Camels in Ancient Greece and early Imperial Rome

In the context of this article I’ll be looking at the two species of camel you may be familiar with. The first is the Bactrian camel, which has two humps and is the heavier of the two. The Bactrian was native to inner Asia where extremes of cold and heat crafted an animal capable of enduring almost anything thrown at it. A clay Bactrian with a cart attached was found in modern Turkmenistan and dated to around 3,000 BCE. This has often been cited as a find which gives evidence that the Bactrian had been domesticated at that time and we meet an important point which will run throughout the initial part of this article, namely the difficulty in defining what ‘domesticated’ means and how to evidence it.

Take the example of the artefact from Turkmenistan – a child’s toy might be recognition of an existing phenomena, e.g. a fire truck. It can also be the fanciful, like my niece and her many toy unicorns. Even if it did reference a practice of Bactrians hauling carts around, was this widespread or something quite rare?

Horowitz argues that Bactrian camels were domesticated in the 3rd millennium BCE and that this spread west to Mesopotamia. Evidence for the camel in Sumerian culture is posited by Horowitz as existing in a list of animals from the town of Shuruppak (modern day Tell Fara) where translates as ‘camel’ and most probably the Bactrian. Somewhat later we have reference to the Bactrian in a love poem dating to the Old Babylonian Period (2000-1500 BC). The poem is taken from a Nippur tablet and features the goddess Inanna imploring her lover Dumuzi to bring her camel milk.

The other species of camel, the dromedary, isn’t mentioned in Sumerian until late in the second millennium BCE. The word translates as ‘donkey of the sea’ perhaps because, as Horowitz concludes, that the animal was transported by sea to Sumeria.

In many ways this wouldn’t be much of a surprise, the dromedary was native to North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula and a 2016 study has suggested that it was here where the animal was originally domesticated. The dromedary is quicker and carries less than it’s two-humped relative but is still an incredibly useful animal to have in desert conditions. Finding dates for the domestication of the dromedary is difficult to say the least, most experts are left to conclude with little substantial evidence. A nice example of the conundrum scholars face in this subject area can be found with the ancient Egyptians. There are tempting camel related artefacts found in ancient Egypt, yet the people of the time had no word for ‘camel’.

In 2013 a study of dromedary remains in the Southern Levant did conclude that there had been no domesticated camels before 930 BCE and this caused quite a kerfuffle. Why the controversy? Well, the date of camel domestication has carried on its back the weight of a theological controversy. In Genesis 12 Abraham arrives in Egypt with camels, and the traditional date for this is around 2,000 BCE, some time before the accepted date of camel domestication in and around Egypt.

As you might expect, this has caused some debate. Scholars have argued the composition for Genesis occurred in the 6th or 5th centuries BCE, at which point the camel was a known quantity and retrospectively added to Abraham’s retinue (as it was a familiar animal at the time). If so then it sits alongside the clock in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as an anachronism.

For those who take the reference in Genesis to be taken as fact there may be a possible solution. It works on the premise that Abraham picked up some Bactrian camels on his route to Egypt from Harran (possibly modern-day Urfa in Turkey close to the Syrian border). Exactly how possible this was is difficult to assess.

One thing is certain though, camels of both species were strongly associated with trade. So as cultural centres developed, and trade routes increased across Mesopotamia and into the Levant, the camel became more widespread.

With the issue of camel domestication behind us we can start finding definitive camel related activity. An early example is a relief found at Tell Halaf in northern Syria and dates to the 10th century BCE. It’s the sort of image which is perfect for giving us the context of a domesticated camel, featuring a figure riding it and using a stick to help drive it along.

The next encounter with camels differs is an image taken from the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III,  an Assyrian King who reigned in the mid-9th century BCE.

The camels featured here are Bactrian and they are also being given as tribute from Gilzanu, which was located in north west Iran. This places the camel as a prize commodity, something worthy of a king. It also harks back to the Bactrian camel as sourced from this area.

Shalmaneser III wasn’t the only Assyrian monarch to receive camels as tribute. Assyrian kings were keen to record what they had either taken by force or been given as tribute. An early reference is found with Adad-Ninari II who reigned at the beginning of the 9th century BCE. In this instance the king was quite forward thinking as he collected female Bactrians for breeding. His son, Tukulti-Nasir-Pal also received camels in this fashion.

Camels as tribute became something of a tradition with successive Assyrian rulers. The famous Tiglath-Pileser (mid-8th century BCE) fought many campaigns, and an early one sent him eastwards to the Diyala Valley (near modern day Iran). Here he took Bactrian camels and the fingers of anyone he hadn’t already impaled. Duty free was very different back in the day!

