Iberians: Artemidoros, Poseidonios, Strabo, and others (second century BCE to first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Iberians: Artemidoros, Poseidonios, Strabo, and others (second century BCE to first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 12, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=6939.

Author: Artemidoros of Ephesos, Poseidonios of Apameia (Kidd, fragment 224), and others as cited by Strabo, Geography 3.1-4, portions (link to Greek text and full translation)

Comments: Strabo (writing around 18 CE) draws on a variety of authors (in bold below), including works by Artemidoros (second century BCE) and Poseidonios (first century BCE), to outline a variety of peoples in Iberia (Spain). Strabo tends to emphasize the peoples’ savage lifestyle that reflects the mountainous terrain they live in, in his view, as well as what Strabo considers the civilizing influence that followed on Roman conquest to some degree. Strabo often equates mountainous peoples’ lifestyle with banditry, as in this case.


Book 3

[Iberian land]

1 . . . (4) But, to resume, let me describe Iberia in detail, beginning with the Sacred Cape. This cape is the most westerly point, not only of Europe, but of the whole inhabited world. For, whereas the inhabited world comes to an end in the west with the two continents (on the one hand, at the headlands of Europe, and on the other, at the extremities of Libya, of which regions the Iberians occupy the one, and the Maurusians the other), the headlands of Iberia project at the previously mentioned cape about fifteen hundred stadium-lengths beyond those of Libya. Moreover, the land adjacent to this cape they call in the Latin language “Cuneus,” meaning to indicate its wedge-shape. But as for the cape itself, which projects into the sea, Artemidoros (who visited the place, as he says) likens it to a ship. Artemidoros says that three little islands help to give it this shape, one of these islands occupying the position of a ship’s beak, and the other two, which have fairly good places of anchorage, occupying the position of cat-heads. But as for Herakles, he says, there is neither a temple of his to be seen on the cape (as Ephoros wrongly states), nor an altar to him, or to any other god either, but only stones​ in many spots, lying in groups of three or four. According to an ancestral custom, these stones are turned round by those who visit the place and then, after the pouring of a libation, are moved back again.​ It is not lawful, he adds, to offer sacrifice there. At night, it is not even permitted to set foot on the place, because the gods, the people say, occupy it at that time. But those who come to see the place spend the night in a neighbouring village, and then enter the place by day, taking water with them, for there is no water there. . . [omitted material].

[Turdulians and Turdetanians]

. . . (6) The coastline adjacent to the Sacred Cape, on the west, is the beginning of the western side of Iberia as far as the mouth of the Tagus River, and, on the south, the beginning of the southern side as far as another river, the Anas, and its mouth. Both rivers flow from the eastern regions. The Tagus, which is a much larger stream than the other, flows straight westward to its mouth, whereas the Anas turns south, and marks off a boundary of the interfluvial region, which is inhabited for the most part by Celtic peoples, and by certain of the Lusitanians who were transplanted there by the Romans from the other side of the Tagus. But in the regions farther inland dwell Carpetanians, Oretanians, and large numbers of Vettonians. This land, to be sure, has only moderately happy conditions, but that which lies next to it on the east and south takes pre-eminence in comparison with the entire inhabited world with respect to fertility and quality of products from land and sea. This is the land through which the Baetis flows, which rises in the same districts as both the Anas and the Tagus, and in size is about midway between the other two rivers. Like the Anas, however, it at first flows towards the west, and then turns south, and empties on the same coast as the Anas. They call the land Baetica for the river, and also Turdetania after the inhabitants. Yet they call the inhabitants both Turdetanians and Turdulians, some believing that they are the same people, others that they are different. Among the latter is Polybios, for he states that the Turdulians are neighbours of the Turdetanians on the north. But at the present time there is no distinction to be seen among them. The Turdetanians are ranked as the wisest of the Iberians. And they make use of an alphabet, and possess records of their ancient history, poems, and laws written in verse that are six thousand years old,​ as they assert. And also the other Iberians use an alphabet, though not letters of one and the same character, for their speech is not one and the same, either . . . [omitted material]



2 . . . (14) The Phoenicians, I say, were the informants of Homer. And these people occupied the best of Iberia and Libya before the age of Homer, and continued to be masters of those regions until the Romans broke up their empire. The wealth of Iberia is further evidenced by the following facts: the Carthaginians who, along with Barkas, made a campaign against Iberia found the people in Turdetania, as the historians tell us, using silver feeding-troughs and wine-jars. One might assume that it was from their great prosperity that the people there got the additional name of “Macraeonians,” and particularly the chieftains. That this is why Anakreon said as follows: “I, for my part, should neither wish the horn of Amaltheia,​ nor to be king of Tartessos for one hundred and fifty years.”  And this is why Herodotus recorded even the name of the king, whom he called Arganthonios.​ For one might either take the phrase of Anakreon literally or as meaning “a time equal to the king’s,” or else in a more general way, “nor the king of Tartessos for a long time.” Some, however, call Tartessos the Karteia of today.

