Indians, Ethiopians, and Celts: Dio of Prusa critiques foreign imports and luxury (late first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Indians, Ethiopians, and Celts: Dio of Prusa critiques foreign imports and luxury (late first century CE),' Last modified January 1, 2023, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=11722.

Ancient author: Dio Chrysostom of Prusa, Oration 79 (On Wealth) (link to Greek text and full translation).

Comments: Dio Chrysostom’s short speech on wealth, which one tradition associates with the Cilicians (perhaps the Tarsians specifically), aims to show the dangers of luxury. Dio brings in as ammunition the idea that Greeks are basically subjecting themselves to rule by foreign (barbarian) peoples by way of the “tribute” they pay for luxury items imported from Babylonia, Syria, Celtic territory, Ethiopia and India. Although elsewhere Dio adopts the somewhat common Greek notion that peoples of the east engage in an effeminate, luxurious lifestyle (e.g. Oration 2.48 on Persians and Syrians; cf. 2.51), in this case he portrays the Indians, Ethiopians, and Celts as unaware of the value of the materials (ivory, gold) they possess until they realize that the Greeks are after them. In a sense, those native populations treat ivory, gold, and amber as though such things were worthless and useless, which is what Dio aims to suggest is actually the case. So this incidentally works against the idea of luxurious living among Indians and others, at least for the purpose of this speech. Dio then closes with a glimpse into the uselessness of the riches that passed from successive conquering powers – from Assyrians, to Medes, to Persians, and finally to Macedonians.

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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[Introduction on the uselessness of supposed luxuries]

(1) Now, by the gods, for what reason above all is it appropriate to admire, yes even to feel proud and congratulate, a city which is the greatest and most powerful of all? Is it for excellence of laws, for fairness of citizens, and for moderation of its rulers, or are these insignificant and worthless things that are easy to come by for ordinary people? Instead, is it for the size of the population, lavishness of market-place, and sumptuousness of its buildings that one should congratulate a city? Is it for its Syrian and Babylonian fabrics? Is it because its citizens roof their houses with gold and the whole place teems with silver, amber, and ivory like the palaces of Alcinoos and Menelaos which Homer has described​ (exaggerating the reality and the possibility too, one may venture to suggest)? I mean the city having been decorated throughout in that fashion. Would it be, by the gods, for its paintings and its statues, none of which had been of any service to their former owners? On the contrary, would those from whom these things were obtained be found to be poor and lowly slaves?

(2) For example, if there were any usefulness in well-blended bronze and in mixing-bowls, altars, and censers of cunning workmanship, the Corinthians’ city would have been prosperous and have long maintained its existence as a state, safeguarding its own settlers and citizens. And again, if there were usefulness in beautifully-coloured and variegated marbles, the same statement could be made about the cities of Teos and Karystos, as well as about certain Egyptian and Phrygian cities in whose vicinity the mountains are of variegated stone. (In fact, I hear that among their stone coffins the very ancient ones are of this same stone). Yet, for all that, they are no better or more fortunate than any of the very lowly and pitiful cities.

[Ethiopian gold]

(3) Furthermore, if it were advantageous to possess gold, there was nothing to prevent the Ethiopians of the interior from being considered most fortunate. Because in their land gold is less highly prized than lead is with us, and it is said that in that region the criminals have been bound with heavy fetters of gold. Yet they are still prisoners and wicked and unjust people. But to congratulate the wealthy and men of great riches, when in all other respects they are no better than very ordinary people is as if, on seeing the prisoners of Ethiopia emerge from their prison, one were to envy them and judge the most fortunate of all to be the one with the heaviest fetters.

[Indian ivory]

(4) Furthermore, if ivory is a marvellous possession and worth fighting for, the Indians are of all people most blessed and pre-eminent by far. Because in their land the bones of the elephants are tossed aside and no one troubles to go near them, just as in our land the bones of cattle and of asses are treated. People even say that in many places the skulls of the elephants, tusks and all, are built into their house walls.

[Celtic amber]

Now what should we say about the Celts? According to report, in their country a certain river carries the amber down with its waters and the amber is found in abundance everywhere by the river banks. It is cast ashore like the pebbles on the beaches in our country. In fact, in earlier times their children used to toss it around while playing even though now they too collect and treasure it, having learned from us how fortunate they are.

[Paying tribute to these peoples]

(5) Are you aware that all these peoples — the Celts, Indians, Iberians, Arabians, and Babylonians — exact tribute from us, not from our land or from our flocks and herds, but from our own foolishness? When any people gets the upper hand by military force and forces the conquered to pay them silver, this is called tribute, and is a sign that people are not very fortunate or brave if they pay tribute to others. So is it not true that if – even though no one has attacked or forced them but rather due to stupidity and self-indulgence – a certain people takes what they prize most highly, silver, and of their own volition sends it over a long road and across a vast expanse of sea to those who cannot easily even set foot upon our soil, such conduct is altogether more cowardly and disgraceful? (6) Except for one thing, that to offer tiny, fragile pebbles​ and, indeed, bones of wild beasts when they take our silver and gold, exchanging useless things for useful things!

[Worthlessness of plunder from Median, Persian, and Macedonian conquests]

But I am often most astonished when I think about how the Medes were quite content – even delighted – at having taken Syrian [i.e. Assyrian] riches; the Persians afterwards at having taken the riches of the Medes; and, the Macedonians that of the Persians. I am most astonished when I think about how they thought they had finally become Fortune’s darlings and were more prosperous at the moment when they had in their possession what once had belonged to those wretched and unfortunate peoples.

Now I have stated these things not in a spirit of idle foolishness but because such goods – on the possession of which they have set their hearts and for which most people admire those who have acquired them – are good for nothing. No, they are not worth a single drachma when put together. Nor can human beings ever become fortunate if ignorant and stupid, not even if they make the park at Susa [capital of the Persians] their dwelling-place, a park which was, we are told, completely suspended in the air.

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