Heading south to the Arabian Peninsula Tiglath-Pileser subjugated two Arabian Queens, Zabibe and then Samsi. Given that this region was where you would expect to find dromedaries it’s most likely that the one-humped variety now featured in his collection.

The reason why camels were so prized is that they facilitated trade and nourished any fledgling industry or commercial expansion. They turned desert roads into caravans. But their abilities to move large amounts of stuff around also made them very handy in another context – war.

The two species of camels could be assigned tasks best suited for their abilities. Bactrians were slower but larger, capable of carrying large supplies which made them near perfect for an army on campaign. Dromedaries were also pack animals yet being less cumbersome and quick (short bursts of up to 40 mph) and that made them more of a cavalry option alongside their main logistical function.

In 853 BCE an alliance of Kings met Shalmaneser III of Assyria in Qarqar, north west Syria. The alliance army included 1,000 camels and given that these came from King Gindibu of Arabia we can assume that they were dromedaries. Shalmaneser III doesn’t seem to have featured any camels in his army, which would make sense if he only had access to Bactrian camels which don’t seem as useful on the battlefield (due to being slower and more cumbersome).

We have depictions of camels in war from a wall relief dating to 660 BCE when Ashurbanipal the Assyrian King fought Arab forces.

Here the dromedaries seem to belong to the Arab forces. In the lower panel camel riders are up seated and defeated. In the central panel they use both spears and bows, were the dromedaries used as ranged mounted units or could they fight in a melee capacity? It’s common to think of cavalry as inherently melee, but this wasn’t always the case. Take the Numidian cavalry under Hannibal which sought to avoid direct contact and instead harry and harass using their javelins.

One unintended advantage was when camels became very useful in the battle of Thymbra (547 BCE), in which Cyrus, the Persian King, faced off against Croesus of Lydia.

It was against the normal cavalry of Croesus that Cyrus deployed his camels. Perhaps ‘deployed’ is an unfair term, the camels had been used (as best suited) in the baggage train and they don’t seem to have been specifically trained as a military unit. Cyrus realised the danger of Croesus’ cavalry though and simply set the camels out against their more experienced foes. This might seem ridiculous, but the Lydian cavalry soon ran from the field. The reason? Horses don’t like the smell of camels.

Cyrus won and much of Croesus’ defeat is framed in the famous incident with the Delphic Oracle in which Croesus asked if he should go to war with Cyrus. The Oracle replied that he’d destroy a great empire, which he did, albeit his own. Yet the battle was won in part due to the Persian camels which were able to repel the Lydian cavalry from the field.

Lydia, modern day western Turkey, was now under Persian control and this brought Persian into direct contact with the Greeks. The rest, as they say, is history.

The invasion of Greece by Xerxes in 480 BCE involved a huge supply train and while it’s of no surprise that camels formed part of this it apparently was a shock to the other animals encountering it. According to Herodotus (7.124ff) lions specifically attacked the camels in Xerxes’ train as it passed through Thrace, leaving other possible targets alone. Herodotus reasons that the lions in this region hadn’t encountered camels before.

Whilst Thracian lions might have experienced the camel for the first-time during Xerxes’ invasion it would be naive to consider camels as something inherently new to the Greek people. Herodotus later comments on camels that “the Greeks know camels, so I will not write to describe their shape”. If we take 440 BCE as the date Herodotus wrote his Histories then it is likely the camel had been known before Xerxes’ invasion some 50 years earlier.

Herodotus doesn’t just mention the camel when the poor beast is being predated upon by lions, as he also mentions them being chased by fearsome ants.

In one of the more fantastical tales he tells Herodotus discusses fox-sized ants in the deserts of north west India (3.102ff). As the ants dug their burrows, they would throw up sand which had a high gold content. The local populace used three camels tied together in order to collect the valuable metal and make their escape, as no man could out run the ants.

Bizarre though this may sound Herodotus may have been telling more than a scratch of truth. There is a species of marmot based in Northern Pakistan (the Himalayan Marmot) and it does indeed burrow as they make their nests. More to the point it burrows in an area rich in gold dust, and the local people (the Minaro) have been collecting the gold dust thrown up by marmosets for generations. Ants to marmosets might seem a bridge too far; that is until you find out that the ancient Persian word for ‘marmoset’ is very similar to ‘mountain-ant’. As Herodotus spoke no Persian it’s tempting to consider this story as belonging to poor translation rather than a fantastical imagination.

Herodotus wasn’t the only literary figure to document the camel. Aristophanes used the association of the camel and the east to comic effect in Birds where the Persian bird is expected to arrive on one. If a punchline of 414 BCE contained a camel I think we can be reassured that the Greeks knew them quite well and certainly in the context of the East.

The image below is from an Attic vase dating to the end of the 5th century and features a camel (a Bactrian – note the two humps) with a chap riding it.

