Baktrians, Sogdians, and some “completely barbarous” eastern peoples: Strabo (early first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Baktrians, Sogdians, and some “completely barbarous” eastern peoples: Strabo (early first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 29, 2024,

Ancient author: Onesikritos of Astypalaia / Aigina (fourth century BCE), FGrHist 134 F5, as discussed in Strabo, Geography 11.10-11 (link).

Comments: After dealing with the Parthians south of the Caspian Sea, Strabo moves further east again, dealing especially with the Sogdians and Baktrians (on which also see Trogus at this link). Strabo is dealing with areas that would now be in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan. This also takes him into what is now Pakistan and India as well, since the Greco-Baktrian kings are reputed to reach that area.

Strabo is somewhat restrained in describing the peoples in these areas, even hesitating about accepting the reports of Onesikritos of Astypalaia, a contemporary of Alexander. Yet he nonetheless finishes the whole section by documenting the extreme customs (consumption of human flesh among them) of “completely barbarous” peoples in these far eastern places. The rhetoric leaves the reader unsure of whether Strabo believes these supposed marvels.

Works consulted: Duane W. Roller, A Historical and Topographical Guide to the Geography of Strabo (Cambridge: CUP, 2018).


[For Strabo’s preceding discussion on Parthians, go to this link].

Book 11

[Land of the Arians and Margianians]

10 (1) Aria [southeast of the Caspian Sea] and Margiana [near Merv, Turkmenistan] are the most powerful districts in this part of Asia. These districts are in part surrounded by mountains and in part have plains where people live. Now the mountains are occupied by tent-dwellers (skēnitai), and the plains are intersected by rivers that irrigate them, partly by the Arios river [Hari, in Afghanistan] and partly by the Margos river [Morghab, in Turkmenistan]. Aria borders on Margiana and . . . [unintelligle sentence likely with missing words] . . . Baktria. It is about six thousand stadium-lengths away from Hyrkania. And Drangiana, as far as Karmania, was joined with Aria in the payment of tribute. For the most part, Drangiana lies below the southern parts of the mountains, though some parts of it approach the northern region opposite Aria. But Arachosia is also not far away as this country also lies below the southern parts of the mountains and extending as far as the Indus river, being a part of Ariana. The length of Aria is about two thousand stadium-lengths, and the width of the plain about three hundred. Its cities are Artakaena, Alexandreia, and Achaia, all named after their founders. The land is exceedingly productive of wine, which keeps good for three generations in vessels not smeared with pitch.

(2) Margiana is similar to this country, although its plain is surrounded by deserts. Admiring its fertility, Antiochos Soter [reigning as Seleukid king ca. 281-261 BCE] enclosed a circuit of fifteen hundred stadium-lengths with a wall and founded a city Antiocheia. The soil of the country is well suited to the vine. At any rate, they say that a stock of the vine is often found which would be the equivalent of the circumference of two men together, and that the bunches of grapes are two cubits in size.

[Baktrians and the kings’ reach into what is now Pakistan and India]

11 (1) As for Baktria (or: Bactria), a part of it lies alongside Aria towards the north, though most of it lies above Aria and to the east of it. And much of it produces everything except oil. The Greeks who caused Baktria to revolt grew so powerful on account of the fertility of the country that they became masters not only of Ariana but also of India, as Apollodoros of Artemita says. More peoples were subdued by them [Greco-Baktrians] than by Alexander. In particular, there is the case of Menandros [perhaps reigning ca. 155-130 BCE], at least if he actually crossed the Hypanis towards the east and advanced as far as the Imaos mountains [including Hindu Kush and Pamir]. For some were subdued by him personally and others [earlier] by Demetrios, the son of Euthydemos the king of the Baktrians. And they took possession not only of Patalena [likely Sindh, Pakistan], but also of what is called the kingdom of Saraostos [Surashtra, India] and Sigerdis along the rest of the coast. In short, Apollodoros says that Baktriana is the ornament of Ariana as a whole, and, more than that, they extended their empire even as far as the Serians and the Phrynians [i.e. peoples further east].

(2) Their cities were Baktra [Balkh, Afghanistan] (also called Zariaspa, through which flows a river bearing the same name and emptying into the Oxos), Darapsa, and several others. Among these was Eukratidia [west of Baktra], which was named after its ruler. The Greeks took possession of it and divided it into satrapies, of which the satrapy Turioua and that of Aspionos were taken away from Eukratides by the Parthians. And they also held Sogdiana, situated above Baktriana towards the east between the Oxos river (which forms the boundary between the Baktrians and the Sogdians) and the Iaxartes [Syr] river [i.e. the boundary was around what is now southwestern Kazakhstan near the border with Uzbekistan]. The Iaxartes also forms the boundary between the Sogdians and the nomads.

[Customs of the peoples, and Strabo’s doubts about his source, Onesikritos]

(3) Now in early times the Sogdians and Baktrians did not differ much from the nomads in their modes of life and customs, although the Baktrians were a little more civilized. However, Onesikritos [contemporary of Alexander of Macedon], following his usual tendency, does not report their best traits. For instance, he claims that those who have become helpless because of old age or sickness are thrown out alive as prey to dogs kept expressly for this purpose, and that the dogs are called “undertakers” in the native language. He claims that while the land outside the walls of the metropolis of the Baktrians looks clean, most of the land inside the walls is full of human bones. But he claims that Alexander ended that custom.

