The Indigenous Tribes of Africa Proconsularis

The ancient Greeks knew of Aegypt and Aethiopia. The rest of the land westward to the Atlantic Ocean they called Libya. The Romans gave the name of Afri to the inhabitants of the region of Carthage, and thus forged the name Africa for the whole surrounding territory. When the Romans destroyed Carthage in 146 B.C.E., they left an enormous cultural gap in the region. Julius Caesar ordered a new Roman Carthage to rise on the same site a hundred years afterwards. The eastern end of “Africa,” previously dominated by the descedendants of Phoenician settlers, gradually fell more and more under the control of Roman senators, colonists and merchants who eventually extended their control westwards to the Atlas Mountains and beyond. When Augustus reorganised the provinces in 27 B.C.E., Africa Proconsularis ranked extremely high in the hierarchy of desirable senatorial provinces. At the end of the second century, imperial literature boasted that all of North Africa, from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, now benefitted from the blessings of pax romana that the rest of the Roman world had enjoyed since the start of the Augustan era.

This was not merely propaganda. Several times over the centuries, the indigenous peoples of North Africa had risen up in rebellion against the invasion of their land by so many visitors who made themselves undesirable by conscientiously trying to implant a different culture, a different language, a completely different way of life in the land. They had more or less succeeded, at least for a time. Though one can still visit the vestiges of Graeco-Roman culture in North Africa today, it never supplanted local tradition. To this day, North Africa is marked by thousands of years of semi-nomadic culture.

Part of the reason for the failure of Romanisation is geographical. The physical terrain varies from the heights of the Atlas Mountains and high plateaux (fig. 2, left) to the lower Middle Atlas range and forested, narrow valleys in the province of Mauretania (fig. 3, below) to low-lying coastal plains in the province of Africa. Such a variety gave birth to small communities of nomadic, semi-nomadic and sedentary tribes. The nomads depended on yearly transhumance for the good of their livestock and for their own prosperity. In years when rainfall was poor, they migrated into pasture lands they did not usually frequent, thus provoking the enmity of those semi-nomadic tribes who laid claim to the lands in question. Every year, however, the passage through territories of sedentary tribes was a possible source of conflict, even of massacre. Again, due to the physical lay of the land, there was often only one route possible to go from point A to point B. As the Romans founded more and more colonies, they tended to try to force the nomadic tribes to change the patterns of their yearly migrations, whence repeated conflicts between native Africans or Mauretanians and Roman colonists.

Who were these tribes ? Says Herodotus in a sweeping sketch : “From Egypt as far as Lake Tritonis, Libya [the Greek name for Africa] is inhabited by wandering tribes, whose drink is milk and their food the flesh of animals. Cow’s flesh, however, none of these tribes ever taste, but abstain from it for the same reason as the Egyptians, neither do they any of them breed swine. Even at Cyrene, the women think it wrong to eat the flesh of the cow, honoring in this Isis, the Egyptian goddess, whom they worship both with fasts and festivals.... West of Lake Tritonis the Libyans are no longer wanderers, nor do they practice the same customs as the wandering people, or treat their children in the same way. For the wandering Libyans, many of them at any rate, if not all -- concerning which I cannot speak with certainty -- when their children come to the age of four years, burn the veins at the top of their heads with a flock from the fleece of a sheep : others burn the veins about the temples. This they do to prevent them from being plagued in their after lives by a flow of rheum from the head ; and such they declare is the reason why they are so much more healthy than other men. Certainly the Libyans are the healthiest men that I know; but whether this is what makes them so, or not, I cannot positively say---the healthiest certainly they are.” This article does not attempt to deal with the physical well-being or any cultural rites but with names and places located within the commonly accepted boundaries of the Roman province of Proconsular Africa. The object is simply to give a few unfamiliar African tribes some consistence by putting them on the map and, where possible, relating snippets of their history and way of life.

Pliny situates this tribe at a distance of a twelve-day march from Syrtis Maior, close to Cyrenaica. “They are hemmed in by sand towards the west, but find water without difficulty in wells about three feet deep, since this place receives the overflow of water from Mauretania. The Amantes construct their houses of blocks of salt quarried out of their mountains like stone.” (Hist. Nat. V.34)

According to Herodotus, this people wandered with their livestock around Lake Tritonis to where the river of the same name flows into the lake. Always curious about sexual behaviour, he writes that the Auseans were so promiscuous that they did not form couples. When a child reached the age of three months, all the men were assembled. The child was then considered to be the son or daughter of whichever male he or she most resembled (Hist. IV). They celebrated a festival in honour of Athena in which the story of Athena accidentally slaying the nymph Pallas of Lake Tritonis was reenacted.1

Strabo situates this tribe near Carthage in a region he calls Byzacium, i.e. north-west of the shores of Syrtis Minor.