(15) Along with the good conditions supplied by their land, the qualities of both gentleness and civility have come to the Turdetanians and to the Celtic peoples, too, on account of their being neighbours to the Turdetanians, as Polybios has said, or else on account of their kinship. But less so the Celtic peoples, because for the most part they live in mere villages. The Turdetanians, however, and particularly those that live about the Baetis, have completely changed over to the Roman mode of life, not even remembering their own language any more. Most of them have become Latins, ​and they have received Romans as colonists, so that they are not far from being all Romans. The present jointly-settled cities, Pax Augusta in the Celtic land, Augusta Emerita in the land of the Turdulians, Caesar-Augusta near Celtiberia, and some other settlements, manifest the change to the previously mentioned civil modes of life. Moreover, all those Iberians who belong to this class are called “Togati.” ​And among these are the Celtiberians, who were once regarded the most savage of all. So much for the Turditanians. 


[Carpetanians, Vettonians, Vaccaeans, and Callaicans]

3 . . . (2) Now of the peoples situated beyond the mountains mentioned above,​ the Oretanians are most southerly, and their territory reaches as far as the seacoast in part of the land this side of the Pillars. The Carpetanians are next after these on the north. Then the Vettonians and the Vaccaeans, through whose territory the Durius river flows, which affords a crossing at Acutia, a city of the Vaccaeans. Finally, there are the Callaicans, who occupy a very considerable part of the mountainous land. For this reason, since they were very hard to fight with, the Callaicans themselves have not only furnished the surname for the man who defeated the Lusitanians but they have also brought it about that now, already, most of the Lusitanians are called Callaicans. Now as for Oretania, its city of Castalo is very powerful, and so is Oria.


(3) Yet the land north of the Tagus, Lusitania, is the greatest of the Iberian peoples (ethnē), and is the people against which the Romans waged war for the longest times. The boundaries of this land are: on the southern side, the Tagus, on the western and northern, the ocean. and on the eastern, the countries of the Carpetanians, Vettonians, Vaccaeans, and Callaicans, the well-known peoples. It is not worth while to name the rest, because of their smallness and lack of reputation. Contrary to today, however, some also call these peoples “Lusitanians.” These four peoples, in the eastern part of their countries, have common boundaries, thus: the Callaicans, with the people of the Asturians and with the Celtiberians, but the others with only the Celtiberians. Now the length of Lusitania to cape Nerium is three thousand stadia, but its breadth, which is formed between its eastern side and the coast-line that lies opposite it, is much less. The eastern side is high and rough, but the land that lies below is all plain even to the sea, except a few mountains of no great magnitude. Of course, this is why Poseidonios says that Aristotle is incorrect in making the coast-line and Maurusia the cause of the flood-tides and the ebb-tides. He quotes Aristotle as saying that the sea ebbs and flows on account of the fact that the coast-lands are both high and rugged, which not only receive the waves roughly but give them back with equal violence. For on the contrary, Poseidonios correctly says, the coast-lands are for the most part sandy and low.

(4) At any event, the land of which I am speaking is fertile, and it is also traversed by rivers both large and small, all of them flowing from the eastern parts and parallel to the Tagus. Most of them offer voyages inland and contain very great quantities of gold-dust as well. Best known of the rivers immediately after the Tagus are the Mundas, which offers short voyages inland, and likewise the Vacua. After these two is the Durius, which, coming from afar, flows by Numantia and many other settlements of the Celtiberians and Vaccaenians, and is navigable for large boats for a distance of about eight hundred stadium-lengths inland. Then come other rivers. And after these the River of Lethe, which by some persons is called Limaeas, but by others Belion. This river also rises in the land of the Celtiberians and the Vaccaenas, as also does the river that comes after it, namely the Baenis (others call it “Minius”), which is by far the greatest of the rivers in Lusitania and is itself also navigable inland for eight hundred stadia. Poseidonios, however, says that the Baenis rises in Cantabria. Off its mouth lies an island, and two breakwaters which afford anchorage for vessels. The nature of these rivers deserves praise, because the banks which they have are high, and adequate to receive within their channels the sea at high tide without overflowing or spreading over the plains. Now this river was the limit of Brutus’ campaign, though farther on there are several other rivers, parallel to those mentioned.

