Ichthyophagians: Nearchos and Agatharchides on Fish-eaters around the Arabian Sea (fourth-first centuries BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Ichthyophagians: Nearchos and Agatharchides on Fish-eaters around the Arabian Sea (fourth-first centuries BCE),' Last modified November 29, 2022, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=9143.

Ancient authors: Nearchos (late fourth century BCE), FGrHist 133, as cited by Arrian of Nikomedia (second century CE), Anabasis, or Indian Matters 8.19-43 (link to Greek text and full translation) and by Strabo, Geography 15.2.2; Agatharchides of Knidos (second century BCE), FGrHist 86, as cited by Diodoros of Sicily (mid-first century BCE), Library of History 3.14-23 (link to Greek text and full translation) and by Strabo, Geography 16.4.13-14 (link to Greek text and full translation).

Comments: Reading through a few posts in category two (to your right) will make quite clear that the line between fiction or fantasy, on the one hand, and reality, on the other, is consistently blurry or sometimes non-existent in Greek or Roman descriptions of the character and activities of far-off peoples (even in works which we tend to call “histories”). Frequently, such ethnographic sources are concerned with supposedly paradoxical and amazing practices of unusual peoples as a contrast to the norms or customs of the ethnic group that is the intended audience (often Greeks or Romans). Often, these sources are, therefore, rarely suited to accurately reconstructing the historical situations or character of any ethnic groups, beyond perhaps telling us where peoples were and some other basic information. But they are excellent sources for unpacking how particular ancient individuals or groups tried to make sense of the world and to express how they understood their own ethnic group’s position in relation to others by speculating on largely unknown foreign peoples.

The fantasy side of the ethnographic imagination (which we can also see in what I’ve labelled “ethnographic fiction” in some other posts) comes through very clearly in accounts about descent groups called “Fish-eaters,” the Ichthyophagians, as well as various other peoples who are basically reduced to what food they like most. Nearchos (or someone writing in his name), who is summarized by Arrian and followed by Strabo in his first passage, places these Fish-eater peoples east of the Persian Gulf (along the coast of what is now southwestern Pakistan in the province of Baluchistan).

Agatharchides who is followed by both Diodoros and Strabo (in his second passage) is more ambiguous but pictures Fish-eaters ranging across all the coasts of the Arabian Sea, including inlets into what is now the Gulf of Oman, the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. So even though Agatharchides also refers to Gedrosia, his description is not as geographically focussed as Nearchos’ (particularly as Agatharchides vaguely refers to some as “Ethiopians”). In each of these sources (some more than others), there is a concern to explain the unusual habits and customs of these strange peoples in far off lands with a hope that a listener will be fascinated or shocked or, perhaps, jealous of the fish-supply.

Before delving into the Fish-eaters, Nearchos’ supposed travelogue records the voyage he led from the Indus river to the Persian Gulf. So some other peoples including the Oreitans, Indian Arabians (named after an Arabis river), Ouxians, Mardians, and Kossaians (indigenous peoples in Persian territory) make an appearance in his account as well. Agatharchides and both Diodoros and Strabo focus mainly on the Fish-eaters but think of them as a very large population with different sub-peoples among them (some of whom are described as Ethiopians, the legendary emotionless or insensible Ethiopians). Not supplied below is yet another source that preserves an alternative version of Agatharchides’ account, which parallels Diodoros’ narrative: Photios’ eighth century CE summary in his Bibliotheke, or Collection of Books, codex 213, on which see Burstein’s translation of Agatharchides.

Works consulted: S. Burstein, Agatharchides: On the Erythraean Sea (London: Hakluyt Society, 1989).

Source of the translations: I. Robson, Arrian: Anabasis Alexandri (books V-VII) and Indica (book VIII), LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1937), public domain (copyright not renewed); C. H. Oldfather, Diodorus Sicilus: Library of History, volumes 1-6, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1935-1952), public domain (copyright not renewed, passed away in 1954); H.L. Jones, Strabo, 8 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1917-28), public domain (passed away in 1932), adapted by Victoria Muccilli and Harland.


Arrian, Anabasis or Indian Matters = Nearchos, FGrHist 133

Book 8

[For Arrian’s / Nearchos’ preceding discussion of Indians, go to this link].

[Introduction on Alexander of Macedon’s plan for voyage from India to Persia and Nearchos’ supposed travelogue about the voyage]

19 . . . This my present work, however, is a story of the voyage, which Nearchos (or: Nearchus) successfully undertook with his fleet starting from the mouths of the Indus river by the ocean [i.e. Indian Ocean] to the Persian gulf, which some call the Erythraian sea [often encompassing the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf together]. 20 On this Nearchos writes as follows: Alexander had a strong desire to sail the sea which stretches from India to Persia. However, he disliked the length of the voyage and feared in case his whole fleet would be destroyed when encountering some country consisting of deserts or having no calm places to anchor or without proper provisions of produce to eat. He also feared that, since this was no small mark on his great achievements, this might wreck all his happiness. Yet his desire to do something unusual and strange won the day.

