Babylonian and Persian wisdom: Kleitarchos on Chaldeans and Magians (late fourth-third centuries BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Babylonian and Persian wisdom: Kleitarchos on Chaldeans and Magians (late fourth-third centuries BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified October 3, 2023,

Ancient authors: Kleitarchos as cited in Diogenes of Laertes, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 1.6-7 (link to full work with Greek text).

Comments: We know surprisingly little about Kleitarchos who wrote a history of Alexander which has only survived in the form of brief citations like the one here. Even his dates are uncertain. While he has been sometimes pictured as an eyewitness to Alexander’s activities (in the 320s BCE), a recent papyrus discovery (POxy LXXI 4808) suggests the possibility he may have lived as late as the kingship of Ptolemy IV (221-204 BCE; see Chysanthou’s article).

Diogenes of Laertes (early third century CE) summarizes a section of Kleitarchos’ works that deals with wise barbarians, particulary the Chaldean priests of Babylon and the Magians of Persia. In each case, Kleitarchos’ work evidently tried to sketch out specific activities of each of these groups. (Diogenes himself only presents such material in order to refute those who advocate for the notion of wise barbarians, on which see the full passage in Diogenes at this link).

Works consulted: Chrysanthos S. Chrysanthou, “P. Oxy. LXXI 4808: ‘Bios’, Character, and Literary Criticism,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 193 (2015): 25–38 (link).

Source of the translation: R.D. Hicks, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1925), public domain, adapted by Harland.


Book 1

6 But the advocates of the theory that philosophy arose among the barbarians go on to explain the different forms it assumed in different countries. . . . That the naked sages despise even death itself is affirmed by Kleitarchos in his twelfth book.

Kleitarchos also says that the Chaldeans apply themselves to astronomy and predicting the future, while the Magians spend their time in the worship of the gods, in sacrifices and in prayers, implying that the gods do not listen to anyone but them. They express their views concerning the being and origin of the gods, whom they hold to be fire, earth, and water; they condemn the use of images, and especially the error of attributing to the divinities different genders. 7 They engage in discourse about justice and consider it impious to practise cremation. But they see no impiety in marriage with a mother or daughter, as Sotion relates in his twenty-third book. Further, they practise divination and forecast the future, declaring that the gods appear to them in visible form. Moreover, they say that the air is full of shapes which stream forth like vapour and enter the eyes of keen-sighted seers. They prohibit jewelry and the wearing of gold. Their clothing is white, they make their bed on the ground, and their food is vegetables, cheese, and coarse bread. Their staff is a reed and their custom is, so we are told, to stick it into the cheese and take up with it the part they eat.

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