Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Egyptian wisdom: Cicero, Diodoros and Valerius Maximus on Pythagoras’ and Plato’s supposed journeys to Egypt (first centuries BCE and CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 1, 2023, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=13330.
Ancient authors: Cicero (mid-first century BCE), On the Republic 1.16 (link) and On Ends 5.87 (link); Diodoros of Sicily (mid-first century BCE), Library of History (link); Valerius Maximus (mid-first century CE), Memorable Deeds and Sayings 8.7, ext. 2-3 (link).
Comments: The passages gathered below (all from the first centuries BCE or CE) are among the first references to traditions that claimed that Plato and/or Pythagoras made journeys to Egypt and elsewhere to gain wisdom from barbarians and from Egyptian priests specifically. The traditions about Plato’s journeys also attempt to connect Plato with Pythagoras in two ways: by having Plato journey to Egypt like Pythagoras and by having Plato journey to greater Greece in southern Italy to learn directly from Pythagorean philosophers.
In his own writings, Plato himself never states that he visited Egypt. And although there are plenty of references to Egypt or stories about well-known characters like Solon (link) going to Egypt in Plato’s dialogues, these may merely reflect second-hand knowledge of circulating information about, or fascination with, Egyptian culture among Greek intellectuals rather than an actual visit by Plato (see, for instance, Davis 1979). Inconsistencies in the stories may point to the fact that these traditions, which subsequently get repeated over and over (e.g. link), are made up rather than historical reminiscences. Nonetheless, they seem made up in a way that affirms the somewhat widespread elite Greek belief (also inherited to a certain degree by certain Romans) that wisdom is likely to come from barbarians, particularly barbarians in Egypt, Persia, and India.
Works consulted: Whitney M. Davis, “Plato on Egyptian Art,” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 65 (1979): 121-127 (link).
Source of translations: C.W. Keyes, Cicero: De re publica. De legibus, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1928), public domain (passed away in 1943); H. Rackham, Cicero: De Finibus, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1914), public domain (passed away in 1944), adapted by Harland (link). C. H. Oldfather, Diodorus Sicilus: Library of History, volumes 1-6, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1935-1952), public domain (copyright not renewed, passed away in 1954), adapted by Victoria Muccilli and Harland (link). Valerius Maximus translation by Harland, with consultation of H.J. Walker, Valerius Maximus: Memorable Deeds and Sayings (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2004).
Cicero, On the Republic (mid-first century BCE)
[Plato’s journey to Egypt and to Italy to learn from Pythagoreans]
(1.16) Tubero: I cannot understand, Africanus, why the tradition has been handed down that Socrates refused to indulge in any discussions of that character [regarding celestial bodies], and confined himself to the study of human life and human morals. For what more trustworthy authority on Socrates can we cite than Plato? And in many passages of Plato’s works, Socrates, in the midst of his discussions of morals, virtues, and even affairs of the People, makes it clear by what he says that he wants to combine with these subjects the consideration of arithmetic, geometry, and harmony, following the methods of Pythagoras.
Scipio: “What you say is quite true, Tubero. Yet I suppose you have heard that, after Socrates’ death, Plato went on journeys, first to Egypt for purposes of study and later to Italy and Sicily in order to become acquainted with the discoveries of Pythagoras. You have also heard that he spent a great deal of time in the company of Archytas of Tarentum and Timaios of Lokri, and also got possession of Philolaos’ notes. Since Pythagoras’ reputation was then great in that country, Plato devoted himself entirely to that teacher’s disciples and doctrines. And so, as he loved Socrates with singular affection and wished to give him credit for everything, he interwove Socrates’ charm and subtlety in argument with the obscurity and ponderous learning of Pythagoras in so many branches of knowledge.”
Cicero, On Ends
[Plato’s journey to Egypt to learn from barbarian priests]
(5.87) “Listen then, Lucius,” said Piso, “for I must address myself to you. The whole importance of philosophy lies, as Theophrastos says, in the attainment of happiness, since everyone possesses a strong desire for happiness. On this your cousin and I are agreed. For this reason, what we have to consider is the question of can the systems of the philosophers give us happiness? They certainly claim to do so. If this wasn’t the case, why did Plato travel through Egypt to learn mathematical calculations and observation of the skies from barbarian priests?”
[Plato’s journey to Italy to learn from Pythagoreans, and Pythagoras’ and Demokritos’ earlier journeys to Egypt and the Persian Magians]
Why did he later visit Archytas at Tarentum, or the other Pythagoreans, Echekrates, Timaios and Arion, at Lokri, intending to add to his picture of Socrates an account of the Pythagorean system and to extend his studies into those branches which Socrates repudiated? Why did Pythagoras himself scour Egypt and visit the Persian Magians (Magi)? Why did he travel on foot through those vast barbarian lands and sail across those many seas? Why did Demokritos do the same?. . . [omitted remainder of dialogue].
