Arabians and Aramaians: Poseidonios on relations between eastern peoples (first century BCE)

Authors: Poseidonios of Apameia (Kidd, fragment 280) on Mysians as cited in Strabo, Geography 1.2.34 (link to Greek text and full translation).

Comments: Poseidonios’ historical work (now largely lost) apparently included a number of ethnographic sections, many of which you can find in other posts here by choosing Poseidonios under the ancient authors category to your right. In this section, Strabo preserves Poseidonios’ views regarding Homer’s reference to a people named Erembians. Poseidonios argues that Erembians are in fact Arabians, but he also expands out from this to argue for a close kinship between a variety of peoples settled just east of the Mediterranean sea (in the Levant).

Poseidonios, who was himself from Apameia in Syria, is also among the important sources that refer to the fact that those often labelled either “Syrians” or “Assyrians” by Greek outsiders often referred to themselves as “Aramaians” (also transliterated Aramaeans). So this is another case where we see the complications in understanding distinctions between etic and emic categorizations of peoples. In this case, though, the author himself is aware of the complications, which is not always the case with ancient authors. As in the discussion of Mysians (link), once again we find Poseidonios (like Strabo) turning to poetry (Homer) as a source of supposedly accurate ethnographic and geographic data.

Source of the translation: H.L. Jones, Strabo: Geography, volume 1, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1917), public domain, adapted by Harland.


Book 1

[Identifying Homer’s “Erembians” as Arabians]

2 (34) Much has been said about the Erembians [as mentioned by Homer, Odyssey 4.84: “I wandered through Cyprus, Phoenicia and Egypt, / and came to the Ethiopians, the Sidonians, the Erembians, / and to Libya”]. But those men are most likely to be correct who believe that Homer meant the Arabians. Our [Stoic] Zeno​ [of Kition] even re-writes the text accordingly: “And I came to the Ethiopians, Sidonians, and Arabians.” However, it is not necessary to change the reading, for it is old. Explaining the confusion with regard to a name-change – for such change is frequent and noticeable among all peoples (ethnē) – is better than changing the reading [of Homer’s passage], as in fact some people do when they emend by changing certain letters [i.e. a reference to ancient textual criticism].

[Affinities between Armenians, Syrians and Arabians, according to Poseidonios]

But it would seem that the view of Poseidonios is best, because here he derives an etymology of the words from the kinship (syggeneia) of the peoples and their common characteristics. For the people of the Armenians and that of the Syrians and Arabians betray a close affinity, not only in their language, but in their mode of life and in their bodily build, and this is particularly the case wherever they live as close neighbours. Mesopotamia, which is inhabited by these three peoples, gives proof of this. For, in the case of these peoples, the similarity is particularly noticeable. If, comparing the differences of latitude, there does exist a greater difference between the northern and the southern people of Mesopotamia than between these two peoples and the Syrians in the centre, still the common characteristics prevail.

[Further affinities between Assyrians, Arians, and Aramaians / Aramaeans]

Likewise, the Assyrians, Arians, and Aramaians display a certain likeness both to those just mentioned and to each other. Indeed, Poseidonios conjectures that the names of these peoples are also akin. For, he says, the people whom we call “Syrians” are by the Syrians themselves called “Arimaians” (or: Aramaeans) and “Arammaians” [with an extra “m”], and there is a resemblance between this name and those of the Armenians, the Arabians and the Erembians, since perhaps the ancient Greeks gave the name of “Erembians” to the Arabians, and since the very etymology of the word “Erembian” contributes to this result. Most scholars, indeed, derive the name “Erembian” from eran embainein,​ a name which later peoples changed to “Troglodytes” for the sake of greater clearness. Now these Troglodytes are a part of the Arabians who live on the side of the Arabian gulf next to Egypt and Ethiopia.

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