Barbarian wisdom: Cornutus on early humanity’s Stoic understanding of the cosmos (mid-first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Barbarian wisdom: Cornutus on early humanity’s Stoic understanding of the cosmos (mid-first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified December 1, 2022,

Ancient author: L. Annaeus Cornutus of Leptis, Greek Discourse about the Gods, or Greek Theology (Greek text available on Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, 654; full translation online).

Comments: L. Annaeus Cornutus was a Stoic philosopher active in Rome in the time of Nero (50s CE) who originated in the Phoenician settlement of Leptis (modern Khoms, or Al-Khums) in Libya. Cornutus’ short work on Greek discourses about the gods (Greek Theology) survives in full and is a guidebook for allegorical interpretation of ancient myths for the insights they provide into early wisdom concerning the makeup and functioning of the universe (physics). As the sections presented below show, Cornutus held the view that the ancient myths of various peoples – including peoples that would be labelled “barbarians” by a Greek – stored within them symbolic representations of early human wisdom (matching Stoic wisdom) concerning the cosmos.

While Cornutus expressly points to the myths of Magians (i.e. Chaldeans among Babylonians), Phrygians, Egyptians, Celts, and Libyans (he was from Leptis in Libya, remember), he never actively engages in interpreting those myths and instead focusses on just one case study: Greeks. In speaking to his real or hypothetical student (“child”), Cornutus demostrates the method that can be used by unpacking (via etymological and other allegorical analysis) the hidden messages of myths attributed to Homer and Hesiod. In this case, he focusses on how these myths explain the cosmos in terms of the Greek concept of the four elements: water, air, fire, earth. Nonetheless, the fact remains that his placement of “barbarian” myths alongside Greek ones as a source of early and true human wisdom that the philosopher can trust means that the notion of barbarian wisdom is prominent in Cornutus’ approach (on which compare and contrast Poseidonios at this link). But it seems that these nuggets of wisdom preserved by non-Greek peoples would be plugged into a Greek Stoic worldview. So the aim was not to fully understand “barbarian” perspectives on their own terms.

Also included below is the brief section in which Cornutus theorizes the state of earliest humans and the role of reason (logos) in the seemingly early shift (in his Stoic view) from uncivilized to civilized existence. Although Cornutus does not dwell on the question of how civilization emerged, this sort of material was frequently a part of such theories about barbarians and the evolution of practical and theoretical wisdom. This section can be fruitfully compared or contrasted to Poseidonios’ discussion of the development of earliest humanity (link), Diodoros’ notion of a gradual development of civilization peaking with the Greeks (link) and Dio Chrysostom’s notion that all humanity, including barbarians, have always had access to true knowledge by means of reason (link).

Works consulted: George Boys-Stones, L. Annaeus Cornutus: Greek Theology, Fragments, and Testimonia (Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 2018).

Source of the translation:  Translation by Harland.


[Ancient myths as a symbolic but accurate transmission of early wisdom about the cosmos and the four elements – namely physics]

. . . (17) Now many and varied are the mythological constructions about the gods that happened among the ancient Greeks, just as others happened among the Magians (magoi), others among the Phrygians, as well as still others among the Egyptians, Celts, Libyans and other peoples (ethnē). A person might take as witness the mythological construction expressed by Homer that Zeus speaks when he confronts Hera: “Don’t you remember when I hung you up and attached two anvils to your feet?” [Iliad 15.19]. For it seems that the poet passes on this piece of an ancient myth in which Zeus is spoken of as having hung Hera from the ether with gold chains (since the stars have somewhat of a gold appearance) and attached two anvils to her feet (clearly the earth and the sea, by which the air was stretched down, not being able to be torn away from either). Another myth, the one about Thetis, mentions that Zeus was saved by her “when the other Olympians wished to bind him – Hera, Poseidon, and Pallas Athene” [Iliad 1.397]. It appears that each of these gods individually was always plotting against Zeus, intending to prevent the cosmic order that we have. This prevention of order was something that would happen if the moist prevailed and everything became water, or if fire prevailed and everything were turned to fire, or if air prevailed. [Cornutus continues expounding Homer as a source of knowledge about the cosmos] . . . Once more, then, the myths say that Chaos was first, as Hesiod relates, and after Chaos came Earth, Tartaros and Eros. Erebos and Night were born from Chaos and Ether and Day were born from Night. Chaos (Chaos) is the moisture that occurred before the new cosmic order, being named this from the word for flowing (chysis). Alternatively, Chaos is fire, which is as if it were something burning (kaos), which itself flows because it consists of fine particles. Now everything was once fire, my child, and it will become fire again in a cycle. But going out into the air, a sudden change happens that turns it into water, which it binds, the settling part of substance by making it condense and the reducing part by making it porous. Therefore, they reasonably say that Earth came to be after Chaos and cloudy Tartaros, which the poet mentioned above [Hesiod] named the innermost part of Earth because it encompasses and hides it. . . [Cornutus continues with the exposition of the Greek example of myth as a window into early humanity’s accurate – and Stoic – conceptions of the physical universe and the role of the four elements].


[Snippet on the nature of earliest humans and the role of reason, which helps to explain the wisdom they passed on enigmatically]

(20) . . . For it is likely that the first humans, who were born from the earth, were violent and high-spirited (thymikoi) towards one another because they were not yet able to judge matters or to fan the spark of community that was in them. But the gods prevailed, as if nudging them and reminding them of their conceptions. In particular, the skill corresponding with reason (logos) exhausted them and subdued them so as to lead them out and confute them, as far as it seems. For different people emerged from this change, and the ones who emerged from them joined together in cities under the protection of Athena Polias (Athena of the City).


[Conclusion and method of allegorically interpreting myths of various peoples in order to access truths about the universe]

(35) . . . In the same way, my child, you can apply these paradigmatic principles to everything else that gets passed down through mythology about those considered to be gods, being persuaded that people in ancient times were far from unrefined but were instead able to understand the nature of the cosmos and were ready to philosophize concerning the cosmos in symbols and enigmas. It has been said more extensively and in more detail by previous philosophers, but now I wanted to pass it on to you briefly. For the subject matter is useful even to this extent: As the young men are being taught to sacrifice, pray, worship, and swear oaths according to custom and at the appropriate times, you will come to grasp your ancestral traditions about these things with regard to serving the gods and suitable things will take place for honouring the gods, and in this way only you may completely receive the message with the result that the young men may be led to be pious and not to be fearful of the lower spirits (deisidaimonein; or: not to be superstitious).



Leave a comment or correction

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *