Mediterranean peoples: Pomponius Mela on peoples of the known world (mid-first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Mediterranean peoples: Pomponius Mela on peoples of the known world (mid-first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 18, 2024,

Ancient authors: Pomponius Mela, Description of Lands / Chorographia, selections (link to Latin text; link to full translation)

Comments: Written in the mid-first century CE, Pomponius Mela’s Chronography or Description of Lands is among the most extensive works in Latin dealing with peoples of the inhabited world generally. Mela is just about as concerned about geographical features as he is about peoples. He divides the known world into the somewhat traditional, Greek three compartments of Asia, Europe, and Africa (or Libya).

The entire work can be read for free via the Hathitrust website (link), but the selections below focus specifically on passages where various peoples are discussed. Many of Mela’s likely sources are those on this website, but he rarely names his sources with the exception of Hanno and Eudoxos. Mela, like others, is very much attracted to the more sensational side of things, and so here we find some fantastic peoples or peoples engaged in human sacrifice, cannibalistic rituals, and unusual sexual practices, for instance. However, Mela’s somewhat dry delivery of apparently amazing things makes the sensational seem run-of-the-mill in certain ways. He rarely pauses to moralize about the whole thing, except to say that this or that people are savages. Even though he doesn’t go into great detail, there are some notable passages on customs of peoples along the way.


Book 1


(1) A description of the known world is what I [Pomponius Mela] set out to give, a difficult task and one hardly suited to eloquence, since it consists chiefly in names of peoples and places and in their fairly puzzling arrangement. To trace this arrangement completely is a time-consuming, rather than a welcome, subject, but nevertheless a very worthwhile thing to consider and understand. It rewards the effort of those who give it attention — at least by the very act of contemplating it, if not by the richness of this supplicant’s natural talent. (2) I should, however, say more elsewhere and with greater preciseness. Now let me address the things that are most unambiguous, as they all certainly will be, even in a summary treatment. To start with, in fact, let me untangle what the shape of the whole is . . . [omitted several sentences].

[Shape of the known world]

(3) Whatever all this is, therefore, on which we have bestowed the name of world and sky, it is a single unity and embraces itself and all things with a single ambit. It differs in its parts. Where the sun rises is designated formally as east or sunrise; where it sinks, as west or sunset; where it begins its descent, south; and, in the opposite direction, north.

(4) In the middle of this unity the uplifted earth is encircled on all sides by the sea. In the same way, the earth also is divided from east to west into two halves, which they term hemispheres, and it is differentiated by five horizontal zones. Heat makes the middle zone unlivable, and cold does so to the outermost ones. The remaining two habitable zones have the same annual seasons, but not at the same time. The inhabitants of the southern zone (antichthones) inhabit one, we the other. The chorography [literally: writing or describing the country or land] of the former zone is unknown because of the heat of the intervening expanse, and the chorography of the latter is now to be described. . . [omitted initial introduction to the notion of three continents, including the geographical shape of Asia].

[1. Initial overview of Peoples of Asia]

. . . (11) We are told that the first humans in Asia, starting from the east, are the Indians, the Serians (Seres) [i.e. silk-dealing peoples, Chinese], and the Scythians. The Serians inhabit more or less the middle of the eastern part. The Indians and the Scythians inhabit the extremities, both covering a broad expanse and spreading to the ocean not at this point only. For the Indians also look south and for a long time have been occupying the shore of the Indian ocean with continuous peoples (gentes), except insofar as the heat makes it uninhabitable. The Scythians look north too, and they possess the littoral of the Scythian ocean all the way to the Caspian gulf, except where they are forestalled by the cold.

(12) Next to the Indians is Ariane, then Aria and Cedrosis and Persis up to the Persian gulf. The Persian peoples surround this gulf; the Arabians surround the other one named earlier. After these peoples, what remains up to Africa belongs to the Ethiopians. In the former place the Caspians (Caspiani), next to the Scythians, surround the Caspian gulf. Beyond them, the Amazons are said to be found, and beyond them, the Hyperboreans.

