Getians, Dacians, and Scythians: Strabo (early first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Getians, Dacians, and Scythians: Strabo (early first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified February 19, 2023,

Ancient authors: Homer, Ephoros, and other authors as employed by Strabo, Geography, parts of 7.3-4 (link)

Comments: In this extensive passage, Strabo of Amaseia discusses two closely related peoples who (according to Strabo) shared a common language and were a sub-set of what Greeks would call “Thracians”: Getians just west of the Black Sea and Dacians to the northwest up towards Germania. In the process, Strabo proposes his theory regarding the relationship between these peoples and the peoples designated “Moisians” (Latinized: “Moesians”) and “Mysians.” In addition, Strabo takes this as an opportunity to move a little northeast in order to deal with Scythians and related peoples north of the Black Sea.

In all cases, one of Strabo’s principal concerns (one might be tempted to call it an obsession) is one that a modern geographer or historian would never contemplate: establishing the reliability of the poet Homer for both geographic and ethnographic information. So Strabo’s arguments with Eratosthenes and Artemidoros (who rejected Homer as a reliable source of geographical information) somewhat sidetracks the entire discussion of these peoples. (Strabo evidently interprets Ephoros as affirming the usefulness of Homer). Nonetheless, the acccount provides us with glimpses into the sort of methods and procedures that underlie Strabo’s work, showing us how he evaluates material as “reliable” or “true.” But this confirms how careful we as modern historians need to be in employing such works: ethnographic writing like this supplies much about Greek perceptions of other peoples but such writing is quite shaky (to say the least) when it comes to information about the peoples described. This holds true for many other writings gathered on this site.

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


[For Strabo’s preceding discussion of Germanic peoples, go to this link.]

Book 7


3 (1) As for the southern part of Germany beyond the Albis [Elbe] river, the portion which is just contiguous to that river is occupied by the Suevians. Then immediately adjoining this is the land of the Getians (Getai). Though narrow at first, this land stretches along the Ister [Danube] on its southern side and on the opposite side along the mountain-side of the Herkynian forest, for the land of the Getians also embraces a part of the mountains. Afterwards the land of the Getians broadens out towards the north as far as the Tyregetians. But I cannot tell the precise boundaries.

[Strabo critiques speculation about things beyond the Getians]

It is because of people’s ignorance of these regions that anyone pays attention to those who created the mythical “Rhipaean [sometimes spelled Riphaian] mountains” and “Hyperboreans,”​ and also to all those false statements made by Pytheas the Massalian regarding the country along the ocean. In his work, Pytheas uses as a screen his knowledge of astronomy and mathematics.​ So then, those men should be disregarded. In fact, even if Sophocles, when in his role as a tragic poet, speaks about Oreithyia and tells how she was snatched up by “Boreas” (North Wind) and carried “over the whole sea to the ends of the earth; to the sources of night; to the unfoldings of heaven;​ and, to the ancient garden of Phoibos [Apollo],” his story can have no bearing on the present inquiry. Instead, it should be disregarded, just as it is disregarded by Socrates in the Phaidros. But let us confine our narrative to what we have learned from history, both ancient and modern.

[Relationship between Getians and Mysians and Moisians / Moesians and a digression on  Homer as a reliable geographic or ethnographic source]

(2) Now the Greeks used to assume that the Getians were Thracians. The Getians lived on either side the river Ister [Danube], as did also the Mysians, who were also Thracians and identical with the people who are now called “Moisians” [usually latinized and transliterated Moesians, with Moesia roughly in modern Bulgaria becoming a Roman provincial designation by 45 CE, after Strabo]. From these Mysians sprang also the Mysians who now live between the Lydians and the Phrygians and Trojans [in what is now northwestern Asia Minor / Turkey]. The Phrygians themselves are Brigians, a Thracian people (ethnos), as are also the Mygdonians, Bebrikians, Medobithynians,​ Bithynians, Thynians, and, I think, Mariandynians as well. To be sure, these groups have all completely left Europe, but the Mysians [i.e. as Moisians / Moesians] have remained there.

[Poseidonios’ view that Homer refers to Mysians in Thrace, not in Asia Minor, on which Strabo agrees in interpreting Homer’s Iliad 13.3-5]

Poseidonios seems to me to be correct in his conjecture that Homer designates the Mysians in Europe (I mean those in Thrace) when he says, “But back he turned his shining eyes, and looked far away towards the land of the horse-tending Thracians, and of the Mysians, hand-to-hand fighters” [Homer, Iliad 13.3-5]. For surely, if one should take Homer to mean the Mysia in Asia [northwestern Asia Minor / Turkey], the statement would not hang together. Indeed, when Zeus turns his eyes away from the Trojans towards the land of the Thracians, it would be the act of a man who confuses the continents and does not understand the poet’s phraseology to connect with Thrace the land of the Asian Mysians, who are not “far away,” but have a common boundary with the Troad [on northwestern coast of Asia Minor / Turkey] and are situated behind it and on either side of it, and are separated from Thrace by the broad Hellespont [Dardanelles]. For “back he turned” generally​ means “to the rear,” and he who transfers his gaze from the Trojans to the people who are either in the rear of the Trojans or on their flanks, does indeed transfer his gaze rather far, but not at all “to the rear.” Again, the appended phrase​ is testimony to this very view, because the poet Homer connected with the Mysians the “Hippemolgians” (horse-skins) “Galactophagians” (milk-eaters) and “Abians” (those without a fixed source of living), who are in fact the wagon-dwelling Scythians and Sarmatians. For at the present time these peoples, as well as the Bastarnian ones, are mingled with the Thracians (more indeed with those beyond the Ister river [Danube], but also with those in that valley). Mingled with them are also the Celtic peoples: the Boians, Skordiskians, and Tauriskians. However, the Skordiskians are by some called “Skordistians” [with a “t”], and the Tauriskians are also known as “Liguriskians” and “Tauristians.”

