Persian wisdom: Plutarch’s story about Kleombrotos’ journeys (early second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persian wisdom: Plutarch’s story about Kleombrotos’ journeys (early second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified September 19, 2023,

Ancient author: Plutarch, Obsolescence of Oracles 1-3, 20-21 (link).

Comments: Plutarch’s story of Kleombrotos (in the midst of his dialogue on the effectiveness of the Delphic oracle) provides another instance of Greek imaginations concerning the pursuit of true knowledge by way of barbarian wise men. Kleombrotos is depicted as having attained his wisdom from his travels to Egypt and even beyond the Persian gulf. So this seems like it’s supposed to be a Persian wise man, if not an Indian one. Once again, there is an emphasis on what these wanderings to foreign lands bring in terms of answers to long-held questions. In particular, the story goes that Kleombrotos found a holy man who possessed prophetic inspiration. In this way, Kleombrotos finds answers concerning the gods and key cosmological debates among Greek philosophers since Plato.

Source of the translation: F.C. Babbitt, Moralia, volume 5 (LCL; Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1936), public domain (copyright expired and not renewed), adapted by Harland.


[Introduction to the dialogue set at the oracle of Delphi and to Kleombrotos’ journeys]

[409e] 1 The story is told, my dear Terentius Priscus, that certain eagles or swans, flying from the uttermost parts of the earth towards its centre, met in Delphi at the “omphalos” (navel), as it is called. At a later time Epimenides of Phaestus put the story to the test by referring it to the god and upon receiving a vague and ambiguous oracle said, “Now do we know that there is no mid-centre of earth or of ocean. Yet if there be, it is known to the gods, but is hidden from mortals.” Now very likely the god repulsed him from his attempt to investigate an ancient myth [410] as though it were a painting to be tested by the touch.

2 Yet a short time before the Pythian games, which were held when Kallistratos was in office in our own day, it happened that two revered men coming from opposite ends of the inhabited earth met together at Delphi, Demetrios the grammarian travelling towards home from Britain to Tarsos, and Kleombrotos of Sparta, who had made many excursions in Egypt, around the land of the Troglodytes (“Cave-dwellers”), sailing beyond the Erythraian sea [sometimes including the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf]. Kleombrotos’ journeys were not for business, but he was fond of seeing things and of acquiring knowledge. He had enough resources and felt that it was not important to have more than enough, and so he made use of his leisure (scholē) for such purposes.

Kleombrotos was pulling together an inquiry to serve as a basis for a philosophy that had as its end and aim a “Discourse about the Gods” (theologia), as he himself named it. He had recently been at the shrine of Ammon [in Egypt], and it was plain that he was not particularly impressed by most of the things there. Regarding the ever-burning lamp, he related a story told by the priests which deserves special consideration. The lamp consumes less and less oil each year, and they believe that this is proof of a disparity in the years which is causing each year to be shorter than the previous one in duration. For it is reasonable that less oil should be consumed in a shorter amount of time.

3 The company was surprised at this, and Demetrios went so far as to say that it was ridiculous to try in this way to draw great conclusions from a small amount of data, not, as Alkaios puts it, “painting the lion from a single claw,” but with a wick and lamp postulating a mutation in the heavens and the universe, and doing away completely with mathematical calculation. Kleombrotos replied: “Neither of these things will disturb these men. Certainly they will not concede any superior accuracy to the mathematicians, since it is more likely that a set period of time, in movements and cycles so far away, would elude mathematical calculation than that the measurement of the oil should elude the very men (Egyptian priests) who were always giving careful attention to the anomaly and watching it closely because of its strangeness.” . . . [section omitted]

[Journeys beyond the Erythraian sea to see a wise barbarian]

20 . . . Ammonios said, “ . . . So it is right that Kleombrotus should resume the topic which he discontinued a few moments ago about the migration and flight of the demigods.” . . . 21 Then Kleombrotos continued, “I shall be surprised if it does not appear to you much more strange than what has already been said. Yet it seems to be close to the subject of natural phenomena, and Plato has given the key-note for it not by an unqualified pronouncement but as the result of a vague concept, cautiously suggesting also the underlying idea in an enigmatic way. But, for all that, there has been loud disparagement of him on the part of other philosophers.”

[421] “But there is set before us for general use a bowl of myths and stories combined, and where could one meet with more kindly listeners for testing these stories, even as one tests coins from foreign lands? So I do not hesitate to favour you with a narrative about a barbarian man whom I had great difficulty in finding, and then only by means of long wanderings, and after paying large sums for information. It was near the Erythraian sea [Persian gulf] that I found him, where he holds a meeting with human beings once every year; and there I had an opportunity to talk with him and met with a kindly reception. The other days of his life, according to his statement, he spends in association with roving nymphs and demigods. He was the best-looking man I ever saw in personal appearance and he never suffered from any disease, since once each month he took the medicinal and bitter fruit of a certain herb. He was practised in the use of many languages. But with me he mostly spoke a Doric Greek which was almost music. While he was speaking, a fragrance spread around the place, as his breath was like a most pleasant perfume. Besides his learning and his knowledge of inquiry, always at his command, he was inspired to prophesy one day in each year when he went down to the sea and predicted the future. Princes and the secretaries of kings would come and go each year.

He spoke most about Delphi and there was none of the stories told of Dionysos or of the rites performed here which he had not heard about. These too he asserted were the momentous experiences of the lower spirits (daimonia) and so, plainly, were those which had to do with the Python. The slayer of that monster [i.e. Delphic Apollo] was not exiled for eight full years, nor following this was he exiled to Tempe. After he was expelled, he instead travelled to another world and later returned from there, after eight cycles of the great years, as the pure and truly “Radiant One” [Phoibos, an epithet of Apollo] he took over the oracle which had been guarded during this time by Themis. He also said that the stories about Typhons and Titans, battles of the lower spirits (daimonia), had taken place in a similar way with an exile of the defeated or a judgment by a god for the lower spirit’s failure. For example, for the wrong which Typhon is said to have committed in the case of Osiris, or Kronos in the case of Ouranos. The honours once offered to them have become quite dim to our eyes or have vanished altogether when they were transferred to another world. In fact, I hear that the Solymians who live next to the Lycians paid special honours to Kronos. But when he had slain their rulers, Arsalos, Dryos, and Trosobios, he fled away from that place to some place or other – where they cannot say. Then he ceased to be regarded, but Arsalos and those connected with him are called the “stern gods,” and the Lycians use their names in invoking curses both in public and in private.”

“Many accounts similar to these are to be had from discourses about the gods. But, as that man said, if we call some of the lower spirits by the current name of gods, that is no cause for wonder. For each of them is accustomed to being called after that god with whom he is associated and from whom he has derived his portion of power and honour. In fact, among ourselves one of us is Dios, another Athenaios, another Apollonios or Dionysios or Hermaios. But only some of us have, by chance, been correctly named. The majority have received names derived from the gods which bear no relation to the persons, but are only a travesty.” 22 Kleombrotos said nothing more, and his account appeared marvellous to all. . . [remainder of dialogue omitted].

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