Greeks and barbarians: Eratosthenes challenges the dichotomy (third century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Greeks and barbarians: Eratosthenes challenges the dichotomy (third century BCE),' Last modified October 25, 2022,

Authors: Eratosthenes of Kyrene (fragments 155 and 154), as cited by Strabo, Geography 1.4.9 and 17.1.19 (link to Greek text and full translation).

Comments:. Eratosthenes from the Greek city state of Kyrene (or: Cyrene) in Libya was a Greek author (writing about 246-206 BCE) who wrote one of the most extensive and influential ancient geographical writings, only fragments of which have survived in citations by others. Some important views of Eratosthenes are preserved by Strabo (early first century CE), as in the cases presented here.

In the first passage below, Strabo explains that the conclusion of Eratosthenes’ work challenged some key aspects of the Greek-barbarian dichotomy. Eratosthenes proposed, instead, that peoples be assessed on good or bad qualities. In doing so, Eratosthenes was certainly not the first, as the case of Ephoros of Kyme from about a century earlier shows (link). Later on, similar theorizing on problems with the dichotomy are evident in Dionysios of Halikarnassos as well (link). Strabo suggests that Eratosthenes’ theorizing about the issue made reference to legends about Alexander of Macedon’s supposed practice in dealing with “barbarians.” On this also see the ethnographic material from the so called Alexander Romance (link coming soon).

When it comes to the questions of whether and how Eratosthenes applied his criteria of assessing good and bad peoples (beyond his inclusion of Indians, Arianians, and Carthaginians in the good category – Strabo adds the Romans to bring the list up to date, so to speak), we have some limited hints in two other places. On the one hand, in the second passage below Eratosthenes seems to qualify some negative characterizations of Egyptians generally (with reference to legends of king Bousiris), rejecting the notion that Egyptians were exceptionally hateful towards foreigners. But it is unclear whether Egyptians would firmly fit in the good category for Eratosthenes. Carthaginians appear again there, but there is some ambiguity in Strabo’s summary as to whether the Carthaginians’ (or even Persians’) supposed mistreatment of foreigners was rejected or affirmed by Eratosthenes. Rejection seems more likely in light of the other passage which at least mentions Carthaginians as refined. On the other hand, unlike Ephoros, Eratosthenes seems to avoid including any Scythian peoples in the good category and still lumps them together as savages who engage in human sacrifice and cannibalism (Strabo, Geography 7.3.7, on which go to this link).

Source of translation:  H.L. Jones, Strabo, 8 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1917-28), public domain (passed away in 1932), adapted by Harland.


Book 1

4 . . . (9) Now, towards the end of Eratosthenes’ treatise he disagrees with those who divide the entire population of humanity into two groups, Greeks and barbarians, and also with those who advised Alexander to treat the Greeks as friends but the barbarians as enemies. He goes on to say that it would be better to make such divisions according to good (aretē) and bad (kakia) qualities. This is because not only are many Greeks bad, but many barbarians are refined (asteios): Indians and Arianians (Arianoi), for instance, or furthermore, Romans and Carthaginians (Karchedonians), who organize their societies incredibly well. And this, he says, is the reason why Alexander, disregarding his advisers, welcomed as many honoured men as he could and gave them benefactions. This is just like those who have made such a division, placing some people in the flawed category and others in the commendable category, and do so because in some people there prevails conformity to what is law-abiding, civic, cultured and eloquent, whereas in other people the opposite characteristics prevail. And so Alexander, not disregarding his advisers, but rather accepting their opinion, did what was consistent with – rather than contrary to – their advice because he had regard to the real intent of those who gave him counsel.


Book 17

1 . . . (19) According to Eratosthenes, the expulsion of foreigners is a custom common to all barbarians. Yet the Egyptians are condemned for this fault because of the myths which have been circulated about [king] Bousiris [or: Busiris, who supposedly sacrificed all foreigners, as in Apollodoros, Library 2.5.11] in connection with the Bousirite district (nome). Later writers falsely want to malign the inhospitality of this place [Busirite district of Egypt] even though – my Zeus – no king or tyrant named Bousiris ever existed. Eratosthenes says that the poet’s words – “to go to Egypt, long and painful journey” [Homer, Odyssey 4.483] – are also constantly cited in this connection with the lack of harbours contributing considerably to this opinion. Added to this is the fact that even the harbour which Egypt did have, the one at Pharos, gave no access but was guarded by bandit (lēstai) cowherds (boukoloi) [on which go to this link] who attacked those who tried to bring ships to anchor there.

Eratosthenes adds [other questionable cases (?)] that the Carthaginians likewise used to drown in the sea any foreigners who sailed past their country to Sardo​ [i.e. Sardinia] or to the Pillars [Straits of Gibralter]. This is the reason why most of the stories told about the west are disbelieved. Eratosthenes also says the Persians would treacherously guide the ambassadors over roundabout roads and through difficult regions].

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