Daans, Kadousians, Hyrkanians, and Sakians: Strabo on peoples east of the Caspian Sea (first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Daans, Kadousians, Hyrkanians, and Sakians: Strabo on peoples east of the Caspian Sea (first century CE),' Last modified November 25, 2022, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=10538.

Authors: Various authors in Strabo, Geography 11.6-9 (link to Greek text and full English translation)

Comments: In this section, Strabo of Amaseia gradually makes his way from the Caspian Sea moving further east in a direction following the route to India. In the process, he surveys numerous peoples, many of them considered a subset of the broad Greek category of “Scythians.” Basically, Strabo is covering ancient peoples in what are now parts of northern Iran, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. In terms of his sources, Strabo seems to draw quite heavily on Eratosthenes in general and on Herodotos for the specific case of the Massagetians, but various other authors are mentioned as well.

One of the passages below is particularly notable because it is among the few cases where Chinese sources and Greek sources seem to be dealing with the same peoples from different angles. There are somewhat mysterious, nomadic Asians, Pasianians, Tocharians, and Sakaraulians who make incursions into Baktria (now in Afghanistan) in Strabo’s narrative, marking the end of the Greek-Baktrian kingdom likely some time between 141 and 128 BCE (cf. Trogus at this link). The Tocharians in particular seem best identified with the people known as the Yueh-chi (or the subset of the “Great Yueh-chi”) in Chinese sources who had gradually headed west after being defeated (perhaps in the 170s BCE) by the Hiung-nu people. Ultimately (by 130-129 BCE) they ranged across an area known as Ta-hsia in Chinese sources, which seems to overlap with eastern Baktria, though not the city of Baktra itself in western Baktria (see Makurjhee 1969; Tarn 1938, 71-128; on which also see Trogus’ discussion of Parthians and Baktria at this link [coming soon]). Simultaneously, other nomadic peoples (which Strabo describes as Asians, Pasianians, and Sakaraulians), who may have been “Scythians” in Strabo’s view, made successful incursions into the remainder of Baktria, finalizing the end of the Greek-Baktrian kingdom.

Works consulted: B. N. Mukherjee, “Ta-Hsia and the Problem Concerning the Advent of Nomadic Peoples in Greek Bactria,” East and West 19 (1969): 395–400 (link); Works consulted: Duane W. Roller, A Historical and Topographical Guide to the Geography of Strabo (Cambridge: CUP, 2018); W.W. Tarn, The Greeks in Bactria and India (Cambridge: CUP, 1938), 71-128 (link).

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


[For Strabo’s preceding discussion on Asian Iberians, Asian Albanians, and peoples in the Caucasus mountains, go to this link].

Book 11

[Strabo moves on to the second portion of northern Asia around the Caspian Sea]

6 (1) The second portion [the southeastern portion of northern Asia, as described in 11.1.5] begins at the Kaspian [Caspian] sea, at which the first portion ends. The same sea is also called Hyrkanian. Now I must first describe this sea and the tribes which live around it. This sea is the gulf which extends from the ocean towards the south. It is quite narrow at its entrance, but it widens out as it advances inland, and especially in the region of its recess, where its width is approximately five thousand stadia. The length of the voyage from its entrance to its recess might be slightly more than that, since its entrance is approximately on the borders of the uninhabited world. Eratosthenes says that the circuit of this sea was known to the Greeks: The part along the coast of the Albanians and the Kadusians is five thousand four hundred stadia; and that the part along the coast of the Anariakians, Mardians and Hyrkanians to the mouth of the Oxos river [Amu Darya] is four thousand eight hundred, and from there to the Iaxartes river [Syr Darya]  it is two thousand four hundred. But we must understand in a more general sense the accounts of this portion and the regions that lie so far removed, particularly in the matter of distances.