[Artabrians / Arotrebians]

(5) Last of all come the Artabrians, who live in the neighbourhood of the cape called Nerium, which is the end of both the western and the northern side of Iberia. But the land around the cape itself is inhabited by Celtic people, kinsmen of those on the Anas. For these people and the Turdulians made an expedition to this place and then had a quarrel, it is said, after they had crossed the Limaeas River. When, in addition to the quarrel, the Celtic peoples also suffered the loss of their chieftain, they scattered and stayed there. It was from this circumstance that the Limaeas was also called the River of Lethe. The Artabrians have many thickly-peopled cities on that gulf which the sailors who frequent those parts call the Harbour of the Artabrians. However today people call the Artabrians “Arotrebians.”

[Mountain peoples as “bandits”]

Now about thirty​ different peoples occupy the land between the Tagus and the Artabrians, and although the land was blessed with fruits, cattle, and abundance of gold and silver and similar metals, most of the people still had ceased to gain their livelihood from the earth. They were spending their time in banditry (lēstēria) and in continuous warfare with each other and with their neighbours across the Tagus, until they were stopped by the Romans, who humbled them and reduced most of their cities to mere villages, although they improved some of their cities by establishing colonies. It was the mountaineers who began this lawlessness, as was likely to be the case. For, since they occupied sorry land and possessed but little property, they coveted what belonged to the others. And the latter, in defending themselves against the mountaineers, were necessarily rendered powerless over their private estates, so that they, too, began to engage in war instead of farming. The result was that the land, neglected because it was barren of planted products, became the home only of bandits (lēstai).

[Lusitanian military customs]

(6) At any rate, the Lusitanians, it is said, tend to lay in ambush and spy out and they are quick, nimble, and good at deploying troops. They have a small shield two feet in diameter, concave in front, and suspended from the shoulder by means of thongs (for it has neither arm-rings nor handles). Besides these shields they have a dirk or a butcher’s-knife. Most of them wear linen breast-armour. A few wear chain-wrought breast-armour and helmets with three crests, but the rest wear helmets made of sinews. The foot-soldiers wear greaves also, and each soldier has several javelins. And some also make use of spears, and the spears have bronze heads.

[Lusitanian customs of sacrifice, divination, and banqueting]

Now some of the peoples that dwell next to the Durius River live, it is said, in the manner of the Lakonians, using anointing-rooms twice a day and taking baths in steam that rises from heated stones, bathing in cold water, and eating only one meal a day. They do this in a cleanly and simple way. The Lusitanians are given to offering sacrifices, and they inspect the entrails without cutting them out. Besides, they also inspect the veins on the side of the victim. They divine by the tokens of touch, too. They prophesy through means of the vitals of human beings also, prisoners of war, whom they first cover with coarse cloaks. Then, when the victim has been struck beneath the entrails by the diviner, they draw their first predictions (auguries) from the fall of the victim. They also cut off the right hands of their captives and set them up as an offering to the gods.

(7) All the mountaineers lead a simple life, are water-drinkers, sleep on the ground, and let their hair stream down in thick masses like a women. But they bind their hair about the forehead before going into battle. They eat goat’s-meat mostly, and to Ares they sacrifice a he-goat and also the prisoners and horses. And they also offer hecatombs of each kind, after the Greek fashion: as Pindar himself says, “to sacrifice a hundred of every kind.” They also hold contests, for light-armed and heavy-armed soldiers and cavalry, in boxing, in running, in skirmishing, and in fighting by squads. The mountaineers, for two-thirds of the year, eat acorns, which they have first dried and crushed, and then ground up and made into a bread that may be stored away for a long time. They also drink beer. But wine is scarce, and they quickly drink up any wine they have in merry banquets with their kinsfolk. Instead of olive-oil, they use butter. Again, they dine sitting down, for they have stationary seats builded around the walls of the room, though they seat themselves forward according to age and rank. The dinner is passed round, and amid their cups they dance to flute and trumpet, dancing in chorus, but also leaping up and crouching low. But in Bastetania women too dance promiscuously with men, taking hold of their hands. All the men dress in black, for the most part in coarse cloaks, in which they sleep, on their beds of leaves. And they use waxen vessels, just as the Celts do.​ But the women always go clad in long mantles and gay-coloured gowns. Instead of coins, the people (at least those who live deep in the interior) engage in bartering or else they cut off pieces from beaten silver metal and use them as money.

