Indian wisdom: Apuleius on the amazing naked philosophers and Pythagoras’ journeys (mid-second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Indian wisdom: Apuleius on the amazing naked philosophers and Pythagoras’ journeys (mid-second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 7, 2024,

Ancient author: Apuleius, Florida, or Flowers of Rhetoric 6 and 15 (link to Latin text; link to full translation).

Comments: Apuleius, who is best known for his novel on the adventures of Lucius in Metamorphoses, was from the Roman colony of Madaura in Numidia (Africa). There are two speech highlights that show Apuleius’ great interest in the notion of wise “barbarians,” particularly in connection with Egyptians and, more so, Indians. It is noteworthy that (at least in some contexts) Apuleius would self-identify as a Numidian and Gaetulian, as well as “barbarian” (link).

In the first speech below, which was likely delivered at Carthage in the 160s CE, Apuleius relates to his audience the wonders of India and argues that the most amazing thing of all is the extremely wise group of gymnosophists, literally naked philosophers, that are found there. The characterization of Indians as wise contrasts, of course, to his summary characterization of Judeans as “superstitious” (referring to a common perspective of the Roman elites, who contrasted such foreign customs, superstitio, to their own, “proper” upper-class Roman customs, religio). While one “barbarian” people can be readily dismissed, another (very distant one) can be placed on a pedestal as a model of wisdom. Philostratos’ novelistic story about Apollonios of Tyana (written a few decades after Apuleius’ speech) likewise places Indians at the top of a barbarian hierarchy of wisdom (link). The Judean Philo used this high respect for Indian wisdom as a means of boosting the position of a particular Judean group, the Essenes (link). Several other posts titled “Indian wisdom” (under the wise “barbarians” category) likewise deal with the gymnosophists.

In the second speech segment, Apuleius does a brief biographical sketch of Pythagoras of Samos that focusses on traditions concerning his education and his journeys to Babylonia (to learn from Chaldeans), Egypt, and India (to learn from the naked philosophers). While both traditions that Apuleius mentions  have Pythagoras travelling to “barbarian” lands to gain wisdom, one suggests this was forced migration (under Persian domination) and the other that he chose to do so. In the process, Apuleius portrays Plato as a student of Pythagoras and Apuleius imagines himself in this succession. Since Apuleius suggests the fundamental role of the wisdom of these other peoples to Pythagoras and at the same time suggests that Pythagoras invented “philosophy” (the pursuit of wisdom) itself, barbarian wisdom seems to end up being the origins of Greek philosophy in some ways here.


[Introduction to part of a speach placing Indians in relation to other eastern peoples]

6 India and the naked philosophers: India is a populous country of enormous size. It lies far to the east of us, close to the point where ocean turns back upon himself and the sun rises, on that verge where the last of lands and the first stars of heaven meet. It is situated far away beyond the learned Egyptians, beyond the superstitious Judeans (or: Jews) and the Nabatean merchants, beyond the Arsakids [i.e. Parthians] in their long flowing robes, the Itureans, to whom earth gives only a scanty harvest, and the Arabians, whose perfumes are their wealth.

[Amazing natural features of India]

Consequently, it is not that I am amazed so much about the great stores of ivory possessed by these Indians, their harvests of pepper, their exports of cinnamon, their finely-tempered steel, their mines of silver and their rivers of gold. I am amazed not so much that in the Ganges they have the greatest of all rivers which “Lord of all the waters of the East / Is cloven and parted in a hundred streams. / A hundred vales are his, a hundred mouths, / And hundred-fold the flood that meets the main.” Nor do I wonder that the Indians who live at the very portals of day are nonetheless the colour of night, nor that in their land giant snakes engage in combat with huge elephants, to the equal danger and the common destruction of each. For these snakes envelop and bind their prey in slippery coils so that they cannot disengage their feet nor in any way break the scaly fetters of these clinging snakes, but have to find vengeance by hurling their vast bulk to the ground and crushing the foe that grips them by the weight of their whole bodies.

