Eastern and northern peoples: Bardaisan of Edessa and Philippos’ Book of the Laws of Countries (second-third centuries CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Eastern and northern peoples: Bardaisan of Edessa and Philippos’ Book of the Laws of Countries (second-third centuries CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 3, 2023, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=6527.

Ancient authors: Bardaisan of Edessa (late-second to early-third century CE) as presented by Philippos, Book of the Laws of Countries, or Dialogue on Fate = FGrHist 719 F3, sections 1, 12-14, 18-31 (link to Syriac and full translation; link to FGrHist).

Comments: This dialogue about the relation between Fate (as in Chaldean astrology), freedom and nature is presented as though it is written by Philippos, a student of Bardaisan (also spelled Bardesanes) of Edessa in the kingdom of Osrhoene (ca. 154-222 CE). Most importantly for our purposes, the writer presents an extensive description of the customs of various eastern and northern peoples, concluding with Judeans (Jews) and Christians, in order to confirm that laws or customs are not given by nature or determined by Fate but rather differ from people to people. The work is also concerned with the competitive idea that Chaldean or Babylonian astrology cannot fully account for the role of human freedom and choice.

The author draws on various materials regarding the customs of peoples (including the Book of the Chaldeans), in some cases highlighting supposedly upside-down customs, such as human sacrifice (e.g. non-Brahmanic Indians), unusual funerary customs, and alternative sexual practices (e.g. incestuous Persians).  So this work is also an example of the ways in which gender and sexuality (e.g. the Gelians on the Caspian sea and the Baktrians further east) were incorporated within ethnographic discourses. But in this case we have a Jesus adherent positioning himself in relation to various peoples and ancestral traditions, including Judean custom.  It is notable that, when the Romans are mentioned, there is a bit of hesitancy about them “perpetually seizing other lands” and hindering the performance of some ancestral customs. During Bardaisan’s time, the kingdom of Edessa (under Abgar VIII) was absorbed into the Roman empire by Caracalla (214 CE). Nathaniel Andrade (2020a) explores these anti-Roman sentiments in the context of Osrhoene of the time. Andrade’s other article (2020b) attempts to argue that the author’s ethnographic information comes almost solely from unnamed Greek and Latin sources rather than from eastern informants or sources, but I am doubtful that we need to decide strictly between the two.

The significant discussion of women and gender in connection with Gelians, Baktrians, and others, in which those peoples are pictured inverting normal gender roles, makes it worthwhile placing this post in the gender and sexuality category as well.

Works consulted: N. Andrade, “Romans and Iranians: Experiences of Imperial Governance in Roman Mesopotamia,” in Reconsidering Roman Power, ed. K. Berthelot, Collection de l’École Française de Rome (Rome: Publications de l’École française de Rome, 2020a), 291–308; N. Andrade, “Bardaisan’s Disciples and Ethnographic Knowledge in the Roman Empire,” in Literature and Culture in the Roman Empire, 96–235: Cross-Cultural Interactions (Cambridge: CUP, 2020b), 291–308.

Source of the translation:  B.P. Pratten, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 8, A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, and A. C. Coxe, eds. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886 [link]), public domain, adapted by Harland in consultation with the translation in H.J.W. Drijvers, The Book of the Laws of Countries: Dialogue on Fate of Bardaisan of Edessa (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1964).


[Introduction to the dialogue on Fate, nature, and freedom]

(1) Some days ago we were visiting our brother Shemashgram, and Bardaisan came and found us there. When he had asked about Shemashgram’s health and found out that he was well, Bardaisan asked us: “What were you talking about? For I heard your voice outside as I was coming in.” For it was his habit, whenever he found us talking about anything before he came, to ask us “what were you saying?”, so that he could talk about it with us.

We said to him: “Awida here was saying to us, ‘If God is one, as you say, and if he is the creator of men, and if it is his will that you should do what you are commanded, why did God not create men in a way that prevented them from doing wrong, but allowed them to constantly be doing what is right? For in this way his will would have been accomplished.’”

