Archaeology Odyssey 3:2, March/April 2000

Making the Desert Bloom

The Garamantian capital and its underground water system

By David Mattingly

The Garamantes are not just a vanished civilization; they are a much maligned, misunderstood African people. Ancient writers from the time of Herodotus (fifth century B.C.) through the Roman period depicted the Garamantes as barbarians who menaced the Mediterranean world from desert strongholds. The first-century A.D. Roman historian Tacitus, for instance, described them as an “ungovernable tribe … always engaged in practicing brigandage on their neighbors” (Histories 4.50).

This literary portrait of bloodthirsty Africans, however, says more about the Greeks and Romans than it does about the Garamantes. It reflects the prejudices and self-delusion of the Mediterranean peoples, who believed above all in their own superiority over their neighbors (whether near or distant).

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