The History, 22.15

Ammian  translated by C. D. Yonge

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15Let us then, since the occasion seems to require it, touch briefly on the affairs of Egypt, of which we have already made some mention in our account of the emperors Hadrian and Severus, where we related several things which we had seen.

2The Egyptian is the most ancient of all nations, except indeed that its superior antiquity is contested by the Scythians: their country is bounded on the south by the greater Syrtes, Cape Ras, and Cape Borion, the Garamantes, and other nations; on the east, by Elephantine, and Meroe, cities of the Ethiopians, the Catadupi, the Red Sea, and the Scenite Arabs, whom we now call Saracens. On the north it joins a vast track of land, where Asia and the Syrian provinces begin; on the west it is bounded by the Sea of Issus, which some call the Parthenian Sea.

3We will also say a few words concerning that most useful of all rivers, the Nile, which Homer calls the Ægyptus; and after that we will enumerate other things worthy of admiration in these regions.

4The sources of the Nile, in my opinion, will be as unknown to posterity as they are now. But since poets, who relate fully, and geographers who differ from one another, give various accounts of this hidden matter, I will in a few words set forth such of their opinions as seem to me to border on the truth.

5Some natural philosophers affirm that in the districts beneath the North Pole, when the severe winters bind up everything, the vast masses of snow congeal; and afterwards, melted by the warmth of the summer, they make the clouds heavy with liquid moisture, which, being driven to the south by the Etesian winds, and dissolved into rain by the heat of the sun, furnish abundant increase to the Nile.

6Some, again, assert that the inundations of the river at fixed times are caused by the rains in Ethiopia, which fall in great abundance in that country during the hot season; but both these theories seem inconsistent with the truth—for rain never falls in Ethiopia, or at least only at rare intervals.

7A more common opinion is, that during the continuance of the wind from the north, called the Precursor, and of the Etesian gales, which last forty-five days without interruption, they drive back the stream and check its speed, so that it becomes swollen with its waves thus dammed back; then, when the wind changes, the force of the breeze drives the waters to and fro, and the river growing rapidly greater, its perennial sources driving it forward, it rises as it advances, and covers everything, spreading over the level plains till it resembles the sea.

8But King Juba, relying on the text of the Carthaginian books, affirms that the river rises in a mountain situated in Mauritania, which looks on the Atlantic Ocean, and he says, too, that this is proved by the fact that fishes, and herbs, and animals resembling those of the Nile are found in the marshes where the river rises.

9But the Nile, passing through the districts of Ethiopia, and many different countries which give it their own names, swells its fertilizing stream till it comes to the cataracts. These are abrupt rocks, from which in its precipitous course it falls with such a crash, that the Ati, who used to live in that district, having lost their hearing from the incessant roar, were compelled to migrate to a more quiet region.

10Then proceeding more gently, and receiving no accession of waters in Egypt, it falls into the sea through seven mouths, each of which is as serviceable as, and resembles, a separate river. And besides the several streams which are derived from its channel, and which fall with others like themselves, there are seven navigable with large waves; named by the ancients the Heracleotic, the Sebennitic, the Bolbitic, the Phatnitic, the Mendesian, the Tanitic, and the Pelusian mouths.

11This river, rising as I have said, is driven on from the marshes to the cataracts, and forms several islands; some of which are said to be of such extent that the stream is three days in passing them.

12Among these are two of especial celebrity, Meroe and Delta. The latter derives its name from its triangular form like the Greek letter; but when the sun begins to pass through the sign of Cancer, the river keeps increasing till it passes into Libra; and then, after flowing at a great height for one hundred days, it falls again, and its waters being diminished it exhibits, in a state fit for riding on, fields which just before could only be passed over in boats.

13If the inundation be too abundant it is mischievous, just as it is unproductive if it be too sparing; for if the flood be excessive, it keeps the ground wet too long, and so delays cultivation; while if it be deficient, it threatens the land with barrenness. No landowner wishes it to rise more than sixteen cubits. If the flood be moderate, then the seed sown in favourable ground sometimes returns seventy fold. The Nile, too, is the only river which does not cause a breeze.

14Egypt also produces many animals both terrestrial and aquatic, and some which live both on the earth and in the water, and are therefore called amphibious. In the dry districts antelopes and buffaloes are found, and sphinxes, animals of an absurd-looking deformity, and other monsters which it is not worth while to enumerate.

15Of the terrestrial animals, the crocodile is abundant in every part of the country. This is a most destructive quadruped, accustomed to both elements, having no tongue, and moving only the upper jaw, with teeth like a comb, which obstinately fasten into everything he can reach. He propagates his species by eggs like those of a goose.

16And as he is armed with claws, if he had only thumbs his enormous strength would suffice to upset large vessels, for he is sometimes ten cubits long. At night he sleeps under water; in the day he feeds in the fields, trusting to the stoutness of his skin, which is so thick that missiles from military engines will scarcely pierce the mail of his back.

17Savage as these monsters are at all other times, yet as if they had concluded an armistice, they are always quiet, laying aside all their ferocity, during the seven days of festival on which the priests at Memphis celebrate the birthday of Apis.

18Besides those which die accidentally, some are killed by wounds which they receive in their bellies from the dorsal fins of some fish resembling dolphins, which this river also produces.

19Some also are killed by means of a little bird called the trochilus, which, while seeking for some picking of small food, and flying gently about the beast while asleep, tickles its cheeks till it comes to the neighbourhood of its throat. And when the hydrus, which is a kind of ichneumon, perceives this, it penetrates into its mouth, which the bird has caused to open, and descends into its stomach, where it devours its entrails, and then comes forth again.

20But the crocodile, though a bold beast towards those who flee, is very timid when it finds a brave enemy. It has a most acute sight, and for the four months of winter is said to do without food.

21The hippopotamus, also, is produced in this country; the most sagacious of all animals destitute of reason. He is like a horse, with cloven hoofs, and a short tail. Of his sagacity it will be sufficient to produce two instances.

22The animal makes his lair among dense beds of reeds of great height, and while keeping quiet watches vigilantly for every opportunity of sallying out to feed on the crops. And when he has gorged himself, and is ready to return, he walks backwards, and makes many tracks, to prevent any enemies from following the straight road and so finding and easily killing him.

23Again, when he feels lazy from having his stomach swollen by excessive eating, it rolls its thighs and legs on freshly-cut reeds, in order that the blood which is discharged through the wounds thus made may relieve his fat. And then he smears his wounded flesh with clay till the wounds get scarred over.

24This monster was very rare till it was first exhibited to the Roman people in the ædileship of Scaurus, the father of that Scaurus whom Cicero defended, when he charged the Sardinians to cherish the same opinion as the rest of the world of the authority of that noble family. Since that time, at different periods, many specimens have been brought to Rome, and now they are not to be found in Egypt, having been driven, according to the conjecture of the inhabitants, up to the Blemmyæ by being incessantly pursued by the people.

25Among the birds of Egypt, the variety of which is countless, is the ibis, a sacred and amiable bird, also valuable, because by heaping up the eggs of serpents in its nest for food it causes these fatal pests to diminish.

26They also sometimes encounter flocks of winged snakes, which come laden with poison from the marshes of Arabia. These, before they can quit their own region, they overcome in the air, and then devour them. This bird, we are told, produces its young through its mouth.

27Egypt also produces innumerable quantities of serpents, destructive beyond all other creatures. Basilisks, amphisbænas, scytalæ, acontiæ, dipsades, vipers, and many others. The asp is the largest and most beautiful of all; but that never, of its own accord, quits the Nile.

28There are also in this country many things exceedingly worthy of observation, of which it is a good time now to mention a few. Everywhere there are temples of great size. There are seven marvellous pyramids, the difficulty of building which, and the length of time consumed in the work, are recorded by Herodotus. They exceed in height anything ever constructed by human labour, being towers of vast width at the bottom and ending in sharp points.

29And their shape received this name from the geometricians because they rise in a cone like fire (πῦρ). And huge as they are, as they taper off gradually, they throw no shadow, in accordance with a principle of mechanics.

30There are also subterranean passages, and winding retreats, which, it is said, men skilful in the ancient mysteries, by means of which they divined the coming of a flood, constructed in different places lest the memory of all their sacred ceremonies should be lost. On the walls, as they cut them out, they have sculptured several kinds of birds and beasts, and countless other figures of animals, which they call hieroglyphics.

31There is also Syene, where at the time of the summer solstice the rays surrounding upright objects do not allow the shadows to extend beyond the bodies. And if any one fixes a post upright in the ground, or sees a man or a tree standing erect, he will perceive that their shadow is consumed at the extremities of their outlines. This also happens at Meroe, which is the spot in Ethiopia nearest to the equinoctial circle, and where for ninety days the shadows fall in a way just opposite to ours, on account of which the natives of that district are called Antiscii.

32But as there are many other wonders which would go beyond the plan of our little work, we must leave these to men of lofty genius, and content ourselves with relating a few things about the provinces.

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