Pliny thus names the inhabitants of the city-oasis of Capsa situated north of Lake Tritonis in the district of Byzacium and surrounded by desert infested with serpents. It was an ancient city even to the Romans, said to be founded by the Libyan Hercules. According to Sallust, Jugurtha, king of Numidia and an ally of Rome, made the mistake of killing Roman citizens in his war against his cousin Adherbal, also heir to the throne of Numidia. That mistake brought on the six-year war with Rome. Jugurtha was defeated by Generals Marius and Sulla. Jugurtha’s treasure was said to be kept at Capsa. Marius burned the city, put the adult Capsitani to the sword and sold the children into slavery. The city was soon rebuilt. (Sallust, Bell. Jug. 89-97)2

All that Pliny says of them is that not only are they a trbe but an entire people. (Hist. Nat. V.30)

They are the inhabitants of the region of the Cinyps, a river catalogued by Ptolemy (Geogr. IV.3). It apparently originated somewhere in the desert near Cyrenaica and flowed into the Mediterranean. This river or stream was sufficiently strong for a certain Q. Servilius Candidus to build an aqueduct from the river to the city of Lepcis Magna early during the reign of Hadrian.

This tribe Pliny situates on the south-western shores of Syrtis Maior. (Hist. Nat. V.28)

Philistos of Syracuse, writing in the fourth century B.C.E., assimilates this tribe to the Lotophages (see below).

Herodotus (Hist. IV.176) says they live “next to” the Macae. That puts them in the vicinity too of Syrtis Minor and the island known today as Djerba, home of the Lotophages (see below). The only anecdote he hands down to us is that every woman of this tribe “wears many leather anklets, because, so it is said, she puts on an anklet for every man with whom she has had intercourse; and she who wears the most is reputed to be the best, because she has been loved by the most men.”

Herodotus situates this African tribe along with the Maxyans and the Zavecians (below) in the hilly region near the coast, facing the island he calls Kyraunis (modern Kerkennah). They are a sedentary people. Their speciality is the cultivation of bees and their skill at making honey. All three tribes paint themselves red. They also eat monkeys who abound in the hills. “Off their coast, as the Carthaginians report, lies an island, by name Kyraunis, the length of which is two hundred furlongs, its breadth not great, and which is soon reached from the mainland. Vines and olive trees cover the whole of it, and there is in the island a lake, from which the young maidens of the country draw up gold-dust, by dipping into the mud birds’ feathers smeared with pitch. If this be true, I know not ; I but write what is said.” (Hist. IV.195.)3

The name comes from a Greek term meaning “a mixed race of Punic and aboriginal African descent” in the words of Livy ( Ab Urbe Condita XXI.22). “Libya,” we recall, was the Greek name for Africa between the Ocean, Aegyptus and Aethiopia. They are distinct from Numidians and Moors. Strabo has them occupying the whole former territory of the Carthaginians, from the Cephalas Promontorium south to the lands of the Numidian tribe of Massaesyli. The territory known as Byzacium extended only to the eastern portion of Carthage, says Strabo. Thus the Buzakii (see above) may have been a Libyphoenician people, but not all Libyphoenices were Buzakii or residents of Byzacium.

This people was known to Homer. A storm threw Odysseus onto the coast of the island of Lotus-Eaters. It has been hypothesized that he meant eaters of the fruit of the jujube tree, but the identification of this plant with narcotic virtues is extremely unsure. Herodotus (Hist. IV.177) has this description : “The lotus fruit is about the size of the lentisk berry, and in sweetness resembles the date. The Lotophagi even succeed in obtaining from it a sort of wine.” He situates this people on a peninsula east of continental Libya. Polybius and Strabo put them on the island of Gerba (modern-day Djerba), just east of Syrtis Minor. Pomponius Mela imagines them in Cyrenaica, and Pliny situates them south-east of Syrtis Maior. All these writers may be partially correct. The original Lotophages on the island of Gerba may have spread out to “colonise” the continent around Syrtis Maior.

Herodotus has more to say about this tribe than about their neighbours the Gindanes. The Macae dwell east of the Gindanes, in the region of Lepcis Magna. They are a “Libyan” tribe in the sense that they are not Aegyptians or Aethiopians. The Macae “wear their hair in the form of a crest, shaving it close on either side of the head and letting it grow long in the middle; in war they carry ostrich skins for shields. The river Cinyps, which rises on a hill called the Hill of the Graces, runs through their territory to the sea..” Beyond them, i.e. further south, are the Amantes (see above).

This people were neighbours of the Auseans, according to Herodotus, their home being in the region around Tacapae (near modern-day Gab├Ęs), a former Carthaginian settlement which became a Roman trading centre. Like the Auseans, they celebrated the festival of Athena Tritogeneia. The Via Asprenas, the first Roman road built by the legio III Augusta in Africa Proconsularis, linked Tacapae with the castra hiberna of Theveste and Ammaedara.
Calliphanes says of the Machlyans that they are Androgyni and perform the function of either sex alternately. Aristotle adds that their left breast is that of a man and their right breast that of a woman.

