Libyans: Dionysios of Mytilene and Diodoros on Nasamonians, Marmaridians, and Libyan Amazons (third / mid-first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Libyans: Dionysios of Mytilene and Diodoros on Nasamonians, Marmaridians, and Libyan Amazons (third / mid-first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 9, 2023, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=14494.

Ancient authors: Dionysios of Mytilene (third century BCE), Libyan Stories, as discussed in Diodoros of Sicily (mid-first century BCE), Library of History 3.49, 52-55 (link).

Comments: Following his discussion of Arabia Felix, Diodoros turns to the peoples of Libya (primarily the area around what in his time was Cyrene). After outlining four principal descent groups of Libyans, some of whom had signs of civilization, he concentrates on one group that are characterized as savage bandits.

Reflecting back on the earlier history of this region, Diodoros then taps into an account of Libyan Amazons (and the Gorgons) by the mythographer Dionysios Skytobrachion (“Leather-armed”) of Mytilene, who (it now seems clear) dates to the third century BCE (see Rusten 1982 and, most importantly, PHibeh II 186 [link]). Later, Diodoros himself (Library 3.66.5-6) says more about Dionysios, his source for the Libyan Amazons and for legends of the god Dionysos ostensibly connected with Libya:

“Consequently, in order not to omit anything which history records about Dionysos, we will present in summary what is told by the Libyans and those Greek writers whose writings match with these and with that Dionysios who composed an account out of the ancient fabulous tales. For this writer has composed an account of Dionysos and of the Amazons, as well as of the Argonauts and the events connected with the Trojan war and many other matters. In these works he cites the versions of the ancient writers, both the composers of myths and the poets” (link [coming soon] to the full passage on Libyan and other peoples’ stories about the god Dionysos).

Once again the line between ethnographic writing and things like mythography is blurry or non-existent. So what we would call the mythical Libyan Amazons are presented by Diodoros in the context of other peoples of Libya. As is common in ethnographic descriptions of the Amazons, Dionysios and Diodoros focus, in part, on the inversion of gender roles, so this also belongs in our category eight. Following on some major disappointments in Libya, Myrina queen of the Amazons is also pictured engaging in conquests of Arabia, Syria, and Asia Minor.

Works consulted: J.S. Rusten, Dionysius Scytobrachion (Viesbaden: Springer, 1982).

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.

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[For Diodoros’ preceding discussion of Arabians in Arabia Felix on the eastern coast of the Red Sea, go to this link.]

Book 3 

[Sub-groups of Libyans and their lifestyles]

49 Now that we have examined these matters [regarding strange environmental phenomena in Arabia Felix and Ethiopia], it will be appropriate​ to discuss the Libyans who live near Egypt and the country which borders upon them. The parts around Cyrene [near Shahhat, Libya] and the Syrtes [Gulf of Sidra], as well as the interior of the mainland in these regions, are inhabited by four descent groups (genē) of Libyans. Among these the Nasamonians, as they are called, live in the parts to the south, the Auschisians in those to the west, the Marmaridians (Mamaridai) occupy the narrow strip between Egypt and Cyrene and come down to the coast, and the Makians, who are more numerous than their fellow Libyans, live in the regions around the Syrtis.​ (2) Now among these Libyans we have just mentioned, those who possess land which is able to produce abundant crops are farmers, while those who get their sustenance from the flocks and herds which they maintain are nomads. And both of these descent groups have kings and lead a life which is not entirely savage or different from that of civilized people.