Bardaisan said to him: “Tell me, my son Awida, why it has come into your mind that the God of everything is not one, or that he is one but does not want men to behave themselves in a just and upright manner?” . . . [material omitted]

[On fate, nature, and freedom]

We questioned him again, and said to him: “There are others who say that men are controlled by the decree of Fate, so that they sometimes act wickedly and at other times act well.” He replied: “I am also aware, Philippos and Bar Jamma, that there are men like this, those who are called Chaldeans, as well as others who are fond of this subtle knowledge, as I myself also once was. For I have said elsewhere that the soul of man longs to know what many others do not know. Those men make it their aim to do this; they say that every wrong and right action which men commit (13) and that everything that happens to men with regard to riches and poverty, sickness and health, and bodily deformities takes place under the control of the stars which are called “the seven” [i.e. the seven planets], by which they are controlled. But there are others who affirm the opposite view on these things: how this art is a lying invention of the astrologers or that Fate has no existence whatever but is an empty name. On the contrary, they affirm that all things, great and small, are placed in human hands, and that bodily deformities and faults simply take place and happen to him by chance. But others, again, say that whatever a man does, he does of his own will in the exercise of the freedom which has been given to him, and that the faults, deformities and other undesirable things which happen to him are received as punishment from God.”

“In my humble opinion, the matter appears to be like this: these three opinions are partly right and partly wrong. They are true because men speak about how things appear as they see them, and also because these men see how things happen to them as if accidentally. They are false because the wisdom of God is too profound for them, that wisdom which founded the world, created man, and established ‘Guiding Signs,’ and gave to each the power suited to each. What I mean is, that this power is possessed by God, the angels, the ‘Rulers,’ the ‘Guiding Signs,’ the elements, humankind, and animals. However, this power has not been given to all these orders of beings with respect to everything (for he that has power over everything is one), but they have power over some things and do not have power over other things, as I have been saying. This is done in order that the goodness of God may be seen in those things over which they do have power, (14) and that they may know there is a superior power over those things over which they have no power.”

“So there is such a thing as Fate, as the astrologers say. Moreover, it is clear that everything is not under the control of our will: the majority of men have had the will to be rich, to exercise leadership over their fellows, to be healthy in their bodies, and to have things in subjection to them as they please. Yet that wealth is only found among a few, leadership is held by only one here and another there, and not all men are healthy. Even those who are rich do not have complete possession of their riches, nor do those who are in power have things in subjection to them as they wish. Sometimes things go against men’s wishes: at one point the rich are as rich as they desire, and at another point they become poor. Those who are very poor have homes that they do not want and pass their lives in the world as they do not like, and want many things which only escape from them. Many have children, and do not rear them; others rear them, and do not retain possession of them; and, others retain possession of them, and they become a disgrace and a sorrow to their parents. Some are rich, as they want,and are afflicted with poor health, as they do not want; others are blessed with good health, as they want, and afflicted with poverty, as they do not want. There are those who have an abundance of the things they want but few of those things they do not want, and there are others who have in abundance of  the things they do not want but few of those they want.”

“And so the matter is found to be like this: wealth, honours, health, sickness, (15) children, and all the other various objects people want are placed under the control of Fate, and are not in our own power. Yet, on the contrary, while we are pleased and delighted with such things as are in accordance with our wants, we do not want what is forced upon us. Those things which happen to us when we are not pleased make it clear that those things also with which we are pleased do not happen to us because we want them; but that things just happen the way they happen, and with some of them we are pleased and with others, not. In this way, human beings are all found to be controlled by nature in the same way, controlled by Fate in various ways, and controlled by our freedom as each chooses.”

“But now let us proceed to show that Fate does not have power over everything. . . [material omitted].

[Illustration from the various customs and laws of different peoples –Laws of Countries”]

(18) . . . Awida said: “I am convinced by your arguments that it is not from his nature that a man does wrong, and also that all men are not controlled in the same way. If you can further prove also that it is not from Fate and Destiny that men do wrong, then we will be obliged to believe that man possesses personal freedom and that by his nature man has the power both to follow what is right and to avoid what is wrong, therefore being justly judged at the last day.” Bardaisan said: “Are you, by the fact that all men are not governed alike, convinced that it is not from their nature that they do wrong? Well then, you can not possibly escape the conviction that they do wrong exclusively due to Fate, if we are able to show you that the sentence of the Fates and the ‘Rulers’ does not influence all men in the same way but that we possess freedom, so that we can avoid serving physical nature and being influenced by the control of the ‘Rulers’.” Awida said: “Prove this to me and I will be convinced by you, and whatever you ask me to do, I will do.”

