Arabians: Agatharchides and Diodoros on peoples of Arabia Felix on the eastern coast of the Red Sea (second-first centuries BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Arabians: Agatharchides and Diodoros on peoples of Arabia Felix on the eastern coast of the Red Sea (second-first centuries BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified February 19, 2023,

Ancient authors: Agatharchides (second century BCE), FGrHist 86 F87a-105b (link to FGrHist), as cited in Diodoros of Sicily (mid-first century BCE), Library of History 3.42-47 (link).

Comments: Diodoros continues his account of the peoples around the Red Sea area, turning to the northern point and the eastern coast, which was known as Arabia Felix by his time and now largely coincides with modern Saudia Arabia. This includes discussion of a variety of Arabian peoples, including Maranitians, Garindanians, Banizomenians, Alilaians, Gasandians, and, especially Sabaians, who draw his extensive attention partly due to their supposed wealth and happiness. He also returns to the Nabateans, which were covered in earlier sections.

Considerable overlaps with Photios’ summary (in Collection of Books, codex 250) of Agatharchides’ On the Erythraian Sea (second century BCE) indicate that Diodoros continues to draw on that source throughout this section. Diodoros also expressly refers to accessing sources in the royal archives of Alexandria. W.W. Tarn’s suggestion that Diodoros (or Agatharchides) may also be drawing on an official written report by Ariston for king Ptolemy II (drawn from the Alexandrian archives that Diodoros does certainly mention), although possible, is only a guess with no solid evidence to support it (see Graf 2006). Nonetheless, Diodoros makes reference to Ariston’s official exploratory journey to the area, and it’s possible that the references to problems with Nabatean sea-banditry or piracy may also relate to Ptolemy II’s reign and Ariston’s journey.

Works consulted: S. Burstein, Agatharchides: On the Erythraean Sea (London: Hakluyt Society, 1989); D.F. Graf, “The Nabateans in the Early Hellenistic Period : The Testimony of Posidippus of Pella,” Topoi: Orient-Occident 14 (2006): 47–68 (link); W.W. Tarn, “Ptolemy II and Arabia,” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 15 (1929): 9–25 (link).

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


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

Book 3

[Context of the passage in the discussion of the Red Sea area]

38 But now that we have examined with sufficient care Ethiopia and the Trogodyte (Cave-dweller) country and the territory adjoining them, as far as the region which is uninhabited because of the excessive heat, and, beside these, the coast of the Erythraian sea [encompassing our Red Sea but also our Arabian Sea and even the Indian Ocean] and the ocean of Atlas which stretches towards the south, we shall give an account of the part which still remains – I mean the Arabian gulf [modern Red Sea] – drawing in part upon the royal records preserved in Alexandria [perhaps including a report by Ariston, mentioned later] and in part upon what we have learned from men who have seen it with their own eyes. . . [omitted sections]. First of all we will take the right side [west side of what is now the Red Sea], the coast of which is inhabited by tribes of the Trogodytes as far inland as the desert. . . [omitted sections]. 40 After sailing past these regions one finds that the coast [western coast] is inhabited by many peoples of Ichthyophagians (Fish-eaters) and many nomadic Trogodytes (Cave-dwellers). . . .

[Coastal peoples of the Arabian gulf, with mention of Ariston’s exploratory journey]

42  Now we will turn to the other side, namely, the opposite shore which forms the coast of Arabia, and we will describe it, beginning with the innermost recess [i.e. the eastern coast of the Red Sea or what was sometimes called “Arabia Felix,” beginning at the northern point, equivalent of modern Saudi Arabia]. This bears the name Poseideion [i.e. Roman Posidium; modern Ras-Mohammed on the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula],​ since an altar was erected here to Poseidon Pelagios​ by that Ariston who was dispatched by Ptolemy [Ptolemy II Philadelphos, reigning ca. 282-246 BCE] to investigate the coast of Arabia as far as the ocean. (2) Directly after the innermost recess is a region along the sea which is especially honoured by the natives because of the advantage which accrues from it to them. It is called the “Palm-grove” and contains a multitude of trees of this​ kind which are exceedingly fruitful and contribute in an unusual degree to enjoyment and luxury. (3) But the rest of the country around it is lacking in springs of water and is fiery hot because it slopes to the south. Accordingly, it was a natural thing that the barbarians made sacred the place which was full of trees and, lying in an utterly desolate region, supplied their food. In fact, not a few springs and streams of water gush forth there, which do not yield to snow in coldness. And these make the land on both sides of them green and altogether pleasing. (4) Moreover, a very old altar of hard stone is built there, bearing an inscription in ancient letters of an unknown tongue. The oversight of the sacred precinct is in the care of a man and a woman who hold the sacred office for life. The inhabitants of the place are long-lived and have their beds in the trees because of their fear of the wild beasts… [omitted material].

