different nature of Roman and Islamic culture. Let’s start with Vile B I think here you might be unfairly comparing two different systems and/or methods here. The Romans were primarily expanding an empire, and concerned themselves with political and cultural control. This required the use of Roman (or Romanized at least) soldiers far from home surrounded by alien (to them) peoples and cultures. Islam on the other hand was more interested in expanding a religion. “Empire”, as the imposition of a culture, being somewhat secondary. I believe that through the use of local converts, who can maintain much of their local culture(s) and languages, it would have been far easier converting the somewhat similar cultured peoples next-door (through force or otherwise). Something akin to toppling an expanding set of dominoes, as neighbor converts neighbor without the need of large Arabic armies in foreign lands. Also Islam had the advantage of access to eastern sub-Saharan sea ports via the Indian Ocean, which were being visited by Arab and related peoples for millennia before. Rome, which always seems to me to be more of a land based power, never seems to have exploited sea routes to any real extent on either side of Africa (or anywhere else except in their private ‘lake’). Like you I wonder how different the world could have been (for better or worse) if Roman navies had sailed beyond the ‘Pillars of Heracles’ south along the west coast and had exploited the sub-Saharan resources to be found there for the ‘glory of Rome’. In the east, were the Romans at all aware of the Egyptian canals that once led to the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea? Next comes Lester who quotes me: ‘How is it that Islam succeeded where Romanitas so conspicuously failed? After all, even late Rome’s most important export Christianity did not, to the best of our knowledge, penetrate into the south of the Sahara.’ Then comments you are forgetting the Christian kingdoms in Nubia and Abyssinia, all definitely sub-saharan. I suspect part of the reason for islamic success was that islamic society and mores were more friendly to business than xtn society and mores. Also, there were technical developments in camel saddles, camel breeding, etc., from 2d century AD on. You might like Bulliet’s very readable THE CAMEL AND THE WHEEL. Another thought. Roman era businessmen in Egypt visited East Africa quite often, sailing down the Red Sea and the coast. Checkout Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, ed and transl. Lionel Casson. It’s a list of ports around the Indian Ocean, Roman in date, listing what people here and there wanted to buy, had to sell, etc. East Africa, of course, had all kinds of other connections: India, Indonesia, even China. Great Zimbabwe sites are full of Chinese porcelain. An old friend of the blog Stephen D expands on Lester’s point about camels: Camels, competent use of vs. Camels, absence of. This blog post gives date of ca 200 AD for introduction of dromedaries into Roman N Africa: which fits approximately with my memory of Richard Bulliet’s “The Camel and the Wheel”. Lovely book, explains why massive load-carrying power of camels caused N Africa to abandon wheeled vehicles. Also if my memory is right – I don’t have the book with me – the Arabians introduced an efficient camel-saddle. Consequence: Arabs had efficient trans-Saharan transport, Romans didn’t in expansionary period of Empire, and post-200 Empire more or less unexpandable, indeed making great efforts not to contract. I read somewhere, possibly in Pliny, about four Roman centurions (by definition men of great hardiness and determination) who decided to go southwards into the Sahara to see if there was anything on the other side. As far as I can remember, they went on foot. After a long while they came back and reported: miles and miles of bugger all, occasional oases thanks be to the gods, way down south there is a land full of blacks with a great river flowing through it, west to east. So a Roman Nigeria (or at least Niger or Mali ) might have been possible, given camels and their correct use.’ LTM comments. KMH writes meanwhile, The Roman reason to extend the empire was to protect its inhabitants, especially the Romans, from foreign aggression, and continue the Roman peace in the Mediterranean, the Pax Romana, an essentially political goal. Muslims were driven by a religious zeal to convert everyone to Islam that could be reached by Islamic armies, or later by merchants. One thing to consider is that, for some reason or other, both the Arabians and the sub-Saharans had never been part of the succession of empires in the north, starting with the Assyrian and ending with the Roman. Both were fresh to the empire-building spirit. The south did provide Muslims, natural slave-traders, with a large natural resource of slaves, if not the normal fruits of civilization such as precious metals, jewelry and well-cultivated lands. Muslim activity in the south may have been accentuated due to the Byzantine road block in the Eastern Mediterranean until the Turks arrived. Ethiopia, although never part of the Roman empire, had been Christian for several centuries at the time of Muhammad. It was never required to convert to Islam since it had provided refuge for Muslims before they won the Arabian peninsula. Of course in modern times it has become at least one third Muslim. It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if Islam had arisen two centuries earlier to encounter the Eastern Roman Empire. North Africa then would not have rapidly fallen to Islam, or the eastern Mediterranean. Islam seems to have arisen at the exact time its prospects for quick conquest were greatest. Is this destiny or good luck? And finally LTM reminds us about the Vandal Empire in Africa! Not to forget the Vandal Empire in Africa who presumably though didn’t make it down to Nigeria, though having said that they got from the Rhine to the Magreb: Thanks Stephen D. Lester, KMH, LTM and Vile B!