The reports about the Kaspians (or: Caspians) are similar, for instance, that when parents live beyond seventy years they are shut in and starved to death. Now this latter custom is more tolerable and it is similar to that of the Keians, although it is of Scythian origin. That of the Baktrians, however, is much more like that of the Scythians. And so, if it was proper to be in doubt as to the facts at the time when Alexander was finding such customs there, what should one say as to what sort of customs were probably in vogue among them in the time of the earliest Persian rulers and the still earlier rulers?

[Alexander among Baktrians and Sogdians]

(4) Be this as it may, they say that Alexander founded eight cities in Baktriana and Sogdiana, and that he razed certain cities to the ground, among which was Kariatai in Baktriana, in which Kallisthenes was seized and imprisoned, and Marakanda [Samarakand, Uzbekistan] and Cyra in Sogdiana. Cyra was the last city founded by Cyrus and was situated on the Iaxartes river, which was the boundary of the Persian empire. They also say that, although this settlement was fond of Cyrus, he razed it to the ground because of its frequent revolts. They say that through a betrayal he took two strongly fortified rocks, one in Baktria (that of Sisimithres, where Oxyartes kept his daughter Rhoxana) and the other in Sogdiana (that of Oxos, though some call it the rock of Ariamazes). Now writers report that the fortification of Sisimithres is fifteen stadium-lengths in height and eighty in circuit. On top it is level and has a fertile soil which can support five hundred men. They say that it was here that Alexander met with sumptuous hospitality and married Rhoxana, the daughter of Oxyartes. But the rock in Sogdiana, they say, is twice as high as that in Baktriana. And near these places, they say, Alexander destroyed also the city of the Branchidai [Didyma], whom Xerxes had settled there — these were people who voluntarily accompanied him from their home-land — because of the fact that they had betrayed to him the riches and treasures of the god at Didyma. Alexander destroyed the city, they add, because he abominated the sacrilege and the betrayal. . . [omitted section on rivers].

[Peoples as far as Sogdiana]

(6) Now the peoples (ethnē) one encounters in going from Hyrkania towards the rising sun as far as Sogdiana became known at first to the Persians (I mean the peoples inside the Tauros range) and afterwards to the Macedonians and to the Parthians. The peoples situated on the far side of those peoples and in a straight line with them are supposed, from their identity in kind, to be Scythians. However, no expeditions have been made against them that I know of, any more than against the most northerly of the nomads. Now Alexander did attempt to lead an expedition against these peoples when he was in pursuit of Bessos and Spitamenes. However, when Bessos was captured alive and brought back, and Spitamenes was killed by the barbarians, he desisted from his undertaking. It is not generally agreed that persons have sailed around from India to Hyrkania, but Patrokles states that it is possible.

(7) It is said that the last part of the Tauros mountains, which is called Imaios mountain and borders on the Indian sea [eastern Himilayas], neither extends eastwards farther than India nor into it. . . [geographic details and measurements omitted].

[Customs of completely barbarous peoples, including consumption of human flesh: Derbikians, Siginnians, Tapyrians]

(8) I must also mention some strange customs, everywhere talked about, of the completely barbarous peoples. For instance, the peoples round the Kaukasus [Caucasus] and the mountainous country in general. What Euripides refers to is said to be a custom among some of them: “to lament the new‑born babe, in view of all the sorrows it will meet in life, but on the other hand to carry forth from their homes with joy and benedictions those who are dead and at rest from their troubles” [Euripides, Kresphontes].

And it is said to be a custom among others to put to death none of the greatest criminals, but only to cast them and their children out of their borders. That is a custom contrary to that of the Derbikians, for these slaughter people even for slight offences. The Derbikians worship Mother Earth, and they do not sacrifice or eat anything that is female. When men become over seventy years of age they are slaughtered, and their flesh is consumed by their nearest of kin, but their old women are strangled and then buried. However, the men who die under seventy years of age are not eaten, but only buried.

The Siginnians imitate the Persians in all their customs, except that they use ponies that are small and shaggy. Though unable to carry a horseman, these ponies are yoked together in a four-horse team and are driven by women trained from childhood. And the woman who drives best cohabits with whomever she wishes. Others are said to practise making their heads appear as long as possible and making their foreheads project beyond their chins.

It is a custom of the Tapyrians for the men to dress in black and wear their hair long, and for the women to dress in white and wear their hair short. They live between the Derbikians and the Hyrkanians. And he who is adjudged the bravest marries whomever he wishes.

The Kaspians [people somewhere on the Caspian Sea] starve to death those who are over seventy years of age and place their bodies out in the desert. Then they keep watch from a distance, and if they see them dragged by birds from the structure that holds their bodies, they consider them fortunate. If they are taken by wild beasts or dogs, they are considered less fortunate. But if they are taken by nothing, they consider them cursed by fortune.

[For Strabo’s subsequent discussion of “bandit peoples” in the Zagros mountains and Medes, go to this link]


Source of translation: H.L. Jones, Strabo, 8 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1917-28), public domain (passed away in 1932), adapted by Harland.

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