I know that the Romans, when their empire was at its 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 a border beyond which they thought that it was 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 expand further west from Mauritania Tingitana. In Roman times, this coast was pretty fertile as was the 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 would have been 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
    Commented May 13, 2016 at 3:17
  • In my opinion, in 1st and 2nd century AD, Rome was THE maritime superpower
    – Orsinus
    Commented May 13, 2016 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
    Commented May 13, 2016 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
    Commented May 13, 2016 at 19:48
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    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
    Commented Mar 26, 2018 at 20:31

5 Answers 5


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
    Commented May 13, 2016 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
    Commented May 13, 2016 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.
    – Orsinus
    Commented May 13, 2016 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
    Commented May 13, 2016 at 18:13
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    I wonder if the risks of diseases didn't have something to do with it, a la Guns Germs and Steel. Sub-Saharan Africa is an environmentally harsh place. Had Rome explored it, or heard back from people doing so, they'd probably be facing a higher disease burden than they were already dealing with at home. That's also more significant with larger armies than latter European explorers who could rely on gunpowder as a force multiplier. Commented Aug 3, 2020 at 21:51

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.

  • Good points, but don't take the gifting of conquered land to local kings as the Romans giving up territory. Well into the Empire, Rome used a strategy of, where possible, surrounding itself with buffer kingdoms run by client kings. The client kings deal with the marches on their own nickel and take the brunt of any invasion. (See Luttwak's The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire.)
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Jan 15, 2023 at 22:39

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 do Medo, 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 oarsmen, and that's not because they were squeamish about slavery.

  • Right sorry, corrected that
    – Ne Mo
    Commented May 13, 2016 at 10:36
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    The Romans didn't use galley slaves, pace Ben-Hur.
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Oct 1, 2017 at 4:21
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    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
    Commented Oct 23, 2017 at 12:44
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    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
    Commented Oct 23, 2017 at 16:36
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    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
    Commented Oct 23, 2017 at 23:06
  1. The Romans were pretty poor seafarers, compared to other Mediterranean societies.
  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. Note that Carthaginians and Egyptians did circumnavigate Africa, but those were single exploration journeys that took several years.
  3. Their ships (as well as most other ships of the time) didn't have the range to cross that stretch of nearly uninhabited territory.
  4. Whatever you could get down south you could get elsewhere for much less cost; it simply wasn't economically feasible.
  5. 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? Commented Oct 1, 2017 at 10:59
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    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
    Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 2:13
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    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
    Commented Aug 14, 2019 at 17:57
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    AFAIK, and I can't reference this at the moment, the Romans largely relied on Greek seamen to navigate etc. A Roman may have been in overall command, but dependent on the expertise of others.
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Aug 3, 2020 at 19:18
  • And, interestingly, bbc.co.uk/programmes/p08k80n1 suggests DNA evidence for South America — Polynesia genetic contact ~800 years ago.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Aug 4, 2020 at 0:20

"Why didn't Romans conquer/explore the African Atlantic Coast?"

This question would make it appear that it is contemporary fact, that the Romans did not conquer/explore the African coast.

Roman sub-saharan Africa

Roman sub-saharan Africa

Between the first century BC and the fourth century AD, several expeditions and explorations to Lake Chad and western Africa were conducted by groups of military and commercial units of Romans who moved across the Sahara and into the interior of Africa and its coast. The primary motivation for the expeditions was to secure sources of gold and spices

The Romans also opened up trade and conducted maratime explorations.

Maratime explorations

Maratime explorations

The Roman vassal king Juba II organized successful trade from the area of Volubilis. Pliny the Elder, who was not only an author but also a military officer, drawing upon the accounts of Juba II, king of Mauretania in the first century AD. Pliny stated that a Roman expedition from Mauritania visited the islands of the archipelago of the Canaries and Madeira around 10 AD and found great ruins but no population, only dogs (the basis of the name the Canaries).

Therefore, the answer to "Why didn't Romans conquer/explore the African Atlantic Coast?", is "they did".

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