Persian, Babylonian, and Scythian wisdom: Diogenes of Laertes refutes Magian and Chaldean origins for Greek philosophy (early third century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persian, Babylonian, and Scythian wisdom: Diogenes of Laertes refutes Magian and Chaldean origins for Greek philosophy (early third century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 12, 2024,

Ancient authors: Various authors cited in Diogenes of Laertes, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 1.1-21 and 1.101-105 (link).

Comments: The notion of barbarian wisdom is no side-issue for Diogenes of Laertes (a town in Cilicia). He begins his entire work on Greek philosophers by attempting to refute at some length the notion that barbarians (e.g. Celtic Druids, Indian naked sages, Persian Magians) are a source of wisdom or that barbarian wisdom preceded Greek wisdom. In the process, Diogenes cites many other authors (in bold below, Aristotle among them) who argue that particular barbarians were in fact a source of wisdom.

Although Diogenes does not accept the inclusion of the Scythian Anacharsis among the “seven sages” (as Ephoros had in the mid-fourth century BCE), Diogenes nonetheless includes a short, anecdotal life of Anacharsis alongside the many other Greek philosophers in his work. In this portrait, however, Anacharsis is presented primarily as a promoter of Greek wisdom. Although there are hints of Anacharsis’ subversion of Greek ways, Diogenes has tamed the tradition somewhat (compared to things like the epistles of Anacharsis collected together with the Cynic Epistles, on which go to this link).


Book 1

[Prologue refuting barbarian wisdom]

1 There are some who say that the study of philosophy had its beginning among the barbarians. They claim there have been Magians among Persians, Chaldeans among Babylonians or Assyrians, naked sages (gymnosophists) among Indians, and those called Druids or revered ones among Celts and Galatians, and they cite as authorities Aristotle’s Magian Matters (Magikos) and Sotion’s twenty-third book in his Succession of Philosophers. Also they say that Mochos was a Phoenician, Zamolxis a Thracian, and Atlas a Libyan. If we believe the Egyptians, Hephaistos was the son of the Nile, and with him philosophy began, priests and prophets being its chief exponents. 2 Hephaistos lived 48,863 years before Alexander of Macedon, and in the interval there occurred 373 solar and 832 lunar eclipses.​ The date of the Magians, beginning with Zoroaster the Persian, was 5000 years before the fall of Troy, as given by Hermodoros the Platonist in his work on mathematics. But Xanthos the Lydian calculates 6000 years from Zoroaster to the expedition of Xerxes. After that event he places a long line of Magians in succession, bearing the names of Ostanas, Astrampsychos, Gobryas, and Pazatas, down to the conquest of Persia by Alexander.

3 These authors forget that the achievements which they attribute to the barbarians belong to the Greeks, with whom not merely philosophy but humankind itself began. For instance, Mousaios is claimed by Athens and Linos by Thebes. It is said that the former, the son of Eumolpos, was the first to compose a genealogy of the gods and to construct a sphere, and that he maintained that all things proceed from unity and are resolved again into unity. He died at Phaleron, and this is his epitaph: “Mousaios, dear son of Eumolpos, / In Phalerean soil lies buried here.” The Eumolpidai at Athens get their name from the father of Mousaios. 4 Linos again was the son of Hermes and the Muse Ourania. He composed a poem describing the creation of the world, the courses of the sun and moon, and the growth of animals and plants. His poem begins with the line: “Time was when all things grew up at once,” and this idea was borrowed by Anaxagoras when he declared that all things were originally together until Mind came and set them in order. Linos died in Euboia, killed by the arrow of Apollo. This is his epitaph: “Here Theban Linos, whom Ourania bore, / The fair-crowned Muse, sleeps on a foreign shore.” So it was from the Greeks that philosophy arose: its very name refuses to be translated into foreign speech.

5 But those who attribute its invention to barbarians bring forward Orpheus the Thracian, calling him a philosopher of whose antiquity there can be no doubt. Now, considering the sort of things he said about the gods, I hardly know whether he ought to be called a “philosopher.” For what are we to make of one who neglects charging the gods with all human suffering, and even the foul crimes done by the tongue amongst a few of humankind? The story goes that he died at the hands of women. But according to the epitaph at Dion in Macedonia he was killed by a thunderbolt. It runs as follows: “Here have the Muses laid their minstrel true, / The Thracian Orpheus whom Zeus’ thunderbolt slew.”

