Ethiopians: Agatharchides and Diodoros on lifestyles and diets in the extreme south (second-first centuries BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Ethiopians: Agatharchides and Diodoros on lifestyles and diets in the extreme south (second-first centuries BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified September 14, 2023,

Ancient authors: Agatharchides of Knidos (second century BCE), FGrHist 86 F51b-67b (link to FGrHist), as cited by Diodoros of Sicily (mid-first century BCE), Library of History 3.23-34 (link).

Comments: In this section, Diodoros of Sicily (mid-first century BCE) continues to draw on Agatharchides of Knidos’ (mid-second century BCE) discussion of Ethiopians and various peoples in the far south of the inhabited world, ending with a contrast between the nomad Troglodytes (Cave-dwellers) of the extreme south and the nomad Scythians of the extreme north. That final discussion underlines how important environmental determinism was for these authors: peoples and their characters directly reflect their environments. Throughout this section Agatharchides and Diodoros continue the theme of peoples’ lifestyles being almost entirely determined by their principal food from a given environment. The names of all peoples, therefore, contains their main food. Somewhat ironically, one or both of these authors anticipate a lack of belief about all these “amazing” things on the part of readers, but nonetheless aim to counter such skepticism simply by naming it.

Works consulted: S. Burstein, Agatharchides: On the Erythraean Sea (London: Hakluyt Society, 1989).

Source of the translations: C. H. Oldfather, Diodorus Sicilus: Library of History, volumes 1-6, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1935-1952), public domain (copyright not renewed, Oldfather passed away in 1954), adapted by Victoria Muccilli and Harland.


Book 3

[For Diodoros’ / Agatharchides’ preceding discussion of the “Fish-eaters” around the Arabian Sea, go to this link].

[Rhizophagians / Root-eaters]

23  Now that we have discussed the peoples who inhabit the coast from Babylonia to the Arabian gulf, we will describe the peoples (ethnē) who live next to them. For in the Ethiopia which lies above [south of] Egypt, the people of the Rhizophagians (Rhizophagoi; literally “Root-eaters”) dwell beside the river Asa [river Astabara in Photios’ reading of Agatharchides, likely modern Atbara in Sudan].​ For the barbarians here dig up the roots of the reeds which grow in the neighbouring marshes and then thoroughly wash them. After they have made them clean, they crush them with stones until the stuff is without lumps and glutinous. Then, moulding it into balls as large as can be held in the hand, they bake it in the sun and they live all their life long on this as their food. (2) Enjoying as they do the unfailing abundance of this food and living ever at peace with one another, they are nevertheless preyed upon by a lot of lions. For since the air around them is fiery hot, lions come out of the desert to them in search of shade and in some cases in pursuit of the smaller animals. Consequently it happens that when the Ethiopians come out of the marshy lands they are eaten by these beasts. They are unable to withstand the might of the lions since they have no help in the form of weapons. In fact, the Rhizophagians would have been utterly destroyed if nature had not provided them with an aid which acts entirely of itself. (3) For at the time of the rising of the dog-star [i.e. Sirius],​ whenever the air is unexpectedly calm, a huge swarm of mosquitoes comes to these regions that is beyond any swarms known to us.  While the human beings find refuge in the marshy pools and suffer no injury, all the lions run away from those regions because they not only suffer from their stings but are at the same time terrified by the sound of their humming.

[Spermatophagians / Seed-eaters]

24  Next to these people are the Hylophagians (Hylophagoi; literally “Wood-eaters”) and the Spermatophagians (Spermatophagoi; literally “Seed-eaters”) as they are called. The Spermatophagians gather the fruit as it falls in great abundance from the trees in the summer season and so find their nourishment without labour. However, during the rest of the year they subsist upon the most tender part of the plant which grows in the shady glens. For this plant, being naturally stiff and having a stem like a turnip (bounias) makes up for the lack of food.

[Hylophagians / Wood-eaters]

(2) The Hylophagians, however, setting out with children and wives in search of food, climb the trees and subsist off the tender branches. They climb so well, even to the highest branches, as a result of their ongoing practice that a man can hardly believe what they do: in fact, they leap from one tree to another like birds and make their way up the weakest branches without experiencing dangers. (3) For being in body unusually slender and light, whenever their feet slip they catch hold instead with their hands. If they happen to fall from a height they suffer no injury due to their light weight. And every juicy branch they chew so thoroughly with their teeth that their stomachs easily digest them. (4) These men go naked all their life, and since they consort with their women in common they likewise look upon their offspring as the common children of all. They fight with one another for the possession of certain places, arming themselves with clubs, with which they also keep off enemies, and they dismember whomsoever they have overcome. Most of them die from becoming exhausted by hunger, when cataracts form upon their eyes and the body is deprived of the necessary use of this  sensory organ.

