Kimbrians / Germans: Poseidonios and Strabo refute stories about the tides (first century BCE)

Authors: Poseidonios of Apameia (Kidd, fragment 72), Ephoros, and Kleitarchos as cited by Strabo, Geography 7.2.1-3 (link to Greek text and full translation)

Comments: In this passage, Strabo joins with Poseidonios in attempting to refute several Greek ethnographic traditions that circulated about Germanic peoples, particularly the Kimbrians. In particular, there were legends about Germanic peoples being so war-like and stupid that they would engage in a campaign against the flood-tides (e.g. see Philo of Alexandria’s acceptance of such traditions at this link). Strabo’s discussion implies that Ephoros also focussed on the tides in his discussion of Germanic peoples. Strabo then goes on to explore other aspects of the customs of Germanic peoples.

Source of the translation: H.L. Jones, Strabo: Geography, volume 3, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1924), public domain, adapted by Harland.


Book 7

[Contesting the notion that Kimbrians were overly focused on tides]

2 (1) As for the Kimbrians [or: Cimbri, if Latinized], some things that are told about them are incorrect and others are extremely improbable. For instance, one could not accept such a reason for their having become a wandering and bandit-like (lēstrikoi) people as this: that while they were dwelling on a peninsula they were driven out of the places where they lived by a great flood-tide. For, in fact, they still hold the land which they held in earlier times. They also sent as a present to Augustus the most sacred cauldron​ in their land, with a plea for his friendship and for an amnesty in relation to their earlier offences. When their petition was granted they set sail for home.

It is also ridiculous to suppose that they departed from their homes because they were incensed on account of a phenomenon that is natural and eternal, occurring twice every day [i.e. the tides]. The assertion that an excessive flood-tide once occurred looks like a fabrication, for when the ocean is affected in this way it is subject to increases and diminutions, but these are regulated and periodical. As well, the man who said that the Kimbrians took up arms against the flood-tides was not right, either. Nor was the statement that the Celts, as a training in the virtue of fearlessness, meekly abide the destruction of their homes by the tides and then rebuild them, and that they suffer a greater loss of life as the result of water than of war, as Ephoros claims.

Indeed, the regularity of the flood-tides and the fact that the part of the land subject to inundations was known should have precluded such absurdities. For since this phenomenon occurs twice every day, it is of course improbable that the Kimbrians did not so much as once perceive that the reflux was natural and harmless, and that it not only occurred in their land but also in every land that was on the ocean. Neither is Kleitarchos right, for he says that the horsemen, on seeing the onset of the sea, rode away. And even though they were in full flight, they came very near to being cut off by the water. Now we know, in the first place, that the invasion of the tide does not rush on with such speed as that, but that the sea advances imperceptibly. Secondly, we know that what takes place daily and is audible to all who are about to draw near it, even before they witness it, would not have been likely to prompt in them such terror that they would take to flight, as if it had occurred unexpectedly.

[Poseidonios’ perspective on Kimbrians, on which Strabo agrees]

(2) Poseidonios is right in criticizing the historians for these assertions. Also, his conjecture is not a bad one: namely that the Kimbrians, being bandit-like (lēstrikoi) and wandering people, made an expedition even as far as the region of lake Maiotis [Sea of Azov, north of the Black Sea], and that also the “Kimmerian” Bosporos [straits of Kertch] was named after them, being equivalent to “Kimbrian,” the Greeks naming the Kimbrians “Kimmerians.” Poseidonios goes on to say that, in earlier times, the Boians lived in the Herkynian forest, and that the Kimbrians invaded this place. But on being repulsed by the Boians, the Kimbrians went down to the Ister river [Danube] and the land of the Scordiskan Galatians. Then the Kimbrians went to the land of the Teuristians and Tauriskians (who are also Galatians), and then to the land of the Helvetians, people who are rich in gold but peaceable. However, when the Helvetians saw the wealth which the Kimbrians had received from acts of banditry (lēstēria) their robberies surpassed that of their own land, they, and particularly the Tigyrenians and Toygenians among them, were so excited that they set out together with the Kimbrians. All of them were subdued by the Romans, however, both the Kimbrians themselves and those who had joined their expeditions, in part after they had crossed the Alps into Italy and in part while still on the other side of the Alps.

[Strabo goes on to other aspects of Germanic peoples without naming authors]

[Priestesses and human sacrifice of enemies]

(3) Writers report a custom of the Kimbrians to this effect: Their wives, who would accompany them on their expeditions, were attended by priestesses who were seers. These seers were grey-haired, wore white with flaxen cloaks fastened on with clasps, wore girdles of bronze, and went bare-footed. Now these priestesses would meet with the prisoners of war throughout the camp with sword in hand, and having first crowned them with wreaths would lead them to a brazen vessel the size of twenty amphorai. They had a raised platform which the priestess would mount and then would cut the throat of each prisoner after he had been lifted up as the priestess bent over the kettle. From the blood that poured out into the vessel some of the priestesses would read a prophecy, while still others would split open the body and from an inspection of the entrails would utter a prophecy of victory for their own people. During the battles they would beat on the hides that were stretched over the wicker-bodies of the wagons and in this way produce an unearthly noise.

[Other Germanic peoples]

(4) Among the Germans, as I have said,​ those towards the north extend along the ocean. Beginning at the outlets of the Rhenus [Rhine], they are known as far as the Albis [Elbe] river. The best known among these ones are the Sougambrians and the Kimbrians. But those parts of the country beyond the Albis that are near the ocean are completely unknown to us. For I do not know any earlier writer who has made this voyage along the coast to the eastern parts that extend as far as the mouth​ of the Caspian sea. The Romans have not yet advanced into the parts that are beyond the Albis. Likewise no one has made the journey by land either. However, it is clear from their latitude and parallel distances that if one travels longitudinally towards the east, one encounters the regions that are around the Borysthenes [Dnieper] river and that are to the north of the Pontos [Black Sea].

[Largely unknown peoples beyond Germany]

But what is beyond Germany and what is beyond the countries which are next after Germany it is not easy to say. It is hard to know whether one should say the Bastarnians are next, as most writers suspect, or that one should say that other peoples lie in between, either the Iazygians, Roxolanians, or certain other wagon-dwellers (Hamaxoikoi). It is hard to know whether they extend as far as the ocean along its entire length, or whether any part is uninhabitable by reason of the cold or other cause, or whether even a different descent group (genos) of men, succeeding the Germans, is situated between the sea and the eastern Germans. This same ignorance prevails also in regard to the rest of the peoples that come next in order on the north. For I do not know about the Bastarnians, nor the Sauromatians, nor, in a word, any of the peoples who dwell above the Pontos. Nor do I know how far away they are from the Atlantic Sea, nor whether their countries border upon it.

[For Strabo’s subsequent discussion of the Getians, Dacians, and Scythians go to this link.]

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