In 1886 the Abyssinian chief Debeb became a public figure in Italy as a rapacious colonial bandit. However, over the next five years he acquired additional public personas, even contradictory ones: as a condottiero ally, a ladies’ man, a traitor, a young Abyssinian aristocrat and pretender to an ancient throne, a chivalrous warrior, and a figure representing the frontier and an Africa mysterious and hidden to Europeans. Upon his 1891 death in combat, he was the subject of conflicting Italian press obituaries. For some commentators, Debeb exemplified treacherous and deceitful African character, an explanation for Italy's colonial disappointments and defeats. However, other commentators clothed him in a romanticised mystique and found in him martial and even chivalrous traits to admire and emulate. To this extent his persona blurred the line demarcating the African ‘other’. Although he first appeared to Italians as a bandit, the notion of the bandit as a folk hero (the ‘noble robber’ or ‘social bandit’, Hobsbawm) does not fit his case. A more fruitful approach is to consider his multi-faceted public persona as reflecting the ongoing Italian debate over ‘national character’ (Patriarca). In the figure of Debeb, public debates over colonialism and ‘national character’ merged, with each contributing to the other.