Bardaisan said: “Have you read the books of the Chaldeans who are in Babylon (19), where they describe what effects the stars have in their various combinations at the births of people. Have you read the books of the Egyptians, where they describe all the various characters which people happen to have?” Awida said: “I have read books on astrology but I do not know which ones belong to Babylonians and Egyptians.” Bardaisan replied: “The teaching of both lands is the same.” “Yes, this is known,” said Awida.

Bardaisan said: “So listen and observe that the things that stars decree by their Fate and their portions are not practised by everyone in different parts of the world in the same way. For men have made laws for themselves in various lands in order to exercise the freedom which God gave them and to oppose Fate emanating from the ‘Rulers,’ who assume power that was not given to them. I will begin my enumeration of these laws, so far as I can remember them, from the east, the starting place of the whole world:”

           [Customs of eastern peoples]

“Laws of the Serians [Chinese]. The Serians have laws forbidding murder, committing impurity, and worshipping idols. There are no idols throughout Serika, and no prostitutes nor any one that kills a man or is killed, even though they, like other men, are born at all hours and on all days. In this way the fierce Mars, whenever he is positioned in the zenith, does not overpower the freedom of the Serians, forcing someone to shed the blood of his fellow with an iron weapon. Nor does Venus, when positioned with Mars, force any of the Serians to have sexual intercourse with his neighbour’s wife, or with any other woman. However, there are rich and poor, sick people and healthy people, and rulers and subjects there (20) because these matters are under the power of the ‘Guiding Signs.’”

“Laws of the Brahmans who are in India: Similarly, among the Hindus the Brahmans (who number in the thousands and tens of thousands) have laws forbidding murder, paying reverence to idols, committing impurity, eating meat, and drinking wine. Among these people not one of these things ever takes place. Thousands of years, too, have elapsed, during which these men have been governed by this law which they made for themselves.”

“Another law which is in India: There is also another law in India (in the same region) practised among those who are not of the caste of the Brahmans and do not embrace Brahmanic teaching, a law calling them to serve idols, commit impurity, murder, and do other bad things which the Brahmans disapprove. In the same region of India, too, there are men who are in the habit of eating human flesh, just as all other peoples eat the flesh of animals. In this way the evil stars have not forced the Brahmans to do evil and impure things; nor have the good stars prevailed on the rest of the Hindus to abstain from doing evil things. Nor have those stars which are well positioned in the regions which properly belong to them, and in the signs of the zodiac favourable to a humane disposition, prevailed on those who eat the flesh of men to abstain from using this foul and abominable food.”

“Laws of the Persians: The Persians also have made themselves laws permitting them to take as wives their sisters, their daughters, and their grand-daughters (21). There are some who go even further and marry their mothers. Some of these Persians have migrated away from their land and are found among the Medians (in Atrapatene [on the Caspian sea]), the Parthians, the Egyptians, and the Phrygians – they are called ‘Magians.’ In all the lands and regions in which they are found, they are governed by this law which was made for their ancestors. Yet we cannot say that for all the Magians and for the rest of the Persians Venus was positioned with the Moon and with Saturn in the house of Saturn in her portions, while the aspect of Mars was toward them. There are also many places in the kingdom of the Parthians where men kill their wives, their brothers, and their children without incurring any penalty. While among the Romans and the Greeks, someone who kills one of these family members receives capital punishment, the most severe penalty.”

