Mysians / Moesians: Poseidonios on their identification and customs based on Homer (first century BCE)

Authors: Poseidonios of Apameia (Kidd, fragment 277a) on Mysians as cited in Strabo, Geography 7.3.2-7 (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 (but particularly see his material on Celts at this link). Strabo preserves Poseidonios’ views regarding the relationship between the similarly named Moesians / Moisians in Thrace (west of the Black Sea) and the Mysians primarily known in relation to northwestern Asia and western Bithynia (in modern Turkey). There is also a need to sort out how either of them relate to various peoples mentioned by Homer.

Poseidonios evidently engaged the issue of how they were related and who Homer was referring to in several passages of the Iliad. (Writing in the years leading up to 18 CE, Strabo agrees that Homer was talking about peoples in Thrace but disagrees on what term for them came first: Moisians or Mysians, by the way). One thing to note here is that both Poseidonios and Strabo somewhat consistently took Homer’s poetry as a solid source of geographical and ethnographical knowledge, and this method contrasts to that of some others such as Eratosthenes and Apollodoros, who were less trusting of Homer. So once again this should make a modern scholar hesitant about taking such information about peoples as direct information rather than as excellent material for understanding the (to us) unusual ethnographic and historiographic methods and perspectives of such Greeks as they struggled to make sense of the similarities and differences between different peoples and their customs.  Poseidonios evidently took Homer’s description of the just people (associated with Abians) as related in some way to these Mysians / Moisians.

Source of the translation: H.L. Jones, Strabo: Geography, volume 3, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1924), public domain, adapted by Harland.


Book 7

[Sorting out the Mysians and Moisians / Moesians in relation to other peoples and in relation to passages and peoples in Homer]

3 (2) Now the Greeks used to assume that the Getians were Thracians. The Getians lived on either side the river Ister [Danube], as did also the Mysians, who were also Thracians and identical with the people who are now called “Moisians” [usually latinized and transliterated Moesians, with Moesia roughly in modern Bulgaria becoming a Roman provincial designation by 45 CE, after Strabo]. From these Mysians sprang also the Mysians who now live between the Lydians and the Phrygians and Trojans [in what is now northwestern Asia Minor / Turkey]. The Phrygians themselves are Brigians, a Thracian people (ethnos), as are also the Mygdonians, Bebrikians, Medobithynians,​ Bithynians, Thynians, and, I think, Mariandynians as well. To be sure, these groups have all completely left Europe, but the Mysians [i.e. as Moisians / Moesians] have remained there.

[Poseidonios’ view that Homer refers to Mysians in Thrace, not in Asia Minor, on which Strabo agrees in interpreting Homer’s Iliad 13.3-5]

Poseidonios seems to me to be correct in his conjecture that Homer designates the Mysians in Europe (I mean those in Thrace) when he says, “But back he turned his shining eyes, and looked far away towards the land of the horse-tending Thracians, and of the Mysians, hand-to-hand fighters” [Homer, Iliad 13.3-5]. For surely, if one should take Homer to mean the Mysia in Asia [northwestern Asia Minor / Turkey], the statement would not hang together. Indeed, when Zeus turns his eyes away from the Trojans towards the land of the Thracians, it would be the act of a man who confuses the continents and does not understand the poet’s phraseology to connect with Thrace the land of the Asian Mysians, who are not “far away,” but have a common boundary with the Troad [on northwestern coast of Asia Minor / Turkey] and are situated behind it and on either side of it, and are separated from Thrace by the broad Hellespont [Dardanelles]. For “back he turned” generally​ means “to the rear,” and he who transfers his gaze from the Trojans to the people who are either in the rear of the Trojans or on their flanks, does indeed transfer his gaze rather far, but not at all “to the rear.” Again, the appended phrase​ is testimony to this very view, because the poet Homer connected with the Mysians the “Hippemolgians” (horse-skins) “Galactophagians” (milk-eaters) and “Abians” (those without a fixed source of living), who are in fact the wagon-dwelling Scythians and Sarmatians. For at the present time these peoples, as well as the Bastarnian ones, are mingled with the Thracians (more indeed with those beyond the Ister river [Danube], but also with those in that valley). Mingled with them are also the Celtic peoples: the Boians, Skordiskians, and Tauriskians. However, the Skordiskians are by some called “Skordistians” [with a “t”], and the Tauriskians are also known as “Liguriskians” and “Tauristians.”

[Just customs of the Mysians, according to Poseidonios via Homer]

(3) Regarding the Mysians [primarily or solely those in Thrace, west of the Black Sea], Poseidonios goes on to say that, in keeping with their piety, they abstain from eating any living thing, and therefore from their flocks as well. He says that they eat honey, milk, and cheese, living a peaceable life. For this reason, they are called both “god-fearing” (theosebeis) and “smoke-treaders” (or: “smoke-eaters”). There are some of the Thracians who live apart from woman-kind: these are called “founders.” Because of the honour in which they are held, they have been dedicated to the gods and live with freedom from every fear. Accordingly, Homer speaks collectively of all these peoples as “proud Hippemolgians, Galactophagians, and Abians, men most just” [Homer, Iliad 2.701]. But he calls them “Abians” more especially for this reason: that they live apart from women, since he thinks that a life which is lacking woman is only half-complete (just as he thinks the “house of Protesilaos” is only “half complete,” because it is lacking in this way. Homer speaks of the Mysians as “hand-to-hand fighters” because they were indomitable, as is the case with all brave warriors. Poseidonios adds that in the thirteenth book​ [Homer, Iliad 13.5] one should read “Moesians, hand-to-hand fighters” instead of “Mysians, hand-to-hand fighters.”

[Strabo’s disagreement with Poseidonios on “Moisians” / “Moesians” being the original term for the people and not “Mysians”]

(4) However, it is perhaps superfluous to disturb the reading [of Homer] that has had approval for so many years. For it is much more credible that the people were called Mysians at first and that later their name was changed to what it is now [Moisians / Moesians]. As for the term “Abians,” one might interpret it as meaning those who are “without hearths” and “live on wagons” quite as well as those who are “bereft”. For since, in general, injustices arise only in connection with contracts and a very high regard for property, so it is reasonable that those who, like the Abians, live cheaply on slight resources should have been called “most just.” . . . [omitted material]. So, then, the interpretation that the wifeless men of the Getians are in a special way pious is clearly contrary to reason. On the other hand, the interpretation that enthusiasm for things related to the gods is strong among this people and that, because of their reverence for the gods, the people abstain from eating any living thing, is an interpretation which should not be disbelieved, based on both what Poseidonios and what inquiries in general tell us. . . [Extensive discussion of the Getians and Zalmoxis, which cannot be clearly connected with Poseidonios omitted in this post].

. . . (7) Just now I was discussing the Thracians, and the “Mysians, hand-to-hand fighters, and the proud Hippemolgians, Galactophagians, and Abians, men most just,”​ because I wished to make a comparison between the statements made by Poseidonios and myself and those made by the two men in question [Eratosthenes and Apollodoros who, unlike Strabo, tend not to trust Homer as an ethnographic or geographic source]. Take first the fact that the argument which they have attempted is contrary to the proposition which they set out to prove. Although they set out to prove that the men of earlier times were more ignorant of regions remote from Greece than the men of more recent times, they showed the reverse, not only in regard to regions remote but also in regard to places in Greece itself. . .

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