Scythian wisdom: Curtius Rufus on the Scythian elder’s speech about Alexander the bandit (first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Scythian wisdom: Curtius Rufus on the Scythian elder’s speech about Alexander the bandit (first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 28, 2023,

Ancient author: Quintus Curtius Rufus, History of Alexander 7.6-9 (link).

Comments: Very little is known about the author Quintus Curtius Rufus, and even his placement in the first century CE is uncertain. Nonetheless, his story about the adventures of Alexander of Macedon remains one of the more lively narratives about Alexander’s conquests. In this passage, Rufus reveals a somewhat unconventional approach to the characterization of Scythians in the form of a Scythian elder’s speech before Alexander. Rufus claims to be accurately copying some source for this speech.

This takes place when Alexander is on the verge of his conquest of the Scythians, poised on the east side of the river Tanais (thought to be the border between Asia and Europe). Rather than the usual savage portrayal of Scythians, the wise Scythian elder speaks of his own people in terms of their simplicity, their sense of duty (religio), and their essential trustworthiness (fides), more so than Greeks with their oaths. While a greedy Alexander comes against them as though they are stereotypical barbarian “bandits” (on which see some inscriptional evidence at this link), the Scythian elder offers a critique of empire and conquest and turns that label on the conqueror: “You are the bandit!” This relatively positive portrayal of Scythians has some affinities with Trogus (link).

Such characterizations of Alexander were not universally accepted, of course. Plutarch (ca. 120 CE) seems aware of legends like the one offered by Rufus. Plutarch attempts to counter them in Alexander’s defence: “For [Alexander] did not overrun Asia like a bandit (lēstrikōs), nor did he intend to rip it apart and take it away as if it were booty (harpagma) and plunder (laphyron) due to unexpected good fortune like Hannibal later approached Italy, the Trerians [a people in Thrace] approached Ionia, and the Scythians approached Media” (On the Fortune of Alexander 1.8).

Note: The comments and material configured here reflect a larger forthcoming article (and ultimately a book) by Philip A. Harland, “‘You are the bandit!’: Criminalizing Conquered Peoples, and Some Retorts.”

Source of the translation:  John C. Rolfe, Quintus Curtius [Rufus]: History of Alexander, 2 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1946), public domain (Rolfe passed away in 1943), adapted by Harland.


Book 7

[Context of Scythians’ sacking of Alexander’s new city on the Tanais]

6 But the king of the Scythians, whose rule at that time extended beyond the Tanais [Don] river, thinking that this city which the Macedonians had founded on the bank of the river was a yoke upon their necks, sent his brother, Karthasis by name, with a large force of cavalry to demolish it and drive off the Macedonian forces away from the river. The Tanais separates the Baktrians from the so-called European Scythians, and is also the boundary between Asia and Europe. But the Scythian descent group (gens) which is situated not far from Thrace extends from the east towards the north, and is not a neighbour of the Sarmatians, as some have believed, but a part of them. Then keeping straight on, this descent group inhabits the forest lying beyond the Danube, and borders the extremity of Asia at Baktra. They inhabit the parts which are nearer to the north, then dense forests and desert wastes meet them. Again, the parts which look towards the Tanais and Baktra in human cultivation are not unlike the first.

(5) Alexander, about to wage an unforeseen war with this descent group, when the enemy rode up in sight of him, although still ailing from his wound, and especially feeble of voice, which both moderation in food and the pain in his neck had weakened, ordered his friends to be called to a conference. It was not the enemy that alarmed him, but the unfavourable condition of the times; the Baktrians had revolted, the Scythians also were provoking him to battle, he himself could not stand on his feet, could not ride a horse, could not instruct nor encourage his men. Involved as he was in a double danger, accusing even the gods, he complained that he, whose swiftness no one had before been able to escape, was lying idle. Even his own men hardly believed that he was not feigning illness. Therefore he, who after vanquishing Darius had ceased to consult soothsayers and seers, lapsing again into superstition, that mocker of men’s minds, ordered Aristander, to whom he had consigned his faith, to examine by sacrifices into the outcome of his affairs. . . [omitted material].

