Indians: Dio of Prusa on the Indians’ superior mode of life (late first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Indians: Dio of Prusa on the Indians’ superior mode of life (late first century CE),' Last modified January 1, 2023, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=11729.

Ancient author: Dio Chrysostom of Prusa, Oration 35 (link to Greek text and full translation).

Comments: In this praising (epideictic) speech addressed to the inhabitants of a town in Phrygia, Dio suggests that there is no more fortunate people in the world than the Kelainians, with only one exception: the Indians. Dio then engages in a mini-ethnographic discourse on the Indians, portraying their environment and lifestyle as ideal. Dio also zeroes in on India’s wise men, the Brahmans. While the overall tenor of the passage is positive towards the Indians, there is a moment at which Dio hints at the other side of the coin as he specifies that his account is about the peoples living further inland, rather than the inferior coastal inhabitants of India who interact with foreign traders. At various points, Dio is clearly drawing on existing Greek ethnographic traditions (like those you find in category two to your right), including Herodotos’ description of the giant ants who mine gold (link) which is ostensibly drawn from Persian sources or informants.

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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(17) . . . Accordingly I know of no city that is more favoured by fortune than Kelainai [Apameia Kelanai in Phrygia] and no people that leads a better existence, except only the people of India. (18) For in India, according to report, there are rivers not of water as in your land, but one of milk, one of translucent wine, another of honey, and another of olive oil. And these streams spring from hills near by, as if from the breasts of Mother Earth. These products are also immeasurably superior to those we have both in flavour and in potency. For what we have in our country we gather in scanty measure and with difficulty from certain animals and plants, crushing the fruits of trees and plants​ and extracting the food of living creatures by milking and by robbing the hive. The products of India, on the other hand, are altogether purer, untainted by violence and ruthlessness, I think. Moreover, the rivers flow during one month for the king, and that constitutes his tribute, while for the rest of the year they flow for the people.

(19) So every day the Indians assemble with their children and their wives at the springs and river-banks, playing and laughing as if in expectation of a feast. And by the banks there grows the lotus [cf. Herodotos, Inquiries 2.93] – a sturdy plant and, one might say, the sweetest of all foods, not mere fodder for animals as the lotus is used in our land – and also much sesame and parsley, at least as one might judge from the outward similarity of those plants, although for quality they are not to be compared. That country produces another seed as well, a better food than wheat and barley and more wholesome. It grows in huge calyxes, like those of roses but more fragrant and larger. They eat this plant – both root and fruit – without any labour.

(20) There are many canals which issue from the rivers, some large and some small, mingling with one another and constructed by people to suit their fancy. Using the canals, the Indians convey with ease the fluids I have named, just as we convey the water of our gardens. There are also baths close by at their disposal, the water of which in the one case is warm and whiter than silver and in the other it is blue from its depth and coldness. In these they swim, women and children together, all of them beautiful. After the bath they sing and hum while reclining in the meadows.

(21) There are in that land meadows of utter beauty and a variety of flowering trees that provide shade from high above, though they bring their fruit within reach of all who wish to pluck it as the branches nod. And the birds charm them by their song, some seated in the meadows, a great flock of them, and some high up among the upper branches. Their notes are more tuneful than those of our musical instruments. A gentle breeze is always blowing, and the climate is nearly constant throughout the year, and it resembles most closely that of early summer. What is more, not only is their sky clearer but also the stars are more numerous and more brilliant. And these people live more than four hundred years, and during all that time they are beautiful and youthful and neither old age nor disease nor poverty is found among them.

(22) These good things are so wonder­ful and so numerous. Yet there are also people called Brahmans who, abandoning those rivers and the people scattered along their banks, turn aside and devote themselves to private speculation and meditation. They undertake amazing physical labours without compulsion and endure fearful tests of endurance. It is said that they have one special fountain, the Fountain of Truth, by far the best and most godlike of all. Those who drink their fill from it have never been known to lie.

Regarding conditions in that land, then, it is a true story that you have heard. For some of those who have been there have vouched for it, even though only a few do go there in pursuit of trade and they only mingle with the people on the coast.​ (23) That branch of the Indian descent group [i.e. those on the coast] is in held in dishonour, and all the other Indians say harsh things about them.

It must be admitted that the people of India are more fortunate than you are, but that you are more fortunate than everyone else, with the exception of just one more human descent group, namely, those most rich in gold. And their gold is obtained from ants [cf. Herodotos, Inquiries 3.102-105 – link]. These ants are larger than foxes, though in other respects similar to the ants we have. And they burrow in the earth, just as do all other ants. That which is thrown out by their burrowing is gold, the purest of all gold and the most resplendent. Now there are close to one another a series of what might be called hills of gold dust, and the whole plain is gleaming. Therefore it is difficult to look at it in the sunlight, and many of those who have made the attempt have lost their sight. (24) But the people who live near that land, having traversed the intervening territory (desert land of no great extent) in chariots drawn by horses of greatest speed, arrive in the middle of the day when the ants have gone underground. Then these men seize the gold that has been cast forth and flee. And the ants, becoming aware of what has happened, chase after the men and, having overtaken their quarry, fight until they either meet their death or kill the foe. They are the most valiant of all creatures.​ So at least these anges know what their gold is worth, and they even die sooner than give it up.

(25) Well then, what other people of our time are said to be fortunate? The people of Byzantion [now modern Istanbul], who enjoy a most fertile land and a sea abounding in fruits. But they have neglected the land because of the excellence of the sea. For whereas the land produces its fruits for them only after a long interval of time and toil is required to secure them, the sea yields up its treasures quickly without any labour on their part.

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