Scythians: Pompeius Trogus on Scythian superiority (first century BCE)

Authors: Pompeius Trogus as cited by Justin, Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus 2.1-3 (link to full work)

Comments: We know very little about Pompeius Trogus (first century BCE) beyond what his abbreviator (Justin) summarizes at the end of book 43: Trogus was a Gaul of the Vocontian tribe whose grandfather had been granted Roman citizenship and whose father served under Gaius Caesar. So Trogus would be a “barbarian” from the perspective of some, even if a Roman citizen. Trogus’ work only survives in abbreviated form thanks to Justin, about whom we know even less.

One of the most fascinating things about Trogus’ work is his depiction of Scythians (the passage supplied here). Ever since Herodotos, the Scythians were more often than not considered the epitome of the “barbarian.” Some such as Ephoros of Kyme (mid-fourth century BCE) worked against this tendency and portrayed the Scythians as noble savages. Yet Trogus’ passage on the Scythian people is the most emphatically positive image of the Scythians we possess. The Scythians are presented as the oldest people to have ever existed and as a model for others to follow. Their justice arises inherently within their descent group and is not learned. The story about the competition between Scythians and Egyptians over who was the original people, with the Scythians winning the competition, illustrates well the sorts of ethnic interactions we are exploring on this site.

This post is also significant for the emphasis on the contributions of Scythian women, with Trogus thinking of Amazons as a Scythian people. The notion that, among northern peoples, the distinction between men and women was blurred if not obliterated was quite common, and also evident in the Hippokratic Airs, Waters, Places (link). This also makes it worthwhile including this post in the section on gender and ethnography.

Source of the translation: J.S. Watson, Justin, Cornelius Nepos, and Eutropius (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853), public domain, thoroughly adapted by Harland.


book 2

1 In narrating the accomplishments of the Scythians, which were very great and magnificent, we must commence with their origin. For they had a beginning not less illustrious than their empire. Nor were they more famous for the government of their men than for the brave actions of their women. As the men were founders of the Parthian and Bactrian empires, and the women settled the kingdom of the Amazons. The result is that, for those who compare the accomplishments of their men and women, it is difficult to decide which was more distinguished.

The people (gens) of the Scythians was always regarded as very ancient, although there was a long lasting dispute between them and the Egyptians concerning the antiquity of their respective peoples. The Egyptians claimed that in the beginning of things, some lands were extremely dry with the excessive heat of the sun. Other lands were frozen with extreme cold, so that, in their early condition, they were not only unable to produce human beings, but were incapable even of receiving and supporting anyone who came from other places. . . Egypt was always so temperate that neither the cold in winter nor the sun’s heat in summer bothered its inhabitants. Its soil was so fertile that no other land was more fertile in producing food for people. Consequently, it is reasonable that men must have been first raised in that land where they could most easily be nourished.

The Scythians, on the other hand, thought that the temperate climate was no argument for antiquity. In distributing different degrees of heat and cold to different lands, nature immediately produced animals suited to endure the different climates and produced numerous sorts of trees and herbs which were varied according to the condition of the places in which they grew. Since the Scythians have a sharper climate than the Egyptians, their bodies and constitutions are proportionately more sturdy. If the world, which is now distinguished into parts of a different nature, was once uniform throughout, then whether a flood of waters originally kept the earth buried under it or whether fire, which also produced the world, had covered all the parts of it, in either case (regarding the primordial state of things) the Scythians had the original advantage. For if fire first predominated over all things and, being gradually extinguished, gave place to the earth, no part of it would be sooner separated from the fire by the severity of winter cold than the northern, since even now no part is more frozen with cold. But Egypt and all the east must have been the latest to cool, since it is now burned up with the parching heat of the sun. But if originally all the earth was covered in water, certainly the highest grounds would be first uncovered when the waters dissipated, and the water must have remained longest on the lowest grounds. While the sooner any portion of the earth was dry, the sooner it must have begun to produce animals. But Scythia was so much higher than all other lands. All the rivers which rise in it run down into lake Maiotis and then into the Pontic and Egyptian seas. Egypt was different. It had been protected by the care and expense of so many princes and generations, and furnished with such strong mounds against the violence of the encroaching waters. It had been intersected also by so many canals, the waters being kept out by one and retained by another. Yet even it was uninhabitable unless the Nile was held back. So Egypt could not have had the most ancient population, since it is a land which, whether from the accumulation of soil by its kings or by the Nile, must appear to have been the most recently formed of all lands. Since the Egyptians were confounded by these arguments, the Scythians were always considered the more ancient.