“Laws of the Gelians [on the southern shores of the Caspian sea]: Among the Gelians the women sow, reap, build, and perform all the tasks of labourers. They wear no coloured clothing and do not wear shoes. They use no pleasant ointments. No one finds fault with them when they have sexual intercourse with strangers or engage in intimacies with their household slaves. But the husbands of these Gelians are dressed in garments of colours, ornamented with gold and jewels, and anoint themselves with pleasant ointments. They do not act this way due to any effeminacy, but on account of the law which has been made for them. In fact, all the men are fond of hunting and addicted to war. But we cannot say that, for all the women among the Gelians, Venus was positioned in Capricorn or in Aquarius, in a position of bad luck. Nor can we possibly say that, for all the Gelians, Mars and Venus were positioned in Aries, where it is written that brave and sexually unrestrained people are born.

(22) “Laws of the Baktrians [located in what is now Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan]: Among the Baktrians, who are called Kushanians, the women wear men’s clothing and jewellery of gold and costly jewels. The slaves and female slaves serve them more than to their husbands. They also ride on horses decked out with gold and precious stones. Moreover, these women are not chaste but have sexual intercourse with their slaves and with strangers who go to that land. Their husbands do not blame them and the women do not have any fear of punishment, because the Kushanians look upon their wives only as mistresses. Yet we cannot say that, for all Bactrian women, Venus, Mars and Jupiter are positioned in the house of Mars in the middle of the skies, the place where women are born that are rich and adulterous and that make their husbands subservient to them in everything.”

“Laws of the Rakamians, the Edessians [Bardaisan was among this people], and Arabians: Among the Rakamians, Edessians, and Arabians not only is an adulterous woman put to death, but even a woman who is suspected of adultery is punished.”

“Laws in Hatra [a settlement on the Tigris]: There is a law in force in Hatra that whoever steals any little thing, even if it is as worthless as water, will be stoned. Among the Kushanians, on the contrary, if any one commits such a theft as this, they merely spit in his face. Among the Romans, too, the one who commits a small theft is scourged and released. On the other side of the Euphrates, and as you go eastward, he that is stigmatized as either a thief or a murderer does not resent it much. But, if a man is accused of sexual intercourse with boys, he will avenge himself even to the point of murdering the accuser. . .”

“Laws (23) [of the Greeks (?)] . . . [passage largely missing]: Among. . . boys. . .to us, and are not. . . Again, in all the region of the east, if any persons are in this way stigmatized, and are known to be guilty, their own fathers and brothers put them to death. Very often they do not even identify the graves where they are buried.”

          [Customs of northern peoples]

“Such are the laws of the people of the east. But in the north, and in the land of the Germans and their neighbours, men marry handsome male youths, and they even have feasts on the occasion. This is not considered a disgrace or a reproach because of the law which prevails among them. But it is impossible that all those in Gaul who are branded with this disgrace should at their births have had Mercury positioned with Venus in the house of Saturn, and within the limits of Mars, and in the signs of the zodiac to the west. For men born under these conditions, it is written that they are branded with infamy as being like women.”

“Laws of the Britons: Among the Britons many men take one and the same wife.”

“Laws of the Parthians: Among the Parthians, on the other hand, one man takes many wives, and all of the wives stay with him only, because of the law which has been made there in that land.”

“Laws of the Amazons: Regarding the Amazons, all of them – the entire people – have no husbands. Like animals, once a year in spring-time, they come from their territories and cross the river. After crossing it, they hold a great festival on a mountain and the men from those parts come and stay with them fourteen days. They have sex with them and they become pregnant before returning (24) to their own land. When boys are delivered, they are thrown away, and they raise the girls. Now it is clear that, according to the laws of nature, since they all became pregnant in one month, they also in one month are all delivered, a little sooner or a little later. As we have heard, all of them are robust and warlike; but not one of the stars is able to help any of those males who are born so as to prevent their being thrown away.”

[Book of the Chaldeans]

“The Book of the Chaldeans: It is written in the Book of the Chaldeans that, when Mercury is positioned with Venus in the house of Mercury, Mercury produces painters, sculptors, and bankers; but that, when they are in the house of Venus, they produce perfumers, dancers, singers, and poets. Yet, in all the lands of the Tayitians, the Saracens, the Mauritanians in Upper Libya, the nomads at the mouth of the Ocean; in outer Germany, in Upper Sarmatia, in Spain, and in all the lands to the north of Pontos; and, in all the lands of the Alanians, the Albanians, the Zazians, the Brusians (on the river Dur), one does not see sculptors, painters, perfumers, bankers, or poets. On the contrary, this decree of Mercury and Venus is prevented from influencing the entire circumference of the world.”