[Just customs of the Mysians, according to Poseidonios via Homer]

(3) Regarding the Mysians [primarily or solely those in Thrace, west of the Black Sea], Poseidonios goes on to say that, in keeping with their piety, they abstain from eating any living thing, and therefore from their flocks as well. He says that they eat honey, milk, and cheese, living a peaceable life. For this reason, they are called both “god-fearing” (theosebeis) and “smoke-treaders” (or: “smoke-eaters”). There are some of the Thracians who live apart from woman-kind: these are called “founders.” Because of the honour in which they are held, they have been dedicated to the gods and live with freedom from every fear. Accordingly, Homer speaks collectively of all these peoples as “proud Hippemolgians, Galactophagians, and Abians, men most just” [Homer, Iliad 2.701]. But he calls them “Abians” more especially for this reason: that they live apart from women, since he thinks that a life which is lacking woman is only half-complete (just as he thinks the “house of Protesilaos” is only “half complete,” because it is lacking in this way). Homer speaks of the Mysians as “hand-to-hand fighters” because they were indomitable, as is the case with all brave warriors. Poseidonios adds that in the thirteenth book​ [Homer, Iliad 13.5] one should read “Moesians, hand-to-hand fighters” instead of “Mysians, hand-to-hand fighters.”

[Strabo’s disagreement with Poseidonios on “Moisians” / “Moesians” being the original term for the people and not “Mysians”]

(4) However, it is perhaps superfluous to disturb the reading [of Homer] that has had approval for so many years. For it is much more credible that the people were called Mysians at first and that later their name was changed to what it is now [Moisians / Moesians]. As for the term “Abians,” one might interpret it as meaning those who are “without hearths” and “live on wagons” quite as well as those who are “bereft”. For since, in general, injustices arise only in connection with contracts and a very high regard for property, so it is reasonable that those who, like the Abians, live cheaply on slight resources should have been called “most just.” . . . [omitted material]. So, then, the interpretation that the wifeless men of the Getians are in a special way pious is clearly contrary to reason. On the other hand, the interpretation that enthusiasm for things related to the gods is strong among this people and that, because of their reverence for the gods, the people abstain from eating any living thing, is an interpretation which should not be disbelieved, based on both what Poseidonios and what inquiries in general tell us.

[Zamolxis and the sacred mountain among the Getians]

(5) In fact, it is said that a certain man among the Getians, Zamolxis by name, had been a slave to Pythagoras, and had learned some things about the heavenly bodies from him, as well as certain other things from the Egyptians. For in his wanderings he had gone even as far as Egypt. When he came back to his homeland, he was eagerly courted by the rulers and the people, because he could make predictions from the celestial signs. Later he persuaded the king to take him as a partner in the government, on the ground that he was competent to report the will of the gods. Although at the outset he was only made a priest of the god who was most honoured in their country, yet afterwards he was even addressed as god.  After taking possession of a certain cavernous place that was inaccessible to anyone else, he spent his life there. Zamolxis only rarely met with any people outside except the king and his own attendants. The king cooperated with him, because he saw that the people paid much more attention to the king than before, in the belief that the decrees which the king promulgated were in accordance with the counsel of the gods.

This custom persisted even down to our own time, because some man of that character was always to be found, who, though in fact only a counsellor to the king, was called god among the Getians. The people took up the notion that the mountain was sacred and they call it sacred, but its name is Kogaionon, like that of the river which flows past it. So also at the time when Byrebistas (against whom deified Caesar had already prepared to make an expedition) was reigning over the Getians, the office in question was held by Dekaineus, and somehow or other the Pythagorean doctrine of abstention from eating any living thing still survived as taught by Zamolxis . . . [omitted material]. 

[Strabo returns to the Mysians / Moisians debate in defence of Homer as a supposedly reliable geographical source]

(7) Just a while back I was discussing the Thracians, and the “Mysians, hand-to-hand fighters, and the proud Hippemolgians, Galactophagians, and Abians, men most just,”​ because I wished to make a comparison between the statements made by Poseidonios and myself and those made by the two men in question [Eratosthenes and Apollodoros who, unlike Strabo, tend not to trust Homer as an ethnographic or geographic source]. Take first the fact that the argument which they have attempted is contrary to the proposition which they set out to prove. Although they set out to prove that the men of earlier times were more ignorant of regions remote from Greece than the men of more recent times, they showed the reverse, not only in regard to regions remote but also in regard to places in Greece itself.

