Scythians and other northern peoples: Ephoros (mid-fourth century BCE)

Ancient authors: Ephoros of Kyme as cited in various authors indicated further below.

Comments: Ephoros (or: Ephorus) of Kyme (writing ca. 340 BCE), whose works survive only in brief citations by others, evidently had some significant ethnographic and geographic observations and theories about northern peoples, peoples who were often described by Greeks under the umbrella of “Scythians.” Often many Greek authors presented Scythians as one undifferentiated negative model of the most savage barbarians. But there were some other tendencies closer to a “noble savage” idea that Ephoros reflects, but in a somewhat distinctive way (on which also see the discussion of barbarian inventors at this link). Ephoros is more specific in differentiating between numerous northern peoples in his ethnographic passages. In fact, Ephoros seems to have presented certain Scythian peoples as an ideal model for simple and just living (in part with reference to peoples mentioned by Homer, such as the Abians). Ephoros also talks about how much fun one particular northern people had in daily life as they joked around (see the passage about the Tibarenians below)

Furthermore, we know from several other citations of Ephoros that his entire conception of the known world was framed by Scythians to the north. For passages from Ephoros regarding the four-fold division of the world in terms of Celts (west), Indians (east), Scythians (north) and Ethiopians (south), go to this link.

To read more on Ephoros and northern peoples, see Harland’s articles:

  • “Revisiting Wise ‘Barbarians’ in the Hellenistic Era” (link forthcoming)
  • “‘The most ignorant peoples of all’: Ancient Ethnic Hierarchies and Pontic Peoples” (link).

Source of the translations: Various, indicated with each passage below.


[Scythians and other northern peoples specified]

[FGrHist / BNJ 70 F 158-160a = Pseudo-Skymnos [Anonymous], Voyage around the Earth for Nikomedes 835-885; trans. by Brady Kiesling,, used with permission and slightly adapted]

The farthest point of Europe at the very mouth of the Maiotis lake [sea of Azov] is Pantikapaion, called the Bosporan kingdom. Beyond these is the barbarian Scythian land which borders the land unoccupied and unknown to all the Greeks. First along the Istros [Danube] river, Ephoros says, are the Karpidians, then the Aroterians [i.e. with reference to “ploughmen”], and beyond the Neurians as far as the desert land because of the ice. To the east traversing the Borysthenes [Dnieper] river are Scythians inhabiting the so-called Hylaia [i.e. woodland], the Georgians are next to them beyond, then again there is a large stretch of desert. Beyond this are the Androphagians (Man-eaters), a Scythian people (ethnos), and beyond them again the desert. Traversing the Pantikape [strait of Kerch] are the people of the Limnaians (Lake-people) and many others not repeated here called “nomadic,” who are very pious and would never harm a living thing. They carry their homes with them, it is said, and are nourished with milk from Scythian milking of mares. They live with their possessions and everything in common to everyone. They say the wise man Anacharsis came from the most extremely pious of the nomads. Some came into Asia and settled, whom they call the Sakians. They say the most distinguished are the descent group (genos) of the Sauromatians and the Gelonians and thirdly the so-called Agathyrsians. From the Maiotians, the Maiotic lake – which comes next – takes its name.

The Tanais river flows into that lake and also takes the flow of the Araxes river, as Hekataios the Eretrian reported, from some lake whose limit is unexpressed. It has a double-outlet into the so-called Maiotis and the Kimmerian Bosporos. The Tanais river, which is the boundary of Asia, cuts the mainland in two. The first inhabitants are Sarmatians, stretching for two thousand stades. Then after them is the descent group (genos) of Maiotians called Iazabatians, as Demetrios said. But Ephoros calls them the descent group of Sauromatians. They say the Amazons intermingled with these Sauromatians, having come after the battle at the Thermodon, and from this they are called those who are dominated by women.


[Northern peoples as models of just peoples]

[FGrHist / BNJ 70 F 42 = Strabo, Geography 7.3.9; trans. LCL Jones 1924, adapted]

[Ethnographic method focussed on positive examples]

Towards the end of the fourth book of his History (or: Inquiry), in the book entitled “Europe” (for he covers the circuit of Europe as far as the Scythians), Ephoros says that the modes of life of both the Sauromatians and other Scythians are similar. For, whereas some are so cruel that they even eat human beings, others abstain from eating any living creature whatsoever. Now the other writers, he says, tell only about their savagery, because they know that the terrible and the amazing are startling, but one should tell the opposite facts too and make them patterns of conduct. So Ephoros himself will only tell about those who follow “most just” habits, for there are some of the Scythian nomads who feed only on mare’s milk and excel all people in justice. They are mentioned by the poets: by Homer, when he says that Zeus spots the land “of the Galactophagians (milk-eaters) and Abians (those without a fixed source of living), men most just,” and by Hesiod, in what is called his Circuit of the Earth,​ when he says that Phineus is carried by the Storm Winds “to the land of the Galactophagians, who live in wagons.”

[Why Scythians are most just]

Then Ephoros reasons out the cause as follows: since they are frugal in their ways of living and not after money, they are not only orderly towards one another (because they have all things in common, their wives, children, the whole of their kin and everything) but also remain invincible and unconquered by outsiders, because they have nothing to be enslaved for. Ephoros cites Choirilos also, who, in his The Crossing of the Pontoon-Bridge which was constructed by Darius, says, “the sheep-tending Sakians, of Scythian descent: they used to live in wheat-producing Asia, but they were colonists from law-abiding nomads.” Furthermore, when Ephoros calls Anacharsis “wise,” he says that he belongs to this descent group (genos), and that he was also considered one of the “Seven Sages” because of his perfect self-control and good sense. Ephoros goes on to explain the inventions of Anacharsis: the bellows, the double-fluked anchor, and the potter’s wheel.

[Strabo’s reaction and concern about Homer’s ethnographic accuracy]

These things I tell knowing full well that Ephoros himself does not tell the whole truth about everything. This is particularly the case in his account of Anacharsis, for how could the wheel be his invention, if Homer, who lived in earlier times, knew of it? (“As when a potter his wheel that fits in his hands,” [Iliad 18.600]? and so on). But as for those other things, I tell them because I wish to make my point clear that there actually was a common report, which was believed by the men of both early and of later times, that a portion of the nomads, I mean those who had settled the farthest away from the rest of humankind, were “Galactophagians,” “Abians,” and “most just,” and that they were not an invention of Homer.


[Tibarenians in the Black Sea region who joke around]

[FGrHist / BNJ 70 F 43 = Stephanos of Byzantion (fifth century CE), Ethnika, alphabetical entry for Τιβαρανία]

Tibarania: A region on the Pontos [Black Sea], neighbouring the Chalybians and the Mossynoikians. The ethnic adjective is “Tibaranoi” and “Tibarenoi,” and the feminine is “Tibarenis.” In book five, Ephoros says that “The Tibarenians are fond of joking around and laughing and they consider that the greatest source of happiness. The Chalybians and the people (ethnos) of the White-Syrians (Lykosyroi) are their neighbours.”


[Amazons as contemporary Sauromatidians / female Sauromatians]

[FGrHist / BNJ 70 F 60b = Stephanos of Byzantion, Ethnika, alphabetical listing at ᾽Αµαζόνες; trans. Harland]

Amazons: A people (ethnos) consisting of women settled on the river Thermodon, as Ephoros says, who are now called Sauromatidians.

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