(13) Many different peoples inhabit the interior of the land. The Gandarians, Parianians, Baktrians, Sogdians, Pharmacotrophians, Chomarians, Choamanians, Propanisadians, and Dahians are found beyond the Scythians and the Scythian deserts. On the shores of the Caspian gulf are found the Komarians, Massagetians, Kadousians, Hyrkanians, and Hiberians. Beyond the Amazons and Hyperboreans are found the Kimmerians, Kissiantians, Achaians, Georgians, Moschians, Kerketians, Phoristians, and Arimphaians. Where its expanse protrudes into our seas are found the Matianians, Tibaranians, and – better-known names – the Medes, Armenians, Commagenes, Murimenians, Enetians, Cappadocians, Gallo-Greeks, Lykaonians, Phrygians, Pisidians, Isaurians, Lydians, and Syro-Cilicians.

(14) Again, of these latter peoples that face south, the same ones that hold the interior hold the shores all the way to the Persian gulf. Beyond the Caspian gulf are the Parthians and Assyrians, beyond the Persian gulf are the Babylonians, and beyond the Ethiopians are the Egyptians. The Egyptians likewise possess the lands adjacent to the banks of the Nile river and our sea. Then Arabia, with its narrow coastline, is contiguous with the shores that follow. From there, as far as that bend we described above, is Syria. On that very bend is Cilicia, but, in addition, Lycia and Pamphylia, Caria, Ionia, Aiolis, and the Troad all the way up to the Hellespont. From there the Bithynians are found up to the Thracian Bosporos. Around the Pontos [Black Sea] are a number of peoples, with one boundary or another, but all with one name, the Pontikians. Beside the lake Maiotis are found the Maiotikiansi; beside the Tanais are the Sauromatians.

[2. Initial overview of peoples of Europe]

(15) For terminal points Europe has the Tanais [Don River], the Maiotis [Sea of Azov], and the Pontos [Black Sea] in the east; in the west the Atlantic; to the north the Britannic ocean. . . [omitted geographical descriptions of the shape of Europe]. (18) The first people, from the Tanais more or less to the middle of the Pontic littoral, is Scythia (not the one already mentioned). From here Thrace stretches into part of the Aegean, and Macedonia is joined to it. Then Greece protrudes and divides the Aegean from the Ionian sea. Illyria occupies the coast of the Adriatic. Between the Adriatic itself and the Tuscan sea Italy juts out. In the innermost part of the Tuscan sea is Gaul; on the farther side is Spain.

(19) Spain stretches, with differently situated coastlines, to the west and also for a long time to the north. Then Gaul again extends for a long way, and it reaches from our shores all the way up to this point. After Gaul the Germans reach as far as the Sarmatians, and they to Asia.

[3. Initial overview of peoples of Africa]

(20) Africa, terminated to the east by the Nile and everywhere else by the sea, in fact has a less extensive coast than Europe, because it never extends opposite to Asia, and because it does not extend directly opposite to all of Europe’s coastline. . . [omitted geographical description].

(22) In that part adjacent to Libya, next to the Nile, is the province they call Cyrene; next is Africa, the province designated by the name of the continent as a whole. The Numidians and Maurians [or: Moors] hold the remainder, but the Maurians are exposed to the Atlantic ocean. Beyond these coastal peoples, the Nigritians and the Pharusians are found all the way to the Ethiopians. These Ethiopians possess both the rest of this eastern coast and the whole coast that looks south, all the way to the frontier with Asia.

(23) On those shores washed by the Libyan sea, however, are found the Libyan Egyptians, the White Ethiopians, and, a populous and numerous people, the Gaetulians. Then a region, uninhabitable in its entire length, covers a broad and vacant expanse. At that point we hear of the Garamantians as the first people to the east; after them, the Augilians and Trogodytes (literally: “Cave-dwellers”) [alternate spelling of Troglodytes]; and farthest to the west, the Atlantians. In the interior — if one wants to believe it — at this point the scarcely human and rather brutish Goat-Pans, Blemyians, Gamphasantians, and Satyrs possess, rather than inhabit, the land. They roam freely everywhere, with no houses and no fixed abodes.

(24) This is the full extent of our world. These are its largest parts, its shapes, and the peoples of its parts. Now for me, as I begin to describe its coastlines and regions with greater preciseness. . . [detailed geographical descriptions of northern African regions omitted].