Still, he was in doubt about whom he should choose that would match his plans and also who would be the right man to encourage the personnel of the fleet and, since they were sent on an expedition of this kind, to help them feel that they were not being sent blindly into clear dangers. Nearchos says that he discussed the selection of the admiral for the fleet with Alexander. However, as mention was made of the options, Alexander rejected some who would not be willing to risk themselves for his sake, others as cowardly, and still others as consumed by desire for home. Alexander was finding some objection to each person. Then Nearchos himself spoke and pledged himself in this way: “O King, I undertake to lead your fleet! And may the god help the enterprise! I will bring your ships and men safe to Persia, if this sea is so much as navigable and the undertaking not beyond human abilities.” Alexander, however, replied that he would not allow one of his friends to run such risks and endure such distress. Yet Nearchos did not hold back from his request, but implored Alexander earnestly until, finally, Alexander accepted Nearchos’ willing spirit. Alexander appointed Nearchos admiral of the entire fieet. The part of the army which was detailed to sail on this voyage and the crews felt less worried with this leader, being sure that Alexander would never have exposed Nearchos to obvious danger unless they were also to make it through safely.

Then the splendour of the whole preparations, the brilliant equipment of the ships, and the outstanding enthusiasm of the commanders of the boats with three sets of oars (triremes) about the different services and the crews had encouraged even those who a short while ago were hesitating, both to bravery and to higher hopes about the whole plan. Furthermore, the fact that Alexander himself had started down the Indus and had explored both outlets, even into the ocean [Indian Ocean], and had offered victims to Poseidon, and all the other sea gods, and gave splendid gifts to the sea contributed considerably to the general good spirits of the force. Then trusting as they did in Alexander’s generally remarkable good fortune, they felt that there was nothing that he might not dare to try, and nothing that he could not accomplish.

21 Now when the trade winds had subsided, which continue blowing from the [Indian] ocean to the land all the summer season, and hence render the voyage impossible, they put to sea when Kephisodoros was civic leader (archon) at Athens, on the twentieth day of the month Boidromion, as the Athenians reckon it. But as the Macedonians and Asians counted it, it was . . . [month missing in manuscript] of the eleventh year of Alexander’s reign. Nearchos also sacrificed to Zeus the Saviour (Soter), before weighing anchor, and he too held an athletic contest. Then moving out from their roadstead, they anchored on the first day in the Indus river near a great canal, and remained there two days. The district was called Stura, and it was about a hundred stadia from where the ships were anchored. . . [omitted details]. Then they started again and sailed not so very far, for they saw a reef at this outlet of the river Indus, and the waves were breaking violently on the shore, and the shore itself was very rough. But where there was a softer part of the reef, they dug a channel five stadia long and brought the ships down it when the flood tide came up from the sea.

[“Arabians” set in what is now Pakistan]

Then sailing around to a distance of a hundred and fifty stadia, they anchored at a sandy island called Krokala, and stayed there through the next day. At this location there is an Indian people (ethnos) called Arabians, of whom I made mention in my larger history. They get their name from the river Arabis [perhaps the Hub river near Mubarak in Pakistan], which runs through their country and finds its outlet in the sea, forming the boundary between this country and that of the Oreitans. . . . [detailed navigation informaion omitted].


22 . . . By the harbour was a high island, desert, and round it one could get oysters and all kinds of fish. Up to this the country of the Arabians extends: they are the last Indians settled in this direction. From here on the territory of the Oreitans begins. . . [material omitted]. 23 . . . The ships kept the open sea and anchored, but Nearchos disembarked the crews and camped on shore. After all these toils and dangers in the sea, they desired to rest awhile. The camp was entrenched, to guard against the barbarians. Here Leonnatos, who had been in charge of operations against the Oreitans, beat in a great battle the Oreitans, along with others who had joined their enterprise. He killed some six thousand of them, including all the higher officers. Among Leonnatos’ cavalry, fifteen fell, and of his infantry, among a few others, Apollophanes satrap of Gadrosia. This I have related in my other history, and also how Leonnatos was crowned by Alexander for this exploit with a golden crown in the midst of the Macedonians. . . [material omitted].

24 From there they set sail and progressed with a favouring wind. After a passage of five hundred stadia the anchored by a torrent, which was called Tomeros. There was a lagoon at the mouths of the river, and the depressions near the bank were inhabited by men in stifling cabins. These seeing the convoy sailing up were astounded, and lining along the shore stood ready to repel any who should attempt a landing. They carried thick spears, about six cubits long. Their spears had no iron tip, but the same result was obtained by hardening the point with fire. They were in number about six hundred. Nearchos observed these evidently standing firm and drawn up in order, and ordered the ships to hold back within range, so that their missiles might reach the shore. The barbarians’ spears, which looked stalwart, were good for close fighting, but had no terrors against a volley. Then Nearchos took the lightest and lightest-armed troops, such as were also the best swimmers, and ordered them swim off as soon as the word was given. Their orders were that, as soon as any swimmer found bottom, he should await his mate. They were not attack the barbarians until they had their formation three deep; but then they were to raise their battle cry and charge immediately. On the word, those detailed for this service dived from the ships into the sea, and swam smartly, and took up their formation in orderly manner. After forming a phalanx, they charged while raising their battle cry to Enyalios [i.e. Ares, god of war, or his son], and those on the ship raised the cry along with them. Arrows and missiles from the engines were hurled against the barbarians. They, astounded at the flash of the armour, and the swiftness of the charge, and attacked by showers of arrows and missiles, half naked as they were, never stopped to resist but gave way. Some were killed in flight and others were captured, but some escaped into the hills.

