Africa is the world’s second-largest continent, situated in the Eastern and Western Hemispheres, primarily straddling the equator. It is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the west, the Indian Ocean to the east, and is connected to Asia by the Isthmus of Suez.
Only Welsh legend suggests that Arthur himself had any involvement with this continent; at least, Arthur’s chief gatekeeper Glewlwyd claims to have been in Africa, and possibly implies some Arthurian association.
In Geoffrey, the King of Africa, Munstensar (Mustensar), is an ally of the Roman Procurator Lucius and joins the war against Arthur. Wolfram gives Farjelastis, an ally of Perceval’s brother Feirefiz, as the Duke of Africa.
Gottfried von Strassburg says that King Gurmun of Ireland, Isolde’s father, was the son of the King of Africa; and the Norse Saga of Tristan and Ísönd names it as Rions’ (Ryons) home land. A further Norse Tristan legend says that it was ruled by a King Turnes, who conquered Spain.
Africa | Up to the 9th century AD
Ancient African Civilizations
The civilization of ancient Egypt, with its iconic pyramids, was thriving during this period. It was a powerful empire with a well-organized society and a rich culture. Located to the south of Egypt, the Kingdom of Kush (Nubia) was another important civilization that traded and interacted with Egypt.
The Kingdom of Axum, located in what is now Ethiopia and Eritrea, was a major trading empire during this period. It had a significant influence on the region and embraced Christianity early on. In North Africa, the Berber people established several kingdoms, including the Kingdom of Mauretania.
The Romans had a significant presence in North Africa, particularly in the region known as Africa Proconsularis or Roman Africa. This area was a key part of the Roman Empire and included parts of modern-day Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya, see more below.
Trade routes crossing the Sahara Desert connected North Africa with the Sahel region and West Africa. These routes facilitated the exchange of goods and cultures.
Spread of Christianity and Islam
In the later centuries of this period, Christianity and Islam began to spread across Africa. Ethiopia became an early center of Christianity, while Islamic traders and missionaries played a role in the conversion of North and West African societies.
Trade and Interaction
African societies engaged in extensive trade with neighboring regions, including the Mediterranean world, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent. The cities of Timbuktu and Gao in West Africa, for example, became important trade centers.
It is important to note that Africa is a vast and diverse continent with numerous distinct cultures and societies. The history of Africa during this period varied widely from region to region.
Roman Africa | Africa Proconsularis
North Africa became a part of the Roman Republic and, later, the Roman Empire through a series of conquests. The Punic Wars (c. 218-146 BC), fought between Rome and Carthage (located in modern Tunisia), led to Rome’s control of the region. The Romans established the province of Roman Africa in the late second century BC.
Roman Africa was home to several major cities, including Carthage, which became one of the most important cities in the Roman Empire. Other notable cities in the region included Utica, Leptis Magna, and Thuburbo Majus.
North Africa was known for its fertile land and was a significant source of agricultural products for the Roman Empire. The Romans developed extensive farming and production of goods such as grains and olive oil in the region.
The region of Roman Africa was prosperous, and it contributed significantly to the wealth of the Roman Empire. Its economic importance was further enhanced by the trade routes that crossed the Sahara Desert. Roman Africa had a thriving Roman culture, with theaters, baths, and temples. Early Christianity also spread in the region, and it became home to some of the early Christian theologians and leaders.
Latin was the official language of administration and culture in Roman Africa, but local African languages were also spoken. Latin and local languages influenced each other, leading to the development of African Romance languages.
The decline of the Roman Empire had an impact on Roman Africa. The region faced challenges from political instability and the invasions of various tribes, including the Vandals and the Byzantines. In the seventh century, Arab armies began the conquest of North Africa, leading to the spread of Islam in the region. This marked a significant turning point in the history of North Africa.
Roman Egypt | Aegyptus
The Romans also had a signficant presence in Egypt, and the region become one of the most important provinces of the Roman Empire. The Roman name Aegyptus (also Aegyptum) was used in official Roman administrative documents. The Roman name was derived from the Greek name for Egypt, Aigyptos.
Egypt came under Roman control during the late first century BC. Julius Caesar’s involvement in the Alexandrian War marked the beginning of Roman influence in Egypt.
Cleopatra VII, the last Pharaoh of Egypt, played a prominent role in the Roman-Egyptian relationship. She had relationships with Julius Caesar and later with Mark Antony, leading to political and military alliances. After the defeat of Cleopatra and Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Egypt was annexed by Rome and became a Roman province in 30 BC. Augustus (Octavian) was the first Roman emperor to rule Egypt.
Egypt was an economically vital province for the Roman Empire. It was known for its agricultural productivity, particularly in the Nile Delta, which produced grain and other crops to feed the Roman population.
Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city, served as an important administrative and cultural center within the Roman Empire. It was home to one of the most famous libraries in antiquity, the Library of Alexandria. Roman law and institutions were introduced and integrated with Egypt’s existing legal systems.
The traditional Egyptian religion and cults persisted in Roman Egypt, often alongside the worship of Roman gods and the imperial cult.
The Roman period marked the end of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt, which had ruled for centuries. Throughout Roman rule, Egypt experienced various revolts and uprisings, often related to economic hardships or the imposition of Roman rule. The decline of the Roman Empire in the third century AD had an impact on Egypt, with periods of instability and the presence of various rulers.
In the seventh century AD, Arab armies began their conquest of Egypt, leading to the spread of Islam and the end of Roman and Byzantine rule in the region.
Culhwch and Olwen | Late 11th century
Historia Regum Britanniae | Geoffrey of Monmouth, c. 1138
Parzival | Wolfram von Eschenbach, 1200–1210
Tristan | Gottfried von Strassburg, early 13th century
Tristrams Saga ok Ísöndar | 1226
Saga af Tristram ok Isodd | 14th century