[African peoples in more detail]

(41) That being so, the shores are inhabited by people socialized according to our custom, except that particular ones differ in language and in the cult of the gods whom they worship as ancestral and venerate in the traditional way. No cities, in fact, arise in neighbouring areas, but nevertheless there are groupings of nomads’ huts called “mapalia.” Their way of life is crude and lacks amenities. The chiefs dress in rough woolen cloaks, the people in skins of wild and domestic animals. Sleeping and banqueting are done on the ground. Containers are made of wood and bark. They drink milk and the juice of berries. Their food is most often the meat of game animals. Indeed, the flocks are spared as much as possible because that is their only wealth.

(42) The nomads to the interior also follow their flocks in a rather uncouth way of life. As the flocks are drawn on by pasturage, the nomads move forward and move their shelters too, and when daylight fails, there they spend the night. Although, being scattered all over in family groups and without law, they take no common counsel. Still, because individual men have several wives and for that reason more children than usual (both those eligible to receive an inheritance and those not eligible), they are never few in number.

(43) Of the people here who are recorded as being beyond the desert, the Atlantians (Atlantes) curse the sun, both while it rises and while it sets, on the grounds that it is disastrous to them personally and to their fields. Individuals do not have names; they do not feed on animals; nor is it granted to them to visit and see in their sleep things like those granted to all other mortals. (44) The Trogodytes (Trogodytae) own no resources, and rather than speak, they make a high-pitched sound. They creep around deep in caves and are nurtured by serpents. (45) There are also herd animals among the Garamantians (Garamantes), and those animals feed with their necks bent at an odd angle since their horns, when directed at the ground, get in their way as they bend down. No one has one specific wife. Out of the children, who are born here randomly from such indiscriminate sexuality on their parents’ part, and who are not clearly identified, the adults recognize by their similar looks those whom they are to raise as their own.

(46) The Augilians (Augilae) think only the Manes are gods. They swear by them; they consult them as oracles. They pray to the Manes for what they want. After they have thrown themselves on burial mounds, the Manes bring dreams as oracular responses. On their wedding night, the women have a solemn obligation to be available for sexual intercourse with every man that comes bearing a gift. On that occasion, it is a very great honour to sleep with many men, but the rest of the time chastity is manifested.

(47) The Gamphasantians (Gamphasantes) go naked and have no knowledge of any weapons. They know neither how to duck away from spears nor how to hurl them. For that reason they run away from anyone they meet and do not endure either meetings or conversations with anyone who does not have the same kind of nature. (48) The Blemyians (Blemyes) lack heads; their face is on their chest. The Satyrs have nothing human except their superficial appearance. The form of the Goat-Pans is celebrated in their name. So much for Africa.

[Asian peoples in more detail]

(49) The first division of Asia is Egypt between Katabathmos and the Arabians. From this shore Egypt extends far to the interior and runs back southward, until it borders on Ethiopia with its back. The land is devoid of rain but is an amazingly fertile and very prolific producer of both human beings and other animals. The Nile causes this fertility, since it is the largest river that makes its way into our sea. . . [omitted geographical details].

[Egyptians in more detail]

(57) The cultivators of Egypt’s districts live much differently from everyone else. They smear themselves with dung when they lament their dead; they consider it unholy to cremate or to bury them; but they place the dead, skillfully embalmed, in the inner rooms of a building. They write backward. They pulverize dirt between their hands but grind flour under their heels. Women take care of the forum and business; men take care of spinning and the home. Women carry bundles on their shoulders; men do so on their heads. It is mandatory for women to nurture their parents when they are in need, and for men it is a choice. They take food in the open air and outdoors; they consign their bodily functions to the inner recesses of the house.

(58) They pay cult to the images of many animals and even more to the animals themselves (but different people to different animals). They do so to such an extent that it is a capital offense to kill certain animals, even through inadvertence. When those animals have been killed by disease or by chance, it is a solemn obligation to bury them and grieve over them. Apis – a black bull, marked by particular spots and different from other bulls in his tail and in his tongue – is the divinity of all the Egyptian peoples. He is born only rarely, conceived not from mating cattle, as they say, but miraculously in a celestial fire. The day of his birth is particularly festive to the whole people.

(59) The Egyptians themselves are, as they declare, the oldest human beings, and they refer in unambiguous annals to three hundred and thirty pharaohs before Amasis and to a history of more than thirteen thousand years. They also preserve a written tradition that, for as long as there have been Egyptians, the stars have changed their course four times, and the sun has set twice already where it now rises. . . [omitted enumeration of Egyptian cities and an initial geographical description of neighbouring Arabia and Syria and Palestine].