[One sub-group as savage bandits]

The third group [Mamaridians and / or Makians or some sub-group of these], however, obey no king and have no regard or even thought for justice as they constantly practice banditry. Attacking unexpectedly from the desert, they seize whatever they have encountered and quickly withdraw to the place from which they started. (3) All the Libyans of this third group lead a life like that of the wild beasts, spending their days under the open sky and practise a savage (agrios) mode of life. For they have nothing to do with civilized food or clothing, but cover their bodies with the skins of goats. Their leaders have no cities whatsoever, but only towers near the sources of water, and into these they bring and store away the excess of their plunder. Among the peoples (laoi) who are their subjects they annually exact an oath of obedience to their authority, and to any who have submitted to them they extend their protection as being allies. Those who do not listen to them are first condemned to death and then attacked as bandits (lēstai). (4) Their weapons are appropriate to both the country and their mode of life. For since they are light of body and inhabit a country which is for the most part a level plain, they face dangers armed with three spears and stones in leather bags. They do not carry a sword, a helmet, any other armour, since their aim is to excel in agility both in pursuit and again in withdrawal. (5) Consequently they are expert in running and hurling stones, having brought to full development by practice and habit the advantages accorded them by nature. Generally speaking, they observe neither justice nor good faith in any respect in dealing with other tribes (allophyloi). . . [omitted discussion of the produce, environment, and strange weather in the area around Cyrene].

[Amazons in Libya and their achievements, based on Dionysios Skytobrachion’s account]

52  But now that we have examined these matters it will be fitting, in connection with the regions we have mentioned, to discuss the account which history records of the Amazons who were in Libya in ancient times. For the majority of humankind believe that the only Amazons were those who are reported to have lived in the neighbourhood of the Thermodon river on the Pontos [Black Sea]. However, the truth is otherwise, since the Amazons of Libya were much earlier in time and made notable accomplishments. (2) Now we are not unaware that to many who read this account the history of this people will appear to be a thing unheard of and entirely strange. The descent group (genos) of these Amazons disappeared entirely many generations before the Trojan war, whereas the women living around the Thermodon river were in their full vigour a little before that time. So it is not without reason that the later group, who were also better known, would have inherited the fame of the earlier, who are entirely unknown to most people because of the lapse of time. (3) For our part, however, since we find that many early poets and writers, as well as some later ones, have made mention of them, we will try to recount their deeds in summary, following the account of Dionysios [Skytobrachion / “Leather-arm” of Mytilene, early third century BCE], who composed a narrative about the Argonauts and Dionysos, and also about many other things which took place in the most ancient times.

(4) Now there have been in Libya a number of different descent groups (genē) of women who were war-like and greatly admired for their manly vigour. For instance, tradition tells us about the Gorgons, against whom, as the account is given, Perseus made war. The Gorgons are a people (ethnos) distinguished for its courage. For the fact that this group descended from Zeus,​ the mightiest Greek of his day, who accomplished the campaign against these women, and that this was his greatest labour may be taken by any man as proof of both the pre-eminence and the power of the women we have mentioned. Furthermore, the manly prowess of those of whom we are now about to write presupposes an amazing pre-eminence when compared with the nature of the women of our day.

[Lifestyle of these Amazons and inversion of gender roles]

53  We are told, namely, that there was once on the western parts of Libya, on the bounds of the inhabited world, a people (ethnos) which was ruled by women and followed a manner of life unlike that which prevails among us. For it was the custom among them that the women should practise the arts of war and be required to serve in the army for a fixed period, during which time they maintained their virginity. Then, when the years of their service in the field had expired, they went to the men to produce children, but they kept in their hands the administration of the magistracies and of all affairs. (2) The men, however, like our married women, spent their days about the house, carrying out the orders which were given them by their wives. They took no part in military campaigns or in office or in the exercise of free citizen­ship​ in the affairs of the community, which might cause them to become presumptuous and rise up against the women. (3) When their children were born, the babies were turned over to the men, who brought them up on milk and such cooked foods as were appropriate to the age of the infants. And if it happened that a girl was born, its breasts were seared so that they might not develop at the time of maturity. For they thought that the breasts, as they stood out from the body, were no small hindrance in warfare. And, in fact, it is because they have been deprived of their breasts that they are called by the Greeks “Amazons” [i.e. a-mazoi, or a-mastos, without a breast].

