Arabians: Diodoros on Nabateans and other Arabian peoples (mid-first century BCE)

Ancient author: Diodoros of Sicily, Library of History 2.48-54 (link Greek text and full translation).

Comments: Diodoros of Sicily’s discussion of Arabia (written in the mid-first century BCE) does not give extensive attention to the customs of the people, but the Nabateans and other Arabians peoples are discussed to some extent. Once again Diodoros emphasizes what he sees as a close correpondance between the environment or climate and the lifestyle and character of the inhabitants.

Source of the translation: C. H. Oldfather, Library of History, volume 2, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1935), public domain (copyright not renewed), adapted by Victoria Muccilli and Harland.


[For Diodoros’ preceding discussion of Scythians, Amazons, and Hyperboreans, go to this link.]

Book 2

[Nabataeans, their waterless environment, and consequent advantages in war]

48  Now that we have examined these matters [the Hyperboreans in the north], we will turn our account to the other parts of Asia which have not yet been described, especially Arabia. This land is situated between Syria and Egypt, and is divided among many peoples of diverse characteristics. Now the eastern parts are inhabited by Arabians, who bear the name of Nabataeans and range over a country which is partly desert and partly waterless, though a small section of it is fruitful. (2) They lead a life of banditry as they overrun a large part of the neighbouring territory and pillage it. They are difficult to overcome in war. For in the waterless region, as it is called, they have dug wells at convenient intervals and have kept the knowledge of them hidden from all other peoples, and so they retreat in a body into this region out of danger.​ (3) For since Nabateans themselves know about the places of hidden water and open them up, they have drinking water in abundance. But other peoples who pursue them (being in need of a watering-place because of their ignorance of the wells) in some cases die due to lack of water and in other cases return to their native land safely but only with difficulty and after suffering many things. (4) Consequently, since the Arabians who inhabit this country are difficult to overcome in war, they always remain unenslaved. Furthermore, they never at any time submit to the authority of a foreigner (epelys), and continue to maintain their freedom unimpaired. (5) Consequently, neither the Assyrians in the old days, nor the kings of the Medes and Persians, nor even the kings of the Macedonians have been able to enslave them. Even though they led many great forces against them, they never brought their attempts to a successful conclusion.

[Natural resources, environmental factors, and effects on the people]

(6) There is also in the land of the Nabataeans a rock [i.e. the city of Petra, now in Jordan]​ which is exceedingly strong since it only has one approach. Using this ascent they mount it a few at a time and store their possessions in safety in this way. A large lake [i.e. the Dead Sea] which produces asphalt in abundance is also there, and from it they derive significant income. (7) It has a length of about five hundred stades and a width of about sixty. Its water smells so bad and tastes so bitter that it cannot support fish or any of the other animals which commonly live in water. Although great rivers of remarkable sweetness empty into it, the lake gets the better of them because of its terrible smell.

Once a year, from its centre the large lake spouts out a great mass of asphalt,​ which sometimes extends for more than three plethra and sometimes for only two. When this occurs the barbarians who live around the lake usually call the larger flow a “bull” (tauros) and to the smaller one they give the name “calf” (moschos). (8) Since the asphalt floats on the surface of the lake, to those who view it from a distance it takes the appearance of an island. The fact is that the emission of the asphalt is made known to the people (anthropoi) twenty days before it takes place. For to a distance of many stades around the lake the odour is carried by the wind and assails them, and every piece of silver and gold and brass in the area loses it characteristic lustre. But this returns again as soon as all the asphalt has been spouted forth. Because of exposure to fire and terrible odours, the nearby region makes the bodies of the inhabitants susceptible to disease and shortens their lifespan.

(9) Yet the land is good for the growing of palms, wherever it happens to be traversed by rivers with usable water or to be supplied with springs which can irrigate it. Furthermore, the balsam tree, as it is called, is found in these regions in a certain valley [i.e. the Jordan Valley] from which they receive a substantial revenue. This is because this tree is found nowhere else in the inhabited world and the use of it for medicinal purposes is most highly valued by physicians.​

49  (3) … Kostos​, cassia​, cinnamon and all other plants of this aromatic nature​ grow there in fields and thickets of such depth that what all other peoples sparingly place upon the altars of the gods is actually used by them as fuel under their pots. Also, what is found among all other peoples in small specimens there supplies material for the mattresses of the servants in their homes… (5) Consequently, in certain regions of Arabia, when the earth is dug up, veins of sweet odour are discovered. In this process, extremely large quarries are formed from which they gather stones and build their houses. Regarding their houses, whenever rain falls from the sky it flows into the joints of stones and, hardening there, makes the walls solid throughout.

50  Also mined in Arabia is the gold called “fireless,”​ (apuros) which is not smelted from ores, as is done among all other peoples. Instead, it is dug out directly from the earth. It is found in nuggets about the size of chestnuts, and is so fiery-red in colour that it makes the fairest of adornments when it is used by artisans as a setting for the most precious gems. (2) There are also so many herds in the land that many peoples which have chosen a nomadic lifestyle are able to do very well, experiencing no want of grain but being provided for in abundance by their herds…

[Environment and peoples in different parts of Arabia]

54  The southern part of Arabia as a whole is called “Felix.” But in the interior part a large population of Arabians who are nomads and have chosen a tent life range across the land. These raise large flocks of animals and make their camps in immeasurable plains. (2) The region which lies between this part and Arabia Felix is desert and waterless, as has been stated [above]. The parts of Arabia which lie to the west are broken by sandy deserts as spacious as the sky. Those who journey through, even by sea, must direct their course by signs obtained from the Bears [constellation]. (3) The remaining part of Arabia, which lies towards Syria, contains a multitude of farmers and merchants of every kind. By a seasonable exchange of merchandise they compensate for the lack of certain wares in both countries by supplying useful things which they possess in abundance.

(4) That Arabia which lies along the ocean is situated above Arabia Felix, and since it is traversed by many great rivers, many regions in it are converted into stagnant pools and into vast stretches of great swamps. (5) With the water which is brought to them from the rivers and that which comes with the summer rains, the people irrigate a large part of the country and get two crops yearly… (6) This land also breeds camels in very great numbers and of various kinds: both the hairless and the shaggy and those which have two humps (one behind the other along their spines) and hence are called dityloi.​ Some of these provide milk and are eaten for meat, and so provide the inhabitants with a great abundance of this food. Other camels are trained to carry burdens on their backs and can carry some ten medimnoi of wheat and can even carry the equivalent of five men lying on a couch. Others which have short legs and are slender in build are swift one-humped camels that can go a great distance at full speed in a day’s journey, especially in the trips which they make through the waterless and desert region. (7) Also in their wars the same animals carry into battle two bowmen who ride back-to-back to each other, one of them keeping off enemies who come on them from the front and the other those who pursue from behind. So even if we have written too much about Arabia and the products of that land, we have at least reported many things to delight lovers of reading.

[For Diodoros’ subsequent discussion of a utopian island in the southern ocean somewhere off the coast of India, go to this link].

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