Those who are condemned to death they hurl from precipices. They stone to death out beyond their mountains or their rivers anyone who kills a relative. They marry in the same way as the Greeks. Their sick they expose in the streets in the same way as the Egyptians ​did in ancient times, for the sake of their getting suggestions from those who have experienced the disease. Up to the time of Brutus​, they used boats of tanned leather on account of the flood-tides and the shoal-waters, but now, already, even the dug-out canoes are rare. Their rock-salt is red, but when crushed it is white.

Now, as I was saying, this is the mode of life of the mountaineers, I mean those whose boundaries mark off the northern side of Iberia, namely, the Callaicans, the Asturians, and the Cantabrians, as far as the Vasconians and the Pyrenees mountains. For the modes of life of all of them are similar. I hesitate from giving too many of the names, shunning the unpleasant task of writing them down, unless it gives someone pleasure to hear “Pleutaurans,” “Bardyetans,” “Allotrigans,” and other names still less pleasing and of less significance than these.

[Uncivilized lifestyle]

(8) The quality of intractability and wildness in these peoples has not resulted solely from their engaging in warfare, but also from their remoteness. For the trip to their land, whether by sea or by land, is long, and since they are difficult to communicate with, they have lost the instinct of sociability and humanity. They have this feeling of intractability and wildness to a less extent now, however, because of the peace and of the travels of the Roman among them. But wherever such travels are rarer, the people are harder to deal with and more savage. If some are so disagreeable merely as the result of the remoteness of their regions, it is likely that those who live in the mountains are still more outlandish. But now, as I have said, they have wholly ceased carrying on war. For both the Cantabrians (who still today more than the rest keep together their groups of bandits [lēstēria]) and their neighbours have been subdued by Augustus Caesar. Instead of plundering the allies of the Romans, both the Coniacans ​and the Plentuisans,​ who live near the source of the Iberus, now fight for the Romans. Further, Tiberius, his successor, has set over these regions an army of three legions (the army already appointed by Augustus Caesar), and it so happens that he already has rendered some of the peoples not only peaceable but civilized as well.


[Conquests of Iberia by external powers and by the Romans]

4 . . . (5) Now the wanderings of the Greeks to the barbarian peoples might be regarded as caused by the fact that the latter had become split up into petty divisions and sovereignties which, on the strength of their self-sufficiency, had no interaction with one another. As a result, they were powerless against the invaders from abroad. This spirit of self-sufficiency, among the Iberians I mean, was particularly intense, since by nature they had already received both the quality of wickedness and lack of openness. For by their modes of life they became inclined to attack and to engage in banditry (lēstrikoi), venturing only on petty undertakings, and never throwing themselves into large ones, because they would not establish large forces and confederations. For surely, if they had been willing to be shield-fellows with one another, it would not have been possible, in the first place, for the Carthaginians to overrun and subdue most of their land by superiority of forces, or in still earlier times for the Tyrians to do so, or after that, for those Celts who are now called Celtiberians and Veronians. Nor, in the second place, later on, for the bandit Viriathus, Sertorius, or for any others who may have wanted greater dominion. The Romans, since they carried on merely a piecemeal war against the Iberians, attacking each territory separately, spent some considerable time in acquiring dominion here, subjecting first one group and then another, until, after about two hundred years or longer, they got them all under control. But I return to my geographical description.

[Uncivilized character and customs of the people]

[omitted material] . . .(16) Iberia also produces quantities of those roots that are useful for dyeing. As for olive-trees, grape-vines, fig-trees, and the similar plants, the Iberian coast on Our Sea is richly supplied with them all, as is also a great part of the outer coasts. But the ocean-coast on the north has none on account of the cold, and, for the most part, the rest of the ocean-coast has none on account of the negligent character of the people and the fact that they live on a low moral plane, that is, they have regard, not for rational living, but rather for satisfying their physical needs and animal instincts. Unless some one thinks those men have regard for rational living who bathe with urine which they have aged in cisterns, and wash their teeth with it, both they and their wives, as the Cantabrians and the neighbouring peoples are said to do.​ But the Iberians share both this custom and that of sleeping on the ground with the Celts.