[Supposed physical features and customs of the Oreitan barbarians]

Those captured were hairy, not only their heads but the rest of their bodies. Their nails were rather like beasts’ claws. They used their nails (according to report) as if they were iron tools. With these they tore apart their fish, and even the less solid kinds of wood. They split everything else with sharp stones because they did not possess iron. For clothing they wore skins of animals, some even the thick skins of the larger fish.

25 Here the crews beached their ships and repaired such as had suffered. On the sixth day from this they set sail, and after voyaging about three hundred stadia they came to a country which was the last point in the territory of the Oreitans: the district was called Malana. Such Oreitans as live inland, away from the sea, dress as the Indians do, and equip themselves similarly for warfare. However, their dialect and customs differ. The length of the coasting voyage along the territory of the Arabians [named after the Arabis river] was about a thousand stadia from the point of departure; the length of the Oreitan coast sixteen hundred.

[Ichthyophagians / Fish-eaters]

. . . From then on the people are no longer Indians. . . . [omitted Nearchos’ description of shadows in this part of the world]. 26 Next to the Oreitans, more inland, lived the Gedrosians, whose country Alexander and his army had much difficulty in crossing [Gedrosia was usually placed in what is now the province of Baluchistan in southwestern Pakistan]. In fact, they suffered more than during all the rest of his expedition. I have related this in my larger history. Below the Gadrosians, as you follow the actual coast [i.e. west towards the gulf of Oman], live the people called the Ichthyophagians (literally: “Fish-eaters”). The fleet sailed past their country. . . [voyage details omitted].

[Confrontations with Ichthyophagians]

27 Nearchos tells us that from this point a pilot sailed with them, a Gedrosian called Hydrakes. He had promised to take them as far as Karmania; from there on the navigation was not difficult, but the districts were better known, up to the Persian gulf. . . [voyage details omitted]. 28. As Nearchos approached the walls, they brought him, in a friendly way, gifts from the city: tuna-fish baked in earthen pans. For this is where the westernmost Ichthyophagian (Fish-eating) peoples live, and these were the first whom the Greeks had seen cooking their food. They also brought also a few cakes and dates from the palms. Nearchos said that he accepted these gratefully. He wanted to visit the town, and they permitted him to enter. But as soon as he passed inside the gates, he ordered two of the archers to occupy the back entrance, while Nearchos, two others, and the interpreter mounted the wall on this side and signalled to Archias and his men as had been arranged: that Nearchos should signal, and Archias understand and do what had been ordered. On seeing the signal the Macedonians beached their ships with all speed; they leapt in haste into the sea, while the barbarians, astounded at this manoeuvre, ran to their weapons. The interpreter with Nearchos cried out that they should give corn to the army, if they wanted to save their city. The barbarians replied that they had none, and at the same time attacked the wall. But the archers with Nearchos shooting from above easily held them up. When, however, the barbarians saw that their town was already occupied and almost on the way to be enslaved, they begged Nearchos to take what corn they had and retire, but not to destroy the town. Nearchos, however, bade Archias to seize the gates and the neighbouring wall; but he sent with the barbarians some soldiers to see whether they would without any trick reveal their corn. They showed freely their flour, ground down from the dried fish, but only a small quantity of corn and barley. In fact they used as flour what they got from the fish. Loaves of corn flour were used as a delicacy. When, however, they had shown all they had, the Greeks provisioned themselves from what was there, and put to sea, anchoring by a headland which the inhabitants regarded as sacred to the Sun: the headland was called Bageia. . . [voyage details omitted].

[Fish-eating customs]

29 . . . The length of the voyage along the coast of the Ichthyophagians is a little above ten thousand stadia. These Ichthyophagians live on fish. Hence their name. Only a few of them engage in fishing because only a few have proper boats and have any skill in the art of catching fish. Rather, for the most part it is the receding tide which provides their catch. Some have made nets also for this kind of fishing; most of the nets are about two stadia in length. They make the nets from the bark of the date-palm, twisting the bark like twine. And when the sea recedes and the earth is left, where the earth remains dry it has no fish, as a rule. But where there are hollows, some of the water remains and in this a large number of fish gather, mostly small, but some large ones too. They throw their nets over these and so catch them. They eat them raw, just as they take them from the water, that is, the more tender kinds. The larger ones, which are tougher, they dry in the sun until they are quite dried and then pound them and make a flour and bread of them. Others even make cakes from this flour. Even their flocks are fed on the fish in dried form because the country has no meadows and produces no grass. They also collect in many places crabs, oysters and shell-fish. There are natural salts in the country, from which they make oil. Those of them who inhabit the desert parts of their country, treeless as it is and with no cultivated parts, find all their sustenance in the fishing but a few of them sow part of their district, using the corn as a relish to the fish because the fish form their bread. The richest among them have built huts. They collect the bones of any large fish which the sea casts up, and use them in place of beams. Doors they make from any flat bones which they can pick up. But most of the people, and the poorer sort, have huts made from the backbones of fish.

30 Large whales live in the outer ocean, and fish much larger than those in our inland sea. . . [details about whales omitted]. Some of these whales go ashore at different parts of the coast; and when the ebb comes, they are caught in the shallows; and some even were cast ashore high and dry; thus they would perish and decay, and their flesh rotting off them would leave the bones convenient to be used by the men for their huts. Moreover, the bones in their ribs served for the larger beams for their dwellings. The smaller ones were used for rafters. The jawbones were the doorposts, since many of these whales reached a length of five-and-twenty fathoms.

