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Legionnaires of Nero, on safari in the heart of Africa

The novelist Valerio Manfredi next to the funeral stele of a Roman centurion.HA

Valerio Massimo Manfredi’s new novel Antica Mother (Grijalbo, 2020) is an amazing totum revolutum in which Roman centurions, gladiators, adventures in the heart of Africa, combats between legionaries and black warriors, wild beasts, imperial conspiracies (the Plison conspiracy), fringes of the Trojan war, the Atlas sibyl, the tomb of Alexander the Great, the lighthouse of Alexandria, the fire of Rome, a treasure and even the theory of the mitochondrial Eve, the African woman from whom all humanity is descended. Manfredi takes the historical fact of the expedition sent by Nero in the first century, around the year 60, in search of the sources of the Nile and recreates it to illuminate a tumultuous and accelerated plot in which there is no lack of a story of love and petting Latino between a war hero centurion and a black Amazon and the discovery of a mysterious hypogeum decorated with thousands of elephant tusks.

It is not the first time that this unusual episode in the history of Rome has made it into fiction: in 2005, León Arsenal from Madrid told it in his novel The mouth of the Nile (Edhasa) where he sent a contingent of a thousand legionaries, including Praetorians and a hundred Hispanic horsemen, together with a statuesque emissary of the kings of Meroe and a priestess of Isis, to search for the mythical sources of the great river. But Manfredi, who in turn sends 200 legionaries on a safari who will later be joined by Praetorians (not to be missed), covers history with his peculiar epic breath and spreads it with echoes of H. Ridder Haggard (She), from the stories of Tarzan by Edward Rice Burroughs and from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

“I was looking for a text by Seneca about nature and earthquakes in his Natural issues ”, Manfredi explains in a videoconference interview, “and in Book 6 of the work I found the sensational reference to the expedition: ‘I have heard two centurions say’, Seneca writes’ that Nero Caesar, passionate about all things beautiful and especially about In truth, he sent for the sources of the Nile; that having traveled a long way, favored by the King of Ethiopia and recommended to the immediate kings, they wanted to penetrate further and reached immense swamps’ ”. The novelist highlights the end of Seneca’s text on the matter. “It is extraordinary for its precision: ‘There, they told me, we saw two boulders, from which a huge river fell. Whether this is the source or a tributary of the Nile, whether it springs up at that point or does nothing but reappear after an underground race, don’t you think that this water doesn’t come from one of those great lakes I have spoken of? ‘ It seems that Seneca came to speak with the centurions who led the expedition, and that it reached the sources. The description has everything to look like from Murchison Falls, the outfall of Lake Victoria, in Uganda.

A rhino and an okapi

“It is incredible that Roman soldiers made the 6,000 kilometers to the sources of the Nile and returned, it is formidable!” Manfredi exclaims. “They will have seen in a pristine moment the savannah, the Mountains of the Moon …”. In the novel they are especially amazed by a pygmy, a giraffe, a rhinoceros, gorillas and an okapi. How could they achieve a goal that then remained the grail of exploration, unconquerable, until the 19th century with the Victorian explorers? “The fact is that they succeeded. I imagine that they might have had geographical works from the Carthage library, sacked by Scipio and given to the king of Nubia. The secrets of the travels of the Carthaginians and Phoenicians were kept there ”.

Manfredi fabled that the Romans had to use detachable light ships – as Gordon Pasha’s rescue expedition did a long time later – with which they crossed the six falls of the Nile, from Aswan to Khartoum, and then the swamps of Sudan (“the great swamp”). “They could not walk from Alexandria to Lake Victoria, ships were the only possibility.” Of course elucidating this itinerary today is very complex. “The topography of the ancient world is very difficult, everything has changed a lot, the landscape is different.” The author of Alexandros he does not believe that archaeological discoveries can be made to illuminate the expedition, of which Pliny also briefly reported. “It is practically impossible, it is two thousand years, and in tropical Africa nothing is preserved for long.”

From the observation that Antica Mother has a point of Heart of Darkness with Romans – heralds what the slave trade and the European thirst for riches will be for Black Africa – admits influence, acknowledges his admiration for Conrad’s work, and underlines the need for entertainment and adventure books to have ambition literary.

Mysterious black warrior

And the fact that a woman, Varea, the mysterious black warrior, is the protagonist (with the centurion Furio Voreno), points out that it is not for political correctness but “because I am inspired by a reality, that of the African matriarchal societies and the theory that we descend from a genetic line that starts with a woman, the mother of all mothers”.

Where will Manfredi go now, literary speaking? He already led the Romans to China in The empire of dragons, a novel of which, he points out, they have bought the film rights. “I just finished my new novel, Fourty days, about the time that, according to tradition, Jesus Christ was on earth after being resurrected. What did you do for so long? The story is told by a demon, a different point of view; interesting, right?”.