Kush: The End of the World

In his recent novel Bellatrix, the bestselling author has taken the Romans south of Egypt to the wondrous kingdom of Kush.
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In the Legion XXII books (Capsarius and Bellatrix) our intrepid Romans come up against the warrior queen of Kush, but who was she, who were her people, and why did this conflict occur? Well, without wanting to drop a plethora of spoilers for the books, here’s a precis.

Egypt was an ancient kingdom even when Rome was but a budding village on a hill. When the emperor Hadrian visited in AD 130, his wife and entourage were tourists there just like any modern visitor, wowed by the ancient sights, and she even left graffiti on the Colossi of Memnon. But Egypt had not survived for more than three millennia before Hadrian without their challenges. Like any empire, they faced opponents beyond their borders, including the Persians, who conquered the land in the 6th century BC, and then the Macedonians, who took Egypt in 332 BC, founding a dynasty of rulers that would end with Cleopatra VII after three centuries BC. And even before this, they had warred with (and been invaded by) the Hyksos people of the Nile delta a thousand years earlier. Their neighbours to the south, though, in what is now Sudan, were the Kushites.

The Kingdom of Kush was a relatively young land compared with Egypt, though still far more venerable than Rome, having arisen in the mid-3rd millennium BC. The culture blossomed on the great eastward curve of the Nile just north of Khartoum, with a capital at Meroe and a major religious cult centre at Napata. Though these people were distinct and different from their northern neighbours, they shared many traits with the Egyptians. Their culture grew in the dry deserts of North Africa, their world relying upon the annual inundation of the Nile. Naturally they absorbed much from their neighbours, building pyramids of their own, adopting dress with a number of similarities, and even acquiring the Egyptian gods to the extent that they claimed the birthplace of the great god Amun at their own Napata.

But they were not Egyptian. Kush remained a truly separate kingdom until the 8th century BC when they actually invaded Egypt, setting Kushite kings on the Egyptian throne for a century, before they were once more ejected. From that time on, there was ever something of a rivalry between these abutting Nile lands, the border region strengthening and weakening, wavering repeatedly throughout Ptolemaic rule in Egypt. Then came the end of Rome’s republic, the fall of Antony and Cleopatra, and Augustus’s easy annexation of Egypt. It seems that upon gaining control of the ‘Black Land,’ Rome came to an agreement with Kush, which at this point controlled most of the territory south of the First Cataract, including the bulk of what is now Lake Nasser, formerly a critical region of fortresses. Peace. Albeit briefly.

The kings and queens of Kush differed from their Egyptian counterparts in at least one particular and important way. In Egypt, the Pharaoh was master of the land, and the queens were his consorts, with a reasonable amount of power, but always less than their male counterpart. The patriarchal nature of Egypt meant that throughout most of its history, until the late Ptolemaic era, when queens found themselves in sole control they had to assume a masculine role (witness the great queen Hatshepsut portrayed in statuary with the fake beard of the pharaohs.) Even in Ptolemaic Egypt, though the queens could be individually powerful, even the famous Cleopatra VII only achieved real recognition of authority when married to her brother as King. Things were a little different in Kush. Royal lineage in Kush passed through the female line, and so while a king would rule, if he died, his sister would often rule as a regent queen until her child was of age. These were the Kandake.  The earliest such known queen was one Shanakdakhete. By 25 BC, when my story begins, King Teriteqas is dead and the Kandake Amanirenas, although she has a son named Akinidad, rules alone, a fact confirmed by the reference to her as ‘qore and kandake’, translating as something like ‘ruler and queen’, or even ‘king and queen’. Amanirenas is not the first Kushite queen to rule alone, and not the only powerful or famous one. She is, however, remembered by history (via the Roman geographer Strabo) as a one-eyed warrior queen. The image this conjures is not one of a feminine and passive character, is it?

In 25 BC, events transpired to give Kush an opportunity they had not seen in centuries. Ptolemaic Egypt had been powerful and secure, and Kush could not realistically turn a war-eye north. Furthermore, in the first years of Roman control of Egypt, the place was valued, strengthened, and made home to two legions. In 25 BC, however, the Roman governor of Egypt made a critical error. Aelius Gallus took the bulk of his forces and made a valiant, if short-sighted, attempt to annexe the lands of Arabia. His campaign was doomed, not least through trusting a local guide who led them straight into disaster. Rome could recover from such problems, of course. Crassus had lost legions against the Parthians at Carrhae, after all, yet Rome had endured and prospered and tried again. The survivors limped back to Egypt, licking their wounds, Gallus was recalled for his failures, and was replaced by Petronius as Prefect of Egypt. Things could be rebuilt and strengthened. Arabia had been costly, but not critical.

Kush had not been idle, though, in the absence of most of the Roman might. Apart from a few paltry garrisons, the bulk of Egypt’s military had been dragged away to Arabia and suddenly, for the first time in centuries, Kush’s rich northern neighbour was poorly defended. The Kandake Amanirenas spotted the weakness and gathered her armies, marching north across the disputed borderlands. We can only guess as to Amanirenas’s plans. It seems unlikely in truth that she saw the opportunity to retake control of Egypt as they had done a few centuries earlier. Rome was a stronger proposition than the Ptolemies, and her reputation preceded her. The Kandake may, however, have pulled a little trick observed recently in the work a fairly unpopular world leader. She may have thought that Rome was suffering sufficient troubles that she could annexe the south, up to and including the First Cataract, and keep hold of it without reprisal. Certainly, her armies reached Aswan (ancient Syene) and sacked the Roman installations there. She may have thought she could add all the lands south of there to her own domain. Or she may have known that Rome would attempt to regain control and simply have planned on utter destruction and the theft of anything of remote value. She installed a garrison there, at Elephantine Island, and withdrew her force south with booty and slaves.

This is the world into which my characters emerge. The Kandake of Kush is a fearsome opponent, with a powerful army. She has taken treasures, and we know this for fact, given the bronze head of Augustus that was found at Meroe in Sudan, looted probably from Aswan in 25 BC, which is now the pride of the British Museum. That magnificent head would not be alone. Kush would have ravaged the lands they took, carrying away gold, weapons, statues and more, as well as sufficient slaves to seriously boost the Kushite economy. We are treated to somewhat sparse accounts of the campaigns that followed, which I will not detail for fear of ruining my books for new readers, but I will leave you with an image of the Kandake Amanirenas that, for me, sums up the fearsome queen of Kush and her armies, and the danger into which Rome marched: The one remaining confirmed portrait of Amanirenas, found at Barwa in Sudan, shows not only the fierce queen with a sword in each hand, an image powerful in its martialness, but shows us what she did with her captives. In a scene more powerful and gruesome than any Egyptian Pharaoh might commission, Amanirenas is shown seemingly hammering down with her sword hilt on a pile of captives, which are being eaten by her pet lion, images later also applied to the Kushite Prince Arikankharer.

Rome never extended her border beyond the First Cataract. I think I know why.

Simon Turney is a historian, novelist and the author of Agricola: Architect of Roman Britain.