Egyptian and Ethiopian diasporas: Diodoros on competing legends of migration and colonization (mid-first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Egyptian and Ethiopian diasporas: Diodoros on competing legends of migration and colonization (mid-first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 5, 2024,

Ancient author: Diodoros of Sicily, Library of History 1.28-29 (link Greek text and full translation); 2.3 (link).

Comments: Beyond the interest in peoples generally, there was a specific Greek attention to the question of colonization and migration, and to different people’s circulating legends about migration and about dispersions (diasporas). Who moved where for what reasons, who was related to whom, and who founded what? Such competing legends about priority and influence were an important part of ethnic relations overall in the Hellenistic and Roman eras.

This is illustrated well by passages like these ones from the Greek author Diodoros of Sicily (mid-first century BCE) who sketches out at times competing legends among Egyptians and Ethiopians (or at least Greek characterizations of Egyptian or Ethiopian views) regarding who colonized who and, therefore, who was responsible for the spread of customs and civilization overall. The alternative claims of Egyptians and Ethiopians are more along the lines of somewhat local, regional ethnic rivalries (Egypt itself was in the long past ruled over by Ethiopian kings at times). The ostensibly Egyptian claim that the respectively hegemonic or previously hegemonic Athenian and Babylonian civilizations were a result of Egyptian colonization might serve to undermine dominant ethnic hierarchies that placed Egyptians low on the ladder.


Book 1

[Legends about early Egyptian colonization of Babylon, Kolchos, Judea, Argos, and Athens]

28  Now the Egyptians say that also after these events a great number of colonies (apoikia) were spread from Egypt over all the inhabited world. To Babylon, for instance, colonists were led by Belos, who was held to be the son of Poseidon and Libya. After establishing himself on the Euphrates river he appointed priests, called Chaldaians by the Babylonians, who were exempt from taxation and free from every kind of civic service, as are the priests of Egypt. They also make observations of the stars, following the example of the Egyptian priests, physicists, and astrologers.

(2) They also say that those who set forth with Danaos, likewise from Egypt, settled what is practically the oldest city in Greece, namely Argos. They say that the people (ethnos) of the Kolchians in Pontos [east of the Black Sea] and the people of the Judeans situated between Arabia and Syria were founded as colonies by certain emigrants from their country. (3) This is the reason why it is a long-established institution among these two peoples to circumcise their male children, the custom having been brought over from Egypt. (4) Even the Athenians, they say, are colonists from Sais in Egypt, and they attempt to offer proofs of such a relation­ship. For the Athenians are the only Greeks who call their city “Asty,” a name brought over from the city Asty in Egypt. Furthermore, their body politic had the same classification and division of the people as found in Egypt, where the citizens have been divided into three orders: (5) the first Athenian class consisted of the “eupatridai,”​ as they were called, being those who were such as had received the best education and were held worthy of the highest honour, as is the case with the priests of Egypt. The second was that of the “geomoroi,“​ who were expected to possess weapons and to serve in defence of the city, like those in Egypt who are known as farmers and supply the warriors. The last class was reckoned to be that of the “demiourgoi,”​ who practise manual labour and fulfill only the most menial services to the state, this class among the Egyptians having a similar function. (6) Moreover, certain of the leaders of Athens were originally Egyptians, they say. Petes,​ for instance, the father of that Menestheus who took part in the expedition against Troy, having clearly been an Egyptian, later obtained citizen­ship at Athens and the kingship. . . [material missing in the manuscript, but likely switching to a discussion of the legendary king Kekrops]. (7) He [Kekrops (?)] was of double form, and yet the Athenians are unable from their own point of view to give the true explanation of this nature of his. Yet it is obvious to everyone that it was because of his double citizen­ship, Greek and barbarian, that he was held to be of double form, that is, part animal and part man.