(4) As mythology relates, their home was on an island which, because it was in the west, was called Hespera, and it lay in the marsh Tritonis. This marsh was near the ocean which surrounds the earth [i.e. the Atlantic Ocean] and received its name from a certain river Triton which emptied into it. This marsh was also near Ethiopia [perhaps some geographical confusion going on, unless the Erythraian sea is imagined as part of the ocean of Atlas] and that mountain by the shore of the ocean which is the highest of those in the vicinity and impinges upon the ocean and is called by the Greeks Atlas. (5) The island mentioned above was of great size and full of fruit-bearing trees of every kind, from which the natives secured their food. It contained also a multitude of flocks and herds, namely, of goats and sheep, from which possessors received milk and meat for their sustenance. But Amazons did not use grain at all because the use of this fruit of the earth had not yet been discovered by them.

(6) The Amazons, then, the account continues, being superior in courage and eager for war, first of all subdued all the cities on the island except the one called Mene, which was considered to be sacred and was inhabited by Ethiopian Ichthyophagians (Fish-eaters), and was also subject to great eruptions of fire and possessed a multitude of the precious stones which the Greeks call anthrax, sardion, and smaragdos. And after this they subdued many of the neighbouring Libyans and nomads, and founded within the marsh Tritonis a great city which they named Cherronesos​ (“Peninsula”) based on its shape.

[Amazons’ conquests: Atlantians, Gorgons]

54  Setting out from the city of Cherronesos, the account [of Dionysios] continues, the Amazons embarked upon great ventures because a desire had come over them to invade many parts of the inhabited world. The first people they attacked, according to the tale, was the Atlantians. These were the most civilized men among the inhabitants of those regions, who lived in a prosperous country and possessed great cities. It was among them, we are told, that mythology places the birth of the gods, in the regions which lie along the shore of the ocean. In this respect this agrees with those among the Greeks who relate legends, and about this​ we will discuss in detail a little later.

(2) Now the queen of the Amazons, Myrina, collected, it is said, an army of thirty thousand foot-soldiers and three thousand cavalry, since they favoured to an unusual degree the use of cavalry in their wars. (3) For defensive devices they used the skins of large snakes, since Libya contains such animals of incredible size. For offensive weapons, they used swords and lances. They also used bows and arrows, with which they struck not only when facing the enemy but also when in flight, by shooting backwards at their pursuers with good effect. (4) Upon entering the land of the Atlantians they defeated in a pitched battle the inhabitants of the city of Kerne, as it is called, and making their way inside the walls along with the fleeing enemy, they got the city into their hands. Since they wanted to terrify the neighbouring peoples, they treated the captives savagely, killing the men from youth upward, leading the children and women into slavery, and destroying the city. (5) But when the terrible fate of the Kernaians became known among the other members of their people (homotheneis), it is related that the Atlantians were terrified and surrendered their cities on terms of capitulation and announced that they would do whatever should be commanded them.

Queen Myrina, bearing herself honourably towards the Atlantians, both established friendship with them and founded a city to bear her name in place of the city which had been destroyed. And in it she settled both the captives and any native who so desired. (6) At that point, the Atlantians presented her with magnificent presents and by public decree voted to her notable honours, and she in return accepted their courtesy and in addition promised that she would show kindness to the people (ethnos).

(7) The natives were often being attacked by the Gorgons, as they were named, a people which resided on their borders. In general, that people was always lying in wait to injure them. So Myrina, they say, was asked by the Atlantians to invade the land of these Gorgons. But when the Gorgons prepared their forces to resist them, a mighty battle took place in which the Amazons, gaining the upper hand, killed large numbers of their opponents and took no fewer than three thousand prisoners. And since the rest had fled for refuge into a certain wooded region, Myrina attempted to set fire to the timber, being eager to utterly destroy the people. But when she found that she was unable to succeed in her attempt she retired to the borders of her country.

