HIS101 logo Background to
Circumnavigating Africa by Herodotus

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2013)
Return to the Syllabus


As described in the selection on the Egyptians, Herodotus was an ethnic Greek born in Persian territory about 484 BCE who created a history of the war between the Greeks and the Persian Empire. In this section, he repeats some accounts of early attempts to explore the world by sea.


  • Carthage: Phoenician trading colony on the North African coast near the modern city of Tunis, Tunisia
  • intercommunicating zone: where people from three continents -- Asia, Africa and Europe -- encountered each other and exchanged ideas
  • latitude: measure of position on the Earth's surface north or south of the Equator
  • Neco: a king of Egypt (610-595 BCE) during the time when Egypt was under Assyrian control
  • Phoenicia: region inhabited by people from the coastal city of Tyre (modern Lebanon). They created a trading network that extended throughout the Mediterranean by the 9th century BCE.
  • Tropic of Cancer: imaginary line (23.4 degrees North latitude) marking the points farthest north of the Equator where the sun appears directly overhead at noon. This occurs each year on June 20 (the Summer Solstice).
  • Tropic of Capricorn: imaginary line (23.4 degress South latitude) marking the points farthest south of the Equator where the sun appears directly overhead at noon. This occurs each year on December 21 (the Winter Solstice),
 dish with image of Greek ship
Dish with the image of a Greek sailing ship


The Phoenicians were unusual among the peoples of the ancient world. They sailed throughout the Mediterranean region and traded extensively, but they avoided war and formed no empire. The Phoenicians originated in the port cities of Tyre and Sidon on the coast of modern Lebanon. Although their region was suitable for farming, they also relied on fishing and developed boat-building and sailing skills at an early date. By the time that Herodotus lived, the Phoenicians had established trading connections throughout the Mediterranean and were the principle trading rivals of the Greeks. The Phoenicians sailed as far as England and, as Herodotus suggests, perhaps around Africa. Later, one of their colonies -- Carthage -- developed into a major independent power on the north coast of Africa near Tunis (in modern Tunisia).

Like the Greeks, the Phoenicians based their trade on the exchange of specialized products from different regions, including food products from the western Mediterranean and craft products like glass and cloth from the eastern Mediterranean. Both cultures relied on the use of writing for contracts and keeping other records needed for trade. Instead of orders from a king or emperor, Phoenician unity was based on the willingness of all participants to trade.

map of Persian empire and Phoenician trading area
The Persian empire and Phoenician trading area

NOTE: By the time that Herodotus lived, Roman farmers had began to develop a powerful state in Italy. The Roman name for the people of Carthage was "Punic" (derived from their word for Phoenicia). That explains why the Romans called their wars against Carthage of the third and second centuries the "Punic Wars."

Latitude : This reading requires some understanding of geometry. Ancient peoples identified locations based on landmarks like mountains and rivers. But people who sailed, like the Greeks and Phoenicians, couldn't do that in the middle of the sea. They recognized, however, that depending on one's location, the sun and the stars appeared in different places in the sky, and used those differences to measure their position. The simplest measurement is distance north or south of the equator, which can be calculated by measuring the angle between the horizon and stars (like the North Star) at night. This distance is called "latitude."

Measuring "longitude" -- the distance east or west of a given point -- is more difficult, since there is no obvious "zero" point from which to measure. About two thousand years passed before humans devised a way to do this by comparing the time of sunrise at any given point with the time of sunrise at the naval observatory at Greenwich, England. After that, humans could identify any point on the earth's surface with two numbers -- latitude and longitude -- much like the way that mathematicians use X and Y coordinates to mark the location of a point on a Cartesian plane.

map showing latitude and longitude
Locating points on the earth's surface

Urban civilization in Africa : The second expedition brought back reports of people living along the African coast, and that description influenced map-makers for centuries. In the map shown to the right, a map of Africa from Herodotus' time is shown superimposed on a modern map. You can estimate how far Sastaspes' ship travelled using clues from the reading, and determine details about the people he met from his description of their reaction to Sastaspes' arrival and the things he found in their village.


  1. Herodotus claimed that Libya was an island except where it connects to Asia. What was his proof?
  2. What motivated each of the explorers described by Herodotus?
  3. The first explanatory note says that one detail in Herodotus' description of the Phoenician expedition suggests it really happened -- the sun appearing on the right side of his vessel. Why did this detail make Herodotus doubt the story and why do modern historians think that the story was true?
  4. What kind of people, housing, possessions and professions did Sastaspes find along the African coast?
  5. Where do you think Herodotus learned the stories of these expeditions? How reliable were they?
map showing latitude and longitude
Possible route of Sastaspes' expedition
Return to the Syllabus