Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Egyptians: Achilles Tatius and Dio Cassius on cannibalistic cowherds (second-third century CE),' Last modified October 25, 2022, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=9942.
Comments: Like other ethnographic accounts of dangerous barbarian peoples living on or beyond the edges of “civilized” society, tales about “herdsmen” or “cowherds” (boukoloi) in the Egyptian Delta specifically involve the intersection of impressionistic knowledge about actual people combined with (much more) artistic license reflecting ethnic stereotypes. It is not always easy to know whether such accounts are better described as fictionalized history or historicized fiction (whether involving an ostensible “historian” like Dio Cassius or a Greek novel-writer like Tatius). But that doesn’t need to be decided in order to see the value in such accounts for understanding the stereotypes and attitudes that certain Greek authors could have towards non-urban populations in parts of Egypt.
In the case of the cowherds, the most notable passages presented below are Achilles Tatius of Alexandria’s second century novel on Kleitophon and Leukippe (or: Clitophon and Leucippe) and the epitome of Dio Cassius’ early third century account (in his Roman History) of what he characterizes as a revolt of the cowherds in the early 170s CE. Also see Strabo, Geography 17.1.6 and 17.1.19 (link); Xenophon, An Ephesian Tale 3.12; and, Heliodoros, An Ethiopian Story, throughout. The most notable overlap in Tatius’ and Dio’s chararacterizations is that the cowherds of the Delta are presented as extremely barbarous, dangerous, and violent people who engage in human sacrifice and an accompanying cannibalistic meal. Various parts of Tatius’ novel are couched in ethnographic discourses, and in this case we also have him going into a description of the environment and lifestyle of this people.
The passage from Tatius is also particularly notable as one of the most blatant cases of racialization focussed on the appearance and skin colour of a “barbarian” people. For this occasional Greek ethnographic focus on supposed physiological attributes (sometimes but not always including skin-colour) and peoplehood, also see the physiognomic passages by pseudo-Aristotle (link) and Polemon (link), as well as the physical descriptions of peoples scattered throughout the writings of both Diodoros (link coming soon) and Strabo (link coming soon).
While this is not the place to fully engage the question of who in reality these cowherds may have been (our interests are in Greek attitudes and ethnic stereotyping), it is worth mentioning the so called “impious Nikocheitians” who are mentioned (or alluded to) in several passages of a particular stash of papyri (PThmouis 1, especially 116, lines 2-11) from this region in connection with disturbances and violent incidents in the 160s CE. These Nikocheitians, who likely overlap with the cowherds (note Tatius’ mention of Nikochis as a base), may be the initial building blocks for the embellished accounts in Tatius (who is from relatively nearby Alexandria) and Cassius (further away). On the papyri and the historical backdrop, see the excellent study of Katherine Blouin.
For further discussion of narratives depicting outsiders engaging in human sacrifice and the cannibalistic meal, see Harland’s article on this site: “Perceptions of Cultural Minorities: Anti-Associations and their Banquets” (link).
Works consulted: Katherine Blouin, Triangular Landscapes: Environment, Society, and the State in the Nile Delta under Roman Rule (Oxford: OUP, 2014), with extensive bibliography.
Source of translation: S. Gaselee, Achilles Tatius, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1917), and E. Cary and H.B. Foster, Dio’s Roman History, 9 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1914-27), public domain, adapted and modernized by Harland.
Leukippe and Kleitophon (mid-second century CE)
[Encounter with, and physical description, of the Egyptian cowherds (boukoloi)]
9 [Kleitophon, the protagonist and love of Leukippe, is the narrator:] After we waited two days and somewhat refreshed ourselves after our troubles, we hired an Egyptian boat (we had just a little money which we happened to have kept in our belts), and started on the Nile towards Alexandria. We aimed to stay there for a while and thought it was just possible that we might find that some of our shipwrecked friends had arrived there. We had arrived at a certain town, when suddenly we heard a great shouting. “A cowherd (boukolos)!” the skipper shouted, and he tried to turn the boat around and sail back. However, the place was already crawling with terrifying, savage (agrioi) men who were all tall and black-coloured – yet not unmixed like an Indian, but more like a mixed Ethiopian – with shaven heads, small feet, and massive bodies. All of them were behaving (or: speaking) in a barbarian manner (literally: “barbarizing”). “We are done for!” shouted the helmsman, and he brought the boat to a standstill because the river is very narrow. Four of the bandits (lēstai) boarded the ship, took everything on the ship, and snatched our money from us. After tying us up, they shut us into a little building and went away, setting a guard over us, with the intention of taking us before their “king” the following day. (“King” is what they call the bandit-leader). It would be a journey of two days, as we learned from those who had been made prisoners along with us.