“Throughout Media, the dead and even some who are still a bit alive are cast to the dogs and the dogs eat the dead everywhere in Media. Yet we cannot say that all the Medians are born having the Moon positioned with Mars in Cancer in the day-time beneath the earth: for it is written that those born under those conditions are eaten by dogs.”

“The Hindus, when they die, are burned (25) and many of their wives are burned alive along with them. But we cannot say that all Hindu women who are burned alive had at their birth Mars and the Sun positioned in Leo in the night-time beneath the earth, as those persons who are burned are born.”

“All the Germans die by strangulation, except those who are killed in battle. But it is impossible, that, at the birth of all the Germans, the Moon and Hora should have been positioned between Mars and Saturn. The truth is that in all lands, every day and at all times, men are born under different birth days from one another. The laws of men prevail over the decree of the stars, and they are governed by their customs. Fate does not force the Serians to commit murder against their wish, nor the Brahmans to eat flesh. Nor does Fate hinder the Persians from marrying their daughters and their sisters, nor the Hindus from being burned, nor the Medes from being devoured by dogs, nor the Parthians from taking many wives, nor the Britons from taking one and the same wife, nor the Edessians from cultivating chastity, nor the Greeks from practising gymnastics, . . . nor the Romans from perpetually seizing other lands, nor male Gauls from marrying one another. Nor does Fate force the Amazons to rear the males. Nor does his birth day force any man in the entire world to cultivate the art of the Muses. Instead, as I have already said, in every land and among every people everyone takes advantage of the freedom of their nature in any way they choose, and, by reason of the (26) body in which they dwell, do service to Fate and to nature, sometimes as they want and at other times as they do not want. For in every land and among every people there are rich and poor, rulers and subjects, and healthy and sick people, each one affected by Fate and his birth day.”

[Summary of the argument by Bardaisan]

I [Philippos] said to him: “You have convinced us of these things, father Bardaisan, and we know that they are true. But do you know that the Chaldeans say that the earth is divided into seven portions, which are called zones; that seven planets (stars) have authority over those portions, each over one portion; that in each one of those portions the will of its own planet prevails; and, that this is called its ‘law’?” He replied: “First of all, my son Philippos, know that the Chaldeans have invented this statement as a device to disseminate error. For, although the earth is divided into seven portions, yet in every one of the seven portions many laws are to be found differing from one another. For there are not seven kinds of laws only found in the world, according to the number of the planets, or twelve, according to the number of the signs of the zodiac, or thirty-six, according to the number of the ‘decans’. But there are many kinds of laws as you go from kingdom to kingdom, from land to land, from region to region, and in every place where people live, each differing one from another. For you remember what I said to you: in one zone, that of the Hindus, there are many people who do not eat the meat of animals, and there are others that even eat human flesh. Again, in speaking about the Persians and the Magians, I told you that it is not in the zone of Persia only that they married their daughters and sisters, but that in every land to which they have settled (27) they have followed their ancestral laws, and have preserved the mystic arts contained in that teaching which their ancestors delivered to them. Again, remember that I told you of many peoples spread across the entire world who have not been confined to any one zone, but have dwelt in every quarter from which the wind blows in all the zones, and they do not have the arts which Mercury and Venus are said to have given when in conjunction with each other. Yet, if laws were regulated by zones, this could not be, but they clearly are not regulated in this way, because the people I have spoken of are far from having anything in common with many other peoples in their habits of life.”

“Then, again, how many wise men do you think have abolished from their lands laws which appeared to them not well constructed? Also, how many laws are there which have been set aside because of necessity? And how many kings are there who, when they have gained possession of lands which did not belong to them, have abolished their established laws, and made such other laws as they chose? And, whenever these things occurred, no one of the stars was able to preserve the law. Here is an instance at hand for you to see for yourselves: it was just recently that the Romans took possession of Arabia, and they abolished all the laws previously existing there, especially the circumcision which they practised. The truth is that the one who is his own master is sometimes forced to obey the law imposed on him by another, who himself in turn becomes possessed of the power to do as he pleases.”

