Nowadays the Western world perceives Africa as the continent of the black people and hence a standard African person as a black individual.

How did the people in the Roman empire perceive the African continent and "its people"?

Furthermore, North Africa was under Roman control for a very long time and Carthage was a very important city. This brings another question: Did individuals within the Roman empire perceive Africa and Europe as entirely separate places, as is the case today?

If there was no divide between Africa and Europe in the social framework, then at what moment in history did people started seeing Africa as a totally separate place?

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    Something to remember here is that even today, North Africa and sub-Saharan (or "black") Africa are culturally & ethnically distinct. Rome, like Greece (and the Phoenicians &c) before it, was a Mediterranean civilization with much in the way of common roots & culture. (And not much in common with the barbarians of northern Europe :-)) The Sahara was the barrier that made the rest of the continent largely a "terra incognita" until the Age of Exploration.
    – jamesqf
    Aug 9, 2017 at 17:59
  • @jamesqf precisely the reason what it is logical to think that Romans didn't perceive North Africa to be a totally different place, although most people cannot imagine that the social framework in the past was so different to the point that North Africa and Europe could have been perceived as practically the same place by Romans. Aug 9, 2017 at 19:10
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    Indeed, they certainly didn't perceive North Africa very different. Just non-Roman, but for instance the Egyptian culture was respected (apart from the propaganda during the war against Cleopatra). They also had no bias against aethiopes, black people. That's a modern thing. Aug 9, 2017 at 19:50
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    I would think the conspicuous fact that there was a sea between them would make them perceive them as different places, even if there were commonalities. Aug 9, 2017 at 23:40
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    @Michael Hardy: No, because the Mediterranean Sea was the center of their world. Why do you think it has that name? After Carthage and Egypt (which were in no sense "black") were conquered, the whole circumference of the sea was Roman. Outside were barbarians like the northern Europeans and Saharan peoples, the Persians, and the distant, half-known lands of India.
    – jamesqf
    Aug 10, 2017 at 5:22

2 Answers 2


You can't really compare the two, because the Romans lived in such a different world than we do.

The Romans didn't really have the concept of a "continent", as they didn't know for a fact that land past where they'd explored ever ended at all*. For all they knew, the Earth may have been half or more land, and the seas merely big lakes.

For Africa, they had two terms: Libya was what they called North Africa (Africa was originally the name of a Roman province in Libya), and Ethiopia is what they called the part of sub-Saharan Africa they (dimly) knew about. They did know that Ethiopians had really dark skin, but would have personally rarely encountered them (mostly Nilo-Saharan immigrants from upriver on the Nile), and would have had no concept of how many such people were down there, or how far south their territory went.

Here's a 15th century map built from information in Ptolemey's Geography in 150CE. You can't really see the legends on it, but its legible if you go here and zoom.

enter image description here

* - Yes, the learned knew the world was round, but that doesn't mean that the landmass to the south of them wasn't connected to the landmass to the northeast, wrapped around the earth

  • At what point in time was Publius Cornelius Scipio awarded the epithet "Africanus"? Was it while he lived? What did that word mean to those who awarded it? Aug 9, 2017 at 23:43
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    The spherical projection is, I would say, the most striking feature of the map Aug 10, 2017 at 1:02
  • @Michael Hardy: Scipio Africanus was called that because of his military victories against Carthage, in North Africa. See e.g. the Wikipedia article en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scipio_Africanus
    – jamesqf
    Aug 10, 2017 at 5:28
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    @MichaelHardy - As I mentioned in the answer, "Africa" to them was a province in Libya. Specifically, the territory that used to belong to Carthage.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 10, 2017 at 13:15
  • @dmckee - Hmmm, was going to credit the actual 15th Century drawer with the projection, but no it looks like that was Ptolemy's. Wikipedia is claiming (unreferenced) Europeans were doing map projections as far back as the 3rd century BCE.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 10, 2017 at 13:47

The idea that "Strange things come out of Africa" originated in the Greco-Roman world.

Even then, Africa was considered a little "different" because of the strange animals such as elephants, camels and lions. These, and the Sahara desert, had no counterparts in Europe.

But Africa was not viewed as a "dark" continent. Dark-skinned Mediterraneans were more inclined to see Africans as darker versions of themselves than say, a northern European might. And no one in Europe had the idea of Africa as a continent, with jungles that they would not imagine. For all they knew, Africa might have been one or several islands like Madagascar.

The difference of Africa was seen in terms of geography, not people, in ancient times. As far as Carthage was concerned, it was seen as the current home of a group of people formerly from the Hellenic world, which helped to limit the perception of "differentness" to geography.

  • "Dark-skinned Mediterraneans", particularly Romans & other Italians, weren't as dark-skinned then as now. See any number of surviving statues, frescos, &c.
    – jamesqf
    Aug 10, 2017 at 5:33
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    I had always understood the term "dark continent" to mean that it was a continent about which little was known, rather than referring to the dark color of the skin of people living there. Aug 10, 2017 at 6:12
  • "While post-Roman Italy had many waves of invaders (among others, the Goths, Lombards, Arabs, and Normans, these groups tended to replace only the upper echelons of society rather than the bulk of the population. Northern Italy is somewhat more "Germanic" than the south - but that probably reflects the ancient Gallic heritage as much as outside conquest. Southern Italy shows admixtures from around the Mediterranean. However the overall heritage of Italy is a mix of the historic inhabitants of the peninsula in Roman times." Apparently because the invasions were many but not consistent enough. Aug 10, 2017 at 7:43
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    @jamesqf: Statues lost their colours. As for the paintings, I disagree. I'm Italian, many figures wouldn't be out of place today. It turns out that originally Romans were pretty white, frequently wth blonde or red hair, but in time they picked up features of Italic and Mediterranean peoples, so that you would have seen (also) "Italian" faces in the streets and in the army. Aug 10, 2017 at 17:39
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    @jamesqf: The first emperors reflect what you say. What I'm saying is that Italians today shiuld be quite similar to the overall population of Italy back then, which originally was not only made up of Romans, but eventually it was. Aug 12, 2017 at 7:52

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