[Scythians, and Homer as a supposedly reliable ethnographic source]

However, as I was saying, let me put off everything else and look to what is now before me: They [Eratosthenes and Apollodoros] say that the poet [Homer] through ignorance fails to mention the Scythians or to mention their savage dealings with strangers, namely that they sacrifice strangers, eat their flesh, and use their skulls as drinking-cups. Although it was on account of the Scythians that the Pontos was called “Axine,” but they claim that Homer invents certain “proud Hippemolgians, Galactophagians, and Abians, men most just” — people that exist nowhere on earth [in Strabo’s opponents’ view]. How, then, could they call the sea “Axine” if they did not know about the ferocity or about the people who were most ferocious? These [peoples mentioned by Homer], of course, are the Scythians.

Were the people who lived beyond the Mysians, Thracians, and Getians not also “Hippemolgians,” not also “Galactophagians” and “Abians”? In fact, even now there are so-called wagon-dwellers and nomads who live off their herds, and on milk and cheese, especially on cheese made from mare’s milk. They still know nothing about storing up food or about peddling merchandise either, except the exchange of wares for wares. How, then, could the poet be ignorant of the Scythians if he called certain people “Hippemolgians and Galactophagians”? For that the people of his time were accustomed to calling the Scythians “Hippemolgians,” Hesiod, too, is witness in the words cited by Eratosthenes: “The Ethiopians, the Ligurians, and also the Scythians, Hippemolgians.” Now why is it to be wondered that, because of the widespread injustice connected with contracts in our country, Homer called “most just” and “proud” those who by no means spend their lives on contracts and money-getting but actually possess all things in common except sword and drinking-cup, and above all things have their wives and their children in common, in the Platonic way? Aischylos, too, is clearly pleading the cause of the poet when he says about the Scythians: “But the Scythians, law-abiding, eaters of cheese made of mare’s milk.”

[Strabo’s or his source’s critique of luxury as opposed to straightforwardness and simplicity]

This assumption even now still persists among the Greeks, for we regard the Scythians the most straightforward of men and the least prone to mischief, as also far more frugal and independent of others than we are. Yet our mode of life has spread its change for the worse to almost all peoples, introducing amongst them luxury and sensual pleasures and, to satisfy these vices, base artifices that lead to innumerable acts of greed. So then, much wickedness of this sort has fallen on the barbarian peoples also, on the nomads as well as the rest. For as the result of taking up a seafaring life they not only have become morally worse, indulging in the practice of banditry and of slaying strangers. Because of their interactions with many peoples, they have also adopted luxury and the peddling habits of those peoples. But though these things seem to conduce strongly to gentleness of manner, they corrupt morals and introduce cunning instead of the straightforwardness which I just now mentioned.

[Citation of other sources that supposedly support Strabo’s understanding of Homer’s view]

(8) Those, however, who lived before our times, and particularly those who lived near the time of Homer, were (and among the Greeks were assumed to be) some such people as Homer describes. Look at what Herodotos says concerning that king of the Scythians against whom Darius made his expedition, and the message which the king sent back to him. See also what Chrysippos says concerning the kings of the Bosporos, the house of Leuko. Not only are the Persian letters full of references to that straightforwardness of which I am speaking but also the memoirs written by the Egyptians, Babylonians, and Indians. It was on this account that Anacharsis, Abaris, and other men of the sort were in fair repute among the Greeks, because they displayed a nature characterized by complacency, frugality, and justice.

But why should I speak of the men of olden times? For when Alexander son of Philip on his expedition against the Thracians beyond the Haimos [Balkan] mountains, invaded the country of the Triballians and saw that it extended as far as the Ister [Danube} and the island of Peuke in the Ister. Alexander also saw that the parts on the far side were held by the Getians. He went as far as that, it is said, but could not disembark upon the island because of scarcity of boats (for Syrmos, the king of the Triballians had taken refuge there and resisted his attempts). He did, however, cross over to the country of the Getians, took their city, and returned with all speed to his homeland, after receiving gifts from the peoples in question and from Syrmos.

Ptolemaios son of Lagos says that on this expedition the Celts who lived around the Adriatic joined Alexander for the sake of establishing friendship and hospitality. He also says that the king received them kindly and asked them when drinking what it was that they most feared, thinking they would say Alexander. However, the Celts replied that they feared no one, except if Heaven was to fall on them, although indeed they added that they put above everything else the friendship of such a man as Alexander. The following are signs of the straightforwardness of the barbarians: first, the fact that Syrmus refused to consent to the debarkation upon the island and yet sent gifts and made a compact of friendship and, secondly, that the Celts said that they feared no one, and yet valued above everything else the friendship of great men.

