Ethiopians: Herodotos on southern peoples at the ends of the earth (mid-fifth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Daniel Mitchell, 'Ethiopians: Herodotos on southern peoples at the ends of the earth (mid-fifth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified September 14, 2023,

Ancient author: Herodotos of Halikarnassos, Histories, or Inquiries, portions of books 2, 3, 4, 7 and 9 (link to Greek text and translation)

Comments (by Daniel Mitchell and Phil Harland): Writing about 420 BCE, Herodotos (also Latinized as Herodotus) of Halikarnassos in Karia (Caria) provides our earliest, substantial account of Ethiopian peoples and their customs from a Greek perspective. At this stage, the term “Ethiopians” (Aithiopes) itself is a Greek, etic or outsider category used to describe far-off peoples at the ends of the earth, and the term quite literally means “burnt-faced” (aithos [“burnt”] + ops [“face”]) people. However, since Homer (about three centuries before Herodotos) the far-off Ethiopians south of Egypt had often been imagined as an ideal society where food was in great abundance (see the legend of the “Table of the Sun” below) and where the gods of Olympos themselves would sometimes go for banquets alongside the “pious” Ethiopians. As James Romm points out (cited below), this was a reverse ethnocentrism of sorts, where those furthest from the current cultural centre were presented as superior in some important way.

In particular, Herodotos’ story about the interchange between the Persian king Cambyses and the Macrobian Ethiopian king (via ambassadors) is itself an assessment of which king and people is to be considered superior. The hubristic Persian king Cambyses’ lack of success precisely against the Macrobian (“long-lived”) Ethiopians and their king is what puts Cambyses in his place, so to speak. Yet even the Macrobian king admits other areas in which the Ethiopians are lacking (i.e. wine-making here). Herodotos idealizes these particular Ethiopians and proposes that, physically, they are the “most beautiful” people in existence (see 3.20, 114 below). It is important to notice that, although Herodotos does consider the Ethiopians dark-skinned (either 2.104 and 3.101) and wooly-haired, this is not a particularly important matter for him and he even says that many other peoples have such features. (While those such as Homer and Herodotos idealize the Ethiopians, this would not always remain the case. So, for instance, we find a very negative portrayal of Ethiopians as “cowards” in some writing on physical features and peoplehood: link).

So overall it is important to remember that Herodotos is describing a far-off, often idealized people about which few facts would be available, and that even the geographical location of such peoples is ambiguous. Nonetheless, Herodotos’ account is somewhat ambitious in covering ostensible Ethiopian geography, customs, rulers, and physical characteristics, including variations between the supposedly different Ethiopian peoples living to the south of Egypt and to the east of Egypt, respectively (see 7.70 below). Herodotos also deals with another legendary type of Ethiopians, the Troglodytes (Cave-dwellers) that recur in other Greek ethnographic writing (link [coming soon]).

Works consulted: S.F. Derbew, Untangling Blackness in Greek Antiquity (Cambridge, UK: CUP, 2022), pages 98-128; J.S. Romm, The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought (Princeton: PUP, 1992), especially pages 49-60 (link).

Source of the translation: A. D. Godley, Herodotus, 4 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920-25), public domain, adapted and modernized by Daniel Mitchell and Harland.


Book 2

[Peoples and geographical setting of Ethiopia]

29 From no other person could I learn anything [about the sources of the Nile], but the following is as much as I learned by the deepest inquiry that I could make, by my own travel and sight as far as the city of Elephantine, and beyond that by question and hearsay: South of Elephantine, as one travels inland, the land rises. Here one must pass with the boat roped on both sides as men harness an ox, and if the rope breaks the boat is carried away by the strength of the current. This part of the river is a four days’ journey by boat, and the Nile here is winding like the Maiander [in western Asia Minor / Turkey]. A distance of twelve schoinoi must be passed with the above method. After that you will come to a level plain, where there is an island in the Nile, called Tachompso.