[More amazing people of India: The class of naked philosophers]

But I want to speak about amazing things of men rather than of nature. For those who live in this land are divided into many classes (genera). There is one class (genus) whose sole skill lies in tending herds of oxen, which is why they are known as the oxherds. There are others who are cunning in bartering merchandise, others who are sturdy warriors in battle and have skill to fight at long range with arrows or hand to hand with swords. There is, further, one class that is especially remarkable. They are called “gymnosophists” (naked philosophers). At these I am amazed most of all. For they are skilled, but not in growing the vine, or grafting fruit-trees, or ploughing the soil. They do not know how to farm the fields, wash gold, break horses, tame bulls, or clip or feed sheep or goats.

What, then, is their claim to distinction? This: one thing they know outweighing all they know not. They honour wisdom one and all, the old that teach and the young that learn. Nor is there anything more commendable in them than that they hate that their minds should be lazy and idle. And so, when the table is set in its place, before the food is served, all the youths leave their homes and professions to flock to the banquet. The masters ask each one of them what good deed he has performed between the rising of the sun and the present hour. At that point one person tells how he has been chosen to arbitrate between two of his fellows, has healed their quarrel, reconciled their strife, dispelled their suspicions and made them friends instead of foes. Another person tells how he has obeyed some command of his parents, and another person relates some discovery that his meditations have brought him or some new knowledge won from another’s exposition. And so with the rest of them, they tell their story. He who can give no good reason for joining in the feast is thrown out of the door without food to go to his work.


[Discussion of the island of Samos as a context for considering the philosopher Pythagoras]

15 On the island of Samos and Pythagoras: Samos is a smaller island in the Ikarian sea [southeastern Aegean Sea], and lies over against Miletos [near Balat, Turkey] to the west, with only a small space of sea between them. In whichever direction you sail from this island, even if you do not hurry, you will be safe in harbour the next day. The land does not respond readily to the cultivation of grains, and it is waste of time to plough it. But the olive grows better in it, and those who grow vines or vegetables have no fault to find with it. Its farmers are entirely taken up with tilling the ground and the cultivation of trees, for it is from these rather than from cereals that Samos derives its wealth. The native population is numerous, and the island is visited by many foreigners. The capital town is unworthy of its reputation, but the abundant ruins of its walls testify to its former size.

[A statue that is not in fact Pythagoras described in detail]

It possesses, however, a temple of Juno [i.e. Hera in Greek terms] famous from remote antiquity: to reach it, if I remember correctly, one must follow the shore for not more than twenty stadium-lengths from the city. The treasury of the goddess is extraordinarily rich, containing great quantities of gold and silver in the form of platters, mirrors, cups, and all manner of utensils. There is also a great quantity of brass images of different kinds. These are of great antiquity, and remarkable for their workmanship. I may mention one of them in particular, a statue of Bathyllos standing in front of the altar; it was the gift of the tyrant Polykrates, and I think I have never seen anything more perfect. Some hold that it represents Pythagoras, but this opinion is incorrect. The statue represents a youth of remarkable beauty. His hair is parted evenly in the midst of his forehead and streams over either cheek. Behind his hair is longer and reaches down to his shoulders, covering the neck whose sheen one may detect between the tresses. The neck is plump, the jaws full, the cheeks fine, and there is a dimple in the middle of his chin. His pose is that of a player on the lyre. He is looking at the goddess, and has the appearance of one that sings, while his embroidered tunic streams to his very feet. He is belted in the Greek style, and a cloak covers either arm down to the wrists. The rest of the cloak hangs down in graceful folds. His lyre is fastened by an engraved belt, which holds it close to the body. His hands are delicate and taper. The left touches the strings with parted fingers, the right is in the attitude of one that plays and is approaching the lyre with the pick, as though ready to strike the string as soon as the voice ceases for a moment to sing. Meanwhile the song seems to pour forth from the delicate mouth, whose lips are half open for the effort. This statue may represent one of the youthful favourites of the tyrant Polykrates hymning his master’s love in Anakreontic strain. But it is far from likely that it is a statue of the philosopher Pythagoras. It is true he was a native of Samos, remarkable for his unusual beauty, and skilled beyond all men in harping and all manner of music, and living at the period when Polykrates was lord of Samos. But the philosopher was far from being a favourite of this tyrant.