Furthermore, Dromichaites was king of the Getians in the time of the successors of Alexander. Now he, when he captured Lysimachos alive, who had made an expedition against him, first pointed out the poverty both of himself and of his people and likewise their independence of others. Then Dromichaites called on Lysimachos not to carry on war with people of that sort but rather to deal with them as friends. After saying this, he entertained him as a guest, made a compact of friendship, and then released him. Moreover, Plato in his Republic thinks that those who would have a well-governed city should flee as far as possible from the sea, as being a thing that teaches wickedness, and should not live near it.

[Ephoros on the Scythians = FGrHist / BNJ 70 F 42]

[Northern peoples as models of just peoples]

Towards the end of the fourth book of his Inquiry (or: History), in the book entitled “Europe” (for Ephoros covers the circuit of Europe as far as the Scythians), Ephoros says that the modes of life of both the Sauromatians and other Scythians are similar. For, whereas some are so cruel that they even eat human beings, others abstain from eating any living creature whatsoever. Now the other writers, he says, tell only about their savagery, because they know that the terrible and the amazing are startling, but one should tell the opposite facts too and make them patterns of conduct. So Ephoros himself will only tell about those who follow “most just” habits, for there are some of the Scythian nomads who feed only on mare’s milk and excel all people in justice. They are mentioned by the poets: by Homer, when he says that Zeus spots the land “of the Galactophagians (milk-eaters) and Abians (those without a fixed source of living), men most just,” and by Hesiod, in what is called his Circuit of the Earth,​ when he says that Phineus is carried by the Storm Winds “to the land of the Galactophagians, who live in wagons.”

[Why Scythians are most just]

Then Ephoros reasons out the cause as follows: since they are frugal in their ways of living and not after money, they are not only orderly towards one another (because they have all things in common, their wives, children, the whole of their kin and everything) but also remain invincible and unconquered by outsiders, because they have nothing to be enslaved for. Ephoros cites Choirilos also, who, in his The Crossing of the Pontoon-Bridge which was constructed by Darius, says, “the sheep-tending Sakians, of Scythian descent: they used to live in wheat-producing Asia, but they were colonists from law-abiding nomads.” Furthermore, when Ephoros calls Anacharsis “wise,” he says that he belongs to this descent group (genos), and that he was also considered one of the “Seven Sages” because of his perfect self-control and good sense. Ephoros goes on to explain the inventions of Anacharsis: the bellows, the double-fluked anchor, and the potter’s wheel.

[Strabo’s reaction and concern about Homer’s ethnographic accuracy]

These things I tell knowing full well that Ephoros himself does not tell the whole truth about everything. This is particularly the case in his account of Anacharsis, for how could the wheel be his invention, if Homer, who lived in earlier times, knew of it? (“As when a potter his wheel that fits in his hands,” [Iliad 18.600]? and so on). But as for those other things, I tell them because I wish to make my point clear that there actually was a common report, which was believed by the men of both early and of later times, that a portion of the nomads, I mean those who had settled the farthest away from the rest of humankind, were “Galactophagians,” “Abians,” and “most just,” and that they were not an invention of Homer.

[Mysians and critique of Apollodoros’ negative view of Homer as a source]

(10) It is only fair to ask Apollodoros to explain the Mysians that are mentioned in the verses of Homer. Does he think that these are also inventions (when the poet says, “and the Mysians, hand-to‑hand fighters and the proud Hippemolgians”), or does Apollodoros take the poet to mean the Mysians in Asia. Now if he takes the poet to mean those in Asia, he will misinterpret him, as I have said before. But if he calls them an invention, meaning that there were no Mysians in Thrace, he will contradict the facts. For at any rate, even in our own times, Aelius Catus [Roman commander in the Danube area] transplanted from the country on the far side of the Ister [Danube] into Thrace fifty thousand persons from among the Getians, a people with the same language as the Thracians. They live there in Thrace now and are called “Moesians.” This is the case regardless of whether their people of earlier times were called that and that in Asia the name was changed to “Mysians,” or (what is more apposite to history and the declaration of the poet) that in earlier times their people in Thrace were called “Mysians.” Enough, however, on this subject. I will now go back to the next topic in the general description. 

[Returning to the Getians in the mid-first century BCE]

(11) As for the Getians, then, their early history must be left untold, but that which pertains to our own times is about as follows: After setting himself in a position of authority over the people, Boirebistas who was a Getan restored the people, who had been reduced to a terrible plight by numerous wars. Boirebistas also raised them to such a height through training, sobriety, and obedience to his commands that within only a few years he had established a great empire and subordinated to the Getians most of the neighbouring peoples. He also began to be formidable even to the Romans, because he would cross the Ister [Danube] with impunity and plunder Thrace as far as Macedonia and the Illyrian country. He not only laid waste the country of the Celts who were intermingled with the Thracians and the Illyrians, but actually caused the complete disappearance of both the Boians (who were under the rule of Kritasiros) and the Tauriskians. To help him secure the complete obedience of his people he had as his coadjutor Dekaineus, an enchanter (goētēs). This man not only had wandered through Egypt, but also had thoroughly learned certain prognostications through which he would pretend to tell the divine will and within a short time he was set up as god (as I said when relating the story of Zamolxis).

