Mossynoikians in Pontos: Xenophon and others on the “most barbarous” people (early fourth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Mossynoikians in Pontos: Xenophon and others on the “most barbarous” people (early fourth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified November 29, 2022,

Ancient author: Xenophon of Athens, Anabasis, 5.4.30–34 (link Greek text and full translation).

Comments: Xenophon’s elaborated account of his journey (ca. 401 BCE) with the Ten Thousand Greek mercenaries on behalf of Cyrus the Younger (Persian satrap of Lydia and Ionia who sought to overthrow his brother, king Artaxerxes II) is filled with minor and somewhat incidental ethnographic information. The most extensive (though still short) ethnographic digression in the work is his discussion of the Mossynoikians. Xenophon claims this people was characterized by his fellow-Greek mercenaries as the most barbarous people they had ever encountered.

Apollonios of Rhodes’ epic on the Voyage of the Argo (2.353-389; third century BCE) likely knows Xenophon’s passage and imagines his protagonists passing by Mossynoikians on the way to Kolchos, stating that the name derives from the “towers,” or “mossynoi” in the local language. Apollonios expands on the supposedly inverse customs relating to sex:

“Next they passed the Sacred Mountain and the highlands where the Mossynoikians live in the ‘mossynoi‘ or wooden houses from which they take their name. These people have their own ideas of what is right and proper. What we as a rule do openly in town or market-place they do at home; what we do in the privacy of our houses they do out of doors in the open street, and nobody thinks the worse of them. Even the sexual act does not embarass anyone in this community. On the contrary, like swine in the fields, they lie down on the ground in promiscuous intercourse and are not at all disconcerted by the presence of others. Then again, their king sits in the highest hut of all to dispense justice to his numerous subjects. But if the poor man happens to make a mistake in his findings, they lock him up and give him nothing to eat for the rest of the day” (2.1007-1024; translation adapted from E.V. Rieu, The Voyage of the Argo [London: Penguin, 1971], 101).

Strabo provides a similar etymology for the name (Geography 12.3.18), but may be indebted to Apollonios. Strabo also states that they lived on an extremely rugged mountain named Skydises and, by his time, were instead called Heptakometians.

Source of the translation: C.L. Browson, Xenophon: Anabasis books IV-VII, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1922), public domain, adapted by Harland.


book 5

4 . . . (30) . . . When they had eaten their breakfast there [west of Kerasous and before Kotyora, [near Vakfıkebir in modern Turkey, on the Black Sea], the Greeks [mercenaries in the army of “Ten Thousand”] took up their onward march, after handing over the fortress to the Mossynoikians [often Latinized as Mossynoeci] who had helped them in the fighting. As for the other strongholds which they passed by, belonging to those who sided with the enemy, the most accessible were in some cases abandoned by their occupants, in other cases surrendered voluntarily. (31) The greater part of these places were of the following description: The towns were eighty stadium-lengths distant from one another, some more, and some less. But the inhabitants could hear one another shouting from one town to the next, such heights and valleys there were in the country.

(32) As they proceeded, when the Greeks were among the friendly Mossynoikians, the Mossynoikians would show to the Greeks fattened children of the wealthy inhabitants who had been nourished on boiled nuts and were soft and white to an extraordinary degree. These children were pretty nearly equal in height and breadth, with their backs adorned with many colours and their front parts all tattooed with flower patterns. (33) These Mossynoikians also wanted to have sexual intercourse openly with the women who accompanied the Greeks, for that was their own fashion. All of them were white, the men and the women alike. (34) The Greeks who served through the expedition considered them the most barbarous (barbarĹŤtatoi) people whose country they travelled through and the furthest removed from Greek customs (nomoi). For they habitually did in public the things that other people would do only in private. As well, when they were alone they would behave just as if they were in the company of others, talking to themselves, laughing at themselves, and dancing in whatever spot they happened to be, as though they were giving an exhibition to others. 5 (1) Through this country, both the hostile and the friendly portions of it, the Greeks marched eight stages, reaching the land of the Chalybians. These people were few in number and subject to the Mossynoikians, and most of them gained their livelihood from working in iron. (2) Next they reached the country of the Tibarenians, which was much more level and had fortresses upon the seacoast that were less strong. . [material omitted].

Leave a comment or correction

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