Some say the Callaicans have no god, but the Celtiberians and their neighbours on the north offer sacrifice to a nameless god at the seasons of the full moon, by night, in front of the doors of their houses, and whole households dance in chorus and keep it up all night. The Vettonians, when they visited the camp of the Romans for the first time, upon seeing some of the officers parading up and down the streets merely for the sake of walking around, supposed they were crazy and proceeded to lead the way for them to the tents, thinking they should either remain quietly seated or else be fighting.

(17) One might also class as barbaric in character the ornaments of some of the women, of which Artemidoros has told us. In some places, he says, they wear round their necks iron collars which have curved rods that bend overhead and project far in front of their foreheads. When they want to, they pull their veil down over these curved rods, so that the veil, thus spread out, furnishes a sunshade for the face. All this they consider an ornament. In other places, he says, the women wear round their heads a “tympanium,” ​rounded to the back of the head, and, as far as the ear-lobes, binding the head tightly, but gradually turned back at the top and sides.​ Other women keep the hair stripped​ from the forepart of the head so closely that it glistens more than the forehead does. Still other women put a rod about a foot high on the head, twist the hair round the rod, and then drape it with a black veil.

Besides the true reports of this sort, many other things have not only been seen but also narrated with fictitious additions about all the Iberian peoples in common, but especially the northerners. I mean not only the stories relating to their courage but also those relating to their ferocity and bestial insensibility.​ For instance, at the time of the Cantabrian War​ mothers killed their children before being taken captive. Even a small boy, whose parents and brothers were in fetters as captives of war, gained possession of a sword and, at the command of his father, killed them all. And a woman killed all her fellow captives. And a certain Cantabrian, upon being summoned into the presence of drunken men, ​threw himself upon a fire. But these traits too are shared in common by them with the Celtic as well as the Thracian and Scythian peoples.

They also share in common the traits related to courage, and I mean the courage of women as well as of men. For example, these women till the soil, and when they have given birth to a child they put their husbands to bed instead of going to bed themselves and serve them.​ While at work in the fields, often they turn aside to some brook, give birth to a child, and bathe and swaddle it. Poseidonios says that in Liguria, his host, Charmoleon, a man of Massalia, narrated to him how he had hired men and women together for ditch-digging. And how one of the women, upon being seized with the pangs of childbirth, went aside from her work to a place near by, and, after having given birth to her child, came back to her work at once in order not to lose her pay. And how he himself saw that she was doing her work painfully, but was not aware of the cause till late in the day, when he learned it and sent her away with her wages. And she carried the infant out to a little spring, bathed it, swaddled it with what she had, and brought it safely home.

(18) Nor yet is the following custom peculiar to the Iberians alone: they ride double on horseback, though in the time of battle one of the two fights on foot. Nor the especially great number of the mice,​ from which pestilential diseases have often ensued. This was so much the case for the Romans in Cantabria that, although a proclamation was made that mice-catchers would gain bounties graded in proportion to the number caught, the Romans could barely come through with their lives.​ Besides the plague, there was a scarcity not only of other goods but of grain too. Only with difficulty could they get supplies out of Aquitania on account of the rough roads. As for the insensibility​ of the Cantabrians, this instance is also told, namely, that when some captive Cantabrians had been nailed on their crosses, they proceeded to sing their song of victory.

Now such traits as these would indicate a certain savageness. And yet there are other things which, although not marks of civilization perhaps, are not savage. For instance, it is the custom among the Cantabrians for the husbands to give dowries to their wives, for the daughters to be left as heirs, and the brothers to be married off by their sisters. The custom involves, in fact, a sort of woman-rule, but this is not at all a mark of civilization. It is also an Iberian custom habitually to keep at hand a poison, which is made by them out of an herb that is nearly like parsley and painless,​ so as to have it in readiness for any untoward eventuality. It is an Iberian custom, too, to devote their lives to whomever they attach themselves, even to the point of dying for them.

[For Strabo’s subsequent discussion of peoples northwest of the Alps, go to this link]


Source of the translation: H.L. Jones, Strabo, 8 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1917-28), public domain (passed away in 1932), adapted by Harland.

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