The land south of Elephantine [i.e. an island in the southern Nile river, now opposite Aswan, Egypt] now begins to be inhabited by Ethiopians: half the population of the island are Ethiopians and half Egyptians. Near the island is a great lake, on whose shores live nomadic Ethiopians. After crossing this, you come to the stream of the Nile, which empties into this lake. (5) Then you disembark and journey along the river bank for forty days because there are sharp projecting rocks in the Nile and many reefs, through which no boat can pass. (6) Having traversed this part in forty days as I have said, you take boat again and so travel for twelve days until you come to a great city called Meroe [near Shendi, Sudan], which is said to be the capital of all Ethiopia. (7) The people of the place worship no other gods but Zeus and Dionysos [likely Ammon and Osiris]. These gods they greatly honour, and they have a place of divination sacred to Zeus. They send out armies whenever and wherever this god through his oracle commands them.

30 From this city you make a journey by water equal in distance to that by which you came from Elephantine to the capital city of Ethiopia, and you come to the land of the “deserters” (automoloi). These “deserters” are called “asmach,” which translates in Greek to: “those who stand on the left hand of the king.” (2) These people once revolted and joined themselves to the Ethiopians, numbering two hundred and forty thousand Egyptian men of fighting age. The reason was as follows: In the reign of Psammetichos [late seventh century BCE], there were watchposts at Elephantine facing Ethiopia, watchposts at Daphnai of Pelousion facing Arabia and Assyria, and watchposts at Marea facing Libya. . . . (3) Now the Egyptians had been on guard for three years, and no one came to relieve them. Therefore, after organizing themselves and finding common cause, they revolted from Psammetichos and went to Ethiopia. . . . (5) So they came to Ethiopia and gave themselves up to the king of the land, who rewarded them as follows: He told them to dispossess certain Ethiopians with whom he was feuding and to settle on their land. These Ethiopians then learned Egyptian customs and have become more civilized (hēmerōteroi) by learning the customs (ēthea) of the Egyptians. . . . [material omitted].

[Ammonians and their hybrid Egyptian-Ethiopian culture]

42 Everyone who has established a temple to the Zeus of Thebes or is from the Theban district sacrifice goats, but they will not touch sheep. (2) For no gods are worshipped in common by all Egyptians except for Isis and Osiris, who they say is Dionysos. These gods are worshipped by everyone alike. Those who have established a temple of Mendes or are from the Mendesian district sacrifice sheep, but they will not touch goats. (3) The Thebans and those people – who by the Theban example will not touch sheep – give the following reason for their custom: They say that Herakles wanted very much to see Zeus, but Zeus did not want to see him. Finally, when Herakles prayed to him, Zeus contrived of a device (4) to present himself to Herakles. After Zeus had flayed and beheaded a ram, he held before him the head and wore the fleece. It is from this that the Egyptian images of Zeus have a ram’s head.

On this point, the Ammonians who are colonists from Egypt and Ethiopia and who speak a hybrid language from the languages of both countries, imitate the Egyptians. (5) It was from this, I think, that the Ammonians got their name as well, for the Egyptians call Zeus “Ammon.” The Thebans then consider rams sacred for this reason and do not sacrifice them. (6) But one day a year, at the festival of Zeus, they cut in pieces and flay a single ram and put the fleece on the image of Zeus, as in the story. Then they bring an image of Herakles near to it. After doing this, all present at the temple mourn for the ram and then bury it in a sacred coffin. . . . [material omitted].

[Digression on the practice of circumcision, which the Ethiopians share with the Egyptians and Kolchians]

104 For it is plain to see that the Kolchians are Egyptians. What I say, I myself noticed before I heard it from others. When it occurred to me, I inquired of both peoples: the Kolchians [between the Black and Caspian seas] remembered the Egyptians better than the Egyptians remembered the Kolchians. (2) The Egyptians said that they considered the Kolchians part of Sesostris’ army. I myself guessed it, partly because they are dark-skinned (melagchrous) and woolly-haired (oulothrix), though that indeed counts for nothing since other peoples are as well. But my better proof was that the Kolchians, Egyptians and Ethiopians are the only peoples that have practised circumcision from the beginning.

The Phoenicians and the Syrians of Palestine themselves acknowledge that they learned the custom from the Egyptians, and the Syrians of the valleys of the Thermodon [Terme] river and the Parthenios, as well as their neighbours the Makronians, say that they learned it lately from the Kolchians. These are the only ones that circumcise, and it is seen that they do even as the Egyptians. But as to the Egyptians and Ethiopians themselves, I cannot say who learned it from the other. For it is clearly a very ancient custom. That the others learned it from interactions with Egypt I hold to be clearly proved by this: Phoenicians who interact with Greece cease to imitate the Egyptians in this matter and do not circumcise their children. . . . [material omitted].

