“Anthropocentrism gave rise to boredom, and when anthropomorphism was replaced by technocentrism, boredom became even more profound” – Lars Svendsen
The mystery of the true identity of Roman official Curtius Rufus is only trumped by the mysterious apparition he reportedly encountered in Africa that foretold his future. You see, according to Roman senator/historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56-117 A.D.) and obsessive letter-writer Pliny the Younger (61-113 A.D.), Curtius Rufus had a conversation with Africa. Not the people of Africa, rather a chatty, anthropomorphic incarnation of the continent itself.
It’s hard to confirm or deny the origins of this strange bit of folklore, as beyond tales of his personalized tête à tête with an entire continental land mass and his apparently prestigious political position and meteoric career, we know almost nothing else about him that makes any sense, a problem that seems to have existed amongst even his near contemporaries. Tacitus drops some telling clues, suggesting he was at one point Proconsul of Africa that despite humble origins and relatively unpleasant personality managed to secure a position of great authority.
Of the birth of Curtius Rufus, whom some affirm to have been the son of a gladiator; I would not publish a falsehood, while I shrink from telling the truth. On reaching manhood he attached himself to a quæstor to whom Africa had been allotted, and was walking alone at midday in some unfrequented arcade in the town of Adrumetum, when he saw a female figure of more than human stature, and heard a voice, “Thou, Rufus, art the man who will one day come into this province as proconsul.” Raised high in hope by such a presage, he returned to Rome, where, through the lavish expenditure of his friends and his own vigorous ability, he obtained the quæstorship, and, subsequently, in competition with well-born candidates, the prætorship, by the vote of the emperor Tiberius, who threw a veil over the discredit of his origin, saying, “Curtius Rufus seems to me to be his own ancestor.” Afterwards, throughout a long old age of surly sycophancy to those above him, of arrogance to those beneath him, and of moroseness among his equals, he gained the high office of the consulship, triumphal distinctions, and, at last, the province of Africa. There he died, and so fulfilled the presage of his destiny (Tacitus, Annals, 11.21).
Pliny the Younger, in a letter to his friend Sura, where he asked him to consider the possibility that ghosts exist, similarly was a little vague on who exactly Curtius Rufus was, although like Tacitus, he is at a loss to explain how he managed to obtain a lofty height in the government of the provinces with such an obscure background and lack of decent manners.
Our present leisure permits you to teach, and me to learn from you. I would therefore willingly know, if you are of opinion, that phantoms are real figures, and carry in them some kind of divinity, or are empty vain shadows, raised in our imaginations by the effect of fear? An incident, which happened, as I have been informed, to Curtius Rufus, was my first inducement to credit their reality…At a time, when his fortune was low, arid his character in obscurity, he accompanied into Africa the person, who was chosen governor. Towards the evening, while he was walking in a portico, the figure of a woman, fairer and larger than the human size, presented itself to him. He was much frightened. She said, she was Africa, who came to foretell him future events; adding, that he was destined to go to Rome, to enjoy high honors there; to return governor of the province, in which he then resided; and to die in that province. All these facts were fulfilled. It is farther reported, that the fame figure met him upon the shore of Carthage, as he was coming out of a ship. It is certain, that as soon as he found himself ill, he gave up all hopes of recovery, although none of his friends despaired of his life. The remembrance of his past honors convinced him of his future end, which he judged was approaching from his former prosperity (Pliny the Younger, Epistle XVIII to Sura).
There are only two Curtius Rufus’ mentioned amongst the literature of classical antiquity, and scholars are not entirely sure they weren’t the same person. Quintus Curtius Rufus was a 1st Century A.D. Roman historian with only one known and surviving work called Historiae Alexandri Magni (“Histories of Alexander the Great”), and we only have fragments of that. No other ancient work refers to his book or to him, but due to specific mentions he makes about aspects of the Parthian Empire and the “continued prosperity of Tyre under Roman dominion”, it is believed he was writing somewhere around 63 B.C. – 43 A.D., which makes it all the more odd that neither Tacitus or Pliny could unearth any accurate biographical information on him when relating his preternatural experiences. The other candidate is Curtius Rufus, listed as a Roman consul in 43 AD under the emperor Claudius, taking office at the age of 25. Curtius Rufus seems to have first arrived in Africa as a quæstor (some sort of staff accountant to the Proconsul), but beyond his encounter with the phantasmata Africa, we have no information beyond scholarly speculation on how he went from an obscure, low-born tax-man in the provinces to Consul of Africa in 47 A.D. Maybe continents have that kind of political juice.
Personally, I want to talk to a continent. I have a few choice words for Australia (what’s with everything being fatally venomous over there, and thanks for giving my wife that intestinal parasite when we visited Melbourne). Given the dearth of information on Curtius Rufus, one might consider the tale of his encounter with the lady Africa as an apocryphal explanation for his rise to power, but isn’t that what folklore is all about, that is, filling in gaps in knowledge and explaining the inexplicable? And while it might not tell us a lot about the existence of sentient continents, perhaps we are too quick to write off such stories as fanciful traditions and return to our comfortable world of logic and reason. As Daniel Boorstin said, “The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the oceans was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge”.
Pliny, the Younger. The Letters of Pliny, the Younger: With Observations On Each Letter. Dublin: Printed by George Faulkner …, 1751.
Tacitus, Cornelius. The Annals And History of Tacitus: A New And Literal English Version. Oxford: Talboys, 1839.