6 But the advocates of the theory that philosophy arose among the barbarians go on to explain the different forms it assumed in different countries. As to the naked sages (gymnosophists) and Druids, we are told that they uttered their philosophy in riddles, calling men to revere the gods, to abstain from wrong-doing, and to practise courage. That the naked sages, in any event, despise even death itself is affirmed by Kleitarchos in his twelfth book.

Kleitarchos also says that the Chaldaeans apply themselves to astronomy and predicting the future, while the Magians spend their time in the worship of the gods, in sacrifices and in prayers, implying that the gods do not listen to anyone but them. They express their views concerning the being and origin of the gods, whom they hold to be fire, earth, and water; they condemn the use of images, and especially the error of attributing to the divinities different genders. 7 They engage in discourse about justice and consider it impious to practise cremation. But they see no impiety in marriage with a mother or daughter, as Sotion relates in his twenty-third book. Further, they practise divination and forecast the future, declaring that the gods appear to them in visible form. Moreover, they say that the air is full of shapes which stream forth like vapour and enter the eyes of keen-sighted seers. They prohibit jewelry and the wearing of gold. Their clothing is white, they make their bed on the ground, and their food is vegetables, cheese, and coarse bread. Their staff is a reed and their custom is, so we are told, to stick it into the cheese and take up with it the part they eat.

8 Magians (Magi) were completely unacquainted with the Magian technique used by howlers of chants (goētikē mageia), according to Aristotle in his Magian Matters and Dinon in the fifth book of his History. Dinon tells us that the name Zoroaster, literally interpreted, means “star-worshipper.” Hermodoros agrees with him in this. Aristotle in the first book of his dialogue On Philosophy declares that the Magians are more ancient than the Egyptians. Furthermore,they believe in two principles, the good spirit and the evil spirit, the one called Zeus or Oromasdes [Ahura Mazda], the other Hades or Areimanius [Angra Mainyu]. This is confirmed by Hermippos in his first book about the Magians, Eudoxos in his Voyage Around the World, and Theopompos in the eighth book of his Philippika. 9 Theopompos says that, according to the Magians, people will live in a future life and be immortal, and that the world will endure as a result of their invocations.​ 7 This is again confirmed by Eudemos of Rhodes. But Hekataios relates that, according to the Magians, the gods are subject to birth. Klearchos of Soloi in his work On Education further makes the [Indian] naked sages (gymnosophists) descendents of the Magians. Some also trace the Judeans to the same origin. Furthermore, those who have written about the Magians criticize Herodotos. They urge that Xerxes would never have cast javelins at the sun nor have let down fetters into the sea since in the creed of the Magians, sun and sea are gods. But that statues of the gods should be destroyed by Xerxes was natural enough.

10 The philosophy of the Egyptians regarding the gods and justice, at least, is described as follows: They say that matter was the first principle, next the four elements were derived from matter, and so living things of every species were produced. The sun and the moon are gods bearing the names of Osiris and Isis respectively; they make use of the beetle, the dragon, the hawk, and other creatures as symbols of divinity, according to Manetho in his Epitome of Physical Doctrines, and Hekataios in the first book of his work On the Egyptian Philosophy. They also set up statues and temples to these sacred animals because they do not know the true form of the deity. 11 They hold that the universe is created and perishable, and that it is spherical in shape. They say that the stars consist of fire, and that events happen upon earth according to the mixture of the fires; that the moon is eclipsed when it falls into the earth’s shadow; that the soul survives death and passes into other bodies; and, that rain is caused by change in the atmosphere. They give physical explanations for all other phenomena, as related by Hekataios and Aristagoras. They also established laws on the subject of justice, which they ascribed to Hermes. They deified those animals which are useful to humanity. They also claimed to have invented geometry, astrology, and arithmetic. That is enough about the invention of philosophy.