2 Scythia, which stretches towards the east, is bounded on one side by the Pontus Euxinos [Black Sea]; on the other it is bounded by the Rhipaean mountains; and, at the back, by Asia and the river Phasis. Scythia extends a vast distance, both in length and width. The people have no landmarks, because they neither cultivate the soil nor have any houses, dwellings, or settled places. They are instead always engaged in feeding herds and flocks, and wandering through uncultivated deserts. They carry their wives and children with them in wagons which, as they are covered with hides against the rain and cold, they use instead of houses. There justice is inherent to their descent group rather than cultivated by laws (Iustitia gentis ingeniis culta, non legibus). No crime in their opinion is worse than theft. For, among people that keep their flocks and herds without fence or shelter in the woods, what would be safe if stealing were permitted? They despise gold and silver as much as other people want them. They live on milk and honey. The use of wool and clothes is unknown among them even though they experience perpetual cold. However, they wear the skins of wild animals, great and small. Such restraint has caused justice to be observed among them, as they want nothing belonging to their neighbours. For it is only where riches are useful that the desire for them prevails. If only other men had similar moderation and self-restraint with regard to the property of others! Then certainly there would be fewer wars in all times and places, and the sword and shield would not destroy more than the natural course of destiny. It seems amazing that nature would grant the Scythians what the Greeks cannot attain by long instruction from their wise men and the precepts of their philosophers, and that cultivated morals would have the disadvantage in a comparison with those of unpolished barbarians. The ignorance of vice has had so much better an effect on one people [Scythians] than the knowledge of virtue on the other people [Greeks].

3 Three times the Scythians aspired to dominate Asia, while they themselves always remained unchallenged and unconquered by any foreign power. They forced Darius, king of the Persians, to leave Scythia in disgraceful flight. They massacred Cyrus with his whole army. Similarly, they annihilated Zopyrion, a general of Alexander the Great, with all his forces. They have heard about the military power of the Romans, but never experienced it. They founded the Parthian and Bactrian empires. They are a people that is hardened by toils and warfare. Their bodily strength is extraordinary. They take possession of nothing which they fear to lose and, when they are conquerors, they want nothing but glory.

The first person that proclaimed war against the Scythians was Sesostris (Vezosis), king of Egypt, previously sending ambassadors to announce conditions on which they might become his subjects. But the Scythians were already warned by their neighbours of the king’s approach. The Scythians responded to the ambassadors that the prince of so rich a people had been foolish in starting a war with a poor people, for war at home was more to be dreaded. They said that the result of the contest was uncertain, the prizes of victory were none, and the negative consequences of defeat were apparent. So the Scythians would not wait for him to come to them, since there was so much more to be desired in the hands of the enemy, but would proceed of their own to seek the spoils. Nor were their actions slower than their words. Hearing that they were advancing with such speed, the king took to flight and, leaving behind him his army and all his military stores, returned in consternation to his own kingdom. The swamps prevented the Scythians from invading Egypt.

Returning from there, they subdued Asia and imposed tribute, but only a moderate tribute as a token of their power over it, rather than full pay for their victory. After spending fifteen years in pacifying Asia, they were called home by the persistent requests of their wives. The wives sent them a message that, unless their husbands returned, they would have children with their neighbours and would not as women be responsible for the extinction of the Scythians’ descent group (genus). Asia paid tribute to them for fifteen hundred years, and it was Ninus, king of Assyria, that put a stop to the payment of the tribute.

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