Arkadians: Polybios theorizes environment and peoplehood (second century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Arkadians: Polybios theorizes environment and peoplehood (second century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified August 23, 2023,

Ancient author: Polybios, Histories 4.20-21 (link).

Comments: In the midst of his narrative concerning Aitolian actions in central Greece, the second century author Polybios (also transliterated Polybius) seeks to explain why the people of the city of Kynaithai (or Cynaethae) in Arkadia in Greece were deserving of the terrible treatment they received at the hands of the Aitolians. This leads to an ethnographic digression in which we learn Polybios’ environmental theory concerning the correspondence between climate and the very nature of the people who live under the conditions of that climate. Polybios explains how the Arkadians (also transliterated Arcadians) as a whole adopted customs regarding musical training that countered the harsh climate which created a harsh people, but that the Kynaitheans within Arkadia were the only ones to abandon these necessary “softening” customs, which resulted in their extreme savagery. So we get quite a few insights into the methods by which Polybios and other ancient Greek authors assess ethnic groups overall. This reflects the medical theories of the four humours and the climate in the process, on which see Airs, Waters, Places (link), for instance. There are also hints of the notion that mountainous or rugged environmental conditions create rugged and edgy people, which is a favourite theme of Strabo later on.

Source of the translation: W.R. Paton, Polybius: The Histories, 6 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1922-27), public domain (Paton passed away in 1921), adapted by Harland.


Book 4

[Kynaitheans as the exception in being savage Arkadians]

19 . . . The Kynaitheans, on whom the Aetolians had brought this terrible disaster, were, however, generally considered to have deserved their fate more than any people ever did.  20 Since the Arkadian people (ethnos) on the whole has a very high reputation for virtue among the Greeks, due not only to their humane and hospitable character and usages, but especially due to their piety towards the gods, it is worth giving some consideration to the question of the savagery (agriotētos) of the Kynaitheans, and ask ourselves why, though unquestionably being Arkadians, they so far surpassed all other Greeks at this period in cruelty and lawlessness. I think the reason was that they were the first and only people in Arkadia to abandon an excellent practice invented by the ancients with a careful regard for the natural conditions under which all the inhabitants of that land live.

[Arkadian training in music as source of superiority in relation to their environment]

For the practice of music, I mean real music, is beneficial to everyone, but to Arkadians it is a necessity. For we should not consider music to be introduced by men for the purpose of deception and delusion, as Ephoros says in the preface to his work, making an unusually hasty assertion. We should not think that the ancient Cretans and Lakedaimonians acted arbitrarily in substituting the flute and rhythmic movement for the trumpet in war. Nor should we think that the early Arkadians had no good reason for incorporating music in their whole communal life to such an extent that not only boys, but young men up to the age of thirty were compelled to study it constantly, although in other matters their lives were most harsh.

For it is well-known and familiar to everyone that it is rare, except in Arkadia, for the children early on to be trained to sing in measure the hymns and paeans by which traditionally they celebrated the heroes and gods of each particular place. Later they learn the measures of Philoxenos and Timotheus, and every year in the theatre they compete enthusiastically in choral singing to the accompaniment of professional flute-players, the boys doing so in the contest proper to them and the young men doing so in what is called the men’s contest. Not only this, but through their whole life they entertain themselves at banquets not by listening to hired musicians but by performing for themselves, calling for a song from each in turn. Although they are not ashamed of denying familiarity with other studies, in the case of singing it is neither possible for them to deny knowledge of it because they all are compelled to learn it, nor, if they confess to such knowledge can they excuse themselves, so great a disgrace is this considered in that country. Besides this, the young men practise military parades to the music of the flute and perfect themselves in dances and give annual performances in the theatres, all under civic supervision and at the public expense.

[Environmental theory of the shaping of peoples]

21 Now I believe that all these practices have been introduced by people of long ago because they had in view the universal practice of personal manual labour in Arkadia rather than luxuries and excess. In general they also had the pain and hardship of the people’s lives in view, as well as the harshness of character resulting from the cold and gloomy climatic conditions usually prevailing in these regions. Everyone is forced to assimilate themselves to these conditions, since climate is the only cause of why separate groups and peoples dwelling widely apart differ so much from each other in character, feature, and colour, as well as in most of their activities.

The primitive Arkadians, therefore, introduced all the practices I mentioned with the aim of softening and tempering the stubbornness and harshness of nature. In addition, they accustomed the people, both men and women, to frequent festivals and general sacrifices and dances of young men and maidens. In fact, the purpose they had in introducing their customs was to mitigate the extreme hardness of the natural character by making it more gentle and mild.

The Kyneitheans were in special need of such influences because their country is the most rugged and their climate the most inclement in Arkadia. Because the Kyneitheans entirely neglected these institutions [regarding music] and because they devoted themselves exclusively to their local affairs and civic rivalries, they became so savage that there was no city anywhere in Greece where greater and more constant crimes were committed. As an indication of the deplorable condition of the Kynaitheans in this respect and the hatred of the other Arkadians for such practices of the Kynaitheans, I may mention the following: at the time when, after the great massacre, the Kynaitheans sent an embassy to Sparta, the other Arkadian cities which they entered on their journey gave them instant notice to leave by proclamation of the herald. But the Mantineans even made a solemn purification by offering sacrifices and carrying them round their city and all their territory after the Kynaitheans’ departure.

[Conclusion of the digression and its purpose]

I have said so much on this subject, firstly, so that people do not blame the Arkadian people for the crimes of one city and, secondly, to deter any other Arkadians from beginning to neglect music under the impression that its extensive practice in Arkadia serves no necessary purpose. I also spoke for the sake of the Kynaitheans themselves, in order that, if god ever grants them better fortune, they may tame themselves by turning their attention to education and especially to music. For there is no other means by which they can hope to free themselves from that savagery which overtook them at this time. Having now said everything that occurred to me on the subject of this people, I return to the point where I digressed.

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