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I know that the Romans when they were on their empire's peak around the 1st and 2nd century AD, controlled the northern coast of Africa and had the Sahara desert as some kind of natural "wall" as well as border of which they thought that it is the end of the world so they did not bother to explore it.

But looking at this map, I do not understand why they did not expanded further west from Mauritania Tingitana. In Roman times, this coast was pretty fertile as was rest of northern Mauritania and Numidia. So why didn't they expand further west on the North African Atlantic coast? As far as I know, thanks to their old enemy Carthage, they knew that there was a lot of land in that direction since Hanno traveled down to Gambia centuries ago.

I mean, the Romans were expanding everywhere they could. And since the African Atlantic Coast was not really claimed by any empire or strong barbarian hordes in that time, there was no resistance against the Romans.

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    Would worth it? Exploration and conquer generally have very high costs, and often done for a specific resource. Norther Africa was very important to wheat (food) production, but need strong military force to keep it. Invading distant coastlines is not really easy if you are not a maritime superpower (which Rome was not) – Greg May 13 '16 at 3:17
  • In my opinion, in 1st and 2nd century AD, Rome was THE maritime superpower – Acroneos May 13 '16 at 9:37
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    and 100 million years ago the dinosaurs were the maritime superpower. Technically speaking might have been the strongest - among the even weaker ones. I used the term in absolute sense (i.e you have control over not only your enemies but also the sea itself). – Greg May 13 '16 at 12:48
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    I can imagine a Roman explorer, captaining a pair of triremes, struggling to make it through the Straights of Gibralter, and turning South seeing now nothing but water and a treeless shorline (compared to the North) and having the prevaling winds and waves push him into shore, not being able to seriously effectively tac, no trees of a kind to replace oars or masts, and re-considering the folley of going past the end of the world.... – CGCampbell May 13 '16 at 19:48
  • Did the Romans actually do any significant amount of exploration? My impression is that they lived in a world in which pretty much everything worth knowing was already known from previous civilizations - Greeks, Phoenician, Egyptian, &c - and they just conquered known civilications. – jamesqf Mar 26 '18 at 20:31
20

Because the Sahara desert goes all the way to the Atlantic coast. The Romans were not great seafarers and required the support of coastal towns to cover long distances. The Western Sahara represents a break in that chain, over 1000 km of inhospitable coastline.

Even today, Western Sahara is one of the most sparsely populated areas in the world with an estimated 2.25 people per km2. It gets 50mm of rain a year and is almost entirely desert. The climate might have been better back then (would love to see if there's research on that) but it never seems to have been particularly peachy. Western Sahara features no natural resources the Romans could exploit. The coastline faces no trading partners.

Along with asking "why not" we have to first ask "why". There's an implication in the question that the Romans expanded just to expand. No, they expanded with some purpose in mind. Spain featured rich natural resources. Advancing north pushed the barbarians back to give the Italian peninsula a buffer zone. Everything around the Mediterranean, including the North African coast, was interconnected by sea and coastal trade.

Even if they went all the way down to the better areas around the Senegal River, why would Rome want to spend the considerable effort to establish a city cut off from the rest of the empire?

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    Do we have climate data of that area from back then? North Africa was wetter and greener to a degree, with abundant wildlife (until the Romans butchered it in the arenas), but how far did that extend? – Marakai May 13 '16 at 3:58
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    @Marakai Hmm, you may have a point. Wikipedia suggests it was less hostile. I'll have to do some more research. – Schwern May 13 '16 at 4:19
  • Look at Sahara Atlantic Coast. The fertile regions are going way down to the south along the coast and the romans could get a lot of land until they got to what is today Mauretania (not to confound with ancient Mauretania). And that is the situation today. As we know, in Roman Times, climate in Northern Africa was cooler than today. – Acroneos May 13 '16 at 9:42
  • @Acroneos They'd have to get the people and stuff there, past the 1000 km long desert (which I'm assuming was there until I hear otherwise), and then they couldn't really trade with them effectively because of the distances involved. An isolated outpost wouldn't help Rome. One of the false premises of your question is that the Romans simply wanted to expand and gobble up more land. – Schwern May 13 '16 at 18:13
8

The Romans for the most part didn't expand because there was nice productive land they'd like to colonize. They expanded for political reasons.