[Legends regarding the origins of the Ichthyophagians]

31 While they were coasting along the territory of the Ichthyophagians, they heard a rumour about an island. The island lies some little distance from the mainland in this direction, about a hundred stadia, but is uninhabited. The natives said that it was sacred to the Sun and was called Nosala, and that no human being ever of his own will landed there. Instead, anyone who ignorantly touched there at once disappeared. Nearchos, however, says that one of his galleys with an Egyptian crew was lost with all hands not far from this island, and that the pilots stoutly averred about it that they had touched ignorantly on the island and so had disappeared. But Nearchos sent a thirty-oar to sail round the island, with orders not to put in, but that the crew should shout loudly, while coasting round as near as they dared. They were to call on the lost helmsman by name, or any of the crew whose name they knew. As no one answered, he tells us that he himself sailed up to the island, and compelled his unwilling crew to land on shore. Then he went ashore and exploded this island fairy-tale.

They heard also another current story about this island, that one of the Nereids lived there, but the name of this Nereid was not given. She showed much friendliness to any sailor who approached the island. However, she then turned him into a fish and threw him into the sea. The Sun then became irritated with the Nereid, and ordered her leave the island. She agreed to leave, but begged that the spell on her be removed. The Sun consented, and those human beings that she had turned into fishes he pitied and turned them again from fishes into human beings. From this arose the people called Ichthyophagians, and so they descended to Alexander’s day. Nearchos shows that all this is mere legend. But I have no commendation for his pains and his scholarship. The stories are easy enough to demolish, and I regard it as tedious to relate these old tales and then prove them all false.

32 Beyond these Ichthyophagians the Gadrosians inhabit the interior, a poor and sandy territory. This was where Alexander’s army and Alexander himself suffered so seriously, as I have already related in my other book. But when the fleet, leaving the Ichthyophagians, put in at Karmania, they anchored in the open, at the point where they first touched Karmania [oughly related to Karman province, Iran, on the northeastern side of the Persian Gulf]]. Since there was a long and rough line of surf parallel with the coast. From there they sailed no further due west, but took a new course and steered with their bows pointing between north and west. . . [details omitted]. Those who had knowledge of the district said that this promontory belonged to Arabia, and was called Maketa [Musandam peninsula, Oman], and that from there the Assyrians imported cinnamon and other spices.

33 They sailed then, leaving this part of the shore, hugging the land. Now after voyaging some seven hundred stadia, they anchored off another beach, called Neoptana. Then at dawn they moved off seaward, and after traversing a hundred stadia, they moored by the river Anamis. The district was called Harmozeia [Hormozgan, Iran, on the north side of the opening into the Persian gulf]. Everyone here was friendly, and produced fruit of all sorts, except that olives did hot grow there. There they disembarked, and had a welcome rest from their long toils, remembering the miseries they had endured by sea and on the coast of the Ichthyophagians. Recounting one to another the desolate character of the country, the almost bestial nature of the inhabitants, and their own distresses. . . [omitted several sections including an encounter with Alexander of Macedon].

[Three climatic zones of Persia]

40 The Persians dwell up to this point [near Oroatis / Zohreh river, opposite modern Kuwait at the top of the Persian gulf] and the Susians next to them. Above the Susians lives another independent descent group (genos) called Ouxians (or: Uxians), and in my earlier history I have described them as bandits (lēstai). The length of the voyage along the Persian coast was four thousand four hundred stadia. The Persian land is divided, they say, into three climatic zones. The part which lies by the Erythraian sea [i.e. the Persian Gulf in this case] is sandy and sterile, owing to the heat. Then the next zone, northward, has a temperate climate. The country is grassy and has lush meadows and many vines and all other fruits except the olive. It is rich with all sorts of gardens, has pure rivers running through as well as lakes. It is good both for all sorts of birds which frequent rivers and lakes and for horses. It also pastures the other domestic animals, is well wooded, and has plenty of game. The next zone, still going northward, is wintry and snowy.

[Ouxians, Mardians, and Kossaians]

Nearchos tells us about some envoys from the Euxine sea [Black Sea] who after quite a short journey met Alexander traversing Persia and caused him considerable amazement: they explained to Alexander how short the journey was. I have explained that the Ouxians are neighbours to the Susians, and the Mardians – who are also bandits (lēstai) – live next the Persians, and the Kossaians (or: Cossaeans) come next to the Medes. Alexander conquered all these peoples, attacking them in winter-time when they thought their country unapproachable. He also founded cities so that they should no longer be nomads but cultivators and farmers so that, having a stake in the country, they might be deterred from raiding one another. From here the convoy passed along the Susian territory.

About this part of the voyage Nearchos says he cannot speak with accurate detail, except about the places they put down anchor and the length of the voyage. This is because the country is for the most part marshy and runs out well into the sea, with breakers, and is very hard to find a good place for anchoring. So their voyage was mostly in the open sea. They sailed out, therefore, from the mouths of the river, where they had encamped, just on the Persian border, taking on board water for five days, because the pilots said that there would be no fresh water on the way.