[Kynegians / Hunters]

25  The next part of the country of the Ethiopians is occupied by the Kynegians (Kynēgoi),​ as they are called, who are moderate in number and lead a life in keeping with their name. For since their country is infested by wild beasts and is utterly worthless,​ and has few streams of spring water, they sleep in the trees from fear of the wild beasts. Early in the morning, they go with their weapons to the pools of water and there they hide in the woods and keep watch from their positions in the trees. (2) When the heat becomes intense, wild oxen, leopards and many other wild animals come to drink, and because of the excessive heat and their great thirst they greedily quaff the water until they are gorged. When the animals have become sluggish and scarcely able to move, the Ethiopians leap down from the trees and easily kill them with clubs hardened in the fire and with stones and arrows. (3) They hunt in this way in companies and eat the meat of their prey. Although once in a while they are themselves killed by the strongest animals, for the most part they still master by their cunning the superior strength of the wild animals. (4) Now if at any time they find a lack of animals in their hunt, they soak the skins of some which they had captured earlier and then hold them over a low fire. When they have singed off the hair, they divide the hides among themselves. So they satisfy their needs on food which has been forced upon them. They train their boys in shooting at a mark and give food only to those who hit it. Consequently, when they come to manhood, they are amazingly skilled in marksman­ship, being most excellently instructed by the pangs of hunger.


26  Far away from this country towards the parts to the west are Ethiopians known as Elephant-fighters (Elephantomachoi), who are hunters as well. For dwelling as they do in regions close together, they carefully observe the places where the elephants enter and their favourite resorts, watching them from the tallest trees. And when they are in herds, they do not attack them, since they would have no hope of success. Instead, they get the elephants as they go around individually, attacking them in an astonishingly daring manner. (2) For as the beast comes near the tree in which the watcher happens to be hidden, the moment it passes he seizes its tail with his hands and plants his feet against its left flank. He has an axe hanging from his shoulders, light enough that a blow may be struck with one hand and yet exceedingly sharp. Seizing this in his right hand, he hamstrings the elephant’s right leg, raining blows upon it and maintaining the position of his own body with his left hand. They are astonishingly quick in this task, since there is a contest between the man and the elephant for their very lives. All that is left to the hunter is either to get the better of the animal or to die himself, the situation not admitting another conclusion. (3) As for the beast which has been hamstrung, sometimes being unable to turn about because it is hard for it to move and sinking down on the place where it has been hurt, it falls to the ground and causes the death of the Ethiopian along with its own. This is because sometimes the elephant squeezes the man against a rock or tree, crushing the man with the elephant’s weight until it has killed him. (4) In some cases, however, the elephant in the extremity of its suffering is far from thinking of turning on its attacker. Instead, it flees across the plain until the man who has set his feet upon it, striking on the same place with his axe, has severed the tendons and paralyzed the beast. And as soon as the beast has fallen, they run together in companies, and cutting the flesh off the hind-quarters of the elephant while it is still alive, they hold a feast.

27  But some of the natives who live nearby hunt the elephants without exposing themselves to dangers, overcoming their strength by cunning. For it is the habit of this animal, whenever it has had its fill of grazing, to lie down to sleep. The elephant does this in a way that is different from all other four-footed animals. (2) It cannot bring its whole bulk to the ground by bending its knees, but leans against a tree in order to get the rest which comes from sleep.​ Consequently the tree, by reason of the frequent leaning against it by the animal, becomes both rubbed and covered with mud. Furthermore, the area around the tree shows both tracks and many signs, whereby the Ethiopians who search for such traces discover where the elephants take their rest. (3) Accordingly, when they come upon such a tree, they saw it near the ground until it requires only a little push to make it fall. At that point, after removing the traces of their own presence, they quickly depart in anticipation of the approach of the animal. Towards evening the elephant, filled with food, comes to his customary place. But as soon as he leans against the tree with his entire weight, he at once rolls to the ground along with the tree, and after his fall he remains there lying on his back the night through, since the nature of his body is not designed for getting up.​ (4) Then the Ethiopians who have sawn the tree gather at dawn, and when they have killed the animal without danger to themselves, they pitch their tents at the place and remain there until they have consumed the fallen animal.