[Phoenicians and their contributions to civilization]

(65) The Phoenicians are a clever branch of the human race and exceptional in regard to the obligations of war and peace, and they made Phoenicia famous. They devised the alphabet, literary pursuits, and other arts too; they figured out how to win access to the sea by ship, how to conduct battle with a navy, and how to rule over other peoples; and they developed the power of sovereignty and the art of battle. . . . [omitted enumeration of Phoenician and Syrian towns, including Tyre and Byblos].


[Omitted geographical descriptions of Cilicia, Pamphylia, and Lycia]. . . (83) Caria follows, and peoples of uncertain origin inhabit it. Some writers hold the opinion that they are indigenous peoples, others that they are Pelasgians, still others that they are Cretans. The people was once so fond of weapons and fighting that they used to fight other peoples’ wars for pay. There are some forts here; then two promontories, Pedalion and Crya; and after the Calbis river, the town of Caunus, infamous for the ill health of its inhabitants. . . [omitted geographical descriptions of Greek cities of Caria, Ionia, and Aiolis].

[Peoples on the southern coast of the Black Sea]

(101)…the continents again lie rather close to one another, and the channel, where the sea narrows as it is about to enter the Pontus, separates Europe from Asia by five stades. This channel is the Thracian Bosphorus as previously indicated. In the very jaws of this Bosphorus is a town, and at its mouth is a temple. The name of the town is Calchedon, its principal founder is Archias the Megarian. The divinity of the temple is Jupiter, its founder Jason.

(102) Here now the mighty Pontos opens out, and it extends to both the near and far sides in a long and straight line (except where there are promontories), even though the coast winds everywhere else. However, because the shoreline recedes less on the opposite side than it does to the left or the right, it curves around with soft points until it makes narrow angles on both ends and is rounded very much like the shape of the Scythian bow. The sea is brief, cruel, and cloudy; its stopping-off places are few and far between; it is surrounded by a shore that is neither soft nor sandy; it borders on the north winds; and it is billowy and tempestuous, because it is not deep. In the olden days the sea was called the Axenus sea from the vicious disposition of the inhabitants, but later it was called the Euxinus sea because of traffic with somewhat gentler peoples.

(103) On the Pontos, first off, the Mariandynians (Mariandyni) inhabit a city founded, as they say, by Argive Hercules. It is called Herakleia, and that name adds credibility to the tradition. Next to it is the Acherusian Cave, which goes down, as they tell it, to the Manes, and they believe that Cerberus was hauled up from there.

(104) After that comes the town of Tios, in fact a colony of the Milesians, but now belonging to the land and people of Paphlagonia. . . . [omitted enumeration of Greek cities in the area]. (106) The Tibarenians (Tibareni), for whom the highest good lies in playing and laughing, extend to the Chalybians (Chalybae). Farther on, the Mossynians (Mossyni) [alternatively called the Mossynoikians, as in Strabo] take shelter under wooden towers, completely mark their whole bodies with tattoos, eat in the open air, recline with the sexes mixed and without concealing it, and choose kings by vote. They keep their kings in chains and under the closest guard, and when the kings have earned blame for exercising some power wrongfully, the people punish them by depriving them of a whole day’s food. Otherwise, the people are rough, crude, and absolutely vicious to those who put in to shore there.

(107) After them come the less savage Makrokephalians (Macrocephali; i.e. “Large-heads”), Bechirians, and Bouxerians, but even these peoples are of unruly disposition. Cities are rare; particularly renowned, though, are Kerasounta [Gerazun, Turkey] and Trapezos [Trabzon, Turkey].

[Peoples on the eastern coast of the Black Sea]

(108) Next is that place where the stretch of coastline coming from the Bosporos ends, and from there the bend of the opposite shore, becoming more elevated on the gulf, forms the narrowest angle of the Pontos. Here are the Kolchians; the Phasis river empties into the sea here; here is the town colonized by Themistagoras the Milesian; here are the grove and temple of Phrixus, who is well known from the old legend of the Golden Fleece.

(109) Rising from here, the mountains stretch in a long ridge until they connect to the Ripaian range. These mountains, on one end, face the Euxine, the Maiotis, and the Tanais, and on the other they face the Caspian sea. They are called the Keraunians but are elsewhere called the Taurus mountains, the Moschic, the Amazonian, the Caspian, the Coraxic, the Kaukasos (Caucasus) – called by as many different names as there are peoples beside them.