[Judeans and Christians]

“But let me mention to you a fact which, more than anything else, is likely to convince the foolish and those lacking in faith. All the Judeans who received the law through Moses circumcise their male children on the eighth day without waiting for the arrival of the appropriate stars or without standing in fear of the law (28) of the land where they are living. Nor does the star which has authority over the zone control them by force. Instead, whether they are in Edom, Arabia, Greece, Persia, the north, or the south, they carry out this law which was made for them by their ancestors. It is evident that what they do is not based on a birth day: for it is impossible that, for all the Judeans, on the eighth day, on which they are circumcised, Mars should be in the ascendant, so that steel should pass upon them, and their blood be shed. Moreover, all of them, wherever they are, abstain from worshipping idols. One day in seven, also, they and their children cease from all work, from all building, travelling, and buying and selling. Nor do they kill an animal on the Sabbath day, nor kindle a fire, nor administer justice. There is no one among them whom Fate forces, either to go to law on the Sabbath day and gain his cause, or to go to law and lose it, or to pull down, or to build up, or to do any one of those things which are done by all those other people who have not received this law. There are other things they do not do like the rest of humanity on the Sabbath, though on this same day they both bring forth and are born and fall sick and die: for these things do not pertain to the power of man.”

“In Syria and Edessa men used to castrate themselves in honour of the goddess Tharatha [paralleling Atargatis]. But when King Abgar [VIII, of the kingdom of Edessa] became a believer, he commanded that every one that did so should have his hand cut off, and from that day until now no one does so in Edessa.”

“What shall we say of the new family of us Christians, planted by the Messiah in every land and in every region (29) at his arrival? Wherever we are, we are all called – after the one name of Christ – “Christians.” On one day, the first of the week, we assemble ourselves together, and on the days of the readings we abstain from taking food. The brothers who are in Gaul do not take other men as wives, nor those who are in Parthia two wives, nor do those who are in Judea circumcise themselves; nor do our sisters who are among the Gelians have sex with strangers; nor do those brothers who are in Persia take their daughters for wives; and, nor do those who are in Media abandon their dead, bury them alive, or give them as food to the dogs. Nor do the brothers who are in Edessa kill their wives or their sisters when they commit impurity, but they withdraw from the women and give them over to the judgment of God. Nor do the brothers who are in Hatra stone thieves to death. Instead, wherever they are and in whatever place they are found, the laws of the lands do not stop them from obeying the law of Christ. Nor does the Fate of the celestial ‘Guiding Signs’ force them to come into contact with things which they regard as impure. Still, they can be sick or healthy, rich or poor, since those things are not within the scope of their freedom and happen to them wherever they are.”

“For although the freedom of man is not influenced by the compulsion of the seven planets (stars) or, if it is influenced at some point, it is able to withstand the influences exerted upon it. Yet, on the other hand, viewed from the outside this same person cannot at any moment liberate himself from the control of his ‘Guiding Signs’: for he is a slave and in subjection. For, if we were able to do everything, we should ourselves be everything. If we had no power to do anything, we would be the instruments (30) of others. But if God wills, all things are possible and may happen without hindrance: for there is nothing that can stop that great and holy will. For even those who think that they successfully withstand it, do not withstand it by strength, but by wickedness and error. And this may go on for a little while, because God is kind and patient towards all beings that exist, so as to let them remain as they are and be controlled by their own will – notwithstanding that they are held in check by the works which have been done and by the arrangements which have been made for their help. For this order and direction which have been instituted, each intermingling with the other, serve to repress the violence of these human beings, so that they should not inflict harm on one another to the full, nor yet to the full suffer harm, as was the case with them before the creation of the world. A time is also coming when this propensity to inflict harm which still remains in them will be brought to an end by way of the teaching that will be given to them amidst another kind of mixture. At the establishment of that new world, all evil commotions will stop and all rebellions will end. The foolish will be convinced and all deficiencies will be remedied. There will be quietness and peace through the gift of the Lord of all existing beings.”

Here ends the Book of the Laws of Countries.

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