29  In the same way, they continue, Erechtheus also, who was by birth an Egyptian, became king of Athens, and in proof of this they offer the following considerations. Once there was a great drought, as is generally agreed, which extended over practically all the inhabited earth except Egypt because of the peculiar character of that country. This resulted in destruction of both crops and large numbers of people. As a result of his kinship with Egyptians, Erechtheus brought a large supply of grain from Egypt to Athens, and in return those who had enjoyed this aid made their benefactor king. (2) After he had secured the throne, he instituted the initiatory rites of Demeter in Eleusis and established the mysteries, transferring their ritual from Egypt. The tradition that an advent of the goddess [Demeter, the grain goddess] into Attica also took place at that time is reasonable, since it was then that the fruits which are named after her were brought to Athens. This is also why it was thought that the discovery of the seed had been made again, as though Demeter had bestowed the gift. (3) The Athenians on their part agree that it was in the reign of Erechtheus, when a lack of rain had wiped out the crops, that Demeter came to them with the gift of grain. Furthermore, the initiations and mysteries of this goddess were instituted at Eleusis at that time. (4) And their sacrifices as well as their ancient ceremonies are observed by the Athenians in the same way as by the Egyptians, for the Eumolpidians [hereditary priests at Eleusis] were derived from the priests of Egypt and the Kerykes [at Athens] from the [Egyptian] shrine-bearers (pastophoroi.). They are also the only Greeks who swear by Isis, and they closely resemble the Egyptians in both their appearance and manners.

[Diodoros’ doubts about the Egyptian accounts about colonization]

(5) By many other statements like these, spoken more out of a love for glory than with regard for the truth, as I see the matter, they claim Athens as a colony of theirs because of the fame of that city. In general, the Egyptians say that their ancestors sent forth numerous colonies to many parts of the inhabited world due to the pre-eminence of their former kings and their excessive population. (6) However, since they offer no precise proof whatsoever for these statements, and since no historian worthy of credence testifies in their support, we have not thought that their accounts merited recording. So far as the ideas of the Egyptians about the gods are concerned, let what we have said suffice, since we are aiming at due proportion in our account. But with regard to the land, the Nile, and everything else worth hearing about we will try to summarize the facts in each case.


Book 2

[Legends about early Ethiopian colonization of Egypt]

(1) . . . They say also that the Egyptians are colonists sent out by the Ethiopians, Osiris having been the leader of the colony. (2) For they maintain that, generally speaking, what is now Egypt was not land but sea when in the beginning the universe was being formed. Afterwards, however, as the Nile during the times of its inundation carried the mud down from Ethiopia, land was gradually built up from the deposit. Also the statement that all the land of the Egyptians is alluvial silt deposited by the river receives the clearest proof, in their opinion, from what takes place at the outlets of the Nile. (3) For as each year new mud is continually gathered together at the mouths of the river, the sea is observed being thrust back by the deposited silt and the land receiving the increase.

[Egyptian customs derive from Ethiopian customs, according to Ethiopians]

Most customs of the Egyptians are, they hold, Ethiopian, the colonists still preserving their ancient manners. (4) For instance, the belief that their kings are gods, the very special attention which they pay to their burials, and many other matters of a similar nature are Ethiopian practices, while the shapes of their statues and the forms of their letters are Ethiopian. (5) For of the two kinds of writing​ which the Egyptians have, that which is known as “popular” (demotic) is learned by everyone, while that which is called “sacred”​ is understood only by the priests of the Egyptians. The priests learn it from their fathers as something that is to be kept secret, but among the Ethiopians everyone uses these forms of letters. (6) Furthermore, they maintain that the orders of the priests have much the same position among both peoples. For all who engage in service of the gods are clean​, keeping themselves shaven like the Egyptian priests. They also have the same dress and form of staff, which is shaped like a plough and is carried by their kings, who wear high felt hats which end in a knob at the top and are circled by the serpents which they call asps. This symbol appears to indicate that anyone who dares to attack the king will encounter death-carrying stings.​ (7) Many other things are also told by them concerning their own antiquity and the colony which they sent out that became the Egyptians, but about this there is no special need of our writing anything.


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.

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