[Maranitians and Garindanians]

43  The coast which comes next was originally inhabited by the Maranitians, and then by the Garindanians who were their neighbours. The Garindanians secured the country somewhat in this fashion: In the above-mentioned Palm-grove a festival was celebrated every four years, to which the neighbouring peoples thronged from all sides. They did so to sacrifice to the gods of the sacred precinct hecatombs of well-fed camels and also to carry back to their own lands some of the water from this place, since the tradition prevailed that this drink gave health to any who drank it. (2) When the Maranitians gathered to the festival for these reasons, the Garindanians completely destroyed them by putting to the sword those who had been left behind in the country and lying in ambush for those who were returning from the festival. After stripping the country of its inhabitants they divided among themselves the plains, which were fruitful and supplied abundant pasture for their herds and flocks. (3) This coast has few harbours and is divided by many large mountains, by reason of which it shows every shade of colour and affords a marvellous spectacle to those who sail past it.

[Nabateans and their shift to sea-banditry in the Ptolemaic era]

(4) After one has sailed past this country the Laianites [Aqaba] gulf​ comes next, around which are many inhabited villages of Arabians who are known as Nabataeans [on which see Diodoros’ previous discussion at this link]. These people occupy a large part of the coast and not a little of the country which stretches inland. The Nabataeans are numerous beyond telling, and have flocks and herds in multitude beyond belief. (5) Now in ancient times these men observed justice and were content with the food which they received from their flocks. However, after the kings in Alexandria had made the ways of the sea navigable for the merchants, these Arabians not only attacked the shipwrecked but also prepared ships for sea-banditry to prey on voyagers. In this respect they imitated in their practices the savage and lawless ways of the Taurians of the Pontos [north of the Black Sea]. Some time afterward, however, they were caught on the high seas by some ships with four banks of oars (quadriremes) and punished as they deserved. . . . .


44  Next after these plains as one skirts the coast [i.e. the eastern coast of the modern Red Sea] comes a gulf of extraordinary nature. It runs, namely, to a point deep into the land, extends in length a distance of some five hundred stadium-lengths. Shut in as it is by crags which are of wondrous size, its mouth is winding and hard to get out of. For a rock which extends into the sea obstructs its entrance and so it is impossible for a ship either to sail into or out of the gulf. (2) Furthermore, at times when the current rushes in and there are frequent shiftings of the winds, the surf, beating upon the rocky beach, roars and rages all about the projecting rock. The inhabitants of the land around the gulf, who are known as Banizomenians (Banizomeneis), find their food by hunting the land animals and eating their meat. And a temple has been set up there, which is very holy and exceedingly revered by all Arabians…


45  After these places, as one skirts the coast, five mountains rise on high separated one from another, and their peaks taper into breast-shaped tips of stone which give them an appearance like that of the pyramids of Egypt. (2) Then comes a circular gulf guarded on every side by great promontories, and midway on a line drawn across it rises a trapezium-shaped hill on which three temples, remarkable for their height, have been erected to gods. These are in fact unknown to the Greeks, but are accorded unusual honour by the natives. (3) After this there is a stretch of dank coast, traversed at intervals by streams of sweet water from springs. On it there is a mountain which bears the name Chabinos and is heavily covered with thickets of every kind of tree.

The land which adjoins the mountainous country is inhabited by the Arabians known as Debians (Debai). (4) They are breeders of camels and make use of the services of this animal in connection with the most important needs of their life. For instance, they fight against their enemies from their backs; employ them for the conveyance of their goods and so easily accomplish all their business; drink their milk, and in this way get their food from them; and, traverse their entire country riding upon their racing camels. (5) Down the centre of their country runs a river which carries down such an amount of what is gold dust to all appearance that the mud glitters all over as it is carried out at its mouth. The natives of the region are entirely without experience in the working of the gold, but they are hospitable to strangers. Yet they are not hospitable to everyone who arrives among them. They are only hospitable to Boiotians and Peloponnesians because of the ancient friendship shown by Herakles for the people (ethnos), a friendship which, they relate, has come down to them in the form of a myth as a heritage from their ancestors.