(110) On the first bend, however, of the now curving shore, there is a town that Greek merchants founded, and they reportedly called it Kyknos because the voice of a swan had given a sign to them when, while being tossed around in a blinding storm, they did not know where land was. Wild, uncivilized peoples living beside the vast sea occupy its remaining coastline: the Melanchlaenians, the Toretikians, and six Kolikian peoples (the Koraxikians, the Phthirophagians, the Heniochians, the Achaians, the Kerketikians, and, at this point, the Sindonians, on the boundary of Maiotis). (111) In the territory of the Heniochians, Dioskourias was founded by Castor and Pollux, who came to the Pontos with Jason; and Sindos, in the territory of the Sindonians, was founded by the actual cultivators of the land. . . [omitted geographical description of territory around Maiotis lake].

[Peoples on the northern shore of the Black Sea]

(114) The Maiotikians [alternatively: Maiotians] cultivate the shore that curves from the Kimmerian Bosporos all the way to the Tanais, as do the Thatians, the Sirachians, the Phikorians, and – next to the mouth of the river – the Ixamatians. Among them, women practice the same skills as men, so much so that women are not free even from military service. Men serve in the infantry and fight with bows; women enter battle on horseback and do not fight with swords but kill their captives by dragging them off with lariats. Still, women do marry, but there is no predictable age at which to be considered marriageable: women remain virgins except for those who have killed an enemy.

(115) The Tanais [Don] river itself, falling from the Ripaian mountains, rushes so precipitously that it alone endures both summery heat and wintry cold in close proximity, yet it runs down always the same, unchanged and fast-moving, even when neighbouring rivers, the Maiotis, the Kimmerian Bosporos, and certain parts of the Pontos are all frozen by winter’s cold.

(116) The Sauromatians occupy its banks and the places that are contiguous with them. They are one descent group (gens) but have as many peoples (populi) as they have names. First, the Maiotian Gynaikokratoumians — the kingdoms of the Amazons — occupy plains that are rich in pasture but barren and bare for other things. The Budinians inhabit the city of Gelonos. Next to them the Thyssagetians and Tourkians occupy endless forests and feed themselves by hunting.

(117) The next region is deserted and rough, with uninterrupted cliffs over a wide stretch; it extends all the way to the Aremphaians. These people enjoy customs that are very much based on fair treatment; they have sacred groves for homes and berries as food. Both men and women keep their heads bare. Therefore these people are regarded as consecrated, and no one from peoples as savage as those here profanes these people, which results in the custom that other people flee to them for asylum. Farther on, the Ripaian mountains rise up, and beyond them lies the shore that faces ocean.

Book 2

[Scythian peoples]

(1) That is the boundary, as I have said, and the layout of Asia where it verges on our sea and the Tanais. . . [omitted geographical descriptions]. (2) The first human beings are Scythians, and first of the Scythians are the so-called one-eyed Arimaspians; after them the Essedonians are found all the way to Maiotis. The Buces river cuts the Maiotis’ bend, and the Agathyrsians and Sauromatians surround it. The Hamaxobians are called that because they use their wagons as homes. Then a strip, now running sideways to the Kimmerian Bosporos, is enclosed both by the Pontos and by the Maiotis.

(3) The Satarchians (Satarchae) occupy the area that goes toward the Swamp. Beside the Kimmerian Bosporos are the Kimmerian towns of Murmecion, Panticapaion, Theodosia, and Hermiseion, while the Taurians (Taurici) live beside the Euxine sea. Beyond them, a bay full of harbours and therefore called “Beautiful Harbour” (Kalos Limen) is enclosed by two promontories. One promontory they call Kriou Metopon, and it is equal and opposite to point Karambis, which we have said is in Asia. The other one is Point Parthenion. The town of Chersonesos lies beside this promontory and was founded (if this is believable) by Diana [equivalent of Artemis]. The town is particularly famous for a sanctuary of the nymphs in the form of a cave, which was dedicated on its citadel to the nymphs.

