Scythians and Getians: Dio of Prusa on inter-ethnic encounters at Olbia and on Getian Matters (late first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Scythians and Getians: Dio of Prusa on inter-ethnic encounters at Olbia and on Getian Matters (late first century CE),' Last modified January 1, 2023, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=11629.

Ancient author: Dio Chrysostom of Prusa, portions of Orations 36, 12, and 72 (link to Greek text and full translation).

Comments: Below are sections from three different speeches by Dio, a Stoic philosopher and public speaker from Prusa in Bithynia, in which he deals with northern peoples around the Black Sea area.

First of all, ostensibly delivered in his hometown of Prusa in Bithynia, Dio’s speech concerning a visit to Olbia (here designated by its old name of Borysthenes, now near the village of Parutyne, Ukraine) in Scythian territory echoes the ethnographic interests of Herodotos (link). Olbia was a very early Greek colony founded by those from the Ionian city of Miletos located on the western coast of Asia Minor (Turkey). The opening portion of the speech presented below has Dio describing in some detail his supposed first-hand encounter with the geographical landscape and rivers. This leads him into references to the surrounding peoples of Getians and Scythians. Then he also deals with the relationship between the Olbians or Borysthenites and their barbarian neighbours, including reference to a Scythian raid further on in the discourse when he begins to address a group of Olbians resting after the assault (on which see the so called Magian myth from that discussion at this link). Dio presents the Olbians as Greeks (e.g. the reference to their interests in Homer) but also Greeks who have adopted some Scythian ways, in particular adopting the dress of the black-cloaks. Their Greek language is noticeably different, however. He also refers to acculturation to Greek pederasty on the part of the Scythians. So this provides glimpses into Dio’s imagination about ethnic interactions north of the Black Sea, opposite his hometown of Prusa.

Dio’s reference to his plans to visit the land of the Getians (Getai; related to Dacians and Thracians on the western coast of the Black Sea) is particularly noteworthy here. In his Olympic discourse (Oration 12; likely 97 CE) which is also excerpted below, Dio refers to his visit to the Getians in the past tense, teasing the audience and providing a taste of what his now lost work on Getian Matters (Getica) may have covered, primarily the war-like way of life of this people. Like some others, Dio identifies the Getians with what Homer calls “Mysians” west of the Black Sea, namely Moesians (what Romans might call Dacians). Dio seems to avoid negative characterizations, saying that they are not stupid (unlike Herodotos’ characterization of Pontic peoples at this link). But elsewhere Dio does refer to the “accursed Getians” (Oration 48.5). While some ancient sources attribute a work called Getian Matters to Dio Cassius (e.g. Jordanes, on which go to this link), it seems that Philostratos is more on track in saying that Dio of Prusa “had a talent for writing history” which “is demonstrated by Getian Matters (ta Getica). In fact, he did travel as far as the Getians during his wandering as an exile.” (Philostratos, Lives of the Sophists 7 / 487).

A third passage below is from Dio’s speech on the philosopher’s appearance in which he touches on the appearance and dress of certain peoples, including the Getians again. This may give a further sense of some of his ethnographic interests.

Works consulted: N.B. Kirkland, Herodotus and Imperial Greek Literature Criticism, Imitation, Reception (Oxford: OUP, 2022), 152-185.

Source of the translation:  J.W. Cohoon and H.L. Crosby, Dio Chrysostom, 5 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1939-51), public domain (for volumes 1-2, Cohoon passed away in 1946; for volumes 3-5, Crosby passed away in 1954), adapted by Harland.

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Oration 36 (Borysthenite discourse)

[Visit to Olbia and geographical description]