31 Dec 2012: Jonathan Jarrett from A Corner writes in: The point that some of your commentators make about political vs religious expansion is probably the key, I think; even at its height or at their separate heights the Caliphate or the various North African Islamic powers didn’t have much control south of wherever the gold routes ran across the Sahara. But the Roman Empire, as has been pointed out, did also do a bit of religious export. This also seems to have gone with trade: the best example is the cult of St Thomas of Kerala in India, which seems to have arrived at some point in the fifth century but had some very old links to build on; silver denarii of Augustus and Tiberius have been found in reasonable numbers along the western coast of India (though strangely, not much from later rulers). And the missions to Abyssinia (first Christian kingdom in the world!) and elsewhere have also been pointed out. Not official expansion, of course, but then neither were the Islamic ones. Yet despite that Muslim travellers were able to travel down a more-or-less Muslim east coast of Africa in fourteenth and fifteenth century via Venices of the East like Kilwa Kisiwani (now in Tanzania). All this well before the more `traditional’ empires of Mali or Benin that the British so morally conquered. A greater paradox in this is perhaps the cultural export the Roman, or Byzantine (it’s right on the edge of the conceptual division), Empire caused unwittingly, by exiling or removing from office non-Chalcedonian Christians in the various controversies of the later Empire over the nature of Christ. The Nestorians, especially (and don’t ask me for the definition of their doctrine) moved east, so that the first Christian churches in China, already, were Nestorian ones, and so that there was a substantial group of disaffected exiles in the Persian Empire who fared rather badly in the final war of the seventh century. And then, still a different Empire, at the very end of the process we have the Pilgrim Fathers of course; Christianity apparently travelled furthest when kicked out, Islam when encouraged back…’ Thanks Jonathan!
22 Jan 2013: Dr Andrew Wilson writes in: Just found your blog entry on “Roman Empire vs Caliphate in Sub-Saharan Africa” – interesting question; I think Vile B. is largely correct. The Romans traded with Saharan communities, and less directly with sub-Saharan communities, but were not interested in controlling or dominating the Sahara directly; the costs were too large. Some further detail on the structure and nature of Roman period Saharan trade in my recent article: A. I. Wilson (2012) Saharan trade in the Roman period: short-, medium- and long-distance trade networks, Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa 47.4: 409-449. doi: 10.1080/0067270X.2012.727614 Thanks Andrew!
29 Nov 2014: Philip writes in ‘Just read your interesting blog post. Can’t comment on the general question (why the Romans didn’t incorporate sub-Saharan Africa into the Empire), but I’m struck by one small point you raise, which is why they didn’t sail down the West coast of Africa. The reason, so far as I recall, is that they couldn’t. The current down that coast is strong and points south, likewise the winds. Also, when you get to a place called Cape Boujdour, the current swings off-shore into the Atlantic on its way to America – for a coast-hugging Roman mariner this would be terrifying. All this I vaguely recall from reading about the Portuguese opening of the Africa route to India. It could make for an interesting future post – but unfortunately I forget the book.’ Thanks Philip