Everything about the image screams oriental and the rider wears the familiar attire of the Persian. Camels may have been interesting creatures to look at, but they were still ‘other’.

Despite this there seems to be a grudging respect applied to them. Eudemus, a philosopher of the 4th century BCE, judged the camel as a morally upright creature albeit in a quite bizarre capacity. In a story attributed to him camels are compared to horses in the capacity of lust. The stallion is admonished for happily mounting a relative brought to it. Not so the camel who would refuse to mate with a mother, sibling or daughter.

To prove this an anecdote is supplied, though this is disputed, wherein a camel was tricked into mounting its mother. Upon realising this the camel went on to kill its handler before jumping off a cliff. Aelian commented later that Oedipus should have followed the actions of the camel rather than just blind himself (HA 3.47).

Approaching things from a more scientific manner Aristotle wrote on the camel in his History of Animals (Book two). In this Aristotle made several important declarations, in particular the nature of the hump in determining which was the Bactrian and which the dromedary (as we have seen this wasn’t necessarily new). In fact, the more modern name ‘dromedary’ is thought to have Greek origins, (Dromas Kamelos – or ‘running camel’). Much later Pliny offers some insight to the camel, that it is primarily a beast of burden and has some ability as cavalry.

Moving back to the genre of comedy the Roman comic Plautus is happy to focus on one area of the camel which hadn’t been mentioned much – its odour. In fairness Aristophanes had mentioned a camel’s rear in Peace, albeit when the chorus describes a monster possessing one (the monster may be Cleon).

Plautus’ Comedy of Asses, a quite appropriate name given the context, the character Leonida says to the trader “who gives a velvet-lined camel fart?”. In Poenulus the context of pungent camel aroma is extended to humans, Adelphasium quips that the cheaper prostitutes smell of camels.

It could be possible to use the connotation in Plautus concerning the pungency of camels and use it to inform Aristophanes’ reference made in Peace. If the noxious aspect of camels was well known by the audience of his time simply referring to the rear end of one would be all that was needed.

The plays of Plautus mentioned don’t have an accurate date afforded to them, we have a working range of 205 – 184 BCE. It was in this period that Rome encountered the camel outside of the world of jokes and in the more serious theatre of warfare.

In 190 BCE Rome fought the Seleucids at Magnesium, in modern day western Turkey. Both Arrian (7.32) and Livy (37.44) mention archers mounted on dromedaries drawn from Arabia. These didn’t form the main part of the Seleucid force, possibly an add-on or auxiliary unit.

The use of camels by an eastern army is not unusual given that this resource was drawn largely from these lands. It was in Lydia where Cyrus defeated a force with the help of camels and now it was the turn of an Eastern King to taste defeat.

Rome’s next encounter was much later, at Carrhae in 53 BCE. The Roman general Crassus fought a Parthian force under their general Surena. A main tactic of the Parthian force was to hit the Roman infantry at distance with arrows. These were supplied, as Plutarch tells us, with trains of camels bringing them to the archers (Cras.25ff). Crassus was defeated, his infantry unable to close with the Parthian army amidst the continued barrage brought upon them.

Plutarch also mentions the wealth of Surena and qualifies this with a mention of the thousand-camel caravan the Parthian would use when on private business. Here the link between camel and trade is continued, but we also have physical evidence of the importance of camel trade.

Strabo, writing in the turn of the 1st century AD comments of a chain of cisterns which aimed to keep the camel merchants well-watered between the Nile and the Red Sea (17, 4.45). He also refers to nomads who made their living from them (16.14.18). Keeping the camel within the world of trade and war Strabo has Aelius Gallus, a prefect of Egypt of the late 1st century BCE transporting water by camel on his ill-fated campaigns.

Logistically camels were superb if you could equip an army with one. When the Roman general Corbulo took a force to Armenia in AD 58 he did just that, with camels carrying rations.

A final mention of the camel is with Trajan’s fantastically named ala I Ulpia dromedariorum millaria. This was a 1,000 strong mounted dromedary force stationed in Syria, most possibly in order to protect trading caravans in the area. In many ways this perfectly sums up the camel, the military use of which demanded specific conditions. However, better still for it to be used to facilitate trade and movement of goods. As Plautus and Aristophanes imply, just make sure you aren’t standing behind one for very long.

A coin dating from Trajan featuring a Bactrian camel. Perhaps the image was a propaganda tool denoting wealth and trade?

Horowitz, Wayne: ‘Sweeter Than Camel’s Milk’: The Camel in Sumerian, The Bactrian Camel in Genesis?.

Heide, Martin: The Domestication of the Camel: Biological, Archaeological and Inscriptional Evidence from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel and Arabia, and Literary Evidence from the Hebrew Bible






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