Scythian wisdom: Letters of Anacharsis (mid-third century BCE)

Authors: Anonymous author writing in the name of the Scythian Anacharsis, usually grouped together with the so-called “Cynic epistles” (link to Greek text and alternative translation).

Comments: These letters attributed to the Scythian Anacharsis (but likely written in the first half of the third century) present Anacharsis as a source of pithy wisdom with a Cynic bent, particularly focussed on the idea that Scythians live a simple life free from luxury. The Scythians are presented not as their stereotypical violent selves so common in the Greek ethnographic tradition. Anacharsis and the Scythians generally come across as the ideal wise barbarians or noble savages. The letters are usually included among the so-called Cynic Epistles.

Source of the translation: Translation by Harland.


[To the Athenians, on barbarian speech]

1 Anacharsis to the Athenians. You laugh at my speech because I do not pronounce the Greek sounds clearly. From the perspective of the Athenians, Anacharsis speaks incorrectly, but from the perspective of the Scythians, the Athenians speak incorrectly. It is not in their speech that some men differ from other men in their importance, but in their judgments, so that even Greeks differ from other Greeks. The Spartans are not clear when they speak Attic Greek, but in their actions they are illustrious and famous. The Scythians do not find fault with a speech which may explain what is needed, nor do they praise a speech when it fails to aim at what is needed. You also do many things without paying attention to whether or not someone’s speech is articulate. You bring in Egyptian doctors, you make use of Phoenician skippers, and you shop in the market without paying more than what something is worth to those who speak Greek. You are not reluctant in buying from barbarians, if they sell for the usual price. Whenever the princes of Persia and their friends confidently try to speak to the Greek ambassadors in the Greek language, they are unable to speak correctly, and yet you do not find fault with their intentions or their actions.

A speech is not a bad one whenever the intentions are good, and good actions follow words. But Scythians decide that a speech is simple only when its arguments are simple. You will fall behind in many things if you detest barbarian speech and, as a result, you not understand what is being said. For you will be very reluctant to introduce things that are advantageous to you. Why do you value barbarian fabrics, yet disapprove of barbarian speech? You want to hear harmonious sounds from the flute players and from the singers, and you attack poets who compose meters if they do not fill the verses with Greek sounds. Instead, look at what is actually said when people speak. For the aim of these things is to your advantage.

If you listen to barbarians, you will not allow your wives and children to disregard you if you speak incorrectly. For it is better to be saved by obeying people who speak incorrectly than to be greatly misled by closely following people who speak Attic precisely. Men of Athens, these are the concerns of the uneducated and of people who are ignorant of what is good. For no one with a sound mind would think such things.

[To Solon of Athens, on wise barbarians and accepting them]

2 Anacharsis to Solon: The Greeks are wise, yet in no way wiser than barbarians. For the gods did not hinder barbarians from being able to know what is good. Through close examination, it is possible to test whether our thoughts are good and to investigate whether our words match our actions and whether we resemble those who live well. But do not let clothing and adornment of the body become an obstacle to correct judgment. For others have adorned their bodies differently according to the laws of their ancestors. The signs of a lack of understanding are the same for barbarians as for Greeks, as are the signs of understanding.

But when Anacharsis came to your doors wanting to be your guest, you treated him as unworthy. You replied that I should seek hospitality in my own land. But if anyone gave you a Spartan dog as a gift, you certainly would not ask that man to bring the dog to Sparta in order to give it to you. But when will we ever be guests to others, if each one says the same thing? These things do not seem good to me, Solon, you wise Athenian. My spirit urges me to come again to your doors, not to ask what I did previously but to inquire about what you declared concerning hospitality.

[To the tyrant Hipparchos of Athens, on a sober life]

3 Anacharsis to the tyrant Hipparchos: Much undiluted wine hinders performing one’s duties well. For it confuses the mind, where men’s ability to reason is situated. It is not easy for the person who is reaching for great things to do well unless he puts in place a sober and careful life. Therefore, renounce dice games and drunkenness, and turn to the things through which you will lead as you follow the style of your father’s [i.e. Peisistratos’] benefaction, doing good to your friends as well as beggars. But if not, you will encounter shame and bodily dangers. Then your friends will remember the man Anacharsis the Scythian.

[To Medokos, likely pictured as a Thracian king, on strong emotion]

4 Anacharsis to Medokos: Envy and strong emotion are clear signs of an inferior soul. For, on the one hand, grief at the success of friends and citizens follows envy and, on the other, hopes based on empty words follow strong emotion. The Scythians do not approve of such men, but they delight in those who do good. Scythians seek only after those things which they can reasonably expect to encounter. They resolutely reject hate, envy, and every troublesome emotion because they are the enemy attacking to one’s entire strength.

[To Hanno the Carthaginian, on a simple life; see Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 5.32.90 for an alternative version]

5 Anacharsis to Hanno: For me, a Scythian cloak is my clothing, the skin of my feet are shoes, and the entire earth my bed. Milk, cheese and roasted meat are my finest dinner, and I drink water. Therefore, since I am free from what occupies most people’s leisure, come alongside me if you need something from me. For the gifts in which you delight, I will give you others in return. But you, dedicate to the gods however many of the Carthaginians do your pleasure

[To the son of a king, on avoiding luxury and seeking simplicity]

6 Anacharsis to the son of the king: You have flutes and a purse, but I have bows and arrows. Therefore, reasonably you are a slave but I am free. You also have many enemies, but I have none. But if you are willing to throw away your money, to carry bows and a quiver, and to be a citizen with the Scythians, then you will have the same things.