[Reaction of the captives and Kleitophon’s internal monologue about Leukippe, his love]
10 When the night had arrived, we were laying down tied up, and our guards were asleep, I understandably began to mourn Leukippe’s fate. Assessing how great the troubles I caused her were, I also began to express my grief about them deep in my soul while keeping the sound of my grief hidden. I thought: “Oh, all you gods and lower spirits, if you really exist and can hear me, what great wrong have we done to be plunged in such a sea of troubles in so short a space of time? Now have you also delivered us over into the hands of Egyptian bandits, so that we have not even a chance of mercy. A Greek bandit might be moved by the human voice and petition might soften him because speech is often the go-between of compassion. The tongue, which serves a person with a troubled soul by helping to express the petition, subdues the fury of the listener’s mind. But, as things are, in what language are we to make our prayers? What oaths can we utter? I might be more persuasive than the Sirens, but the murderer would not listen to me. I can only make my supplications by signs and explain my requests for mercy by the gestures of my hands. Oh the misfortunes! Right now I will begin my funeral dirge! For as intolerable as my own circumstances are, I don’t care. But with your circumstances, Leukippe (or: Leukippe), how can my lips deplore them and my eyes cry for them? You were faithful under love’s stress, gentle, and good to your unhappy lover. These are quite the arrangements for your wedding: A prison is your bridal chamber, the earth is your marriage bed, ropes and cords are your necklaces and bracelets, a bandit sleeps outside as your groom, and a funeral dirge is your marriage-hymn. Everything is pointless! Oh sea, did we give you thanks: now I blame your mercy. You were kinder to those whom you destroyed, and you have destroyed us yet more grievously by keeping us alive. You refused us death by anything other than a bandit’s hand.”
[Cowherd messenger with wild hair, and the abduction of Leukippe]
11 [omitted sentences] . . . So I whispered to Leukippe, who lay speechless: “Why are you silent, my darling, and say nothing to me?” “Because, Kleitophon (or: Clitophon),” she said, “my voice is dead even before the departure of my soul.” 12 As we talked in this way, we did not notice the approach of dawn, when a man arrived on horseback, with long and wild hair. His horse also had a full mane and tail, and was without harness or trappings, after the manner of bandits’ horses. He came from the bandit-leader and said: “If there happens to be a virgin among the captives, I am to take her away to be a sacrificial victim for the god and a purification for the group.” They at once rushed after Leukippe, who clung to me and hung on me screaming. The guards, some of whom were dragging her away and some were pummeling me, took her up and carried her off on their shoulders. They carried us, bound, with no such speed.
[Soldiers clash with the cowherds, with ethnographic details about the fighting style of the cowherds]
13 We had progressed about a quarter of a mile from the village, when there came to our ears loud shouting and the sound of trumpets, and a regiment of soldiers appeared, all heavily armed. When the bandits saw them, they placed us in the middle of their band and waited for their advance, with the intention of resisting them. Soon they came on, about fifty in number, some with long shields and some with small targets. The bandits, who far outnumbered them, picked up clumps of dried earth from the ground and began hurling them at the soldiers. The Egyptian clump is more effective for this purpose than any other, being heavy, jagged, and unlike others, in that the jagged points of it are stones, so that when it is thrown and strikes, it can inflict a double sort of wound: a swelling, as from the blow ot a stone, and an actual cut, like that of an arrow. The soldiers, however, received the stony dried clumps on their shields and seemed to make light of the casting of their adversaries. When the bandits began to become tired from throwing, they opened their massed ranks. From behind the shields out ran men lightly armed, each carrying a javelin and a sword and as they hurled their javelins there was none that failed in his aim. Then the heavy-armed soldiers came in a flood. The battle was severe, with plenty of blows, wounds, and slaughter on both sides. The experience of the soldiers compensated for their inferiority in numbers.