55  Now as they go on to say, the Amazons relaxed their watch during the night because of their success, the captive women [i.e. Gorgons], attacking them and drawing the swords of those who thought they were conquerors, killed many of them. In the end, however, crowds of Amazons poured in around them from every side and the prisoners, who fought bravely, were all butchered. (2) Myrina accorded a funeral to her fallen comrades on three pyres and raised up three great heaps of earth as tombs, which are called to this day “Amazon Mounds.”

[Herakles defeats both Amazons and Gorgons in Libya]

(3) But the Gorgons, grown strong again in later days, were subdued a second time by Perseus son of Zeus, when Medusa was queen over them. In the end, both the Gorgons and the people of the Amazons were entirely destroyed by Herakles, when he visited the regions to the west and set up his pillars​ in Libya. This was because he felt that it would conflict with his resolve to be the benefactor of all of humankind if he should allow any people to be under the rule of women. The story is also told that the marsh disappeared from sight in the course of an earthquake, when those parts of it which lay towards the ocean were torn apart.

[Myrina’s further conquests: Arabia, Syria, and Asia Minor]

(4) As for Myrina, the account continues, she visited the larger part of Libya, and passing over into Egypt she struck a treaty of friendship with Horos son of Isis, who was king of Egypt at that time. Then, after making war to the end upon the Arabians and slaying many of them, she subdued Syria. But when the Cilicians came out with presents to meet her and agreed to obey her commands, she left those free who yielded to her of their free will and for this reason these are called to this day the “Free Cilicians.” (5) She also conquered in war the peoples (ethnē) in the region of the Taurus, peoples of outstanding courage. She descended through Greater Phrygia to the sea [i.e. the Mediterranean]. Then she won over the land lying along the coast and fixed the bounds of her campaign at the Kaikos river.​ (6) She selected sites well-suited for founding cities in the territory which she had won by war and built a considerable number of them, including one​ which bore her own name [i.e. the city of Myrina in Mysia]. However, the other cities she named after the women who held the most important commands, such as Kyme, Pitana, and Priene.

(7) These, then, are the cities she settled along the sea, but others, and a larger number, she planted in the regions stretching towards the interior. She seized also some of the islands, and Lesbos in particular, on which she founded the city of Mitylene, which was named after her sister who took part in the campaign. (8) After that, while subduing some of the rest of the islands, she was caught in a storm. After she had offered up prayers for her safety to the Mother of the gods,​ she was carried to one of the uninhabited islands. This island, in obedience to a vision which she saw in her dreams, she made sacred to this goddess, and set up altars there and offered magnificent sacrifices. She also gave it the name of Samothrace, which means, when translated into Greek, “sacred island.” However, some historians say that it was formerly called Samos and was then given the name of Samothrace by Thracians who at one time lived on it. (9) However, after the Amazons had returned to the continent, the myth relates, the Mother of the gods, who was well-pleased with the island, settled in it certain other people, including her own sons, who are known by the name “Korybants.” The father of these Korybants, as handed down in their rites, should not be revealed. And she established the mysteries which are now celebrated on the island and ordained by law that the sacred area should enjoy the right of sanctuary.

[Clash with Mopsos and Thracian and Scythian exiles]

(10) In these times, they go on to say, Mopsos the Thracian, who had been exiled by Lykourgos the king of the Thracians, invaded the land of the Amazons with an army composed of fellow-exiles. Sipylos the Scythian, who had likewise been exiled from that part of Scythia which borders upon Thrace, was with Mopsos on the campaign as well. (11) There was a pitched battle in which Sipylos and Mopsos gained the upper hand, and Myrina the queen of the Amazons and the majority of her army were killed. In the course of the years, as the Thracians continued to be victorious in their battles, the surviving Amazons finally withdrew again into Libya. And such was the end, as the myth relates, of the campaign which the Amazons of Libya made.

[For Diodoros’ subsequent discussion of supposed myths of the Atlantians, go to this link].

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