41 . . . During the night, however, they were fortunate in reaching deep sailing water and next day also, up to the evening. They sailed nine hundred stadia, and anchored in the mouth of the Euphrates near a village of Babylonia, called Didotis. This is where the merchants gather together frankincense from the neighbouring country and all other sweet-smelling spices which Arabia produces. From the mouth of the Euphrates to Babylon Nearchos says it is a voyage of three thousand three hundred stadia.

42 There they heard that Alexander was departing towards Susa [Shush, Iran]. They therefore sailed back, in order to sail up the Pasitigris [Karun] river and meet Alexander. So they sailed back, with the land of Susia on their left, and they went along the lake into which the Tigris runs. It flows from Armenia past the city of Ninos (or: Ninus) [Nineveh], which once was a great and rich city, and so distinguishes the region between itself and the Euphrates; that is why it is called “Between the Rivers.” . . . [voyage details omitted]. Then they had sailed up about a hundred and fifty stadia they moored there, waiting for the scouts whom Nearchos had sent to see where the King was. Nearchos himself sacrificed to the Saviour gods, and held an athletic meeting, and the whole naval force enjoyed themselves. And when news was brought that Alexander was now approaching they sailed again up the river. They moored near the pontoon bridge on which Alexander intended to take his army over to Susa. There the two forces met. Alexander offered sacrifices for his ships and men, come safe back again, and games were held. Whenever Nearchos appeared in the camp, the troops pelted him with ribbons and flowers. Nearchos and Leonnatos were also crowned by Alexander with a golden crown: Nearchos for the safe conveying of the ships, Leonnatos for the victory he had achieved among the Oreitans and the barbarians who lived next to them. And so Alexander received safe back his navy, which had started from the mouths of the Indus river.

43 . . . [omitted details regarding navigation to various parts] . This is where my history will end which, as well as my other, deals with Alexander of Macedon son of Philip.


Diodoros, Library of History = Agatharchides of Knidos, FGrHist 86, 

[For Diodoros’ preceding discussion of the Ethiopians, go to this link].

Book 3

[Ichthyophagians / Fish-eaters]

14 . . . But we will try to discuss the peoples which inhabit the coast of the Arabian gulf and that of the Trogodytes and the part of Ethiopia that faces the noon-day sun and the south wind.

15  The first people we will mention are the Ichthyophagians​ (Ichthyophagoi; literally: “Fish-eaters”) who inhabit the coast which extends from Karmania and Gedrosia​ [now southwestern Pakistan] to the farthest limits of the arm of the sea [Erythraian sea / Indian ocean] which is found at the Arabian gulf, which extends inland an unbelievable distance and is enclosed at its mouth by two continents, on the one side by Arabia Felix [southern Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Oman] and on the other [east] side by the region of the Trogodytes (literally: “Cave-dwellers”).

(2) As for these barbarians, some of them walk around entirely naked and have the women and children in common like their flocks and herds. Since they recognize only the physical perception of pleasure and pain, they take no thought of things which are shameful or honourable. (3) They have their dwellings not far from the sea along the rocky shores, where there are not only deep valleys but also jagged ravines and very narrow channels which nature has divided by means of winding side-branches. These branches being by their nature suited to their need, the natives (egchōrioi) close up the passages and​ outlets with heaps of great stones, and by means of these, as if with nets, they carry on the catching of the fish. (4) For whenever the flood-tide of the sea sweeps violently over the land, which happens twice daily and usually about the third and ninth hour, the sea covers in its flood all the rocky shore and together with the huge and violent billow carries to the land an incredible multitude of fish of every kind, which at first remain along the coast, wandering in search of food among the sheltered spots and hollow places. But whenever the tide goes out, the water flows off little by little through the heaps of rocks and ravines, but the fish are left behind in the hollow places. (5) At this moment the multitude of the natives with their children and women gather, as if at a single word of command, at the rocky shores.

Dividing into several groups, the barbarians rush in bands each to its respective place with a hideous shouting, as if they had come unexpectedly upon some prey. (6) At that point the women and children, seizing the smaller fish which are near the shore, throw them on the land, and the men of bodily vigour lay hands upon the fish which are hard to overcome because of their size. For creatures of enormous size are driven out of the deep, not only sea-scorpions​, eels and dog-fish, but also seals​ and many other kinds which are strange both in appearance and in name. (7) They subdue these animals without the assistance of any skilful device of weapons but by piercing them through with sharp goathorns and by gashing them with the jagged rocks. Necessity teaches nature everything, as Nature, in her own fashion, by seizing upon the opportunities which lie at hand adapts herself to their hoped-for utilization.

16  Whenever they have collected a multitude of all kinds of fish, they carry off their catch and bake them all upon the rocks which are inclined towards the south. And since these stones are red-hot because of the very great heat, they leave the fish there for only a short time and then turn them over. Then, picking them up bodily by the tail, they shake them. (2) And the meat, which has become tender by reason of the warmth, falls away, but backbones are cast into a single spot and form a great heap, being collected for a certain use of which we will speak a little later. Then placing the meat upon a smooth stone they carefully tread upon it for a sufficient length of time and mix with it the fruit of the buckthorn. (3) For when this has been thoroughly worked into the meat the whole things becomes a glutinous mass, and it would appear that this was used by them as a relish. Finally, when this has been well trodden, they mould it into little oblong bricks and place them in the sun. After these have become thoroughly dry, they sit down and feast upon them, eating not according to any measure or weight but according to every person’s own wish, since they make their physical desire the bounds of their indulgence. (4) For they have at all times stores of food which are unfailing and ready for use, as though Poseidon had assumed the task of Demeter.