(1) I happened to be visiting in Borysthenes [or: Olbia] during the summer, for I had sailed there then, after my exile, with the purpose of making my way, if possible, through Scythia to the Getian country, in order to observe conditions there. Well, one day toward noon I was strolling along the Hypanis river [southern Bug]. I should explain that, although the city has taken its name from the Borysthenes because of the beauty and the size of that river, the actual position, not only of the present city, but also of its predecessor, is on the bank of the Hypanis, not far above what is called cape Hippolaos,​ on the opposite shore. This part of the land, near where the two rivers meet, is as sharp and firm as the beak of a ship. But from there on these rivers form a marshy lake down to the sea for a distance of approximately two hundred stadia; and the breadth of the two rivers in that district is not less than that. The fact is that most of that stretch consists of shoals, and in fair weather unruffled calm prevails as in a swamp. But on the right there are signs of a river, and sailors inward bound judge its depth by the current.​ This explains why the water does make its way out to sea, because of the strength of the current; but for that it would easily be held in check when the south wind blows strongly dead against it. As for the rest, we have only muddy shore overgrown with reeds and trees. And many of the trees are to be seen even in the midst of the marsh, so as to resemble masts of ships. At times, some who were less familiar with those waters have lost their way, supposing that they were approaching ships. It is here also that we find the vast number of salt-works from which most of the barbarians buy their salt, as do also those Greeks and Scythians who occupy the Tauric Chersonese [i.e. the territory around the city of Chersonesos]. The rivers empty into the sea near the castle of Alector, which is said to belong to the wife of the Sauromatian​ king.

[Olbians’ relations with surrounding Getians and Scythians]

The city of Borysthenes, as to its size, does not correspond to its ancient fame, because of its ever-repeated seizure and its wars. For since the city has been set in the midst of barbarians now for so long a time – in fact, barbarians who are virtually the most warlike of all – it is always in a state of war and has often been captured, the last and most disastrous capture occurring not more than one hundred and fifty years ago. And the Getians (Getai) on that occasion seized not only Borysthenes but also the other cities along the left shore of Pontos [Black Sea] as far as Apollonia.​ (5) For that reason the fortunes of the Greeks in that region reached a very low ebb indeed, some of them being no longer united to form cities, while others enjoyed but a wretched existence as communities, and it was mostly barbarians who flocked to them. Indeed many cities have been captured in many parts of Greece, inasmuch as Greece lies scattered in many regions. But after Borysthenes had been taken on the occasion mentioned, its people once more formed a community, with the consent of the Scythians,​ I imagine, because of their [Scythians’] need for traffic with the Greeks who might use that port. For the Greeks had stopped sailing to Borysthenes when the city was destroyed because they had no people of common language to receive them, and the Scythians themselves had neither the ambition nor the knowledge to equip a trading-centre of their own after the Greek manner.

Evidence of the destruction of Borysthenes is visible both in the sorry nature of its buildings and in the contraction of the city within narrow bounds. For it has been built adjacent to one section of the ancient fellow-townsmen where a few towers, but only a few, yet remain, not at all in keeping with the original size or power of the city. The intervening space in that quarter has been blocked off by means of the houses, built to form a continuous whole.​ However, a bit of wall has been constructed parallel to this line of houses, quite low and weak. As for the towers, there are some which stand quite apart from the portion of the city that is now inhabited, so that you would not surmise that they once belonged to a single city. These, then, are clear tokens of the city’s capture, as well as the fact that not a single statue remains undamaged among those that are in the sanctuaries, one and all having suffered mutilation, as is true also of the funeral monuments.

[Dio’s interaction with some Olbians]

Well, as I was saying,​ I happened to be strolling outside the city, and there came to meet me from within the walls some of the people of Borysthenes, as was their custom. At that point, Kallistratos at first came riding by us on horseback on his way from somewhere outside of town, but when he had gone a short distance beyond us, he dismounted. Entrusting his horse to his attendant, he himself drew near in very proper fashion, having drawn his arm beneath his mantle.​ Suspended from his girdle he had a great cavalry sabre, and he was wearing trousers​ and all the rest of the Scythian costume, and from his shoulders there hung a small black cape of thin material, as is usual with the people of Borysthenes. In fact the rest of their apparel in general is regularly black, through the influence of a certain descent group (genos) of Scythians,​ the “Blackcloaks” (Melagchlainoi), who are no doubt named that by the Greeks for that very reason.

Kallistratos was about eighteen years of age, very tall and handsome, having much of the Ionian in his appearance. And it was said also that in matters pertaining to warfare he was a man of courage, and that many of the Sauromatians he had either slain or taken captive. He had become interested also in rhetoric and philosophy, so that he had his heart set on sailing away in my company. For all these reasons, then, he was in high repute with his fellow-townsmen, and not least of all because of his beauty, and he had many lovers. For this practice has continued among them as a heritage from the city of their origin​ [Miletos in Ionia] – I refer to the love of man for man – so much so that they are likely to persuade of some of the barbarians. They do this for no good purpose, I dare say, but rather as those people would adopt such a practice, that is to say, like barbarians and not without sexual violence.