[Positive relations with the just Abians among Scythians]

. . . (11-14) Then envoys of the Abians (Abii), who are Scythians, arrived, who had been free since the death of Cyrus and were then ready to submit to Alexander. They were commonly regarded as the most just of the barbarians [cf. Homer, Iliad 2.701, as also discussed by Strabo, Geographylink]. They abstained from warfare except in self-defence, and because of their moderate and impartial practice of freedom they had made the humblest equal to the chief men.

Having addressed them courteously, Alexander sent one of his friends, Derdas, to those Scythians who live in Europe. He was to command them not to cross the Tanais [Don] river without the king’s order. He charged the same messengers to assess the country and to visit those Scythians also who live above the Bosporos. He had chosen a site for founding a city on the bank of the Tanais, as a barrier both to those who had already been subdued and to those whom he had decided to attack later. But his design was put off by the reported revolt of the Sogdians, which also involved the Baktrians. These consisted of seven thousand horsemen, whose authority the rest followed. . . .

[Alexander of Macedon’s speech regarding the need to cross the Tanais and attack the Scythians]

7 . . . (9) Meanwhile the king [Alexander], while they were trying by inspection of the entrails of the victims to learn the result of hidden events, purposely called his friends to sit very near him, in order that he might not, by exerting his voice, break the scab of his wound, which was still tender. Hephaistion, Krateros, and Erigyios, with his body-guard, had been admitted to his tent. (10) Alexander said to them:

“Danger has surprised me at a time that is better for the enemy than for myself. But necessity outstrips calculation, especially in war, where a man is seldom allowed to choose his own times. The Baktrians have revolted, on whose necks we are standing, and are trying through a war waged by others to learn how much spirit we have. Our fortune is not doubtful. If we disregard the Scythians, who are attacking us without provocation, we will give those who have revolted something to be contemptuous about. If however we cross the Tanais [Don] river and show by the defeat and slaughter of the Scythians that we are everywhere invincible, who will hesitate to obey those who are even victors over Europe as well? A person would be mistaken if he measures our glory by the space which we are about to cross. A single river flows between us. If we cross that, we carry our arms into Europe. How highly would it be considered if, while subjugating Asia, we set up trophies in what might be called another world, and suddenly to join in one victory places which Nature seems to have separated by so great a space? (15) Yet – by Herakles – if we delay even a short time, the Scythians will be close behind us. Are we the only ones that can swim across rivers? Many inventions will recoil upon us by which we have so far been victorious. The fortune of war teaches its art even to those who are defeated. We have lately set them the example of crossing a river on skins. Even if the Scythians do not know how to imitate this, the Baktrians will teach them. Besides, only one army of this people (gens) has yet arrived, and the rest are expected. Hence by avoiding war, we will give the people strength, and in a war in which we can take the offensive we will be reduced to defence. The reasonableness of my plan is clear. But I doubt whether the Macedonians will allow me to use my judgement because, as the result of this wound which I have suffered, I have neither ridden nor gone on foot. But if you are willing to follow me, I am strong, my friends. I have sufficient strength to endure the dangers which I have suggested. Or, if the end of my life is already at hand, I ask in what exploit will I die more nobly?”

He spoke all this in a faltering voice, broken all the time and with difficulty to be heard by those who were beside him, when everyone began to deter the king from so rash a plan. In particular, Erigyios was unable by his influence to control Alexander’s obstinate purpose. So he tried to arouse Alexander’s superstition, which was the king’s weak point, by saying that even the gods opposed his plan, and that great danger threatened him, if he should cross the river. Erigyios, as he entered the king’s tent, had been met by Aristander, who told him that the signs of the victims had turned out unfavourable. Erigyios reported what he had learned from the seer to Alexander. Having silenced him, Alexander, confused, not by anger alone, but also by shame because the superstition which he had concealed was revealed, ordered Aristander to be summoned. When Aristander came, the king, gazing sternly at him, said:

“Not as king, but secretly as a private person, I ordered you to offer a sacrifice. Why did you announce what was portended by it to another rather than to me? Through your indiscretion Erigyios knew my private and secret affairs, and – by Herakles – I feel sure that he uses his own fear as an interpreter of the victim’s vitals. (25) But I give you, who know, a solemn warning to indicate to me personally what you have learned from those sacrifices, so that you may not be able to deny having said what you will tell me.”

Aristander stood pale and as if thunderstruck. Even though he lost his voice due to fear, he was also driven by fear to leave nothing out in case he should keep the king waiting. Aristander said: “I predicted that a contest of great, but not fruitless labour threatened, and it is not so much my art as affection for you that disturbs me. I see the weakness of your health, and I know how much depends on you alone. I fear that you cannot be equal to the present fortune.” The king ordered him to have confidence in his good fortune, saying that, just as at other times, the gods granted him glory. Then, as he was consulting with the same men as to what method they should use for crossing the river, Aristander appeared, declaring that at no other time had he seen more favourable entrails. They were especially very different from the previous ones that had made causes for anxiety appear; but now the sacrifice had turned out exceptionally favourable. . . [omitted material regarding suppression of Baktrian revolt].

[Macedonian preparation for attacking]

8 (1) But when he could no longer bear an expression which belied his feelings, he withdrew to his tent, which he had purposely placed on the bank of the river. There without witnesses, weighing his plans one by one, he spent the night sleepless, often raising the skins of the tent to look at the enemies’ fires, from which he could calculate how great their number of men was. And already daylight was at hand, when, putting on his chest armour he went out to the soldiers for the first time since the recent wound which he had suffered. So great was their veneration for the king, that his presence readily dispelled all thought of the danger which they dreaded. (5) Happy therefore and shedding tears of joy, they saluted him, and confidently demanded the battle which they had before refused. He announced that he was going to transport the cavalry and the phalanx on rafts, and he ordered the lighter-armed troops to swim, supported by inflated skins. The situation did not call for more words, nor could the king say more because of his illness. But the rafts were put together with such enthusiasm on the part of the soldiers, that within three days about twelve thousand were finished.

[Scythian envoys and the Scythian elder’s speech]

(8) They had already prepared everything for crossing when twenty envoys of the Scythians, according to the custom of their people (gens) riding through the camp on horseback, ordered that an announcement be made to the king that they desired to deliver a message to him. Being admitted to the tent and invited to be seated, they had fixed their eyes on the king’s face, because, I suppose, to those who estimated spirit by bodily stature the king’s moderate size seemed by no means equal to his reputation.

(10) However, the comprehension of the Scythians is not so rude and untrained as that of the rest of the barbarians. In fact, some of them are even said to be capable of philosophy, so far as a people that is always engaged in war is capable of such knowledge. For this reason, what they are reported to have said to the king is perhaps foreign to our customs and our orators, who have been allotted more cultivated times and intellects. But although their speech may be scorned, our accuracy should not be. And so we will report their words without change, just as they have been handed down to us. Well then, we have learned that one of them, the eldest, said:

“If the gods had willed that your bodily stature should be equal to your greed, the world would not contain you. With one hand you would touch the rising sun and with the other the setting sun. After reaching the latter, you would wish to know where the brilliance of so great a god [i.e. the Sun itself] hides itself. So also you desire what you cannot attain. From Europe you pass to Asia, from Asia you cross into Europe. Then, when you have subdued the whole human race, you will wage war with the woods and snow, with rivers and wild beasts. Don’t you know that massive trees take a long time to grow but are uprooted in a single hour? A person is a fool if he looks at their fruits but does not scan their height.”

(15) “Beware in case you fall with the very branches which you have grasped while you try to reach the top. Even the lion has sometimes been the food of the smallest of birds, and rust consumes iron. Nothing is so strong that it may not be in danger even from the weak. What have we done to you? We have never set foot in your lands. Aren’t those who live isolated in the woods allowed to be ignorant of who you are and where you came from? We cannot obey any man, nor do we desire to rule anyone. Just so you know the Scythian people: we have received as gifts a yoke of oxen and a plow, an arrow, a spear, and a bowl. These we use both with our friends and against our foes. We give grain to our friends, acquired by the labour of our oxen. We offer libations to the gods from the bowl. We attack our foes from a distance with the arrow and with the spear when close at hand. In this way we have conquered the king of Syria and later the kings of the Persians and the Medes, and a way was opened for us even into Egypt.”

“As for you, you proudly boast that you are coming to attack bandits (latrones). But to every people (omnium gentium) you have visited, you are the bandit! You have taken Lydia, you have seized Syria, you hold Persia, you have the Baktrians in your power, and you have aimed at India. Now you are stretching out your greedy and insatiable hands for our flocks. (20) What use do you have for riches which compels you to hunger for them? First of all men, through excess you have produced a hunger in which the more you have, the more eagerly you desire what you do not yet have. Does it not occur to you how long you are delaying around Baktra? While you are subduing the Baktrians, the Sogdians have begun to make war. For you victory is a source of war. No matter how far you surpass others in power and courage, the fact remains that no one is willing to tolerate a foreign master.”

“Only cross the Tanais river. You will find out how far the Scythians extend but you will never overtake them. Our poverty will be swifter than your army, which carries the pillage of so many peoples. Again, when you believe we are far away, you will see us in your camp. For we both attack and retreat with the same swiftness. I hear that the isolated life-style of the Scythians is made fun of even in Greek proverbs. Yet we seek after places that are deserted and free from human cultivation rather than cities and rich fields. Therefore hold your Fortune with tight hands. Fortune is slippery and cannot be held against her will. Good advice is revealed by the future rather than by the present. Put curbs upon your good fortune. (25) You will manage it more easily. Our people say that Fortune is without feet and that she has only hands and wings. When she stretches out her hands, grasp her wings also.”

“Finally, if you are a god, you should offer benefits to humankind, not strip people of those they have. But if you are a mortal man, always remember that you are what you are. It is foolish to remember those things which make you forget yourself. Those on whom you have not made war you will be able to use as friends. For friendship is strongest among equals, and those are regarded as equals who have not tested of one another’s strength. Do not believe that those whom you have conquered are your friends. There is no friendship between master and slave. Even in peace the laws of war are kept.”

“Do not think that the Scythians ratify a friendship by taking oath. They take oath by keeping faith. The oath is a caution of the Greeks, who jointly seal agreements and call upon the gods. Our sense of duty (religio) consists in trustworthiness (fides) itself. (30) Those who do not respect men deceive the gods. And you have no need for a friend whose goodwill you may doubt. Moreover, in us you will have guardians of both Asia and Europe. We border Baktra, except that the river Tanais is between us. Beyond the Tanais we inhabit lands extending to Thrace, and report says that the Macedonians border upon Thrace. Consider whether you want enemies or friends to be neighbours to your empire.”

So spoke the barbarian.

[Alexander’s armies attack]

9 (1) In reply the king Alexander responded that he would make use of his own fortune and of their advice, because he would follow his fortune, in which he had confidence, and the advice of those who persuaded him not to do anything rash and reckless. Having dismissed the envoys, he embarked his army on the rafts which he had prepared beforehand. . . . [omitted detailed description of the arrangements and the battle with victory for the Macedonians]. . . (16) This campaign by the fame of so opportune a victory completely subdued Asia, which in great part was revolting. (17) They had believed that the Scythians were invincible. After their defeat they confessed that no people would be a match for the Macedonians. Accordingly the Sakians sent envoys to promise that they would submit. The courage of the king had not influenced them more than his clemency towards the conquered Scythians. For he had sent back all the prisoners without a ransom. He did this in order to make it appear that his rivalry with the most warlike peoples reflected bravery and not blind rage. Therefore he received the envoys of the Sakians courteously. . . [remainder omitted].

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