[Strythophagians / Bird-Eaters, and Simians]

28  The parts west of these descent groups (genē) are inhabited by Ethiopians who are called Simians (Simoi; literally “Flat-nosed”), but those towards the south are held by the descent group of the Strythophagians (Struthophagoi; literally “Bird-eaters”).​ (2) For among them is found a kind of bird having a nature which is mingled with that of the land animal, and this explains the compound name it bears.​ This animal is not inferior in size to the largest deer and has been fashioned by nature with a long neck and a round body, which is covered with feathers. Its head is weak and small, but it has powerful thighs and legs and its foot is cloven [i.e. the ostrich]. (3) It is unable to fly in the air because of its weight, but it runs more swiftly than any other animal, barely touching the earth with the tips of its feet. Especially when the blasts of wind lifts its wings, it makes off like a ship under full sail. It defends itself against its pursuers by means of its feet, hurling, as if from a sling, in an astonishing manner, stones as large as can be held in the hand. (4) But when it is pursued when it is calm, its wings quickly collapse, it is unable to make use of the advantages given it by nature, and being easily overtaken it is made captive. (5) Since these animals are very populous beyond words, the barbarians devise every type of scheme to capture them. Moreover, since they are easily caught in large numbers, their meat is used for food and their skins for clothing and bedding. (6) But being constantly warred upon by the Ethiopians known as “Simians,” they are in daily peril from their attackers, and they use as defensive weapons the horns of gazelles. These horns, being large and sharp, are of great service and are found in abundance throughout the land by reason of the multitude of the animals which carry them.

[Akridophagians / Locust-eaters]

29  A short distance from the Strythophagians on the edge of the desert dwell the Akridophagians (Akridophagoi; literally “Locust-eaters”). These people are smaller than the rest, lean in body, and exceedingly dark. For among them in the spring season strong west and south-west winds drive out of the desert huge numbers of locusts of great and unusual size and with wings of an ugly, dirty colour. (2) From these locusts they have food in abundance all their life long, catching them in a manner peculiar to themselves. For along the border of their land a ravine of considerable depth and width extends over many stadium-lengths. They fill the ravine with wood from the forests, which is found in plenty in their land. And then, when the winds blow which we have mentioned and the clouds of the locusts approach, they divide among themselves the whole extent of the ravine and set fire to the brush in it. (3) Since a great volume of pungent smoke rises, the locusts, as they fly over the ravine, are choked by the pungency of the smoke and fall to the ground after they have flown through it only a short distance. As the destruction of them continues over several days, great heaps of them are raised up. Moreover, since the land contains a great amount of brine, all the people bring this to the heaps, after they have been gathered together, soak them to an appropriate degree with the brine and thus both give the locusts a palatable taste and make their storage free from rot and lasting for a long time.​ (4) Accordingly, the food of this people, at the moment and thereafter, consists of these animals for they possess no herds nor do they live near the sea nor do they have at hand any other resources.

They are very light in body and swift runners. They are also altogether short-lived, the oldest among them not exceeding forty years of age. (5) As for the manner in which they end their lives, not only is it astounding but extremely pitiful. For when old age draws near, winged lice breed in their bodies, which not only have an unusual form but are also savage and altogether disgusting. (6) The affliction begins on the belly and the breast and in a short time spreads over the whole body. The person who is affected in this way is at first irritated by a kind of itching and insists on scratching himself a bit. At this point, the disease offers some satisfaction combined with pain. But after this stage the lice, which have been continuously engendered more and more in the body, break out to the surface and there is a heavy discharge of a thin humour, the sting of which is quite unbearable. (7) Consequently the man who is in the grip of the disease violently lacerates himself with his nails, groaning and moaning deeply. And as his hands tear at his body, such a multitude of the vermin pours out that those who try to pick them off accomplish nothing, since they issue forth one after another, as from a kind of vessel that is pierced throughout with holes. And so these wretches end their lives in a dissolution of the body after this manner, a miserable fate, meeting with such a sudden reversal of fortune either by reason of the peculiar character of their food or because of the climate.

[Uninhabited land of spiders and scorpions]

30  Along the borders of this people stretches a country great in size and rich in its varied pasturage, but it is without inhabitants and altogether impossible for man to enter. Not that it has from the first never known a human descent group (genos), but in later times, as a result of an unseasonable abundance of rain, it brought forth a multitude of venomous spiders and scorpions. (2) For, as historians relate so great a multitude of these animals came to abound that, although human beings lived their to begin with by uniting to kill the natural enemy, they renounced both their ancestral land and their mode of life and fled from these regions [cf. Strabo, Geography 16.4.12; Pliny the Elder, Natural History 8.29; Aelian, On Animals 17.40]. This was because the multitude of spiders and scorpions could not be overcome and their bites brought swift death to their victims.