[Inscriptions pertaining to Sesostris engraved with Egyptian and Ethiopian text in Ionia.  For the complete account of Sesostris, go to this link]

106 As to the pillars which Sesostris, king of Egypt, set up in the countries, most of them are no longer to be seen. But I myself saw them in the Palestine part of Syria, with the inscription I mentioned and the woman’s pudendum on them. Also there are in Ionia two figures​ of Sesostris carved in rock, one on the road from Ephesos to Phokaia, and the other on that from Sardis to Smyrna. In both places there is a man of a height of four cubits and a half cut in relief, with a spear in his right hand and a bow in his left, and the rest of his equipment. For it is both Egyptian and Ethiopian, and right across the breast from one shoulder to the other there is carven a writing in Egyptian sacred characters, saying: “I myself won this land with the might of my shoulders.” There is nothing here to show who he is and where he comes from, but it is shown elsewhere. Some of those who have seen these figures guess them to be Memnon, but they are wrong.

110 Sesostris was the only Egyptian king who also ruled Ethiopia. To commemorate his name, he set before the temple of Hephaistos two stone statues of himself and his wife, each thirty cubits high, and statues of his four sons, each of twenty cubits. . . . [material omitted].

[Ethiopian ruler of Egypt: Sabakos]

137 After him reigned a blind man called Anysis, of the town of that name. In his reign Egypt was invaded by Sabakos, king of Ethiopia, and a great army of Ethiopians. (2) The blind man fled to the marshes, and the Ethiopian ruled Egypt for fifty years, during which he distinguished himself for the following: (3) Sabakos would never put to death any Egyptian offender but sentenced all according to the severity of their offenses, to raise embankments in their native towns. Thus the towns came to stand yet higher than before; (4) for after first being built on embankments made by the excavators of the canals in the reign of Sesostris, they were yet further raised in the reign of the Ethiopian. (5) Of the towns in Egypt that were raised, in my opinion, Boubastis [Tell-Basta, Egypt] is especially prominent, where there is also a temple of Boubastis, a building most worthy of note. Other temples are greater and more costly, but none more pleasing to the eye than this. Boubastis is, in the Greek language, Artemis. . . [section omitted].

139 Now the departure of the Ethiopian Sabakos, they said, came about in this way. After seeing in a dream one who stood over him and urged him to gather together all the priests in Egypt and cut them in half, he fled from the land. (2) Seeing this vision, he said that he supposed it to be a manifestation sent to him by the gods so that he might commit sacrilege and so be punished by gods or men. He would not do so, but rather (he said) the time foretold for his rule over Egypt was now fulfilled, after which he was to leave. (3) For when he was still in Ethiopia, the oracles that are consulted by the people of that land told him that he was fated to reign fifty years over Egypt. Seeing that this time was now completed and that he was troubled by what he saw in his dream, Sabakos departed from Egypt of his own volition. . . . [material omitted].

[Ethiopian warriors in Egypt: Kalasirians (cf. 9.32 below)]

164 The Egyptians are divided into seven classes: priests, warriors, cattle-tenders, pig-tenders, merchants, interpreters, and ship navigators. This is how many classes there are, and each is named after its occupation. (2) The warriors are divided into Kalasirians (Kalasiries) and Hermotubians (Hermotubies), and they belong to the following districts, for all subdivisions in Egypt are made according to districts (nomes). 166 The Kalasirians are from the districts of Thebes, Boubastis, Aphthis, Tanis, Mendes, Sebennys, Athribis, Pharbaïthis, Thmuis, Onuphis, Anytis, Myekphoris. This last place is in an island opposite the city of Boubastis. (2) The Kalasirians are from all these districts. Their number at its greatest reached two-hundred and fifty thousand men. These people as well are not permitted to practise any trade but war, which is their hereditary calling. . .

168 The warriors were the only Egyptians, except the priests, who had special privileges. For each of them there was set apart an untaxed plot of twelve acres. This acre is a square of a hundred Egyptian cubits each way, the Egyptian cubit being equal to the Samian. These lands were set apart for all, it was never the same men who cultivated them, but each in turn [i.e. each twelve-acre plot was given to a new tenant every year]. A thousand Kalasirians and as many Hermotubians were the king’s annual bodyguard. Besides their alotted plot of land, these men each received a daily provision of roast grain five minai in measure, two minai of beef, and four cups of wine. These were the gifts received by each bodyguard.