For example, North West Africa was originally part of Carthage. After the Punic wars, the Romans simply gifted most of it to their allies/clients, the native Berber kings of Numidia and Mauretania. Both eventually picked the wrong side in one Roman political spat or other, and were absorbed directly into the empire.

There were no organized political entities further south to get fatally entangled in Roman politics this way. So any organized expansion into that area would have to be done by the natives themselves. The problem there is that the population of the Roman area reached it height not long after that (perhaps 160ish). From there on in Roman Civilization had a job on its hands just maintaining what it had.

4

Because their ships weren't up to very long sea voyages, particularly if they didn't know where they were going.

The coast of northwest Africa is dangerous. The Portuguese called part of it the Cabo Bojador, which means the Cape of Fear. They didn't manage to get past that until the 15th century. The Romans were nothing like as sophisticated in terms of navigation.

You probably have a mental image of Renaissance-Europe ships, and of Ancient Roman ships. What's the difference? Well, a lot of things, but pertinently Roman ships needed oars as well as sails. On the other hand, Columbus and co didn't need galley slaves, and that's not because they were squeamish about slavery.

  • Right sorry, corrected that – Ne Mo May 13 '16 at 10:36
  • The Romans didn't use galley slaves, pace Ben-Hur. – TheHonRose Oct 1 '17 at 4:21
  • Apparently they used them occassionally, but fair point. With regard to the question, Roman ships were less sophisticated, and needed oarsmen. Renaissance ships didn't use oarsmen, even though they had a ready supply. – Ne Mo Oct 23 '17 at 12:44
  • My understanding from everything I've read is that the Romans only used slaves as oarsmen in dire emergencies, and then with the offer of freedom for those who volunteered. – TheHonRose Oct 23 '17 at 16:36
  • Sure. The point is in the age of exploration, neither freemen nor slaves were needed as oarsmen, despite a ready supply of both – Ne Mo Oct 23 '17 at 23:06
2
  1. The Romans were pretty bad seafarers.
  2. The African coast is pretty much desert, until you go much further south than the Romans could possibly do - even if they were great seafarers.
  3. Whatever you could get down south you could get elsewhere for much less cost; it simply wasn't economically feasible.
  4. Even if something (usually with hindsight) is technically possible, that doesn't automatically mean it happened. Thor Heyerdahl proved it was technically possible for Polynesians to visit/colonize South America. If it really happened is a very different story.
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    This could do with some references and clarification. For example, the Romans were 'pretty bad seafarers' compared to what standard? – KillingTime Oct 1 '17 at 10:59
  • The Romans lost far more troops at sea during the First Punic war than in battle. Compared to most other Mediterranean civilizations, they weren't particularly good navigators. Just about anyone else was better. – Jos Oct 2 '17 at 2:13
  • I think it is incorrect to say Roman's were poor navigators. Romans routinely sailed from the Red Sea ports over open ocean to Sri Lanka and India. They sailed even as far the islands surrounding China. Also I think the analogy with the Punic war is wrong because who ended up winning? And I am referring to the sea battles and not the land battles. – ed.hank Aug 14 at 17:57
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At this point in time, there is no evidence proving that the Roman Empire sailed to the West African Atlantic coast.

However, the Romans did sail to the Straits of Gibraltar and established a town on the Southern Spanish mainland called, Baelo-Claudia-(near the seaside town of Tarifa). And the Romans conquered Berber-(Pre-Arab) Morocco and founded a major city called, Volubilis-(near the city of Fes in Central Morocco). There is also the oldest surviving Roman Lighthouse in the world which still stands in the Northwest Galician Atlantic Spanish town of O-(or A) Coruna. So the Romans were well aware of the Atlantic Ocean and the diverse communities surrounding it, though again, there is still no evidence that they established or founded communities on the West African Atlantic coast.

It is, at this point time, unknown as to why the Romans did not explore and conquer the West African Atlantic coast. One can endlessly speculate, ponder and theorize as to why such evidence does not exist.

protected by Semaphore Mar 26 '18 at 2:49

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