[Alilaians and Gasandians]

(6) The land which comes next is inhabited by Alilaians (Alilaioi) and Gasandians (Gasandoi), Arabian peoples, and is not fiery hot, like the neighbouring territories. But it is often covered by mild​ and thick clouds, from which come heavy showers and timely storms that make the summer season temperate. The land produces everything and is exceptionally fertile, but it does not receive the cultivation of which it would admit because of the lack of experience of the people.  (7) They discover gold in underground galleries which have been formed by nature. They gather substantial amounts of virgin gold, which is also called “unfired” gold because of its condition when found, as opposed to gold fused into a mass out of gold-dust. Regarding size, the smallest nugget found is about as large as the stone of fruit,​ and the largest not much smaller than a royal nut. (8) This gold they wear around their wrists and necks, perforating it and alternating it with transparent stones. Since this precious metal abounds in their land – whereas there is a scarcity of copper and iron – they exchange it with merchants for equal amounts of copper or iron goods.

[Karbians and Sabaians in Arabia Felix]

46  Beyond this people are the Karbaians (Karbai), as they are called, and beyond these the Sabaians (Sabaioi), who are the most numerous of the peoples (ethnē) of the Arabians. They inhabit that part of the country known as Arabia Felix (Arabia the Blest),​ which produces most of the things which are held dear among us and nurtures flocks and herds of every kind in large numbers beyond description. Also, a natural sweet odour pervades the entire land because practically everything that is extremely fragrant grows there continually. . . [omitted many examples of positive aspects of the place].

47  Nonetheless, Fortune has not provided the inhabitants of this land with complete happiness, and Fortune leaves no room for envy. Instead, with such great gifts she has combined what is harmful and may serve as a warning to those accustomed to despise the gods because of the unbroken succession of good things. (2) For in the most fragrant forests there are numerous, dark-red snakes that are a hand-span long,​ and their bites are completley incurable. They bite by leaping upon their victim. As they spring up, they leave a stain of blood upon his skin.

(3) There is also something peculiar to the natives which happens in the case of those whose bodies have become weakened by a protracted illness. For when the body has become permeated by an undiluted and pungent substance and the combination of foreign bodies settles in a porous area, an weakened condition follows which is difficult to cure. Consequently at the side of men afflicted in this way they burn asphalt and the beard of a goat,​ combatting the excessively sweet odour with substances that have the opposite nature. Indeed the good, when it is measured out in respect of quantity and order, is for human beings an aid and delight, but when it fails of due proportion and proper time the gift which it grants is unprofitable.

(4) The chief city of these peoples (ethnē) is called by them “Sabai” and it is built on a mountain. The kings of this city succeed to the throne by descent and the people accord to them honours mingled with good and bad. For though they have the appearance of leading a happy life, in that they impose commands upon everyone and are not accountable for their deeds, they still are considered unfortunate. This is beacuse it is unlawful for them ever to leave the palace. If they do leave, they are stoned to death by the common people in keeping with a certain ancient oracle.

(5) These peoples surpass not only the neighbouring Arabians but also all other men in wealth and in their several luxuries as well. For in the exchange and sale of their goods they – among any of those who carry on trade for the sake of the silver they receive in exchange – obtain the highest price in return for things of the smallest weight. (6) Consequently, they have never for ages suffered the harms of war because of their secluded position. This is also due to an abundance of both gold and silver that abounds in the country, especially in Sabai. Where the royal palace is situated, they have embossed goblets of every description made from silver and gold; couches and tripods with silver feet; every other furnishing of incredible expense; and, halls encircled by large columns, some of them gold-plated and others having silver figures on the capitals. (7) Their ceilings and doors they have partitioned by means of panels and coffers​ made of gold, set with precious stones and placed close together, so that the structure of their houses is in every part marvellous for its costliness. For some parts they have constructed of silver and gold, others of ivory and that most showy precious stones or of whatever else men view most highly. (8) The fact of the matter is that these people have enjoyed their happiness unshaken since ages past because they have been entire strangers to those whose own covetousness leads them to feel that another man’s wealth should be their own.​

The sea in these parts looks to be white in colour, which results in the viewer’s amazement at the surprising phenomenon and at the same time seeking after its cause. (9) There are also prosperous​ islands nearby, containing unwalled cities, all the herds of which are white in colour, while no female has any horn whatsoever. These islands are visited by sailors from every part and especially from Potana [modern Ashmaka], the city which Alexander founded on the Indus river, when he wished to have a naval station on the shore of the ocean.

Now regarding Arabia Felix and its inhabitants we will be satisfied with what has been said… [omitted following sections].

[For Diodoros’ subsequent discussion of the Libyans, go to this link (coming soon)].

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