But at times a tidal wave of such size rolls in from the sea upon the land, a violent wave that for many days submerges the rocky shores so that no one can approach those regions. (5) Consequently, being short of food at such times, they at first gather the mussels, which are of so great a size that some of them are found that weigh four minai. That is, they break their shells by throwing huge stones at them and then eat the meat raw, its taste resembling somewhat that of oysters. (6) Whenever the ocean is high for a considerable period because of the continued winds and the impossibility of coping with that state of affairs prevents them from making their usual catch of fish, they turn, as has been said, to the mussels. But if the food from the mussels fails them, they have recourse to the heap of fish backbones. (7) That is, they select from this heap such backbones as are succulent and fresh and take them apart joint by joint, and then they grind some at once with their teeth, though the hard ones they first crush with rocks and thus prepare them before they eat them. Their disposition is largely the same as wild beasts which make their homes in dens.

17  Now as for solid food they get an abundance of it in the manner described, but their use of wet food is amazing and quite incredible. For they carefully devote themselves for four days to the sea-food they have caught, happily feasting together while entertaining one another with inarticulate songs. Furthermore, they lie at this time with any women they happen to meet in order to beget children, being free from every concern because their food is easily secured and readily available. (2) But on the fifth day they all hurry off in search of drink to the foothills of the mountains, where there are springs of sweet water at which the pastoral folk water their flocks and herds. (3) And their journey to that place is like that of herds of cattle, all of them uttering a cry which produces, not articulate speech, but merely a confused roaring. As for their children, the women carry the babies continually in their arms, but the fathers do this after they have been separated from their milk. Those who are above five years of age lead the way accompanied by their parents, playing as they go and full of joy, as though they were setting out for pleasure of the sweetest kind. (4) For the nature of this people, being as yet unperverted, considers the satisfying of their needs to be the greatest possible good, desiring in addition none of the imported pleasures. As soon as they arrive at the watering-places of the pastoral folk and have their bellies filled with the water, they return, scarcely able to move because of the weight of it. (5) On that day they taste no food, but everyone lies gorged and scarcely able to breathe, a lot like someone who is drunk. The next day, however, they turn again to the eating of the fish. And their way of living follows a cycle after this fashion throughout their lives.

Now the inhabitants of the coast inside the straits [i.e. the eastern coast of the entrance into the Gulf of Oman or the Persian Gulf] lead the kind of life which has been described, and by reason of the simplicity of their food they rarely are subject to attacks of disease, although they are far shorter-lived than the inhabitants of our part of the world.

18  But as for the inhabitants of the coast outside the gulf, we find that their life is far more astonishing than that of the people just described. It is as though their nature never suffers from thirst and does not feel pain. For although they have been banished by fortune from the inhabited regions into the desert, they fare quite well from their catch of the fish, but wet food they do not require. (2) For since they eat the fish while it is yet juicy and not far removed from the raw state, they are so far from requiring wet food that they have not even a notion of drinking. And they are content with that food which was originally allotted to them by fortune, considering that the mere elimination of that pain which arises from the desire for food is happiness.

(3) But the most surprising thing of all is that, with regard to a lack of sensibility, they surpass all peoples and to such a degree that what is recounted about them [by Diodoros’ source, primarily Agatharchides] is scarcely credible. And yet many merchants of Egypt, who usually sail through the Erythraian sea down to this day and have often sailed as far as the land of the Ichthyophagians, agree in their accounts with what we have said about the human beings who do not feel pain.

[Emotionless Ethiopians]

(4) As well, the third Ptolemy​ [I Euergetes, reigning ca. 305–282 BCE], who was passionately fond of hunting the elephants which are found in that region, sent one of his friends named Simmias to spy out the land. Setting out with suitable supplies, Simmias made a thorough investigation of the peoples (ethnē) lying along the coast, as the historian Agatharchides of Knidos asserts,. Now Agatharchides says that the emotionless (apathes; or: insensible) Ethiopians makes no use whatsoever of drink and that, for the reasons given above, their nature does not require it. (5) Generally speaking, he relates that they have no intercourse with other peoples nor does the foreign appearance of people who approach their shores have any effect upon the natives. Rather, looking at them intently, they show no emotion and their expressions remain unaltered, as if there were no one present. Indeed when a man drew his sword and threatened them with it, they did not run away. If they were subjected to insults or even violence, they would show no irritation, and the majority were not moved to anger in sympathy with the victims of such treatment. On the contrary, when at times children or women were slaughtered before their eyes, they remained emotionless (apathes) in their attitudes, displaying no sign of anger or, on the other hand, of pity. (6) In short, they remained unmoved in the face of the most appalling horrors, looking steadfastly at what was taking place and nodding their heads at each incident.

Consequently, they say, they speak no language, but by movements of the hands which describe each object they point out everything they need. (7) The most amazing fact of all is that seals live with these tribes and catch the fish for themselves in a manner similar to that employed by the human beings. Likewise with respect to their habitations and the safety of their offspring these two kinds of beings place the greatest trust in one another. For the association with animals of a different species continues without any wrongdoing and with peace and complete observance of propriety. Now this manner of life, strange as it is, has been observed by these descent groups (genē) from very early times, whether it has been fashioned by habit over the long space of time or by a need imposed by necessity because of stress of circumstances.