[Aside on other supposedly believable amazing things]

Nor is there any occasion to be surprised at this statement or to distrust it, since we have learned through trustworthy history of many things more astonishing than this which have taken place throughout all the inhabited world. (3) In Italy, for instance, such a multitude of field-mice was generated in the plains that they drove certain people out of their native country. In Media, birds, which came to abound beyond telling and made away with the seeds sown by the inhabitants, compelled them to remove into regions held by another people. And in the case of the Autariatians,​ as they are called, frogs were originally generated in the clouds. When the frogs fell upon the people instead of the usual rain, they forced them to leave their native homes and to flee for safety to the place where they now dwell. (4) In fact, who has not read in history, in connection with the “labours” which Herakles performed in order to win his immortality, the account of the one labour in the course of which he drove out of the Stymphalian lake the multitude of birds which had come to abound in it? Moreover, in Libya certain cities have become depopulated because a multitude of lions came out of the desert against them. Let these instances, then, suffice in reply to those who adopt a sceptical attitude towards histories because they recount what is astonishing. And now we will in turn pass on to what follows the subjects we have been treating.

[Kynamolgians / “Dog-milkers” / “Savages”]

31  The borders of the parts to the south are inhabited by men whom the Greeks call the Kynamolgians (Kynamolgoi; literally ​”Dog-milkers”) but who are known in the language of the barbarians who live near them as “Agrians” [i.e. “Savages”]. ​[Ktesias’ Indian Matters = FGrHist 3C1 688 F places such people in India, but they are here transferred to Ethiopia]. They wear great beards and maintain packs of savage dogs which serve to meet the needs of their life. (2) For from the time of the beginning of the summer solstice until mid-winter, Indian cattle in numbers beyond telling, resort to their country. The reason for this is uncertain. No man knows whether they are in flight because they are being attacked by a great number of carnivorous beasts, or because they are leaving their own regions by reason of a lack of food, or because of some other reversal of fortune which nature, that engenders all astonishing things, devises, but which the minds of men cannot comprehend. (3) However, since they do not have the strength by themselves to overcome the numbers of cattle, they let the dogs loose on them, and hunting them by means of the dogs they overcome a very great number of the animals. Regarding the beasts which they have taken, they eat some while fresh and some are packed in salt and stored. Furthermore, they hunt many other animals thanks to the courage of their dogs, and so maintain themselves by eating meat.

(4) Now the most distant descent groups (genē) who live to the south have indeed the forms of men but their life is like that of the beasts. However, it remains for us to discuss two peoples (ethnē), the Ethiopians and the Troglodytes. But about the Ethiopians we have written in other connections, and so we will now speak of the Troglodytes.

[Troglodytes / “Cave-dwellers” and nomads]

32  The Troglodytes (Troglodytai; literally “Cave-dwellers”) are called “nomads” by the Greeks since they live a nomadic life based on their flocks. Each group of them has its tyrant. They hold both their women and their children in common, with the single exception of the wife of the tyrant. But if any man has sex with this woman the ruler fines him a specified number of sheep. (2) At the time of the etesian winds, when there are heavy rains in their country, they live off blood and milk which they mix together and seethe for a short while. But after this season the pasturage is withered by the excessive heat, and they retreat into the marshy places and fight with each other for the pasturage of the land.

(3) They eat the older animals of the flocks and such as are growing sick and maintain themselves on them at all times. Consequently they give the name of parents to no human being, but rather to a bull and a cow and also to a ram and a sheep. They call these animals their “fathers” or their “mothers” because they always secure their daily food from them, and not from their human parents. The common people make use of juice from the buckthorn plant as a drink, but for the rulers there is prepared from a certain flower a beverage like the worst of our sweet new wines. Following after their herds and flocks they move around from one place to the next, avoiding any stay in the same regions. (4) They are all naked except for the loins, which they cover with skins. Moreover, all the Troglodytes are circumcised like the Egyptians with the exception of those who, because of what they have experienced, are called Kolobians (Koloboi) [i.e. mutilated ones], for these alone of all who live inside the Straits​ have in infancy all that part cut completely off with the razor which among other peoples merely suffers circumcision.