Book 3

[Macrobian Ethiopians, the “Table of the Sun,” and the question of whether Persians or Long-lived Ethiopians were superior]

17 After this Cambyses [II, king of Persia, reigned 530-522 BCE] planned three expeditions against the Carthaginians (Karchedonians), Ammonians, and the Macrobian (makrobioi; “long-lived”) Ethiopians, who inhabit that part of Libya that is on the southern sea [Erythraian sea / Red Sea / Arabian Sea / Indian Ocean]. (2) After thinking about it, he decided to send his fleet against the Carthaginians and a division of his infantry against the Ammonians. Cambyses would first send spies to Ethiopia under the guise of men bringing gifts for the Ethiopian king in order to see whether a “Table of the Sun” truly existed, which is said to be among these Ethiopians, and to spy on everything else besides. 18 Now the “Table of the Sun” is said to be something of this kind: there is a meadow outside the city, filled with the boiled flesh of all four-footed things. Here the men of authority among the townsmen are careful to set out the meat during the night, and all day long anybody who wants to comes and feasts on the meat. These meats, say the people of the land, are always produced by the earth by itself. Such is the story of the Sun’s Table.

19 When Cambyses determined to send the spies, he sent for those Ichthyophagians (“Fish-eaters”) from the city of Elephantine who understood the Ethiopian language. . . 20 When the Fish-eaters arrived from Elephantine at Cambyses’ summons, he sent them to Ethiopia, giving them instruction both about what to say and about the gifts they were carrying, namely a red cloak, twisted gold necklace, bracelets, an alabaster box of incense and an earthenware jar of palm wine.

These Ethiopians, to whom Cambyses sent the Fish-eaters, are said to be the tallest and most beautiful of all men. (2) Their way of choosing kings, it is said, is different from that of all others as are all their laws. They decide who is worthy to be king based on who is the tallest and has strength fitting with this size.

21 When the Fish-eaters arrived among these men, they gave the gifts to their king and said: “Cambyses, the king of the Persians, wishing to become your friend and ally, sent us with orders to address ourselves to you, and he offers you as gifts these things which he enjoys using himself.” (2) But the Ethiopian, perceiving that they had come as spies, spoke to them in this way: “It is not because he values my friendship that the Persian King sends you with gifts, nor do you speak the truth (for you have come to spy on my realm). Nor is that man just because, if he was a just man, he would not have coveted a land other than his own and he would not have tried to lead people into slavery when they have not injured him. Now, give him this bow, and this message: (3) “The king of the Ethiopians offers this advice to the king of the Persians: When the Persians can draw a bow of this size as easily as I can, bring superior numbers to attack the Macrobian Ethiopians. However, until then he advises the king of the Persians to thank the gods who do not incite the sons of the Ethiopians to add other land to their own.’” 22 Speaking like this, he unstrung the bow and gave it to the men who had come. Then, taking the red cloak, he asked what it was and how it was made, and when the Fish-eaters told him the truth about the colour and the process of dyeing, he said that both the men and their garments were full of deceit. (2) Next he inquired about the twisted gold necklace and the bracelets, and when the Fish-eaters told him how they were made, the king smiled, and, thinking them to be restraints, said: “We have stronger chains than these.” (3) Thirdly he inquired about the incense, and when they described making and applying of it, he made the same reply as about the cloak. But when he came to the wine and asked about its making, he was vastly pleased with the drink, and asked further what food their king [Cambyses] ate, and what was the greatest age to which a Persian lived. (4) They told him their king ate bread, showing him how wheat grew, and they said that the full age to which a man might hope to live was eighty years. Then the Ethiopian said it was no wonder that they lived so few years, if they ate dung [i.e. grain fertilized by manure]. For they would not even have been able to live that many years unless they were refreshed by the drink. As he said this to the Fish-eaters, he pointed to the wine. In this respect he admitted that the Ethiopians were inferior to the Persians.