19  As for their dwelling-places, those used by these peoples (ethnē) are not all similar, but they inhabit homes modified to suit the peculiar nature of their surroundings. For instance, some of them make their home in caves which open preferably towards the north and in which they cool themselves, thanks to the deep shade and also to the breezes which blow around them. Since those which face the south, having as they do a temperature like that of an oven, cannot be approached by human beings because of the excessive heat. (2) But others who can find no caves facing the north collect the ribs of the whales which are cast up by the sea. And then, since there is a great abundance of these ribs, they interweave them​ from either side, the curve outwards and leaning towards each other. Then they weave fresh seaweed through them.​ Accordingly, when this vaulted structure is covered over, they gain relief in it from the heat when it is most intense, the necessity imposed by nature suggesting to them a skill in which they were self-taught.

(3) A third method by which the Ichthyophagians find a dwelling for themselves is as follows. Olive trees​ grow in these regions in very great numbers and their roots are washed by the sea, but they bear thick foliage and a fruit which resembles the sweet chestnut. (4) These trees they interlace, forming in this way a continuous shade, and live in tents of this peculiar kind. For passing their days as they do on land and in the water at the same time, they lead a pleasurable life, since they avoid the sun by means of the shade cast by the branches and offset the natural heat of the regions with the continual washing of the waves against them, giving their bodies comfort and ease by the pleasant breezes which blow about them.

We must speak also about the fourth kind of habitation. (5) From time immemorial a quantity of seaweed of tremendous proportions has been heaped up, resembling a mountain. This seaweed has been so compacted by the unceasing pounding of the waves that it has become hard and intermingled with sand. Accordingly, the natives dig in these heaps tunnels the height of a man, leaving the upper portion for a roof, and in the lower part they construct passage-ways connected with each other by borings.​ As they cool themselves in these tunnels, they free themselves from all troubles, and leaping forth from them at the times when the waves pour over the shore, they busy themselves with the catching of the fish. Then, when the ebb-tide sets in, they flee back together into these same passage-ways to feast upon their catch.

(6) Their dead, moreover, they “bury” by leaving the bodies just as they are cast out​ at the ebb of the tide, and then when the flood-tide sets in they cast the bodies into the sea. Consequently, by making their own interment a nutriment of the fish, they have a life which follows in singular fashion a continuous cycle throughout all eternity.

20  One descent group of the Ichthyophagians has dwellings so peculiar that they constitute a great puzzle to men who take a pride in investigating such matters. Certain of them make their home among precipitous crags which these men could not possibly have approached at the outset, since a lofty rock hangs over it. It is sheer at every point, while on the sides unapproachable cliffs shut off entrance, and on the remaining face the sea hems them in, which cannot be passed through on foot. They also do not use rafts at all, while they have no notion of boats like we have. (2) Such being the puzzle concerning them, the only solution left to us is that they emerged from the soil (autochthones), and that they experienced no beginning, but existed always from the beginning of time, as certain natural philosophers have declared to be true of all the phenomena of nature.​ (3) But since the knowledge of such matters is unattainable by us, nothing prevents those who have the most to say about them from knowing the least, since even though plausibility may persuade those who listen, plausibility by no means discovers the truth.

[Chelonophagians / “Turtle-eaters”]

21 (1) We must speak also about the Chelonophagians (literally: “Turtle-eaters”), as they are called, and the nature of their entire manner of life. There are islands in the ocean, which lie near the land, many in number, but small in size and low-lying, and bearing no food either cultivated or wild. Because these islands are so near to one another no waves occur among them, since the surf breaks upon the outermost islands, and so a great multitude of sea-turtles linger in these regions, sheltering there from all directions to gain the protection afforded by the calm. (2) These animals spend the nights in deep water busied with their search for food. But during the days they resort to the sea which lies between the islands and sleep on the surface with their upper shells towards the sun, giving to the eye an appearance like that of overturned boats; for they are of extraordinary magnitude and not smaller than the smallest fishing skiffs.

(3) The barbarians who inhabit the islands seize the occasion and swim quietly out to the turtles. When they have come near the turtle on both sides, those on the one side push down upon it while those on the other side lift it up, until the animal is turned over on its back. (4) Then the men, taking hold on both sides, steer the entire bulk of the creature, to prevent it from turning over and making its escape into the deep water by swimming with the means with which nature has endowed it. One man with a long rope, fastening it to its tail, swims towards the land. Drawing the turtle along after him, he hauls it to the land with those who had first attacked it assisting him in bringing it in. (5) When they have got the turtles upon the shore of their island, all the inside meat they bake slightly for a short time in the sun and then feast upon it. But the upper shells, which are shaped like a boat, they use both for sailing over to the mainland, as they do in order to get water, and for their dwellings, by setting them right side up on elevations. This makes it appear that nature, by a single act of favour, had bestowed upon these peoples the satisfaction of many needs, because the same gift constitutes for them food, vessel, house and ship.

(6) Not far distant from these people the coast is inhabited by barbarians who lead an irregular life. For they depend for their food upon the whales which are cast up by the land, at times enjoying an abundance of food because of the great size of the beasts which they discover. But at other times, when interruptions of the supply occur, they suffer greatly from the shortage. When the latter is the case they are forced by the scarcity of food to gnaw the cartilages of old bones and the parts which grow from the ends of the ribs.

