Mediterranean peoples: Polemon theorizes the meaning of physical features (second / fifth centuries CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Mediterranean peoples: Polemon theorizes the meaning of physical features (second / fifth centuries CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified October 14, 2022,

Authors:  Polemon of Laodikeia /  Smyrna as summarized by Adamantius, Physiognomy 1.1-2; 2.1, 31-32, 37 (link to Greek text).

Comments: Marcus Antonius Polemon (second century CE) was a sophist born in Laodikeia and active in Smyrna, both in Asia Minor (e.g. ISmyrna 676, 697 = AGRW 194 [link]). Philostratos sketches his life in the Lives of the Sophists (530–544 [link]). Polemon’s Physiognomy has not survived in the original Greek, but there is a 14th century Arabic translation. But the detailed summary in Greek by Adamantius is among the more important sources. Adamantius was a Judean from Alexandria who was active as a physician in the early fifth century (Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History 7.13). Adamantius’ summary of Polemon shows that Polemon was among those who emphasized the evaluation of physical features on a person by person basis, but this did not stop him from stereotyping entire peoples based on environment and climate nonetheless. The physiognomic focus on physical features in relation to environment and ethnicity means that it is here that we find ancient discourses consonant with racialization. We also find the not unexpected claim that the Greeks and Ionians were a superior people.

Source of the translation:  Translation by Harland.


book 1

[Introduction and the role of peoplehood]

1 After reading through the method of physiognomy in Aristotle [link] and acquiring more knowledge of it from Polemon than from others, and practising it in the very actions of people I encountered, I decided to put in writing a great source of help, like a sacred statue in holy precincts, as it were. . . Therefore I chose to paraphrase the work of Polemon, preserving in clear speech a common advantage for those who will encounter it, as well as those things which we perceive as contributing towards the body of teaching. . . But since, dearest Constantius, you have challenged me to produce this writing for you, I have been encouraged by your desire and I have offered it without hesitation . . .

2 . . . It is necessary for the physiognomist to pay special attention to an appearance which has completely changed contrary to both age and place. For many men have signs which are out of tune with both their age and people (ethnos), which make grasping their appearance clear, but the additional signs of city and peoples clarify it further. For it is easy to recognize the character traits of men belonging to an entire descent group (genos) by tribe, but the signs common to the peoples themselves are very few, and the signs vary a great deal from one person to the next. For all Egyptians have signs in common, by which the entire descent group can be analyzed physiognomically, as do Ethiopians and Scythians as well, and the other descent groups of men which will also be mentioned later. But the differences between each individual man’s signs are considerable. For it is also necessary to judge how each man differs from another individual, rather than by people. In this way, engaging in physiognomy by focussing on each person is the most accurate method. . . [material omitted]


book 2

[Introduction to book 2]

1 It is necessary to practise physiognomy according to each part and limb, each colour, movement, breath, and noise, and whatever comes after these. You need to know that you should not think that you can form a firm opinion from one or two signs, but from the majority and the more important ones which agree with each other. Examine all the other signs closely with respect to those in the eyes, for these are the most important. For if the signs outside the eyes agree with those in them, your physiognomical evaluation will be free of falsity. Among the other signs the most powerful are those near the eyes, such as the forehead, nose, mouth, cheeks, and head. Second are those around the neck and chest, third those around the shoulders, hands, legs, and feet, and last are those around the stomach. . . [material omitted].

[Peoples of the south, north, east and west]

31 The signs from colours and hair are not sufficient in themselves for the purposes of physiognomy, and it is not easy to judge from them even with respect to peoples who is from a particular people, especially because they have mixed with one another. Syrians are dispersed in Italy, Libyans in Thrace, and others elsewhere. For the most part, those inhabiting the north are tall and pale with white soft hair and light blue eyes. They are snub-nosed, thick-legged, very large with loose flesh, pot-bellied, simple, spirited, with little sense of judgment, hot-tempered, and bad at learning. But those in the south have black curly hair, black eyes, thin legs, are good at learning, very smart, thoughtless, liars, cunning, and think like a thief. Each of them have each of these traits to a greater or lesser extent in relation to how close or far they are from the south or the north. Those who inhabit the middle area have an appearance that is in between, and their signs and thoughts are a mixture. Those from the east and the west differ among themselves with respect to how far south or north they are. For those Libyans who live in the farthest west part of Libya and those Iberians who reach the outer sea are different, even though they are both from the west. Libyans are similar to Ethiopians, but Iberians are similar to Celts. To demonstrate this briefly, the south is for the most part a mixture of dryness and heat, while the north is a mixture of moistness and coldness. With respect to how near they are to each of these [i.e. north and south], other places have a mixture and in particular produce men whose appearances and characters match with that mixture. However, variations occur because many peoples have moved and settled elsewhere.


32 Anyone who has guarded the purity of the Greek and Ionian descent group is sufficiently large, rather broad, upright, strong, with a rather white colour, pale, having a moderate and rather firm mixture of flesh, straight legs, shapely extremities, a round head of medium size, a strong neck, rather pale and soft hair that curls gently, a square face, thin lips, a straight nose, and moist, dark blue, fierce eyes with plenty of light in them. Of all peoples, the Greek descent group has the best eyes. . . [material omitted].


[Hair and peoplehood]

37 Say that a man with curly hair is very cowardly and cunning and that a man with straight hair is rather wild and thoughtless. The best hair is in between these, as also excessive thickness of hair is beast-like and baldness is a sign of bad character and deceit. A balance of these is praiseworthy. To have very soft hair is womanly. Yet very stiff hair is not good, for it is sign of savageness. A balance of these is also best. Black hair indicates cowardice and great cunning, excessively yellow and pale white hair, like the Scythians and Celts have, reveals ignorance, clumsiness, and savageness, and that which is gently yellow indicates an aptitude for learning, gentleness, and skill in art. Unmixed fiery hair like the flower of the pomegranate is not good, since for the most part the characters of such people are beast-like, shameless, and greedy. . .

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