The following is an indication of the Getians’ complete obedience: they were persuaded to cut down their vines and to live without wine. However, certain men rose up against Boirebistas and he was deposed before the Romans sent an expedition against him. Those who succeeded him divided the empire into several parts. In fact, only recently, when Augustus Caesar sent an expedition against them [against the Getians south of the Danube], the number of parts into which the empire had been divided was five, though at the time of the insurrection it had been four. Such divisions, to be sure, are only temporary and vary with the times.

[Dacians and their close relation with Getians]

(12) But there is also another division of the country which has endured from early times, for some of the people are called Dacians (Dakoi) while others are called Getians. The Getians are those who incline towards the Pontos and the east and Dacians are those who incline in the opposite direction towards Germany and the sources of the Ister river [i.e. to the northwest]. The Dacians, I think, were called “Daoi” in early times which is the origin of the household-slave names “Geta” and “Daos” which prevailed among the Attic people. For this is more probable than that “Daoi” is from those Scythians who are called “Daai” [note the second alpha], for the Daai live far away in the neighbourhood of Hyrkania.

[Aside on slave names to support Strabo’s etymology of “Dacians”]

Furthermore, it is not reasonable to suppose that slaves were brought into Attica from there for the Attic people were accustomed to either call their slaves by the same names as those of the peoples from which they were brought (as with “Lydos” or “Syros”), or addressed them by names that were prevalent in their countries (as with “Manes” or also “Midas” for the Phrygian, or “Tibios” for the Paphlagonian). But though the people was raised to such a height by Boirebistas, it has been completely humbled by its own seditions and by the Romans. Nevertheless, they are capable, even today, of sending out an army of forty thousand men.  

(13) The Marisos [MureČ™] river flows through their country into the Danuvius [upper Danube], on which the Romans used to convey their equipment for war. The “Danuvius” I say, for so they used to call the upper part of the river from near its sources on to the cataracts. By this I mean the part which in the main flows through the country of the Dacians, although they give the name “Ister” to the lower part from the cataracts on to the Pontos, the part which flows past the country of the Getians.

The language of the Dacians is the same as that of the Getians. Among the Greeks, however, the Getians are better known because the migrations they make to either side of the Ister are continuous, and because they are intermingled with the Thracians and Mysians. Furthermore, the people of the Triballians, likewise Thracian, has had this same experience. For it has admitted migrations into this country, because the neighbouring peoples force them to emigrate into the country of those who are weaker. In other words, the Scythians, Bastarnians, and Sauromatians on the far side of the river [Danube] often prevail to the extent that they actually cross over to attack those whom they have already driven out, and some of them remain there, either in the islands or in Thrace. On the other hand, those​ on the other side are generally overpowered by the Illyrians.

Be that as it may, the Getians and Dacians once attained to very great power, so that they actually could send forth an expedition of two hundred thousand men. Yet now they find themselves reduced to as few as forty thousand, and they have come close to the point of yielding obedience to the Romans, even though they are not yet absolutely submissive, because of the hopes which they have in the Germans who are enemies to the Romans.

(14) In the intervening space, facing that part of the Pontic Sea [Black Sea] which extends from the Ister to the Tyras [Dniester] river, lies the Desert of the Getians, which is completely flat and waterless. This is where Darius [I, reigning 522-486 BCE] the son of Hystaspes was caught on the occasion when he crossed the Ister to attack the Scythians and ran the risk of perishing from thirst, army and all. However, he belatedly realized his error and turned back. In his expedition against the Getians and king Dromichaites later on, Lysimachos not only ran the risk but actually was captured alive but he again came off safely, because he found the barbarian kind-hearted, as I said before… [omitted material]

[Peoples heading east on the north coast of the Black Sea: Olbia]

(17) Then comes the Borysthenes [Dnieper] river, which is navigable for a distance of six hundred stadium-lengths and, near it, another river, the Hypanis [southern Bug], and off the mouth of the Borysthenes, an island with a harbour. On sailing up the Borysthenes two hundred stadium-lengths one comes to a city of the same name as the river, but the same city is also called Olbia. It is a great trading-centre and was founded by Milesians. Now the whole country that lies above the said seaboard between the Borysthenes and the Ister consists, first, of the Desert of the Getians then the country of the Tyregetians and after it the country of the Iazygian Sarmatians, as well as that of the people called the Basileians and that of the Ourgians, who in general are nomads, though a few are interested also in farming. These people, it is said, dwell also along the Ister, often on both sides.

[Germanic and other peoples further inland to the north of the Black Sea]

In the interior [further north] live, first, those Bastarnians whose country borders on that of the Tyregetians and Germans. The Tyregetians are also, one might say, part of the Germanic descent group (genos). They are divided up into several tribes (phylai), for a part of them are called Atmonians and Sidonians, while those who took possession of Peuke, the island in the Ister, are called “Peukinians,” whereas the “Roxolanians” (the most northerly of them all) roam the plains between the Tanais [Don] and Borysthenes [Dnieper] rivers.