23 The Fish-eaters then in turn asked about the Ethiopian length of life and diet. The king said that most of them attained to a hundred and twenty years, and some even to more. Their food was boiled meat and their drink milk. (2) The spies were amazed at the tale of years. At this point, it is said, the king led the Fish-eaters to a spring, in which their skin became shiny after washing themselves as though water in the spring was made of oil. The water of the spring smelled like violets. (3) So light was this water, said the spies, that nothing would float on it: neither wood nor anything lighter than wood, and everything sank to the bottom. If this water is truly like they say, it is likely that the people live long because of their constant use of the water. (4) When they left the spring, the king led them to a prison where all the men were bound with restraints made of gold. Among these Ethiopians there is nothing so scarce and so precious as bronze. Then, having seen the prison, they saw what is called the “Table of the Sun”.

[Burial customs of the Macrobian Ethiopians]

24 Last after this, they viewed the Ethiopian coffins. These are said to be made of alabaster, as I will describe: (2) they cause the dead body to shrink, either as the Egyptians do or in some other fashion, then cover it with gypsum and paint it all as far as possible in the likeness of the living man. (3) Then they set the body within a hollow pillar of alabaster, which they dig in abundance from the ground, and it is easily worked. The body can be seen in the pillar through the alabaster, with no evil stench nor anything unpleasant emanating from it. This arrangement displays clearly all the body’s parts, as if it were the man himself. (4) The closest family members keep the pillar in their house for a year, giving it the first-fruits and offering it sacrifices. After this time, they bring the pillars out and set them round about the city. . . . [material omitted].

[Supposed physical characteristics shared between the Kallatian people of India and the Ethiopians]

[Extensive discussion of different Indian peoples omitted here, but go to this link (coming soon)] . . . 101 These Indians [i.e. Kallatians] of whom I speak have intercourse openly like cattle. Their colour is like the Ethiopians. Also, their semen is not white like other men’s, but black like the Ethiopians’ semen. These Indians dwell far away from the Persians southwards, and were not subjects of king Darius. . . . [material omitted].


Book 4

[Garamantians of Libya and the cave-dwelling Ethiopians, Troglodytes]

183 After ten days’ journey again from Augila [Awjila, Libya] there is yet another hill of salt and springs of water and many fruit-bearing palms, as at the other places. There is an exceedingly great people called Garamantians (Garamantes) here. They sow their seeds in soil that they place on top of salt. (2) The shortest path from these people to the territory of the Lotus-eaters (Lotophagoi) is a thirty-day journey. Among the Garamantians are the cattle that go backward as they graze because their horns curve forward. (3) Therefore, not being able to go forward, since the horns would stick in the ground, they walk backward grazing. Otherwise, they are like other cattle, except that their hide is thicker and harder to the touch. (4) These Garamantians hunt down the Troglodyte (Cave-dwelling) Ethiopians with four-horse chariots. For the Ethiopian Troglodytes are swifter on foot than any people known from tales. They live on snakes and lizards and similar creeping things. Their speech is like no other in the world: it is like the squeaking of bats. . . . [material omitted].

[Four populations of Libya: Libyans, Ethiopians, Phoenicians and Greeks]

197 These are all the Libyans whom we can name, and the majority of their kings cared nothing for the king of the Medes at the time of which I write, nor do they care for him now. (2) I have this much further to say of this land: four peoples and no more inhabit it (so far as we know), two of which are aboriginal and two of which are not. The Libyans in the north and the Ethiopians in the south of Libya are aboriginal. The Phoenicians and Greeks are later settlers.


Book 7

[Ethiopians in Xerxes’ Persian army: military equipment and appearance]

69 The Ethiopians were wrapped in skins of leopards and lions, and carried bows made of palmwood strips, no less than four cubits long [i.e. a long-bow, approximately the height of a body], and short arrows pointed not with iron but with a sharpened stone that they use to carve seals. Furthermore, they had spears pointed with a gazelle’s horn sharpened like a lance and also studded clubs. (2) When they went into battle they painted half their bodies with gypsum and the other half with vermilion. 70 The Ethiopians below Egypt and the Arabians had Arsames for their commander, while the Ethiopians of the east – for there were two kinds of Ethiopians in the army – served with the Indians [cf. 3.94, link]. They were not different in appearance from the others, only in their speech and hair: the Ethiopians from the east are straight-haired, while the ones from Libya have the woolliest hair of all peoples. (2) These Ethiopians of Asia were for the most part armed like the Indians, but they wore on their heads the skins of horses’ foreheads, stripped from the head with ears and mane. The mane served them for a crest, and they wore the horses’ ears stiff and upright. For shields they had bucklers made of the skin of cranes.

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