[Burial customs]

33  As for the weapons of the Troglodytes, those who are designated “Megabarians” (Megabaroi) have round shields covered with raw ox-hide and a club with iron knobs, but the rest of them have bows and arrows and lances. Again, the burials practised by them differ entirely from all others. (2) For after binding the bodies of the dead with branches of buckthorn they tie the neck to the legs. Then, placing the corpse upon a mound, they cast at it stones as large as can be held in the hand, having a good time all the while, until they have built up a heap of stones and have hidden the bodies from sight. Finally they set up a goat’s horn on the heap and separate, having shown no fellow-feeling for the dead.

[Fighting techniques]

(3) Unlike the Greeks, they do not fight with one another for possession of land or because of some alleged misdeeds, but for pasturage whenever it is needed. In their quarrels they at first hurl stones at each other, until some are wounded, and the rest of the time they resort to the struggle with bows and arrows. Almost immediately many die because they are accurate shooters due to their practice in archery and because the object at which they are aiming has no protective armour. (4) The fighting is terminated by the older women, who rush into the fray and offer themselves as a protection to the fighters, and are the object of respect. It is a custom with these people that they will in no way strike any of these women, and so at their appearance they cease shooting.

[Supposed customs of suicide]

(5) Those who can no longer accompany the flocks by reason of old age bind the tail of an ox about their own necks and so put an end to their lives of their own free will. And if a man postpones his death, anyone who wishes has the authority to fasten the noose around his neck, as an act of good-will and, after admonishing the man, to take his life. (6) Likewise it is a custom of theirs to remove from life those who have become maimed or are in the grip of incurable diseases. For they consider it to be the greatest disgrace for a man to cling to life when he is unable to accomplish anything worth living for. Consequently, a man can see every Troglodyte sound in body and of vigorous age, since no one of them lives beyond sixty years.

[Theory of contrasting climates of the southern Troglodytes and the northern Scythians – both nomads]

(7) But we have said enough about the Troglodytes. Now if any reader distrusts our histories because of what is strange and astonishing in the different manners of life which we have described, when he has considered and compared the climate of Scythia [i.e. furthest north] and that of the Troglodyte country [i.e. the furthest south Agatharchides goes] and has observed the differences between them, he will not distrust what has been here related.

34  So great, for instance, is the contrast between our climate [in Sicily and or Greece] and the climates which we have described that the difference, when considered in detail, is beyond belief. (2) For example, there are countries where, because of the excessive cold, the greatest rivers are frozen over, the ice sustaining the crossing of armies and the passage of heavily laden wagons, the wine and all other juices freeze so that they must be cut with knives. What is even more wonderful still is that the extremities of human beings fall off when rubbed by the clothing, their eyes are blinded, fire furnishes no protection, even bronze statues are cracked open. Furthermore, at certain seasons, they say, the clouds are so thick that in those regions there is neither lightning nor thunder. Many other things, more astonishing than these, also happen, which are unbelievable to anyone who is ignorant about them, but cannot be endured by anyone who has actually experienced them.

(3) But at the furthest bounds of Egypt and the Troglodyte country, because of the excessive heat from the sun at midday, men who are standing side by side are unable even to see one another by reason of the thickness of the air as it is condensed. As well, no one can walk around without shoes, since blisters appear at once on any who go barefoot. (4) Unless they have the necesary water on hand to drink, they quickly die because the heat swiftly exhausts the natural moistures in the body. Moreover, whenever any man puts any food into a bronze vessel along with water and sets it in the sun, it quickly boils without fire or wood.

(5) Nevertheless, the inhabitants of both the lands which we have mentioned [i.e. lands of Scythians and Troglodytes] are​ far from desiring to escape from the excessive hardships which happen to them. On the contrary, they actually give up their lives of their own accord simply to avoid being forced to get used to a different diet and way of life. (6) Thus it is that every country to which a man has grown accustomed holds a kind of spell of its own over him, and the length of time which he has spent there from infancy overcomes the hardship which he experiences from its climate.

(7) Yet countries so different in both ways​ are separated by no great interval of space. For from Maiotis lake [Sea of Azof], near which certain Scythians live, living in the midst of frost and excessive cold, many sailors of merchant vessels, running before a favourable wind, have made Rhodes in ten days, from which they have reached Alexandria in four. From Alexandria many men, sailing by way of the Nile,​ have reached Ethiopia in ten days. So from the coldest parts of the inhabited world to its warmest parts the sailing time is not more than twenty-four days, if the journey is made without a break. (8) Consequently, with the difference in climates being so great in such a short interval, it is not surprising that both the diet and the ways of life as well as the bodies of the inhabitants should be very different from what is most common among us.

Leave a comment or correction

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *