Indians: Diodoros on environment, customs and social organization (mid-first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Indians: Diodoros on environment, customs and social organization (mid-first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified February 19, 2023,

Ancient author: Diodoros of Sicily, Library of History 2.36-42 (link).

Comments: Writing in the mid-first century BCE, Diodoros of Sicily (or: Diodorus Siculus) goes into some detail regarding the very fertile environment of India as a context for understanding a thriving and very large population. As with much ethnographic writing, an understanding of the environment is the basis for understanding the peoples who inhabit the environment. Diodoros ostensibly presents Indians’ own understanding of their indigenous status, having emerged from the fertile land itself with an absence of migration being the focus. But Diodoros also relates origin stories in which early kings are identified with the Greek gods Dionysos and Herakles (as in Megasthenes as well: link). It is not clear whether these are Greek stories or Hellenized Indian stories, but in either case the focus is on the contributions of these kings / gods to the advancement of civilization. Finally, Diodoros outlines the social organization of the population (what would now be called the caste system). Somewhat idealistically, it is imagined that this is some sort of superior society where all are considered equal in some way.

Source of the translation: C. H. Oldfather, Diodorus Sicilus: Library of History, volumes 1-6, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1935-1952), public domain (copyright not renewed, passed away in 1954), adapted by Victoria Muccilli and Harland.


[For Diodoros’ preceding discussion of the Babylonians, go to this link.]

Book 2

[Environment and abundance of India as a context for its peoples]

35 (1) Now India is four-sided in shape and the side which faces east and the side which faces south are embraced by the Great Sea [Indian Ocean]. The side which faces north is separated by the Emodos range of mountains [Himalayas] from that part of Scythia which is inhabited by the Scythians known as the “Sakians” (Sakai). The fourth side, which is turned towards the west, is marked off by the river known as the Indus, which is the largest of all streams after the Nile. (2) Regarding its size, they say that India as a whole extends from east to west twenty-eight thousand stadium-lengths, and from north to south thirty-two thousand. Because of its immense size, it is believed to take in a greater extent of the sun’s course in summer​ than any other part of the world. In many places at the Cape of India the gnomons of sundials may be seen which do not cast a shadow, while at night the Bears [constellations] are not visible. In the most southerly parts not even Arktouros can be seen. In fact, in that region, they say, the shadows fall towards the south.

(3) Now India has many lofty mountains that abound in fruit trees of every variety, and many large and fertile plains, which are remarkable for their beauty and are supplied with water by a multitude of rivers. The larger part of the country is well-watered and for this reason yields two crops each year. It abounds in all kinds of animals, remarkable for their great size and strength, land animals as well as birds. (4) It also breeds elephants both in the greatest numbers and of the largest size, providing them with sustenance in abundance, and it is because of this food that the elephants of this land are much more powerful than those produced in Libya. Consequently, large numbers of them are made captive by the Indians and trained for warfare, and it is found that they play a great part in turning the scale to victory.

36  The same is true of the inhabitants also: the abundant supply of food makes them of unusual height and bulk of body. Another result is that have an understanding of technical skills, since they breathe a pure air and drink water of the finest quality. (2) In addition to producing every fruit which can be cultivated, the earth also contains rich underground veins of every kind of ore. For there are found in it much silver and gold, not a little copper and iron, and tin also and whatever else is suitable for adornment, necessity, and the trappings of war. (3) In addition to the grain of Demeter​, a lot of millet grows throughout India, millet which is irrigated by the abundance of running water supplied by the rivers; pulse grows in large quantities and with superior quality; and, rice also grows, as well as the plant called bosporos. In addition to these many more plants which are useful for food grow there and most of these are native to the country. India also yields many other edible fruits that are able to sustain animal life, but to write about them would be a long task.

(4) This is the reason, they say, why a famine has never happened in India​ or, in general, any scarcity of what is suitable for gentle fare. For since there are two rainy seasons in the country each year, during the winter rains the sowing is made of the wheat crop as among other peoples, while in the second, which comes at the summer solstice, it is the general practice to plant the rice and bosporos, as well as sesame and millet. In most years, the Indians are successful in both crops, and they never lose everything, since the fruit of one or the other sowing comes to maturity. (5) The fruits also which flourish wild and the roots which grow in the marshy places, by reason of their remarkable sweetness, provide the people with a great abundance of food. For practically all the plains of India enjoy the sweet moisture from the rivers and from the rains which come with astonishing regularity, in a kind of fixed cycle, every year in the summer, since warm showers fall in abundance from the enveloping atmosphere and the heat ripens​ the roots in the marshes, especially those of the tall reeds.

(6) Furthermore, the customs of the Indians contribute towards there never being any lack of food among them. Whereas in the case of all the rest of humankind their enemies ravage the land and cause it to remain uncultivated, among the Indians the workers of the soil are treated as sacred and inviolable, and those among them who labour near the battle-lines have no feeling of the dangers. (7) For although both parties to the war kill one another in their hostilities, yet they leave uninjured those who are engaged in tilling the soil, considering that they are the common benefactors of everyone, nor do they burn the lands of their opponents or cut down their orchards.

37 (1) The land of the Indians has also many large navigable rivers which have their sources in the mountains lying to the north and then flow through the level country; and not a few of these unite and empty into the river known as the Ganges. (2) This river, which is thirty stadium-lengths in width, flows from north to south and empties into the ocean, forming the boundary towards the east of the people of the Gandaridians (Gandaridai), which possesses the greatest number of elephants and the largest in size.

(3) Consequently no foreign king has ever subdued this country, since all alien peoples are fearful of both the large population and the strength of the beasts. In fact even Alexander of Macedon, although he had subdued all Asia, refrained from making war upon the Gandaridians alone of all peoples. For when he had arrived at the Ganges river with his entire army, after his conquest of the rest of the Indians, upon learning that the Gandaridians had four thousand elephants equipped for war he gave up his campaign against them.

(4) The river which is nearly the equal of the Ganges and is called the Indus rises like the Ganges in the north, but as it empties into the ocean it forms a boundary of India. In its course through an expanse of level plain, it receives not a few navigable rivers, the most notable being the Hypanis [Beas], Hydaspes [Jhelum], and Akesinos [Chenab]. (5) In addition to these three rivers a vast number of others of every description traverse the country and bring it about that the land is planted in many gardens and crops of every description.

Now for the multitude of rivers and the exceptional supply of water the philosophers and students of nature among them advance the following cause: (6) The countries which surround India, they say, such as Scythia, Baktria, and Ariana, are higher than India, and so it is reasonable to assume that the waters which come together from every side into the country lying below them gradually cause the regions to become soaked and to generate a multitude of rivers. (7) A peculiar thing happens in the case of one of the rivers of India, known as the Silla [likely an imaginary, marvellous river also discussed by Megasthenes], which flows from a spring of the same name. For it is the only river in the world possessing the characteristic that nothing cast into it floats, but that everything, strange to say, sinks to the bottom.

[Earliest peoples of India and their civilizational contributions]

38  Now we are told that India as a whole, which is vast, is inhabited by many other peoples of every description, and not one of them had its first origin in a foreign land. Instead, all of them are thought to be indigenous (autochthones) [i.e. emerging from the soil itself]. India never receives any colony from abroad nor has it ever sent one to any other people.

(2) According to their myths, the earliest human beings used the fruits of the earth which grew wild for food, and they used the skins of native animals for clothing, as was done by the [earliest] Greeks. Similarly too the discovery of the technical skills and of all other things which are useful for life was made gradually. Necessity itself shows the way to a creature which was well endowed by nature and had, as its assistants for every purpose, hands and speech and a wise mind.

[Dionysos’ campaign, kingship, and contributions]

(3) The most learned men among the Indians recount a myth which it may be appropriate to present in brief form. This, then, is what they say: In the earliest times, when the inhabitants of their land were still dwelling in scattered clan-villages,​ Dionysos came to them from the regions to the west of them with a notable army. He traversed all India, since there was as yet no notable city which would have been able to oppose him. (4) But when an oppressive heat came and the soldiers of Dionysos were being consumed by a pestilential sickness, this leader, who was conspicuous for his wisdom, led his army out of the plains into the hill-country. Here, where cool breezes blew and the spring waters flowed pure at their very sources, the army got rid of its sickness. The name of this region of the hill-country, where Dionysos relieved his forces of the sickness, is Meros. It is because of this fact that the Greeks have handed down to posterity in their account of this god the story that Dionysos was nourished in a thigh (meros).

(5) After this, Dionysos took responsibility for the storing of fruits and shared this knowledge with the Indians, and he communicated to them the discovery of wine and of all the other things useful for life. Furthermore, he became the founder of notable cities by gathering the villages together in well-situated regions. Dionysos both taught them to honour the deity and introduced laws and courts. In brief, since he had been the introducer of many good works he was regarded as a god and received immortal honours. (6) They also recount that he carried a great number of women along with his army, and that when he joined battle in his wars, he used the sounds of drums and cymbals, since the trumpet had not yet been discovered. After he had reigned over all India for fifty-two years he died of old age. His sons, who succeeded to the sovereignty, passed the rule on successively to their descendants. Finally, many generations later, their sovereignty was dissolved and the cities received a democratic form of government.

[Herakles’ contributions]

39 As for Dionysos, then, and his descendants, such is the myth as it is related by the inhabitants of the hill-country of India. With regard to Herakles they say that he was born among them and they assign to him, in common with the Greeks, both the club and the lion’s skin. (3) Moreover, as their account tells us, he was far superior to all other men in strength of body and in courage, and cleared both land and sea of their wild beasts. Marrying several wives, he had many sons, but only one daughter. When his sons reached manhood, he divided all India into as many parts as he had male children and he appointed all his sons kings. Rearing his single daughter he also appointed her as queen.​

(3) Likewise, Herakles became the founder of numerous cities, the most renowned and largest of which he called Palibothra [Pataliputra, now near Patna]. In this city he also constructed a costly palace and settled a multitude of inhabitants, and he fortified it with remarkable ditches which were filled with water from the river. (4) When Herakles passed from among men he received immortal honour. But his descendants, though they held the kingship during many generations and accomplished notable deeds, made no campaign beyond their own frontiers and dispatched no colony to any other people. But many years later most of the cities had received a democratic form of government, although among certain peoples the kingship endured until the time when Alexander crossed over into Asia.

[Customs of the Indians]

(5) As for the customs of the Indians which are peculiar to them, a man may consider one which was drawn up by their ancient wise men to be the worthiest of admiration. For the law has ordained that under no circumstances should anyone among them be a slave, but that all shall be free and respect the principle of equality in all persons. For those, they think, who have learned neither to dominate over others nor to subject themselves to others will enjoy a manner of life best suited to all circumstances. This is because it is silly to make laws on the basis of equality for all persons, and yet to establish inequalities in social interactions.

[Social groups / castes]

[1. Philosophers]

40  The entire population of the Indians is divided into seven groups (merē) [i.e. castes], ​the first of which is formed of the order (systēma) of the philosophers, which in number is smaller than the rest of the groups, but in dignity ranks first. For being exempt from any civic service, the philosophers are neither the masters nor the servants of the others. (2) But they are called upon by the private citizens both to offer the sacrifices which are required in their lifetime and to perform the rites for the dead, as having proved themselves to be most dear to the gods and as being especially experienced in the matters that relate to the underworld. For this service, they receive both notable gifts and honours. Moreover, they furnish great services to the whole body of the Indians, since they are invited at the beginning of the year to the “great synod” and predict droughts and rains for the population, as well as predicting favourable winds, epidemics, and whatever else can help those who listen. (3) For both the common people and the king, by learning in advance what is going to take place, store up from time to time that of which there will be a shortage and prepare beforehand from time to time anything that will be needed. The philosopher who has erred​ in his predictions is subjected to no other punishment than disgrace and keeps silence for the remainder of his life.

[2. Farmers]

(4) The second group is that of the farmers, who, it would appear, are far more numerous than the rest. Being exempt from war duties and every other service to the state, the farmers devote all their time to labour in the fields. No enemy, coming upon a farmer in the country, would think of doing him injury, but they look upon the farmers as common benefactors and therefore refrain from every injury to them.​ (5) Consequently the land, remaining as it does unravaged and being laden with fruits, provides the inhabitants with a great supply of provisions. The farmers spend their lives upon the land with their children and wives and refrain entirely from coming down into the city. For the land they pay rent to the king, since all India is royal land and no man of private station is permitted to possess any ground. Apart from the rental they pay a fourth part​ into the royal treasury.

[3. Keepers of herds]

(6) The third division is that of the cattle-herds and shepherds, and, in general, of all the herdsmen who do not dwell in a city or village but spend their lives in tents. These men are also hunters and rid the country of both birds and wild beasts. Since they are experienced in this calling and follow it with enthusiasm, they are bringing India under cultivation. Nonetheless, India still abounds in many wild beasts and birds of every kind, which eat up the seeds sown by the farmers.

[4. Craftspeople]

41  The fourth group is that of the craftspeople. Of these, some are armourers and some fabricate for the farmers or certain others the things useful for the services they perform. They are not only exempt from paying taxes but they even receive rations from the royal treasury.

[5. Warriors]

(2) The fifth group is that of the military, which is at hand in case of war. They are second in numbers and indulge to the fullest in relaxation and pastimes in the periods of peace. The maintenance of the whole population of the soldiers and of the horses and elephants for use in war is covered by the royal treasury.

[6. Inspectors]

(3) The sixth group is that of the inspectors (ephoroi). These men inquire into and inspect everything that is going on throughout India, and report back to the kings or, in case the community to which they are attached has no king, to the magistrates.

[7. Councillors]

(4) The seventh group is that of the councillors and those who serve under the board of councillors, whose concern is with the decisions which affect the community. In point of number this group is the smallest, but in nobility of birth and wisdom the worthiest of admiration. For from their body are drawn the advisers for the kings and the administrators of the affairs of community and the judges of disputes, and, speaking generally, they take their leaders and magistrates from among these men.

(5) Such in general terms are the groups into which the communal organization (politeia) of the Indians is divided. Furthermore, no one is allowed to marry a person of another group or to follow another calling or trade. For instance, someone who is a soldier cannot become a farmer and an artisan cannot become a philosopher.

[Other leaders and judges]

42 [sentences on elephants omitted]. . . (3) There are among the Indians also magistrates appointed for foreigners who take care that no foreigner shall be wronged. Moreover, should any foreigner fall sick they bring him a physician and care for him in every other way, and if he dies, they bury him and even turn over such property as he has to his relatives. (4) Again, their judges examine accurately matters of dispute and proceed rigorously against such as are guilty of wrongdoing. As for India, then, and its ancient customs we will be satisfied with what has been said.

43 But now, in turn, we will discuss the Scythians who inhabit the country bordering on India. This people originally possessed little territory. . .

[For Diodoros’ subsequent discussion of Scythians, Amazons, and Hyperboreans, go to this link].

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