(4) Then the sea encroaches on the bank, and it follows all the way along the receding coastlines until it is five miles distant from the Maiotis, where it renders them into a peninsula. One of these coasts the Satarchians occupy, the Taurians the other. What lies between the Swamp and the bay is called Taphrai; the bay is called Karkinites, In it is the city of Karkine, flanked by two rivers, the Gerrhos and the Hypakaris, which make their outlet to the sea through a single mouth, although they flow down from different springs and from different directions. For the Gerrhos rolls along between the territory of the Basilidians and that of the nomads, the Hypakaris right through that of the nomads.

(5) Then come the vast forests that these lands bear, as well as the Pantikapes river, which separates the nomads and the Georgians. . . [omitted geographical descriptions of the Borythenes, Hypanis, and Asiakes rivers, including mention of the Greek city of Olbia].

[Danube / Ister as dividing line between Scythian and other peoples]

(8) The river that separates the peoples of Scythia from their neighbours, however, begins – its sources in Germany are known – with a name different from the one with which it finishes. In fact, through immense lands belonging to great peoples, it is for a long time the Danube; then with the local peoples using another name, it becomes the Ister. After receiving several more rivers, it then becomes a mighty river. Of those rivers that empty into our sea, the Ister is no smaller than the Nile and has the same number of mouths as that river, but it flows into the sea with three shallow mouths and four that are navigable.

[Variations in customs and characters of Scythian peoples, but commonality of human sacrifice]

(9) The temperaments and cultures of the peoples differ. The Essedonians celebrate their parents’ funerals joyfully and with a festive gathering of family members. In the feast, they devour the actual corpses, once they have been ripped apart and stirred in with the innards of slaughtered cattle. After they have smoothed and polished them skillfully, the skulls are bound with gold, and they use them for drinking cups. These are, among them, the last rites of their religion. (10) The Agathyrsians tattoo their faces and limbs, each more or less in proportion to the prominence of their ancestors, but they all do so with the same marks and in such a way that they cannot be washed off. The Satarchians have no experience of gold and silver (the worst pestilences), and they conduct business by barter. They even inhabit caves and dugouts, with their homes sunk into the ground because of the savage and virtually unending winter. They cover their whole bodies and even their faces except where they look out.

(11) The Taurians, well remembered for the arrival of Iphigenia and Orestes, are monstrous in character and have the monstrous reputation that they slaughter newcomers as sacrificial offerings. The Basilidian people began with Hercules and Echidna. Their character is regal, and only arrows serve them as weapons. The wandering nomads follow the pastures of the flocks, and as long as those pastures last, they pass the time in a fixed abode. The Georgians cultivate and work the fields. The Asiakians do not know what stealing is, and for that reason they neither protect their own property nor touch anyone else’s.

(12) To the interior the ritualistic behavior of the inhabitants is cruder and the territory less tilled. They love the bloodshed of war, and it is customary for warriors to drink blood from the very wounds of the first man they ever killed. The more a man kills, the more valued he is among them. Among the marks of shame, by contrast, surely the worst is to have no experience of shedding blood. Not even their peace treaties are without blood. The negotiators all cut themselves and sip the drawn blood after they have mixed everybody’s together. They think that drinking it is the surest guarantee of a lasting good faith.

(13) At their banquets, the happiest and most frequent topic of conversation is to tell how many men each one has killed. Those who have reported the most chug from double cups. Among the carousers, that is a special honour. These people smooth out their drinking cups from the skulls of their greatest personal enemies, the same way the Essedonians do from their parents’ skulls.

(14) Among the Anthropophagians (literally: “Man-eaters”), even ordinary banquets are provided with human entrails. The Gelonians cover themselves and their horses with the skins of their enemies – their horses with the flesh from the rest of the body, themselves with the skin from the heads. The Melanchlainians have coal-black clothing, and from that they get their name [Black-cloaks]. There is a preordained time for each of the Neurians at which, if they so desire, they transform into wolves and back into who they were.

(15) Mars is the god of all these peoples. To him they dedicate swords and sword belts instead of images. They also sacrifice human beings instead of animals. The lands cover a broad expanse, and because the rivers often overflow their banks, they are never barren of pasture. Yet in some places the lands are so completely infertile for any other growth that the inhabitants, who are short of wood, feed their fires with bones.