Pliny assimilates this tribe with the Lotophages (see above). He calls them Alachroes but errs in placing them far from Syrtis Minor. “At the end of this gulf (Syrtis Maior) was once the coast of the Lotus-Eaters, the people called by some Machroas, extending to the Altars of the Philaeni -- these are formed of heaps of sand.” (Hist. Nat. V.28)

This tribe first appears in written history in Livy’s account of the Punic Wars (Hist. XXX). This people was possibly a mountain-dwelling tribe, a Massylic tomb having been found at Lacus Regius, north-west of the Aures range. Their home seems to have been along the western edge of the province of Africa, extending up to the Mediterranean coast. They are also known to Polybius (III.15 ; VII.14), Strabo (Book XVII) and Silius Italicus (Pun. III.282 ; XVI and XVII).

Herodotus situates this African tribe west of the river which flowed into Lake Tritonis. They are a sedentary people, like their neighbours the Gyzantians (see above) and the Zavecians (below), and live in houses. “They let their hair grow long on the right side of their heads, and shave it close on the left; they besmear their bodies with red paint; and they say that they are descended from the men of Troy. Their country and the remainder of Libya towards the west is far fuller of wild beasts and of wood than the country of the wandering people.” Herodotus goes on to specify which wild beasts : huge serpents, lions, elephants, bears, aspics, horned asses. “Here too are the dog-faced creatures, and the creatures without heads, whom the Libyans declare to have their eyes in their breasts; and also the wild men, and wild women, and many other far less fabulous beasts.” (Hist. IV.188ff.)

This tribe does not appear in ancient sources before Pliny who situates them in Africa without any further precision. (Hist. Nat. V.30) Some historians identify them with the people who provided Jugurtha with precious aid during his war against Rome (Sallust, Bell. Iugurth., LXXV and LXXVI). A nomadic tribe, they put up with the presence of Romans but at the same time did not always submit to Roman directives. They joined with Tacfarinas to war against Rome for seven years (17 - 24).4

Neighbours of the Gyzantians and the Maxyans (see above) about whom Herodotus hasonly this to say : “Next to the Maxyan Libyans are the Zavecians, whose wives drive their chariots to battle.” (Hist. IV.196)

A map of the African tribes’ whereabouts in the province would look like this.

We close this summary with a few more lines from Herodotus : “These be the Libyan tribes whereof I am able to give the names ; and most of these cared little then, and indeed care little now, for the king of the Medes. One thing more also I can add concerning this region, namely, that, so far as our knowledge reaches, four nations, and no more, inhabit it ; and two of these nations are indigenous, while two are not. The two indigenous are the Libyans and Ethiopians, who dwell respectively in the north and the south of Libya. The Phoenicians and the Greek are in-comers. It seems to me that Libya is not to compare for goodness of soil with either Asia or Europe, except the Cinyps region, which is named after the river that waters it. This piece of land is equal to any country in the world for cereal crops, and is in nothing like the rest of Libya. For the soil here is black, and springs of water abound ; so that there is nothing to fear from drought ; nor do heavy rains (and it rains in that part of Libya) do any harm when they soak the ground. The returns of the harvest come up to the measure which prevails in Babylonia. The soil is likewise good in the country of the Euesperites5 ; for there the land brings forth in the best years a hundred-fold. But the Cinyps region yields three hundred-fold.” (Hist. IV.198)


1. Callimachus of Alexandria calls it Lake Pallantias. A myth concerning Athene Tritogeneia has the goddess living at the lake immediately after springing from the head (or thigh) of Zeus. The lake also figures in the story of the Argonauts.
2. Known as civitas Capsensium, Trajan raised its status to municipium towards the end of his reign.
3. The Carthaginian general Hannibal, in disgrace after his defeat at the Battle of Zame in 195 B.C.E. stayed on the island several years before accepting the hospitality of King Antiochus III of Syria. In the time of Roman hegemony, the islands were used as an observation station to monitor movement of the tribes, perhaps especially during the transhumance of the nomad tribes from the south. In his war against Pompey, Julius Caesar used Kyraunis as a port in 46 B.C.E. to take on provisions for his fleet. Sempronius Gracchus, one of the lovers of Augustus’ daughter Julia, was in exile here for fourteen years before he was put to death (Tacitus, Annales I.53).
4. Tacitus reports that on this occasion they copied Roman military discipline to better defeat the enemy : “In this same year a war broke out in Africa, where the enemy was led by Tacfarinas. A Numidian by birth, he had served as an auxiliary in the Roman camp, then becoming a deserter, he at first gathered round him a roving band familiar with robbery, for plunder and for rapine. After a while, he marshalled them like regular soldiers, under standards and in troops, till at last he was regarded as the leader, not of an undisciplined rabble, but of the Musulami people. This powerful tribe, bordering on the deserts of Africa, and even then with none of the civilisation of cities, took up arms and drew their Moorish neighbours into the war.” (Tacitus, Annales, II)
5. A town, called Hesperides by Scylax. It was situated at the eastern extremity of Syrtis Maior. The Ptolemies changed its name to Berenice, which has since been corrupted into Benghazi. George Rawlinson, The History of Herodotus. A New English Version, London, 1862.


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