Diodoros, Library of History (mid-first century BCE)
[Plato and other Greeks who visited Egypt and learned its customs, according to Egyptians]
(1.96.1-9) Now that we have examined these matters, we must enumerate what Greeks who have won fame for their wisdom and learning visited Egypt in ancient times, in order to become acquainted with its customs and learning. (2) For the priests of Egypt recount from the records of their sacred books that they were visited in early times by Orpheus, Mousaios, Melampos, and Daidalos, also by the poet Homer and Lykourgos of Sparta, later by Solon of Athens and the philosopher Plato, and that there also came Pythagoras of Samos and the mathematician Eudoxos, as well as Demokritos of Abdera and Oinopides of Chios. (3) As evidence for the visits of all these men they point in some cases to their statues and in others to places or buildings which bear their names, and they offer proofs from the branch of learning which each one of these men pursued. They argue that all the things for which they were admired among the Greeks were transferred from Egypt.
(4) Orpheus, for instance, brought from Egypt most of his mystic initiations, the rites that accompanied his wanderings, and his fabulous account of his experiences in Hades. (5) For the rite of Osiris is the same as that of Dionysos and that of Isis very similar to that of Demeter, the names alone having been interchanged. Also, the punishments in Hades of the unrighteous, the Fields of the Righteous, and the fantastic conceptions, current among the many, which are figments of the imagination — all these were introduced by Orpheus in imitation of the Egyptian funeral customs. (6) Hermes, for instance, the Conductor of Souls, according to the ancient Egyptian custom, brings up the body of the Apis to a certain point and then gives it over to one who wears the mask of Kerberos.
And after Orpheus had introduced this notion among the Greeks, Homer followed it when he wrote: “Cyllenian Hermes then did summon forth / The suitors’ souls, holding his wand in hand.” And again a little further on he says: “They passed Oceanus’ streams, the Gleaming Rock, / The Portals of the Sun, the Land of Dreams; / And now they reached the Meadow of Asphodel, / Where dwell the Souls, the shades of men outworn.” (7) Now Homer calls the river “Oceanos” because in their language the Egyptians speak of the Nile as Oceanos; the “Portals of the Sun” (Heliopulai) is his name for the city of Heliopolis; and, “Meadows,” the mythical dwelling of the dead, is his term for the place near the lake which is called Acherousia, which is near Memphis, and around it are fairest meadows, of a marsh-land and lotus and reeds. The same explanation also serves for the statement that the dwelling of the dead is in these regions, since the most and the largest tombs of the Egyptians are situated there, the dead being ferried across both the river and Lake Acherousia and their bodies laid in the vaults situated there. (8) The other myths about Hades, current among the Greeks, also agree with the customs which are practised even now in Egypt. For the boat which receives the bodies is called baris, and the passenger’s fee is given to the boatman, who in the Egyptian tongue is called charon. (9) And near these regions, they say, are also the “Shades,” which is a temple of Hekate, and “portals” of Kokytus and Lethe, which are covered at intervals with bands of bronze. There are, moreover, other portals, namely, those of Truth, and near them stands a headless statue of Justice.
Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings (mid-first century CE)
[On a “foreign” Greek story about Pythagoras’ journey to Egypt and return to greater Greece]
(8.7, ext. 2-3) I will proceed to a more ancient story about the results of diligence. Pythagoras started out his brilliant career of wisdom when he was very young and completely occupied with the desire to learn everything honourable. In fact, nothing that reaches its ultimate goal can do so without starting early and quickly. Pythagoras travelled to Egypt, becoming familiar with the literature of that descent group (gens). He studied the records of its priests from the past and learned about the observations they had made over countless centuries. From there he went on to Persia and had himself trained in the very precise skill of the Magians (Magi), who very kindly taught him about the movements of the constellations, the paths of the stars, and the force, characteristics, and effect of each one of them. Pythagoras’ skillful intellect took in all of this. Next he sailed to Crete and Lakedaimon [Sparta] and, after studying their laws and customs, he went to the Olympic contest. There he demonstrated his diverse skills to the great admiration of all of the Greeks. When he was asked what designation they should give him, he said that it should not be a “sage” because seven exceptional men already possessed that; rather he should be designated a “lover of wisdom,” which is expressed as “philosopher” (philosophos) in Greek.
He went off to the part of Italy that was then called greater Greece and, in most of its prosperous cities, he was approved for his studies. The citizens of Metaponton witnessed the burning of his funeral pyre, and their eyes were full of great respect. Their city is more famous and distinguished as a monument to the ashes of Pythagoras than to the ashes of its own people.
[Plato’s supposed journey to Egypt]
On the other hand, Plato had Athens as his homeland and Socrates as his teacher, the place and the person that were the most intellectually productive, and he was also equipped with a divine abundance of character. He was already considered the wisest of all men, with the result that people actually thought that Jupiter himself, if he descended from the sky, would not employ a more elegant or excellent command of language. Yet Plato traveled around Egypt to learn from the priests of that descent group (gens) concerning complicated geometrical calculations and a method of observing the skies. At a time when eager young men were seeking to travel to Athens so that they could have Plato as their teacher, he himself was studying under Egyptian elders and traveling along the endless shores of the Nile and through its vast plains, its extensive barbarian parts, and the twisting paths of its canals. In that situation I am not at all amazed that he went over to Italy, where he learned about the injunctions and teachings of Pythagoras from Archytas at Tarentum, and from Timaios, Arion, and Echekrates at Lokri. He had to collect such a large amount of knowledge from all over the place so that he, in turn, could disseminate and extend it throughout the world. It is said that as he lay dying at the age of eighty-one, he had the mimes of Sophron under his pillow. In this way, even his very last hour was not devoid of studying.