[Different traditions on Pythagoras’ educational journeys to the Egyptians, Chaldeans, and Indian Brahmans]

In fact, Pythagoras fled secretly from the island at the very beginning of the tyrant’s reign. He had recently lost his father Mnesarchos. I read that his father was a skilful jeweller excelling in the carving of gems, though it was fame rather than wealth that he sought in the exercise of his art. There are some who assert that Pythagoras was about this time carried to Egypt among the captives of king Cambyses [of Persia, reigned ca. 530-522 BCE], and studied under the Magians of Persia, especially under Zoroaster the priest of all holy mysteries. Later they assert he was ransomed by a certain Gillos, king of Kroton [now Crotone, Italy].

However, the more generally accepted tradition asserts that it was of his own choice he went to study the wisdom of the Egyptians. There he was initiated by their priests into the mighty secrets of their ceremonies, passing all belief. There he learned numbers in all their amazing combinations, and the ingenious laws of geometry. Not content with these bodies of knowledge, he next approached the Chaldeans and the Brahmans, a category (gens; possibly implying descent group) of wise men who live in India. Among these Brahmans he sought out the naked philosophers (gymnosophists).

The Chaldeans taught him the lore of the stars, the fixed orbits of the wandering lords of heaven, and the influence of each on the births of men. Also they instructed him in the art of healing, and revealed to him remedies in the search for which men have lavished their wealth and wandered far by land and sea. But it was from the Brahmans that he derived the greater part of his philosophy, the arts of teaching the mind and exercising the body, the doctrines as to the parts of the soul and its various transmigrations, the knowledge of the torments and rewards ordained for each man, according to his deserts, in the world of the gods below.

[Pythagoras’ Greek teachers]

Further he had for his master Pherekydes, a native of the island of Syros [in the Aegean between southern Greece and Turkey] and the first who dared throw off the shackles of verse and write in the free style of unfettered prose. Pherekydes died of a horrible disease, for his flesh rotted and was devoured by lice. Pythagoras buried him with reverent care. He is said also to have studied the laws of nature under Anaximander of Miletos; to have followed the Cretan Epimenides, a famous prophet skilled also in rites of expiation, that he might learn from him; and, to have also followed Leodamas, the pupil of Kreophylos, the reputed guest and rival of the poet Homer.

[Pythagoras as inventor of “philosophy” and teacher]

Taught by so many sages, and having drained such deep and varied draughts of learning through all the world, and being moreover granted a vast intellect whose grandeur almost passes man’s understanding, he was the founder of the knowledge and the inventor of the name of “philosophy.” The first of all his lessons to his disciples was the lesson of silence. With him meditation was a necessary preliminary to wisdom, meditation set a bridle on all speech, robbed words, which poets style winged, of their pinions and restrained them within the white barrier of the teeth. This, I tell you, was for him the first axiom of wisdom, “Meditation is learning, speech is unlearning.” His disciples, however, did not refrain from speech all their lives, nor did their master impose lack of speaking on all for the same amount of time. For those of more solid character a brief term of silence was considered sufficient discipline; the more talkative were punished by exile from speech for as much as five years.

[Plato as a follower of Pythagoras]

I may add that my master Plato deviates little or not at all from the principles of this school, and in most of his utterances is a follower of Pythagoras. And that I too might win from my instructors the right to be called one of his followers. I have learned this double lesson in the course of my philosophical studies: to speak boldly when there is need of speech and gladly to be quiet when there is need of silence. As a result of this self-command, I think I may say that I have won from your predecessors no less praise for my seasonable silence than approval for the timeliness of my speech.


Source of the translation: H.E. Butler, The Apologia and Florida of Apuleius of Madaura (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909), public domain, slightly adapted by Harland.

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