[Roxolanians (sometimes associated with Sarmatians)]

In fact, the whole country towards the north from Germany as far as the Caspian sea is, so far as we know it, a plain, but whether any people live beyond the Roxolanians we do not know. Now the Roxolanians, under the leader­ship of Tasios, carried on war even with the generals of Mithridates Eupator. They came for the purpose of assisting Palakos the son of Skilouros, as his allies, and they had the reputation of being warlike. Yet all barbarian tribes and light-armed peoples are weak when matched against a well-ordered and well-armed phalanx. At any rate, those Roxolanians, about fifty thousand strong, could not hold out against the six thousand men arrayed with Diophantos, the general of Mithridates, and most of them were destroyed. They use helmets and breast armour made of raw ox-hides, carry wicker shields, and have for weapons spears, bow, and sword. Most of the other barbarians are armed in this way. As for the nomads, their tents, made of felt, are fastened on the wagons in which they spend their lives and round about the tents are the herds which provide the milk, cheese, and meat on which they live. The nomads follow the grazing herds, from time to time moving to other places that have grass, living only in the marsh-meadows around Maiotis lake [Sea of Azov] in winter, but also in the plains in summer.

[Climate north of the Black Sea: Cold]

(18) The whole of the country has severe winters as far as the regions by the sea that are between the Borysthenes and the mouth of Maiotis lake. But of the regions themselves that are by the sea, the most northerly are the mouth of the Maiotis and, still more northerly, the mouth of the Borysthenes, and the recess of the bay of Tamyrakes [Karkinyts’ka], or Karkinites, which is the isthmus of the Great Chersonesos. The coldness of these regions (even though the people live in plains) is evident, for they do not breed asses, an animal that is very sensitive to cold. Regarding cattle, some are born without horns, while the horns of others are filed off, for this part of the animal is sensitive to cold. The horses are small while the sheep are large and bronze water-jars burst and their contents freeze solid. But the severity of the frosts is most clearly evidenced by what takes place in the region of the mouth of Maiotis lake: the waterway from Pantikapaion [Kerch, Ukraine] across to Phanagoria [Sennoy, Russia] is traversed by wagons, so that it is both ice and roadway. Fish that become caught in the ice are obtained by digging with an implement called the “gangame,” and particularly the “antakaioi”, which are about the size of dolphins. It is said of Neoptolemos, the general of Mithridates, that in the same strait he overcame the barbarians in a naval engagement in summer and in a cavalry engagement in winter. Furthermore, it is said that the vine in the Bosporos region is buried during the winter, the people heaping quantities of earth upon it. It is also said that the heat too becomes severe, perhaps because the bodies of the people are unaccustomed to it, or perhaps because no winds blow on the plains at that time, or else because the air, by reason of its density, becomes superheated (like the effect of the parhelia in the clouds). It appears that Ateas, who waged war with Philip the son of Amyntas, ruled over most of the barbarians in this part of the world… [omitted material]


4 (1) Here is the isthmus which separates what is called lake Sapra from the sea. It is forty stadium-lengths in width and forms what is called the Tauric, or Scythian, Chersonese. Some, however, say that the breadth of the isthmus is three hundred and sixty stadia. But though lake Sapra is said to be as much as four thousand stadia, it is only a part (the western part) of lake Maiotis, for it is connected with the latter by a wide mouth. It is very marshy and is scarcely navigable for sewn boats, for the winds readily uncover the shallow places and then cover them with water again. Therefore the marshes are impassable for the larger boats. The gulf contains three small islands, and also some shoals and a few reefs along the coast.

[Peoples near Chersonesos]

(2) As one sails out of the gulf, one comes, on the left, to a small city and another harbour belonging to the Chersonesians. For next in order as one sails along the coast is a great cape which projects towards the south and is a part of the Chersonesos [near Sebastopol, Ukraine] as a whole. On this cape is situated a city of the Herakleotians, a colony of the Herakleotians who live on the Pontos,​ and this place itself is called Chersonesos, being distant as one sails along the coast four thousand four hundred stadium-lengths from the Tyras. In this city is the temple of the Parthenos, a certain deity. The cape which is in front of the city, at a distance of one hundred stadia, is also named after this deity, for it is called the Parthenion, and it has a shrine and wooden image (xoanon) of her. Between the city and the cape are three harbours. Then comes the Old Chersonesos, which has been razed to the ground. After it comes a narrow-mouthed harbour, where, generally speaking, the Taurians, a Scythian people, used to assemble their groups of bandits in order to attack all who fled there for refuge. It is called Symbolon Limen. This harbour forms with another harbour called Ktenos Limen an isthmus forty stadium-lengths in width. And this is the isthmus that encloses the Little Chersonesos, which, as I was saying, is a part of the Great Chersonesos and has on it the city of Chersonesos, which bears the same name as the peninsula.

