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Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, or how to get rid of vermin the Libyan way

The Libyans dwell in the order which I will now describe. Beginning on the side of Egypt, the first Libyans are the Adyrmachidae. These people have, in most points, the same customs as the Egyptians, but use the costume of the Libyans. Their women wear on each leg a ring made of bronze; they let their hair grow long, and when they catch any vermin on their persons, bite it and throw it away. In this they differ from all the other Libyans. They are also the only tribe with whom the custom obtains of bringing all women about to become brides before the king, that he may choose such as are agreeable to him…

Thus from Egypt as far as Lake Tritonis Libya 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. The Barcaean women abstain, not from cow’s flesh only, but also from the flesh of swine. 

Herodotus (c.490-c.425 BCE)  On Libya, from The Histories, c. 430 BCE

I know I am not alone in feeling like the conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa have a familiarity about them, both in terms of the nature of the problems and the various players involved.  But given the slight inclinitation of this blog, I must look a bit beyond recent history and consider more ‘ancient’ considerations.

And, of course, I have not been alone in these musings either.  Peter Jones at the Spectator has produced a good background of the country, including  the players in Libya in the ancient world:  Berber tribes, Phoenicians/ Carthiginians, Greeks, Romans, the Vandals even, as well as the Arabs in 642.  (http://www.spectator.co.uk/essays/6808848/part_2/ancient-and-modern-the-two-libyas.thtml)   Libya originally referred to the whole of Africa. Coastal Libya for a time was divided, colonised by the Phoenicians in the west, Tripolitania,  and the Greeks in the east, Cyrenaica.  By 74BC, Rome had assumed both parts, and for about 400 years, both parts operated as a united province within the Empire.  Jones and others seem to think  that the current division in the country represents , as he puts it,  “classical wisdom … reasserting itself.”

But, as usual, it is the people caught in this push and pull, and the modern Libyans will need  the spirit of those in ancient Libya as Herodotus describes them to weather this latest in a long line of conflicts.  Now, I know that Herodotus was Greek, but his laconic descriptions, as this modern eye reads them, of the various tribes are at once intriguing, sometimes comical, and a bit intimidating.  I love those women who bite into the vermin before casting them off.  Wouldn’t that be a sight?  Women of another tribe drive the chariots into war.  These are some pretty hard-core gals.  I know that I have observed the absence of women in general as authors or even sustainable subjects of literature in Latin, which makes one treasure these little nuggets that much more.

I have been looking for references to the region in Latin literature, but have not had much luck yet.  However, one fairly well-known work, the Apologia Apuleii (The Apology of Apuleius) is the record by Lucius of a speech given by Apuleius in Tripolitania.  The reason for this rather public defense?  A charge of using magic to attract a wealthy older (over 40) woman for a bride!  The Apologia is obviously of interest for Roman law, customs, a snapshot of the culture of North Africa at the time, but what a great story to get the point across.  By all accounts, it seems Apuleius actually cared for his bride-to-be, but he had competition, apparently unscrupulous.  (see http://ancienthistory.about.com/library/bl/bl_textapuleius_apology.htm#THE_APOLOGIA)

However, let’s let Herodotus bring us back to the reality today with these last words:

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.



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