[Discussion with Kallistratos about Homer]

Knowing, then, that Kallistratos was fond of Homer, I immediately began to question him about the poet. And practically all the people of Borysthenes also have cultivated an interest in Homer, possibly because of their still being a warlike people. Yet it may also be due to their regard for Achilles, because they honour him exceedingly, and they have actually established two temples for his worship, one on the island that bears his name​ and one in their city. So they do not wish even to hear about any other poet than Homer. Although in general they no longer speak Greek distinctly, because they live in the midst of barbarians, still almost all at least know the Iliad by heart. . . [omitted remainder of the discussion with Kallistratos and then a philosophical discussion of the cosmic city with a group of Olbians, on which see the Magian myth at this link].

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Oration 12 (Olympic discourse)

“(16) . . . For in fact, as it happens, I have just finished a long, long journey, all the way from the Ister​ [Danube] and the land of the Getians (Getai), or “Mysians” [i.e. Moesians]​ as Homer, using the modern designation of the people, calls them. (17) And I went there, not as a merchant with his wares, nor yet as one of the supply-train of the army in the capacity of baggage-carrier or cattle-driver, nor was I discharging a mission as ambassador to our allies or on some embassy bearing congratulations, the members of which join in prayers with the lips only. I went “Unarmed, with neither helm nor shield nor lance,​” nor indeed with any other weapon either, so that I marvelled that they brooked the sight of me. (18) For I, who could not ride a horse and was not a skilled bowman or man-at-arms, nor yet a javelin-thrower, or slinger, belonging to the light-armed troops who carry no heavy armour, nor, again, was able to cut timber or dig a trench, nor to mow fodder from an enemy’s meadow “with many a glance behind,’” nor yet to raise a tent or a rampart, just as certain non-combatants do who follow the legions as helpers.

(19) I, who was useless for all such things, came among people who were not stupid. Yet they had no leisure to listen to speeches, but were high-strung and tense like race-horses at the starting barriers, fretting at the delay and in their excitement and eagerness pawing the ground with their hoofs. There one could see everywhere swords, everywhere breastplates, everywhere spears, and the whole place was crowded with horses, with weapons and with armed men.​ Quite alone I appeared in the midst of this mighty host, perfectly undisturbed and a most peaceful observer of war. I was weak in body and advanced in years, not bearing “a golden sceptre” or the sacred fillets of any god​ and not arriving at the camp on an enforced journey to gain a daughter’s release. Instead, I was desiring to see strong men contending for empire and power, and their opponents for freedom and native land. Then, not because I shrank from the danger – let no one think this – but because I recalled to mind an old vow, I turned my course here [Olympia] to you, ever considering that things divine have the greater claim and are more profitable than things human, however important these may be. (21) Now is it more agreeable and more opportune for you that I should describe what I saw there [among the Getians]: the immense size of the river [Danube], the character of the country, what climate the inhabitants enjoy, their descent group (genos), and further, I suppose, the population and their military strength?

Or should you prefer that I take up the older and greater tale of this god [Zeus] at whose temple we are now? (22) For he is indeed alike of men and gods the king, ruler, lord, and father. In addition, he is the dispenser of peace and of war, as the experienced and wise poets of the past believed​ — to see if perchance we can commemorate both his nature and his power in a brief speech, which will fall short of what it should be even if we confine ourselves to these two themes alone. . . . [for important portions of the rest of this speech, go to this link].

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Oration 72 (on Personal Appearance)

(3) But what is even more astounding still is this: Here in your city​ [perhaps Rome] from time to time are to be seen persons, some of whom are wearing felt caps on their heads, as today certain of the Thracians who are called Getians do, and as Spartans and Macedonians used to do in days gone by. Others are wearing a turban and trousers, as I understand Persians, Baktrians, Parthians, and many other barbarians do. Some, still more outlandish than these, are accustomed to visit your city wearing feathers erect on their heads, for instance the Nasamonians. Yet the citizens do not have the effrontery to make any trouble at all even for these, or to approach and annoy them. And yet as for Getians or Persians or Nasamonians, while some of them are seen here in no great numbers and others rarely visit here, (4) the whole world today is virtually crowded with persons such as I have described. Yes, I might almost say that they have grown more numerous than the shoemakers, fullers and jesters or the workers at any other occupation whatever. Therefore in our day too possibly it could be said with good reason that every catboat is under sail and every cow is dragging a plow.

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