[Thracian peoples on the west coast of the Black Sea]

(16) Thrace is next to these lands, and it extends far inland from its front on the Pontic end all the way to the Illyrians. Where it extends its lateral borders, Thrace is contiguous with the Ister and our sea. The region is favorable neither in its climate nor in its soil, and except where it is closer to the sea, it is infertile, cold, and quite intolerant of cultivated plants. It rarely ever sustains a fruit-bearing tree but rather commonly sustains the vine. The fruit of the vine, however, does not ripen and soften except where the cultivators have stopped the cold by heaping leaves around them. It nourishes men in more kindly fashion, but not for their physical appearance. Indeed, their bodily condition is rough and unbecoming but is especially conducive to fierceness and population size, since they are both numerous and merciless. . . [omitted discussion of rivers and mountains].

(18) The Thracians inhabit the land, one descent group, although they are furnished with a variety of names and customs. Some Thracians – and certainly the Getians (Getae) – are wild and absolutely prepared to die. A range of belief brings this readiness into being. Some individuals think that the souls of the dead will return. Others think that even if they do not return, souls still are not obliterated but go to a happier place. Still others think that souls do perish absolutely but that dying is better than living. Therefore childbirth is mourned among certain Thracians, and newborns are wept over. Funerals, in contrast, are festive and are celebrated, just like their sacred rites, with singing and jumping.

(19) Not even in the case of women does the mind neglect its duty. They consider it the greatest obligation to be killed over the corpses of their dead husbands and to be buried along with them. Because individual men have several wives at once, their wives compete in a great contest to be the one to have this honour, and they compete before those who will make the decision. It suits their mores and is a special source of joy when there is a struggle to be supreme in this contest.

(20) Other women raise the lament with their keening and raise their voices in the most bitter lamentations. But those who have a mind to console them bring their weapons and wealth to the funeral pyre, and these same individuals are prepared, as they say over and over again, either to bargain with or to fight with the destiny of the dead man in case it is up to them; when there is no room for fighting or money, . . . [text missing in manuscript].

(21) Virgins worthy of marriage are not given to their husbands by their parents. Instead, they either are publicly displayed as ready for marriage or else are put up for sale. The explanation for the choice of procedure rests on appearance and character. Upright, beautiful women are prized. Men with money seek out all the others for a price. The use of wine is unknown to some Thracians, but a hilarity like drunkenness comes over them from the smoke at banquets when certain seeds are thrown onto the fires as they sit around them. . . . [omitted geographical descriptions leading into the territories of Macedonia, Thessaly, the Peloponessos, and the rest of Greece].

[Greek regions and city-states omitted here]

[Illyrian peoples]

(55) The Adriatic sea is formed by a great retraction of the littoral and in fact covers a considerable breadth, although it reaches considerably farther in. It is surrounded by Illyrian peoples as far as Tergeste, but then by the Gallic and Italic peoples. The Parthenians and Dasaretians occupy its first places; the Taulantians, Encheleians, and Phaiakians occupy what follows. (56) After that come the Illyrians proper, then the Piraians, Liburnians, and Istria. . . [omitted detailed geographical descriptions of Italy, Gaul, and Spain due to lack of attention to peoples].

Book 3

(1) The coastline of our sea has been described now, and the islands it includes too. What is left is the periphery, as we said at the outset, that ocean encircles. . . [omitted extensive discussion of coastal geography with only brief mentions of peoples].

[Customs of the Gauls / Celts]

(16) Gaul’s second coast follows. At first its shoreline does not go out to sea at all, but after a while, proceeding almost as far beyond Spain as Spain had receded, it comes to lie opposite the lands of the Cantabrians. The coast then bends in a great curve and turns its flank so that it faces west. Then turning to face north, the coastline unfolds a second time in a long and straight stretch up to the banks of the Rhenus. (17) The land is rich, primarily in grain and fodder, and it is lovely with its vast woods. It is conducive to good health and rarely populated with animals of a harmful kind, but it supports – with difficulty, and not everywhere – those plants that are intolerant of the cold.

(18) The peoples are crude, superstitious, and sometimes even so monstrous that they used to believe that to the gods the best and most pleasing sacrificial victim was a human being. Traces of their savagery remain, even though it has been banned now. Nevertheless, after they have led their consecrated human victims to the altars, they still graze them slightly, although they do hold back from the ultimate bloodshed.