[Different Scythians]

(2) On the right, as one sails into the Kaspian sea [from the north], are those Scythians or Sarmatians who live in the country contiguous to Europe between the Tanais [Don] river and this sea [in what is now southern Russia]. Most of them are nomads, of whom I have already spoken [11.2.1 – link]. On the left are the eastern Scythians, also nomads, who extend as far as the eastern ocean and India [i.e. in what is now Uzbekistan, Terkmenistan, and southern Kazakhstan; Strabo imagines, wrongly, that the Caspian sea opens into a larger eastern ocean].

[Greek categories for Scythian and Celtic peoples, including Sakians and Massagetians]

Now all the peoples towards the north were by the ancient Greek historians given the general name “Scythians” or “Celtoscythians” [cf. Plutarch at this link]. But the writers of still earlier times, making distinctions between them, called those who lived above the Euxine [Black Sea] and the Ister [Danube] and the Adriatic “Hyperboreans,” “Sauromatians,” and “Arimaspians.” They also called those who lived across the Kaspian sea partly “Sakians” and partly “Massagetians,” but they were unable to give any accurate account of them, although they reported a war between Cyrus and the Massagetians [cf. Herodotos, Inquiries 1.201].

[Strabo’s critique of early writers including Ktesias, Herodotos, and Hellenikos]

However, neither have the historians given an accurate and truthful account of these peoples, nor has much credit been given to the ancient history of the Persians, Medes or Syrians, on account of the credulity of the historians and their fondness for myths. (3) For, seeing that those who were professedly writers of myths enjoyed repute, they thought that they [historians, perhaps with Herodotos in mind] too would make their writings pleasing if they told in the guise of history what they had never seen, nor even heard – or at least not from persons who knew the facts. They had this object alone in view: to tell what afforded their hearers pleasure and amazement. One could more easily believe Hesiod and Homer in their stories of the heroes than Ktesias, Herodotos, Hellanikos, and other writers of this kind.

(4) Neither is it easy to believe most of those who have written the history of Alexander. These writers toy with facts, both because of the glory of Alexander and because his expedition reached the ends of Asia, far away from us. Statements about things that are far away are hard to refute. But the supremacy of the Romans and that of the Parthians has disclosed considerably more knowledge than that which had previously come down to us by tradition. Those who write about those distant regions tell a more trustworthy story than their predecessors, both of the places and of the peoples (ethnē) among which the activities took place, for they have looked into the matter more closely.

[Peoples on the eastern coast of the Caspian Sea: Daans, Gelians, Kadousians and others]

7 (1) Those nomads, however, who live along the coast on the left as one sails into the Kaspian sea [i.e. on the eastern coast] are by the writers of today called Daans (Daai), I mean, those who have the additional name of Aparnians (Aparnoi) [in a separate passage below Strabo encompasses them among Scythians]. Then, in front of them, intervenes a desert country.

Next comes Hyrkania, where the Kaspian resembles an open sea to the point where it borders on the Median and Armenian mountains. The shape of these mountains is crescent-like along the foot-hills, which end at the sea and form the recess of the gulf. This side of the mountains, beginning at the sea [on the west side of the Caspian], is inhabited as far as their heights for a short stretch by a part of the Albanians and the Armenians, but for the most part by Gelians (Gelai), Kadousians (Kadousioi), Amardians (Amardoi) [or: Mardians], Ouitians (Ouitioi), and Anariakians (Anariakai). They [Strabo’s sources] say that some of the Parrhasians (Parrhasioi) settled with the Anariakians, who, they say, are now called Parsians (Parsioi). They also say that the Ainianians (Ainianai) built a walled city in Outian territory, which, they say, is called Ainiana. Greek armour, brazen vessels, and burial places are to be seen there. There is also a city Anariake there, in which, they say, is to be seen an oracle for sleepers. There are some other peoples that are bandits and warriors (lēstrika ethnē kai machima) more so than to farmers, but this is due to the ruggedness of the region. However, the greater part of the seaboard around the mountainous country is occupied by Kadusians, for a stretch of almost five thousand stadia (about 1000 km), according to Patrokles, who considers this sea almost equal to the Pontic Sea. Now these regions have poor soil.

[Region of the Hyrkanians]

(2) But Hyrkania [on the southeastern coast of the Caspian Sea, in what is now southern Turkmenistan and northeastern Iran north of Gorgan] is extremely fertile, extensive, and in general level. It is distinguished by notable cities, among which are Talabroke, Samariane, Karta, and the royal residence Tape. They say that Tape is situated slightly above the sea and at a distance of one thousand four hundred stadia from the Kaspian gates. Because of its particular kind of prosperity, writers go on to relate evidences of this: the vine produces one liquid measures (metretes) of wine, and the fig‑tree sixty dry measures (medimnoi). The grain grows up from the seed that falls from the stalk, bees have their hives in the trees, and honey drips from the leaves. And this is also the case in Matiane in Media, and in Sakasene and Araxene in Armenia.

[Ruling powers in the region]

However, neither the country itself nor the sea that is named after it has received proper attention, the sea being both without vessels and unused. There are islands in this sea which could afford a livelihood, and, according to some writers, contain gold ore. The cause of this lack of attention was the fact that the first governors of the Hyrkanians, I mean the Medes and Persians, as also the last, I mean the Parthians, who were inferior to the former, were barbarians. Also there is the fact that the entire neighbouring country was full of bandits (lēstai), nomads, and deserted regions. The Macedonians did in fact rule over the country for a short time, but they were so occupied with wars that they could not attend to their remote possessions. According to Aristoboulus, Hyrkania, which is a wooded country, has the oak, but does not produce the torch-pine or fir or stone-pine, though India abounds in these trees. Nesaia, also, belongs to Hyrkania, though some writers set it down as an independent district.

(3) Hyrkania is traversed by the rivers Ochos and Oxos [Amu Darya] to their outlets into the sea. And of these, the Ochos flows also through Nesaia, but some say that the Ochos empties into the Oxos. Aristoboulus declares that the Oxos is the largest of the rivers he has seen in Asia, except those in India. He further says that it is navigable (both he and Eratosthenes taking this statement from Patrokles) and that large quantities of Indian wares are brought down on it to the Hyrkanian sea [i.e. Kaspian sea] and transported on that sea to Albania before being brought down on the Cyrus [Kura] river and through the region that comes next after it to the Euxine [Black Sea]. The Ochos is not mentioned at all by the ancient writers. Apollodoros, however, who wrote the work Parthian Matters, names it continually, implying that it flows very close to the country of the Parthians.

[False claims about Alexander’s Macedonian conquests in this area and the boundaries between Europe and Asia]

(4) Many false notions were also added to the account of this sea because of Alexander’s love of glory. For, since it was agreed by all that the Tanais separated Asia from Europe, and that the region between the sea and the Tanais, being a considerable part of Asia, had not fallen under the power of the Macedonians, it was resolved to manipulate the account of Alexander’s expedition so that in fame at least he might be credited with having conquered those parts of Asia too. They therefore combined Maiotis lake, which receives the Tanais, with the Kaspian sea, calling this too a lake and asserting that both were connected with one another by an underground passage and that each was a part of the other. Polykleitos goes on to adduce proofs in connection with his belief that the sea is a lake (for instance, he says that it produces serpents and that its water is sweet). That this is nothing other than lake Maiotis he judges from the fact that the Tanais empties into it. From the same Indian mountains, where the Ochos and the Oxos and several other rivers rise, flows also the Iaxartes [Syr Darya], which, like those rivers, empties into the Kaspian sea and is the most northerly of them all. This river, accordingly, they named Tanais. In addition to naming it this, they gave as proof that it was the Tanais mentioned by Polykleitos that the country on the far side of this river produces the fir tree and that the Scythians in that region use arrows made of fir wood. And they say that this is also evidence that the country on the far side belongs to Europe and not to Asia, for, they add, Upper and Eastern Asia does not produce the fir tree. But Eratosthenes says that the fir tree grows also in India and that Alexander built his fleet out of fir wood from there. Eratosthenes tries to reconcile many other differences of this kind, but as for me, let what I have said about this be enough.

(5) This too, among the marvellous things recorded of Hyrkania, is related by Eudoxos and others: that there are some cliffs facing the sea with caverns underneath, and between these and the sea, below the cliffs, is a low‑lying shore. And that rivers flowing from the precipices above rush forward with so great force that when they reach the cliffs they hurl their waters out into the sea without wetting the shore, so that even armies can pass underneath sheltered by the stream above. The natives often come down to the place for the sake of feasting and sacrifice, and sometimes they recline in the caverns down below and sometimes they enjoy themselves basking in the sunlight beneath the stream itself. Different people enjoy themselves in different ways, having in sight at the same time on either side both the sea and the shore. Because of the moisture, the shore is grassy and blooms with flowers.

[Peoples in the Taurus mountain range east of the Caspian Sea: Gelians, Kadusians, Amardians, Parthians, Arians]

8 (1) As one proceeds from the Hyrkanian sea [alternative name for the Kaspian / Caspian sea] towards the east, one sees on the right the mountains that extend as far as the Indian sea. These are called the Tauros (Bull) mountains by Greeks. Beginning at Pamphylia and Cilicia they extend this far in a continuous line from the west and bear various different names [i.e. starting with what moderns call the Taurus range in central Turkey but imagined to continue far to the east].

In the northerly parts of the range dwell first the Gelians, Kadusians, and Amardians [or: Mardians], as I have said, and certain of the Hyrkanians [11.7.1 above]. After these are the people of the Parthians and that of the Margianians and the Arians. And then comes the desert which is separated from Hyrkania by the Sarnios river as one goes eastwards and towards the Ochos river. The mountain which extends from Armenia to this point, or a little short of it, is called Parachoathras [Elburz of northern Iran]. The distance from the Hyrkanian sea to the country of the Arians is about six thousand stadia [ca. 1,200 km]. Then comes Baktriana, and Sogdiana, and finally the Scythian nomads. Now the Macedonians gave the name “the Kaukasos (Caucasus)” to all the mountains which follow in order after the country of the Arians. However,  among the barbarians, the extremities on the north were given the separate names “Paropamisos,” “Emoda” and “Imaon” [Himalaya mountains]. And other such names were applied to separate parts.

[Scythians and others east of the Caspian Sea: Daans, Massagetians, and Sakians]

(2) On the left [in other words on the north side of the route from the Caspian sea to India] and opposite these people are situated the Scythian or nomadic tribes, which cover the whole of the northern side. Now the greater part of the Scythians, beginning at the Kaspian sea, are called Daans. Yet those who are situated more to the east than these are named Massagetians and Sakians (Sakai), whereas all the rest given the general name of “Scythians,” though each people is given a separate name of its own.

[Incursions into Baktria by Asians and others and fall of the Baktrian-Greek kingdom, perhaps referring to incidents around 128 BCE]

Those are all for the most part nomads. But the best known of the nomads are those who took away Baktriana [between the Hindu Kush and Pamir mountains in the northern part of Afghanistan, southwestern Tajikistan and southeastern Uzbekistan] from the Greeks, I mean the Asians, Pasianians, Tocharians, and Sakaraulians. They originally came from the country on the other side [north] of the Iaxartes [Syr] river that adjoins that of the Sakians and the Sogdianians and was occupied by the Sakians [Kazakhstan]. And as for the Daans, some of them are called Aparnians, some Xanthians, and some Pissourians. Now of these the Aparnians are situated closest to Hyrkania and the part of the sea that borders on it, but the remainder extend even as far as the country that stretches parallel to Aria.

(3) Between the Daans and Hyrkania and Parthia and extending as far as the Arians is a great waterless desert [Karakum Desert (?)], which they [i.e. Asians, Pasianians, Tocharians, and Sakaraulians] traversed by long marches and then overran Hyrkania, Nesaia, and the plains of the Parthians. And these people agreed to pay tribute, and the tribute was to allow the invaders at certain appointed times to overrun the country and carry off booty. But when the invaders overran their country more than the agreement allowed, war ensued, and in turn their quarrels were composed and new wars were begun. Such is the life of the other nomads also, who are always attacking their neighbours and then in turn settling their differences.


[Early conquest of Baktria, perhaps in the seventh century BCE]

(4) The Sakians (Sakai), however, made raids like those of Kimmerians and Trerians, some into regions close to their own country, others into regions farther away. For instance, they occupied Baktriana, and acquired possession of the best land in Armenia, which they left named after themselves, Sakasene. They advanced as far as the country of the Kappadokians (or: Cappadocians) [i.e. in eastern Asia Minor / Turkey], particularly those situated close to the Euxine [Black Sea], who are now called the Pontikians (Pontikoi).

[Confused Persian era references dealing with Zela in Turkey]

But when they were holding a general festival and enjoying their booty, they were attacked by night by the Persian generals who were then in that region and utterly wiped out [confused chronology]. And these generals, heaping up a mound of earth over a certain rock in the plain, completed it in the form of a hill, and erected on it a wall, and established the temple of Anaitis and the gods who share her altar: Omanus and Anadatos, Persian deities. And they instituted an annual sacred festival, the Sakaia, which the inhabitants of Zela (for that’s the name of this place) [modern Zile, Turkey] continue to celebrate to the present day. It is a small city belonging for the most part to the temple slaves. But Pompey added considerable territory to it, settled its inhabitants within the walls, and made it one of the cities which he organised after his overthrow of Mithridates.

[Alternative accounts about the Sakians and the Persians]

(5) Now that is the account which some writers give of the Sakians. Others say that Cyrus made an expedition against the Sakians, was defeated in the battle, and fled. Now they say that Cyrus encamped in the place where he had left behind his supplies, which consisted of an abundance of everything and especially of wine, and rested his army a short time. They then set out at nightfall, as though he were in flight, leaving the tents full of supplies. They say that he proceeded as far as he thought best and stopped, and that the Sakians pursued, found the camp empty of men but full of things conducive to enjoyment, and filled themselves to the full. Cyrus turned back, and found them drunk and crazed, so that some were slain while lying stupified and asleep, whereas others fell victims to the weapons of the enemy while dancing and revelling naked, and almost all perished. Cyrus, regarding the happy issue as of divine origin, consecrated that day to the goddess of his fathers and called it Sakiansa. They say that wherever there is a temple of this goddess, there the festival of the Sakiansa, a kind of Bacchic festival, is the custom. At the festival, men dressed in the Scythian garb pass day and night drinking and playing promiscuously with one another, and also with the women who drink with them.

[Massagetians, drawing on Herodotos (link) and other sources and including supposed cannibalism]

(6) The Massagetians (Massagetai) disclosed their courage in their war with Cyrus, to which many writers refer again and again, and it is from these that we must get our information [e.g. Herodotos, Inquiries 1.201-216]. Statements to the following effect are made concerning the Massagetians: that some of them inhabit mountains, some plains, others marshes which formed by the rivers, and others the islands in the marshes. But the country is inundated most of all, they say, by the Araxes [Aras] river, which splits into numerous branches and empties by its other mouths into the other sea on the north, though by one single mouth it reaches the Hyrkanian gulf.

They regard Helios alone as god, and to him they sacrifice horses. Each man marries only one wife, but they also sleep with one another’s wives. They do not do this in secret, though, for the man who is to have intercourse with the wife of another hangs up his quiver on the wagon and has intercourse with her openly.