As for the Ichthyophagians, then, this is the number of their descent groups and such, speaking summarily, are the ways in which they live.

22 (1) But the coast of Babylonia​ [i.e. the area on the west coast of the Persian Gulf is in mind] borders on a land which is civilized and well planted and there is such a multitude of fish for the natives that the men who catch them are unable to keep ahead of an abundant supply. (2) For along the beaches they set reeds close to one another and interwoven, so that their appearance is like that of a net which has been set up along the edge of the sea. And throughout the entire construction there are doors which are fixed close together and resemble basket-work​ in the way they are woven, but are furnished with hinges that easily yield to movements of the water in either direction. These doors are opened by the waves as they roll towards the shore when the tide comes in and are closed when the tide goes out and the water surges back. (3) Consequently it comes about that every day, when the tide comes in from the sea, the fish are carried in from the deep water with the tide and pass inside through the doors, but when the sea recedes they are unable to pass with the water through the interwoven reeds. As a result it is possible at times to see beside the ocean heaps being formed of gasping fish, which are being picked up unceasingly by those who have been appointed to this work. They have from their catch subsistence in abundance as well as large revenues.

(4) Some of the inhabitants of these parts, because the country is both like a plain and low-lying, dig wide ditches leading from the sea over a distance of many stadia to their private estates, and setting wicker gates at their openings they open these when the tide comes in and close them when the tide changes to the opposite direction. Then, insofar as the sea pours out through the interstices of the gate but the fish are held back in the ditches, they have a controlled store of fish and can take of them as many as they choose and at whatever time they please.

23 (1) Now that we have discussed the peoples who dwell on the coast from Babylonia to the Arabian gulf, we will describe the peoples who live next to them. For in the Ethiopia which lies above Egypt there dwells beside the river Asa​ [actually Astabaras in Agatharchides] the people of the Rhizophagians (“Root-eaters”). . . .

[For Agatharchides’ / Diodoros’ subsequent discussion of Ethiopians, go to this link].


Strabo, Geography

Book 15 (drawing on Nearchos, FGrHist 133)

2 . . . (2) The country of the Ichthyophagi​ans (“Fish-eaters”) is on the sea-level. Most of it is without trees, except palms and a kind of thorn and the tamarisk. There is also a scarcity both of water and of foods produced by cultivation. Both the people and their cattle use fish for food and drink waters supplied by rains and wells, and the meat of their cattle smells like fish. They build their dwellings mostly with the bones of whales and with oyster-shells, using the ribs of whales as beams and supports, and the jawbones as doorposts.

They also use the vertebral bones of whales as mortars, in which they pound the fish after roasting them in the sun. Then they make bread of this, mixing a small amount of flour with it, for they have grinding-mills, although they have no iron. And this is indeed not so surprising, for they could import grinding-mills from other places. But how do they cut them anew when worn smooth? Why, with the same stones, they say, with which they sharpen arrows and javelins that have been hardened in fire. As for fish, they bake some in covered earthen vessels, but for the most part eat them raw; and they catch them, among other ways, with nets made of palm-bark. (3) Above the country of the Ichthyophagians is situated Gedrosia, a country less torrid than India, but more torrid than the rest of Asia. Since lacks of fruits and water, except in summer, it is not much better than the country of the Ichthyophagians.

Book 16 (drawing on Agatharchides of Knidos, FGrHist 86)

4 . . . (13) After the Harbour of Eumenes, as far as Deire and the straits opposite the six islands, ​the country is inhabited by the Ichthyophagians (“Fish-eaters”), the Kreophagians (“Meat-eaters”) and the Kolobians, ​who extend as far as the interior. In this region are several hunting-grounds for elephants, insignificant cities, and islands lying off the coast. Most of the people are nomads, and those who farm are few in number. In some parts of their country styrax ​grows in significant quantities.

The Ichthyophagians collect the fish when the tide goes out, throw them upon the rocks, and bake them in the sun. Then, when they have thoroughly baked them, they pile up the bones, tread the flesh with their feet and make it into cakes. Again they bake these cakes and use them for food. But in stormy weather, when they are unable to collect the fish, they pound the bones which they have piled up and mould them into cakes and use them for food. They also suck the bones when fresh.

But some, who have shell-fish, fatten them by throwing them down into gullies and pools of sea-water, and then, throwing in minnows as food for them, use them for food when there is a scarcity of fish. They also have all kinds of places for hatching and feeding fish,​ from which they parcel them out. As they shout out songs with their families, some of the people who inhabit the part of the coast that is without water go inland every five days to the water-reservoirs, throw themselves upon the ground face downwards, and drink like cattle until their stomachs are filled out as tight as drums. Then they return to the sea again. They live in caves, or in pens roofed over with beams and cross-beams, consisting of the bones of whales and small fish,​as also with olive branches.

(14) The Chelonophagians (“Turtle-eaters”) ​live under cover of turtle-shells, which are so large that they are used as boats. But some of these people, since the sea-weed is thrown ashore in great quantities and forms high and hill-like heaps, dig beneath these and dwell under them. They throw out their dead as food for the fish, the bodies being caught up by the flood-tides.

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