[To Tereus the legendary Thracian king, on good leadership]

7 Anacharsis to Tereus: No good leader ruins the people he leads. Nor does a good shepherd mistreat his sheep. But your entire land is barren of people to lead and badly managed by your leaders. Every individual building is reduced to such a low condition that it is not useful for your purposes. It would be better for you to have consideration for the ones you have authority over. For even if your own properties do not increase your kingship, they will at least remain. Now you lack men for war, yet you plunder the funds which you use to pay your own soldiers and plunder those people who rightly look to one person as leader. If you do not leave them enough food, they are scared into the mountains and they flee to deserted places. They inhabit those places and work like bees.

[To Thrasylochos, on being like a dog]

8 Anacharsis to Thrasylochos: The dog (kuōn) is a good animal with soul who remembers benefactions. He guards the house of his benefactors, maintaining good order until death. But you may fall behind a dog, who with regard to benefactions is able to equal men in reasoning. Following on this you inquire about my logic, which is this: you come to have a just spirit whenever you possess the soul of a lion with regard to benefactors. Therefore, try to preserve my relationship with you. For there are good expectations for such a man.

[To Kroisos (Latinized Croesus) the king of Lydia, on Greeks’ lack of cooperation and on a simple, non-luxurious life]

9 Anacharsis to Kroisos: The poets among the Greeks distributed the cosmos among the sons of Kronos, with every brother assigned a portion: to one the sky, to the second the sea, and to the third the dark realm. This reflects the Greeks’ pursuit of their own interests. For since they know nothing about cooperation in anything, they attribute their own evil to the gods. Nonetheless, they made an exception for the earth and they were leaving this as common to everyone. Come, let us consider where this idea comes from. They wanted all the gods to be honored by men, and they wanted all the gods to take the initiative in being givers of good things and preventers of bad things.

Since long ago, the earth was the common possession of the gods and also the common possession of men. But with time people behaved lawlessly by dedicating sanctuaries to the gods which were all considered the common possession of everyone. But the gods responded against these actions with appropriate gifts in return to the people: strife, pleasure, and lack of spirit. From these mix-ups and separations emerged all the bad things that happen to every mortal: ploughing, sowing, metals, and wars. For although planting many seeds, they harvested little. Although engaging in many technical skills (or: crafts), they gained short-lived luxury. Going after all the different colours of the earth, they were being amazed. They consider as most blessed the first man who discovered this insignificant thing.

They do not know that, like children, they are deceiving themselves. For they honour highly nothing that comes by hard work, and then they are amazed by hard work itself. I have heard that this bad situation which happens to most people has also happened to you. From this comes another thing: For neither great wealth nor possession of fields has ever bought wisdom. For they say that the body filled with many foreign substances will also be filled with diseases. And they urge those who desire to be healthy to do a drawing off [of one of the four humours (?), a blood-letting (?)] as quickly as possible. Because of your excessive enjoyment of pleasure, you have physicians for your bodies, but not for your souls. It would be wise for you to renounce pleasure. When much gold flows toward you, then the fame that attaches to gold and the envy and desire of those who want to take away your gold have flowed together to you along with the gold as well. If, therefore, you had purified yourself of the disease, you would become healthy, speaking and leading freely. For this is what it means for a king to be healthy. If you had acquired this within yourself, it would not be astonishing if you also acquired the other [i.e. health]. But the illness, having taken hold of you due to your lack of control, made you a slave instead of a free man.

But be of good spirit: consider the image of a fire in a forest which transforms what burns to ashes, but which feeds on what is not burned. So the bad things that were with you for a long time have passed over to those who have a hold on you and on what you own. Expect that the troubles will come to those after you.

Listen to this story which I witnessed: A great river flows through the land of the Scythians, a river called the Istros [Danube]. On this river, some merchants ran their ship aground on a reef. Since they were not able to move it, they went away feeling bad about it. Then, when sea-bandits sailed up with an empty ship without knowing about the problem of these men, the bandits easily unloaded the cargo and at once transferred the goods from the strange ship. They did not notice the previous accident as they made the transfer. For as the one ship was emptied, it started to float and became seaworthy. But the ship taking on the other’s cargo immediately sank to the bottom because of the seizure of the goods of others.

This can always happen to the person who has possessions. But the Scythians have stood apart from all of these things. Everyone of us possesses the entire earth. What it gives, we purposefully accept. What it hides, we completely dismiss. We protect our cattle against wild animals, and in return receive milk and cheese. We have weapons to defend ourselves if necessary, not to attack other people, and this has not yet been necessary. For we are put forward as both combatants and rewards for combat by the ones who attack us. But not many men embrace this reward [i.e. no one can beat the Scythians].

Solon, the Athenian, also gave you the same advice, urging you to look towards completion. He was not speaking of what takes place now, but he was saying to prefer what will complete your life well. He was not saying this blatantly, because he was not a Scythian. But as for you, if it pleases you, take my advice to Cyrus and to all tyrants. For it will flourish more with those in leadership than with those who waste it.

[Letter by a different author preserved by Diogenes of Laertes, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 1.105, on visiting Kroisos]

10 Anacharsis to Kroisos: I have come to the land of the Greeks, king of the Lydians, to learn their way of life and habits. I do not need gold, but it is enough to return to the Scythians as a better man. Therefore, I have come to Sardis, since I consider it important to know you.

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