We prisoners, seeing that one flank of the bandits was weakening, made a concerted rush, broke through their line, and ran to join the enemy. At first the bandits did not realize the position and were ready to kill us, but when they saw that we were unarmed and bound, they suspected the truth, received us within the protection of their lines, and sent us to the rear and allowed us to remain there quietly. Meanwhile a large group of horses charged up. On their approach, they spread out their wings and completely surrounded the bandits, herding them together into a narrow space, and began to butcher them. Some were lying killed, some went on fighting half-dead. The rest they took alive.
[Kleitophon and other captives now join the other soldiers to fight the cowherds]
14 It was now late afternoon, and the general took each of us separately aside, enquiring of us who we were and how we had been captured. Each related his own story, and as did also. So when he had heard everyone’s story, he commanded us follow him and said that he would give us weapons. The general’s intention was to wait for the rest of his forces and then attack the great bandits’ stronghold. There were said to be about ten thousand of the bandits there. I asked for horse, being well trained in riding, and when one came, I rode him around and went through the various evolutions of cavalry fighting. The result was that the general was greatly pleased with me. On that same day, the general made me a companion at his own table, and at dinner he asked me about my story. When he heard my story, he was moved with pity.
When a man hears of another’s misfortunes, he is inclined towards pity, and pity is often the introduction to friendship. The heart is softened by grief for what it hears, and gradually feeling the same emotions at the mournful story converts its empathy into friendship and the grief into pity. So much did I move the general by my recital that I forced him to cry. We could not have done more as Leukippe was in the bandits’ power. He also gave me an Egyptian servant to attend to me.
[Spotting of Leukippe still in the clutches of the cowherds and their customs of human sacrifice]
15 On the next day he made preparations to fill up and so cross over a wide trench which blocked our way. For on the other side of it we could see the bandits standing in great numbers and fully armed. They had an improvised altar made of mud and a coffin near it. Then two of them led up the girl, her hands tied behind her back. I could not see who they were, as they were covered in armour, but I recognized her as Leukippe.
First they poured libations over her head and led her round the altar while a priest chanted what seemed to be an Egyptian hymn accompanied by a flute. This at least was indicated by the movements of his lips and the contortions of his features [i.e. they were too far away to really detect the details of what was happening]. Then, with a shared signal, all went back some distance from the altar. One of the two young attendants laid Leukippe down on her back and strapped her down by means of pegs fixed in the ground. This was done in a way just like the statues that represent Marsyas fixed to the tree [in some mythology Marsyas was a satyr who was skinned and his skin was nailed to a tree, according to Apollodorus, Library 4.2].
Then the young attendant took a sword and, plunging it into the area around the heart, he cut down to the lower part of the belly, opening up her body. The entrails sprung out, and they drew these out with their hands and placed them upon the altar. When the entrails were roasted, the whole group of bandits cut them up into small pieces, divided them into shares and ate them.
The soldiers and the general who were looking on cried out as each stage of the act was done and averted their eyes from the sight. I sat gazing in my consternation, rooted to the spot by the horror of the spectacle. The unbelievable distaster struck me like lightning, and I was motionless. Perhaps the story of Niobe was no fiction [cf. Homer, Iliad 24.596-620]. She, too, facing a misfortune like I faced, may, at the destruction of her children, have become so fixed and motionless that she seemed to be made of stone. When the whole episode came to an end, as I thought, the two attendants placed her body in the coffin, put the lid on it, overturned the altar, and hurried away without looking around. These were the instructions given to them by the priest in his act of divination.
16 Evening come, the whole trench was filled up, the soldiers crossed it, pitched their camp a little beyond it, and set about preparing their supper, while the general tried to console me in my misery. Nevertheless about the first watch of the night, waiting until all were asleep, 1 took my sword and went forth, intending to kill myself over the coffin. . . [omitted another monologue by a suicidal Kleitophon, followed by Menelaos and Satyros (former companions and then captives) explaining that the whole apparent human sacrifice was actually a stage-trick perpertrated by them when they pretended to be initiated into the bandit association. Don’t worry, Leukippe is alive!].
20 . . . At this point Leukippe broke in: “Stop teasing and frightening Kleitophon, Menelaos, and tell him how you cheated the bandits.” 21 I [Satyros] said to Menelaos: “We will have the help of god if you will show yourself a good friend: we will be able to trick the bandits and save the girl. Listen to my plan. We must take a sheep’s skin, as thin as one can get and sew it into the form of a pouch, about the size of a man’s belly. Then we must fill it with some animal’s entrails and blood, sew up this sham stomach so that its contents cannot easily leak out, and fit her to it. By putting a dress outside and fastening it with bands and girdles we can hide the whole trick in this way. The oracle is extremely useful to us for our strategy, as it has ordered that she is to be fully adorned and must be ripped up through her clothes. You see the mechanism of this dagger. If it is pressed against a body, the blade retreats into the handle, as into a sheath. Everyone looking on will think that it is actually plunged into the flesh, whereas it has really sprung back into the hollow of the handle, leaving only this point exposed, which is just enough to slit the sham stomach, and the handle will be flush with the thing struck. When it is withdrawn from the wound, the blade leaps forth from its cavity in proportion as the hilt is raised and deceives the spectators just as when it was plunged in. They think that so much of it penetrated at the stroke as now springs out by its mechanism. This being so, the bandits cannot perceive the trick, for the sheepskin is hidden away. With the blow of the fake knife, the entrails will gush out and we will take them and sacrifice them on the altar. After that the bandits will not approach the body, and we will put it into the coffin. You heard the bandit-leader say a little while ago that you must give them some proof of your courage, so that you can now go to him and undertake this service as the proof required.” After these words I [Kleitophon] prayed, calling upon Zeus the god of strangers, remembering before him the common table at which we had eaten and our common shipwreck.
[Initiation customs of the cowherds explained]
22 . . . “So I [Satyros] set about making the preparations for our strategy, while Menelaos was just about to broach the subject of the sacrifice to the bandits, when the bandit-leader by the instigation of Providence anticipated him, saying: ‘It is a custom among us that fresh initiates into our form of worship should perform the sacred rites, particularly when there is an option of sacrificing a human being. It is time therefore to get yourself ready for tomorrow’s sacrifice, and your servant will have to be initiated at the same time as yourself.’ ‘Certainly,’ said Menelaos, ‘and we will try to show ourselves as good men as any of you [bandits]. But it must be our job to arrange the virgin in a way that is most convenient for the operation.’ ‘Yes,’ said the bandit-leader, ‘the victim is completely in your charge.’ We therefore dressed her up in the manner I have previously described, apart from the others, and told her to be of good courage. We went through all the details with her, telling her to stay inside the coffin, and even if she awoke early from sleep, to wait inside until day appeared. ‘If anything goes wrong with our polan,’ we said, ‘run away to the enemy camp.’ With these injunctions we led her out to the altar, and the rest you know.”
23 On hearing this story I felt almost out of my senses, and was utterly at a loss how I could make it up to Menelaus for his great favours for me. I adopted the most common form of gratitude: falling at his feet, embracing him, and worshipping him as a god, while my heart was inundated with joy. . . [sections omitted].
[Soldiers confront and defeat the cowherds, with an excursus on the Egyptian environment in which the cowherds live]
11 While this was going on, a messenger came from the satrap of Egypt, commanding the army to proceed. It appears as if the letter must have ordered the general to prepare to soon make battle, for he at once ordered all his men to arm themselves to engage with the cowherds. They therefore hurried quickly to their weapons and were soon in ready with their company-commanders. He then gave them the watchword, ordered them to encamp, and stayed where he was.
On the next morning at day-break he led them out against the enemy. Now the situation of the village held by the bandits was as follows: The Nile flows down in a single stream from Thebes of Egypt as far as Memphis. A little below this is a village (Kerkasoros is its name), at the end of the undivided body of the river. From that point it breaks up round the land, and three rivers are formed out of one; two streams discharge themselves on either side, while the middle one flows on in the same course as the unbroken river, and forms the Delta in between the two outer branches. None of these three channels reaches the sea in an unbroken state. Each branch splits up further in different directions as it reaches different cities. The resulting branches are all of them larger than the rivers of Greece. The water, although subdivided so many times, does not lose its utility, but is used for boats, for drinking, and for agricultural irrigation.
12 This great Nile is the centre of the [Egyptians’ but by implication here primarily the bandit cowherds’] existence: their river, their land, their sea, their lake. It is a strange sight to see close together the boat and the hoe, the oar and the plough, the rudder and the winnowing-fan, the meeting-place of sailors and farmers, of fish and oxen. Where you have sailed, there you sow. Where you sow, there is a sea subject to tillage. For the river has its due seasons, and the Egyptian sits and waits for it, counting the days. Nor does the Nile ever deceive; it is a river that keeps its appointments both in the times of its increase and the amount of water that it brings, a river that never allows itself to be convicted of being unpunctual. You may see a conflict between river and land: each struggles with the other, the water to make a sea of so wide an expanse of soil, and the soil to absorb so much fresh water. In the end it is a drawn battle, and neither of the two parties can be said to suffer defeat, for water and land are coextensive and identical.
About the pasturing areas of the cowherds previously mentioned there is always plenty of water standing. When it floods the land, it forms lakes, and these remain undiminished when the Nile goes down, full of water, and also of the water’s mud. The natives can either walk or row over them, but only in boats just large enough to contain a single passenger (the mud stops any passenger foreign to the locality). Theirs are small and light vessels, drawing very little water. If there is no water at all, the boatmen pick up their craft and carry it on their backs until they come to water again. In the middle of these lakes lie some islands dotted here and there. Some of them have no houses upon them, but are planted with papyrus, and the stems of it grow so close that there is only just room for a man to stand between them. Over the head of this thick jungle the leaves of the plant make a close covering. Bandits therefore can slip in there, make their plans, devise ambushes or lie hidden using the papyrus-plants as their fortifications. Others of the islands have cabins upon them, and present the appearance, the huts being closely packed together, of a town protected by water. These are the resorts of the bandits.
One of these resorts of the cowherds, larger than the others and with a greater number of cabins upon it, was called, I think, Nikochis. There, as their strongest fastness, they all collected, and took courage both from their numbers and the strength of the position. It was made a peninsula by a narrow causeway, a furlong in length and twelve fathoms broad, on either side of which the waters of the lake entirely surrounded the town. . . [sections omitted].
18. While all this was going on there came from the capital against the bandits a larger force, which settled their business and razed their town to the ground. The river freed from the cowherds’ violence, we proposed to sail to Alexandria. . . [remainder omitted].
Dio Cassius, Roman History (early third century CE)
Book 72 (epitome only)
4 Those called the “cowherds” (boukoloi) began a disturbance in Egypt. Under the leadership of one Isidoros, a priest, they caused the rest of the Egyptians to revolt [set about 171-172 CE in Dio’s narrative]. At first they had deceived the Roman centurion by wearing women’s clothes, causing the centurion to believe that they were women from among the cowherds and were going to give him gold as ransom for their husbands. They then struck the centurion down when he approached them. They also sacrificed his companion and after swearing an oath over his entrails, they devoured them. Isidoros surpassed all his contemporaries in bravery. Next, having conquered the Romans in Egypt in a pitched battle, they almost captured Alexandria as well. They would have succeeded if Cassius had not been sent against them from Syria. Cassius contrived to destroy their mutual accord and to separate them from one another (for because of their desperation as well as of their numbers he had not ventured to attack them while they were united). In this way, when they started to quarrel with one another, he subdued them.