Scythians and Ethiopians: Agatharchides and Diodoros theorize about the effects of climate (second-first centuries CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Scythians and Ethiopians: Agatharchides and Diodoros theorize about the effects of climate (second-first centuries CE),' Last modified November 16, 2022, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=10931.

Ancient authors: Agatharchides of Knidos (second century BCE), FGrHist 86, as cited by Diodoros of Sicily (mid-first century BCE), Library of History 3.33-34 (link to Greek text and full translation).

Comments: Like other Greek authors who theorize about the origins of different peoples’ customs and characters, Agatharchides of Knidos (mid-second century BCE) and Diodoros of Sicily about a century later (closely following Agatharchides) propose the essential importance of environmental determism. The climate and the foods available in that climate determine the nature and character of the peoples. Although not expressly stated, the narrative implies that “our” climate (i.e. in Sicily or in Greece generally) is mid-point between the two uncivilized extremes of the bitterly cold north of the Scythians and the scorching south of the Ethiopian Troglodytes (Cave-dwellers). Implied also are the hegemonic ethnic hierarchies which assume that peoples living in the more moderate conditions in the middle (i.e. Greeks in this case) are superior to all other peoples in terms of lifestyle, character, and level of civilization.  For the extensive discussion of Ethiopian peoples and their diets that immediately precedes this more theoretical section, go to the following two links: link (on Fish-eaters) and link. (on other “eaters” in Ethiopia).

Source of the translations: C. H. Oldfather, Diodorus Sicilus: Library of History, volumes 1-6, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1935-1952), public domain (copyright not renewed, Oldfather passed away in 1954), adapted by Victoria Muccilli and Harland.

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33 . . . (7) But we have said enough about the Troglodytes. Now if any reader distrusts our histories because of what is strange and astonishing in the different manners of life which we have described, when he has considered and compared the climate of Scythia [i.e. furthest north] and that of the Troglodyte country [i.e. the furthest south Agatharchides goes] and has observed the differences between them, he will not distrust what has been here related.

34  So great, for instance, is the contrast between our climate [in Sicily and or Greece] and the climates which we have described that the difference, when considered in detail, is beyond belief. (2) For example, there are countries where, because of the excessive cold, the greatest rivers are frozen over, the ice sustaining the crossing of armies and the passage of heavily laden wagons, the wine and all other juices freeze so that they must be cut with knives. What is even more wonderful still is that the extremities of human beings fall off when rubbed by the clothing, their eyes are blinded, fire furnishes no protection, even bronze statues are cracked open. Furthermore, at certain seasons, they say, the clouds are so thick that in those regions there is neither lightning nor thunder. Many other things, more astonishing than these, also happen, which are unbelievable to anyone who is ignorant about them, but cannot be endured by anyone who has actually experienced them.

(3) But at the furthest bounds of Egypt and the Troglodyte country, because of the excessive heat from the sun at midday, men who are standing side by side are unable even to see one another by reason of the thickness of the air as it is condensed. As well, no one can walk around without shoes, since blisters appear at once on any who go barefoot. (4) Unless they have the necesary water on hand to drink, they quickly die because the heat swiftly exhausts the natural moistures in the body. Moreover, whenever any man puts any food into a bronze vessel along with water and sets it in the sun, it quickly boils without fire or wood.

(5) Nevertheless, the inhabitants of both the lands which we have mentioned [i.e. lands of Scythians and Troglodytes] are​ far from desiring to escape from the excessive hardships which happen to them. On the contrary, they actually give up their lives of their own accord simply to avoid being forced to get used to a different diet and way of life. (6) Thus it is that every country to which a man has grown accustomed holds a kind of spell of its own over him, and the length of time which he has spent there from infancy overcomes the hardship which he experiences from its climate.

(7) Yet countries so different in both ways​ are separated by no great interval of space. For from Maiotis lake [Sea of Azof], near which certain Scythians live, living in the midst of frost and excessive cold, many sailors of merchant vessels, running before a favourable wind, have made Rhodes in ten days, from which they have reached Alexandria in four. From Alexandria many men, sailing by way of the Nile,​ have reached Ethiopia in ten days. So from the coldest parts of the inhabited world to its warmest parts the sailing time is not more than twenty-four days, if the journey is made without a break. (8) Consequently, with the difference in climates being so great in such a short interval, it is notsurprising that both the diet and the ways of life as well as the bodies of the inhabitants should be very different from what is most common among us.

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