[Mithridates Eupator’s kingdom and the Bosporan region]

(3) This city [Old Chersonesos] was at first self-governing, but when it was sacked by the barbarians it was forced to choose Mithridates Eupator as protector. He was then leading an army against the barbarians who lived beyond the isthmus as far as the Borysthenes and the Adrias [north Adriatic]. This, however, was preparatory to a campaign against the Romans. So, then, in accordance with these hopes of his he gladly sent an army to Chersonesos, and at the same time carried on war against the Scythians. He not only fought against Skilouros, but also the sons of Skilouros (Palakos and the rest). According to Poseidonios these [Skilouros and his relatives] were fifty in number, but according to Apollonides they were eighty. At the same time, also, he not only subdued all these by force, but also established himself as lord of the Bosporos, receiving the country as a voluntary gift from Parisades who held sway over it. So from that time on down to the present the city of the Chersonesians has been subject to the potentates of the Bosporos.

Again, Ktenos harbour-town (Limen) is equidistant from the city of the Chersonesians and Symbolon harbour-town (Limen). After Symbolon harbour-town, as far as the city Theodosia, lies the Tauric seaboard [associated with the Taurians] , which is about one thousand stadium-lengths in length. It is rugged and mountainous, and is subject to furious storms from the north. In front of it lies a promontory which extends far out towards the high sea and the south in the direction of Paphlagonia and the city Amastris. It is called Kriumetopon.​ Opposite it lies that promontory of the Paphlagonians, Karambis, which, by means of the strait, which is contracted on both sides, divides the Euxine Pontus into two seas. Now the distance from Karambis to the city of the Chersonesians is two thousand five hundred stadia, but the distance to Krioumetopon is much less. At any rate, many who have sailed across the strait say that they have seen both promontories, on either side, at the same time. In the mountainous district of the Taurians is also the mountain Trapezos, which has the same name as the city in the neighbourhood of Tibarania and Kolchis. And near the same mountainous district is also another mountain, Kimmerios, so called because the Kimmerians (or: Cimmerians) once held sway in the Bosporos. It is because of this fact that the whole of the strait which extends to the mouth of Maiotis lake [Sea of Azov] is called the Kimmerian Bosporos [now Crimean peninsula].

[Bosporians centred on Pantikapaion and the Spartokid Bosporan kingdom]

(4) After the mountainous district mentioned above is the city Theodosia [Feodosia, Ukraine]. It is situated in a fertile plain and has a harbour that can accommodate as many as a hundred ships. This harbour in earlier times was a boundary between the countries of the Bosporians and the Taurians. The country that comes next after that of Theodosia is also fertile, as far as Pantikapaion [now Kerch, Ukraine]. Pantikapaion is the metropolis of the Bosporians and is situated at the mouth of Maiotis lake. The distance between Theodosia and Pantikapaion is about five hundred and thirty stadia. The entire district produces grain and it contains villages, as well as a city called Nymphaion [south of Pantikapaion], which possesses a good harbour.

Pantikapaion is a hill inhabited on all sides in a circuit of twenty stadia. To the east it has a harbour, and docks for about thirty ships and it also has an acropolis. It is a colony of the Milesians. For a long time it was ruled as a monarchy by the [Spartokid] rulership of Leukon [I, ca. 389-349 BCE], Satyros [I, 432-389 BCE], and Parisades [I, 347-309 BCE], as were also all the neighbouring settlements near the mouth of Maiotis lake on both sides, until Parisades [V], gave over the sovereignty to Mithridates [ca. 108 BCE]. They were called tyrants, although most of them, beginning with Parisades and Leukon, proved to be equitable rulers. Parisades [I] was actually held in honour as god. The last of these monarchs also bore the name Parisades [V], but he was unable to hold out against the barbarians, who kept exacting more tribute than before. He therefore gave over the sovereignty to Mithridates Eupator. But since the time of Mithridates [after 63 BCE] the kingdom has been subject to the Romans [as a client kingdom]. The greater part of it is situated in Europe, although a part of it is situated in Asia [i.e. for Strabo the Tanais (Don) river and Kimmerian Bosporos strait are the line between Europe and Asia, as explained below].

[Geographical details regarding the Kimmerian Bosporos and the boundary between Europe and Asia, including “Little Scythia”]

(5) The mouth of Maiotis lake is called the Kimmerian Bosporos. It is rather wide at first (about seventy stadia) and it is here that people cross over from the regions of Pantikapaion to Phanagoria, the nearest city of Asia. But it ends in a much narrower channel. This strait separates Asia from Europe. So does the Tanais river, which is directly opposite and flows from the north into the lake and then into the mouth of it. The river has two outlets into the lake which are about sixty stadium-lengths distant from one another. There is also a city which has the same name [Tanais] as the river, and next to Pantikapaion is the greatest trading-centre of the barbarians. On the left, as one sails into the Kimmerian Bosporus, is a little city, Myrmekion, at a distance of twenty stadium-lengths from Pantikapaion. Twice this distance from Myrmekion is the village of Parthenion. Here the strait is narrowest (about twenty stadia) and on the opposite side, in Asia, is situated a village called Achilleion. If one sails straight to the Tanais and the islands near its outlets from there, the distance is two thousand two hundred stadia, but if one sails along the coast of Asia, the distance slightly exceeds this. If, however, one sails on the left as far as the Tanais, following the coast where the isthmus is situated, the distance is more than three times as much. Now the whole of the seaboard along this coast, I mean on the European side, is desert, but the seaboard on the right [in Asia] is not desert. It is reported that the total circuit of the lake is nine thousand stadia.