And they consider it the best kind of death when they are old to be chopped up with the flesh of cattle and eaten mixed up with that flesh. But those who die of disease are cast out as impious and worthy only to be eaten by wild beasts. They are good horsemen and foot soldiers. They use bows, short swords, breastplates, and battle-axes (sagareseis) made of brass. During battles they wear head-bands and belts made of gold, and their horses have bits and girths made of gold. Silver is not found in their country, and only a little iron, but brass and gold in abundance.

(7) Now those who live in the islands, since they have no grain to sow, use roots and wild fruits as food, and they clothe themselves with the bark of trees (for they have no cattle either), and they drink the juice squeezed out of the fruit of the trees. Those who live in the marshes eat fish, and clothe themselves in the skins of the seals that run up there from the sea. The mountaineers themselves also live on wild fruits. But they have sheep too, though only a few, so they do not butcher them, sparing them for their wool and milk.

They vary the colour of their clothing by staining it with dyes whose colours do not easily fade. The inhabitants of the plains, although they possess land, do not till it, but in the nomadic or Scythian fashion live on sheep and fish. Indeed, there not only is a certain mode of life common to all such peoples, of which I often speak, but their burials, customs, and their way of living as a whole, are alike.  In other words, they are self-assertive, uncivilized, wild, and warlike, yet straightforward and not given to deceit in their in their business dealings.

(8) Belonging to the tribe of the Massagetians and the Sakians are also the Attasians and the Chorasmians, to whom Spitamenes fled from the country of the Baktrianians and the Sogdianians [ca. 330 BCE after Darius III’s death]. He was one of the Persians who escaped from Alexander, as did also Bessos and later Arsakes, when he fled from Seleukos Kallinikos, withdrew into the country of the Apasiakians.

[Citation of Eratosthenes on various peoples around the Caspian Sea and to the east and on measuring things]

Eratosthenes says that the Arachotians and Massagetians were active alongside the Baktrians towards the west along the Oxos river, and that the Sakians and the Sogdianians, with the whole of their lands, are situated opposite India, but the Baktrianians only for a slight distance. For, he says, they are situated for the most part alongside the Paropamisos mountains [in Afghanistan], and the Sakians and the Sogdianians are separated from one another by the Iaxartes river, and the Sogdianians and the Bactrianians by the Oxos river, and the Tapyrians live between the Hyrkanians and the Arians. Furthermore, in a circuit around the [Caspian / Hyrkanian] sea after the Hyrkanians, one comes to the Amardians, Anariakians, Kadusians, Albanians, Kaspians, Ouitians, and perhaps also other peoples, until one reaches the Scythians. On the other side of the Hyrkanians are Derbikians. Also, the Kadusians border on the Medians and Matianians below the Parachoathras mountains.

(9) Eratosthenes gives the distances as follows: From mount Kaspios to the Cyrus river, about one thousand eight hundred stadia. From there to the Kaspian gates, five thousand six hundred. Then to Alexandreia in the country of the Arians, six thousand four hundred. Then to the city Baktra, also called Zariaspa, three thousand eight hundred and seventy. Then to the Iaxartes river, to which Alexander came, about five thousand. A distance all told of twenty‑two thousand six hundred and seventy stadia.

Eratosthenes also gives the distance from the Kaspian gates to India as follows: To Hekatompylos, they say one thousand nine hundred and sixty stadia; to Alexandreia in the country of the Arians, four thousand five hundred and thirty. Then to Prophthasia in Drange, one thousand six hundred (others say one thousand five hundred). Then to the city Arachotoi, four thousand one hundred and twenty. Then to Ortospana, to the junction of the three roads leading from Baktra, two thousand. Then to the borders of India, one thousand. A distance all told of fifteen thousand three hundred stadia. We must conceive of the length of India, reckoned from the Indus River to the eastern sea, as continuous with this distance in a straight line. So much for the Sakians.

[For Strabo’s subsequent discussion of Parthians, go to this link].

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