12 But the first to use the term, and to call himself a “philosopher” (lover of wisdom), was Pythagoras. For, he said, no man is wise, but god alone. Herakleides of Pontus, in his On the Dead, makes him say this at Sikyon in conversation with Leon, who was the prince of that city or of Phlios. All too quickly the study was called wisdom and its professor a sage, to denote his attainment of mental perfection. While the student who took it up was a philosopher or lover of wisdom. . . 13 The men who were commonly regarded as sages were the following: Thales, Solon, Periander, Kleobulos, Chilon, Bias, Pittakos. To these are added Anacharsis the Scythian, Pherekydes of Syros, Epimenides the Cretan, and by some even Pisistratus the tyrant. So much for the sages or wise men. But philosophy, the pursuit of wisdom, has had a twofold origin: it started with Anaximander on the one hand and with Pythagoras on the other. . .


[Anacharsis the Scythian]

101 Anacharsis the Scythian was the son of Gnuros and brother of Kaduidas, king of Scythia. His mother was a Greek, and for that reason he spoke both languages. He wrote on the institutions of the Greeks and the Scythians, dealing with simplicity of life and military matters, a poem of 800 lines. So outspoken was he that he furnished occasion for a proverb, “To talk like a Scythian.” Sosikrates claims he came to Athens about the 47th Olympiad​ [ca. 591-588 BCE] in the civic leadership (archonship) of Eukrates. Hermippos relates that, on his arrival at the house of Solon, he told one of the servants to announce that Anacharsis had come and was desirous of seeing him and, if possible, of becoming his guest. 102 The servant delivered his message and was ordered by Solon to tell him that men as a rule choose their guests from among their own countrymen. Then Anacharsis took him up and said that he was now in his own country and had a right to be entertained as a guest. Solon, impressed by his sharpness, admitted him into his house and made him his greatest friend.

After a while Anacharsis returned to Scythia, where, owing to his enthusiasm for everything Greek, he was viewed as subverting the ancestral customs and was killed by his brother while they were out hunting together. When struck by the arrow he exclaimed, “My reputation carried me safe through Greece, but the envy it excited at home has been my ruin.” In some accounts, it is said that he was killed while performing Greek initiation rites.​

Here is my own epitaph about him: 103 “Back from his travels Anacharsis came, having wandered much to persuade everyone to adopt a Greek style of living. Still having the story unfulfilled in their mouths, a winged arrow carried him away towards the immortals.” It was a saying of his that the vine had three kinds of grapes: the first of pleasure, the next of intoxication, and the third of disgust. He said that he wondered why experts in Greece compete in the game and non-experts award the prizes. Being asked how one could avoid becoming a drunk, he answered, “By keeping before your eyes the disgraceful behaviour of the drunk.” Again, he expressed surprise that Greek law-givers imposed penalties on drunken outrage while they honour athletes for bruising one another. After ascertaining that the ship’s side was four fingers’ thick, he commented that the passengers were just that far from death.

104 He called oil a drug which produced madness, because the athletes when they anoint themselves with it are maddened against each other. How is it, he asked, that the Greeks prohibit lying and yet obviously tell lies when engaging in trade? Nor could he understand why at the beginning of Greek feasts they drink from small cups and, when they are “full,” from large ones. The inscription on his statues is: “Control speech, gluttony, and sensuality.” Being asked if there were flutes in Scythia, he replied, “No, nor yet vines.” To the question what ships were the safest, his reply was, “Those that have been hauled ashore.” He also declared that the strangest thing he had seen in Greece was that they leave the smoke on the mountains and convey the fuel [i.e. charcoal] into the city. When some one inquired which were more in number, the living or the dead, he replied, “In what category do you place those who are on the seas, then?” When someone from Attika [the region in which Athens was located] insulted him for being a Scythian, he replied, “Well, granted that my homeland is a disgrace to me; you are a disgrace to your homeland.” 105 To the question, “What among men is both good and bad?” his answer was “The tongue.” He said it was better to have one great friend than many friends worth nothing at all. He defined the market as an unusual place where men deceive and overreach one another. When insulted by a young man while drinking, he said, “If you cannot carry your liquor when you are young, boy, you will be a water carrier when you are old.” According to some, he was the inventor of the anchor and the potter’s wheel. The following letter is attributed to him:

“Anacharsis to Croesus. I have come, O King of the Lydians, to the land of the Greeks to be instructed in their way of life and customs. I am not even looking for gold, but am content to return to Scythia a better man. In any event, here I am in Sardis, hoping to meet you.”


Source of the translation: R.D. Hicks, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1925), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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