The Great Chersonesos is similar to the Peloponnesos both in shape and in size. It is held by the potentates of the Bosporus, though the whole of it has been devastated by continuous wars. But in earlier times only a small part of it ( the part that is close to the mouth of Lake Maiotis and to Pantikapaion and extends as far as Theodosia) was held by the tyrants of the Bosporians. On the other hand, most of it as far as the isthmus and the bay of Karkinites, was held by the Taurians, a Scythian people. The whole of this country, together with just about all the country outside the isthmus as far as the Borysthenes, was called “Little Scythia.” But on account of the large number of people who left Little Scythia and crossed both the Tyras [Dniester] and the Ister [Danube] and settled in the land beyond, no small portion of Thrace as well came to be called “Little Scythia.” The Thracians gave way to them partly as the result of force and partly because of the bad quality of the land, for the greater part of the country is marshy.

(6) Except for the mountainous district that extends along the sea as far as Theodosia, the Chersonesos is level and fertile throughout. It is extremely fortunate in the production of grain. Anyways, it yields thirty-fold if furrowed by any sort of a digging-instrument. Further, the people of this region, together with those of the Asiatic districts round about Sindike [east of Hermonassa, modern Taman], used to pay as tribute to Mithridates one hundred and eighty thousand medimnoi and also two hundred talents of silver. In still earlier times the Greeks imported their supplies of grain from here, just as they imported their supplies of salt-fish from the lake. Leukon, it is said, once sent from Theodosia to Athens two million one hundred thousand medimnoi.

[Georgians and Homer’s Galactophagians again]

These same people used to be called Georgians, in the literal sense of the term, because of the fact that the people who were situated beyond them were nomads and lived not only on meats in general but also on the meat of horses, as also on cheese made from mare’s milk, on mare’s fresh milk, and on mare’s sour milk. When prepared in a particular way, the sour milk is enjoyed by them. This is why the poet calls all the people in that part of the world “Galactophagians” (Milk-eaters). Now although the nomads are warriors rather than bandits, they still go to war only for the sake of the tributes due them. For they turn over their land to any people who wish to till it, and are satisfied if they receive in return for the land the tribute they have assessed, which is a moderate one, assessed with a view, not to an abundance, but only to the daily necessities of life. But if the tenants do not pay, the nomads go to war with them. So it is that the poet calls these same men at the same time both “just” and “resourceless”. For if the tributes were paid regularly, they would never resort to war. But men who are confident that they are powerful enough either to ward off attacks easily or to prevent any invasion do not pay regularly. such was the case with Asander. According to Hypsikrates, Asander walled off the isthmus of the Chersonesos which is near Maiotis lake and is three hundred and sixty stadium-lengths in width. He also set up ten towers for every stadion. However, even though the Georgians of this region are considered to be at the same time both more gentle and civilised, they still do not stay away from acts of sea-banditry or from any other such acts of injustice and greed, since they are greedy and active on the sea.

[Forts in the area of Chersonesos]

(7) In addition to the places in the Chersonesos which I have enumerated, there were also the three forts which were built by Skilouros and his sons (the forts which they used as bases of operations against the generals of Mithridates): I mean Palakion, Chabon, and Neapolis. There was also a fort Eupatorion, founded by Diophantos when he was leading the army for Mithridates. There is a cape about fifteen stadium-lengths distant from the wall of the Chersonesians. It forms a very large gulf which inclines towards the city. And above this gulf is situated a lagoon which has salt-works. Here, too, was the Ktenos harbour-town (Limen). Now it was in order that they might hold out that the besieged generals of the king fortified the place, established a garrison on the cape mentioned above. They also filled up that part of the mouth of the gulf which extends as far as the city, so that there was now an easy journey on foot and, in a way, one city instead of two. Consequently, they could more easily beat off the Scythians. But when the Scythians made their attack, near Ktenos, on the fortified wall that extends across the isthmus, and daily filled up the trench with straw, the generals of the king set fire by night to the part thus bridged by day. They held out until they finally prevailed over them. Today everything is subject to whatever kings of the Bosporians the Romans choose to set up.

[Customs of the Scythians and Sarmatians]

(8) It is a peculiarity of the entire Scythian and Sarmatian people that they castrate their horses to make them easy to manage. For although the horses are small, they are exceedingly quick and hard to manage. As for game, there are deer and wild boars in the marshes, and wild asses and roe deer in the plains. Another peculiar thing is the fact that the eagle is not found in these regions. Among four-legged animals there is what is called the “colos.” It is between the deer and ram in size, is white, is swifter than those other animals, and drinks through its nostrils into its head. Then from this storage of water it supplies itself for several days, so that it can easily live in the waterless country. Such, then, is the nature of the whole of the country which is outside the Ister between the Rhenus [Rhine] and the Tanais [Don] Rivers as far as the Pontic Sea [Black Sea] and Maiotis lake [Sea of Azov].

[For Strabo’s subsequent discussion of the Pannonians, Illyrians and others, go to this link.]

Leave a comment or correction

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