And yet, they have both their own eloquence and their own teachers of wisdom, the Druids. (19) These men claim to know the size and shape of the earth and of the universe, the movements of the sky and of the stars, and what the gods intend. In secret, and for a long time – twenty years – they teach many things to the noblest males among their people, and they do it in a cave or in a hidden mountain defile. One of the precepts they teach – obviously to make them better for war – has leaked into common knowledge, namely, that their souls are eternal and that there is a second life for the dead. Therefore they cremate and bury with the dead things that are suitable for the living. Long ago, traders’ accounts and debt collection were deferred until they died, and some individuals happily threw themselves onto the pyres of their loved ones as if they were going to live with them.

(20) The whole region they inhabit is Gallia Cornata. Its peoples have three very distinguished names, and those peoples are separated by mighty rivers. In fact the Aquitanians reach from the Pyrenees range to the Garunna [Garonne] river, the Celts from there to the Sequana [Seine] river, and from there to the Rhenus [Rhine] are the Belgians (Belgae). Of the Aquitanians the most famous are the Auscians; of the Celts, the Haeduians; of the Belgians, the Treverians. The wealthiest cites are Augusta among the Treverians, Augustodunum among the Haeduians, and among the Aquitanians, Eliumberrum. . . . [omitted description of the Garunna river]. (23) From the Garunna’s outlet begins the horizontal stretch of land that runs into the sea, as well as the shore that lies opposite the coast of the Cantabrians and that bends from the Santonians all the way to the Ossismians (with other peoples living in between). Indeed, after the Ossismians, the oceanfront again faces back to the north, and it reaches to the farthest people of Gaul, the Morinians. And it does not have anything more noteworthy than the port they call Gesoriacum. . . . [omitted description of the Rhenus river].

[Customs of Germanic peoples]

(25) Germany extends on the near side from the banks of the Rhenus [Rhine] as far as the Alps; on the south from the very Alps; on the east from the frontier with the Sarmatian peoples; and where it faces north, from the ocean-front. (26) The people who live there are extraordinary in courage, as in physique, and thanks to their natural ferocity they exercise both prodigiously. They exercise their minds by making war and their bodies by habitual hard work, but above all by habitual exposure to the cold. They live naked before they reach puberty, and childhood is very long among them. The men dress in wool clothing or the bark of trees even during the harsh winter.

(27) They have not only a tolerance for swimming but a fancy for it. They wage war with their neighbours, and they provoke the causes of those wars for sheer pleasure, not for the pleasure of ruling or enlarging what they possess (since they do not cultivate in earnest even what is already in their possession), but simply so that what lies around them may be laid waste.

(28) They consider that right lies in might, so much so that not even brigandage shames them, provided that they are good to their guests and compliant for their suppliants. They are so crude and uncivilized in their way of life that they even eat raw or fresh-killed meat, or else they eat meat that has been frozen in the actual hides of cattle and wild animals after they have softened the meat by working it with their own hands and feet. . . [omitted geographical descriptions of rivers and mountains].

[Customs of Sarmatian peoples]

(33) Sarmatia, wider to the interior than toward the sea, is separated by the Vistula river from the places that follow, and where the river reaches in, it goes all the way to the Ister [Danube] river. Its people are very close to the Parthians in dress and in weaponry, but the rougher the climate, the cruder their disposition. (34) They do not live in cities or even in fixed abodes. Insofar as pastures have lured them on, or insofar as an enemy’s flight or pursuit has forced them out, they live in camps all the time and drag their possessions and their wealth with them. They are warlike, free, unconquered, and so savage and cruel that women also go to war side by side with men; and so that women may be suited for action, their right breast is cauterized as soon as they are born. As a result, that breast, now exposed and ready to withstand blows, develops like a man’s chest. (35) Archery, horseback riding, and hunting are a girl’s pursuits; to kill the enemy is a woman’s military duty, so much so that not to have struck one down is considered a scandal, and virginity is the punishment for those women.

[Customs of the Scythians and Hyperboreans]

(36) After that, the Scythian peoples – almost all designated under one name as the Belkians – inhabit the Asian frontier except where winter remains continuous and the cold remains unbearable. On the Asiatic littoral, first of all, the Hyperboreans are located beyond the north wind, above the Ripaian mountains, and under the very pole of the stars, where the sun rises, not every day as it does for us, but for the first time at the vernal equinox, and where it eventually sets at the autumnal equinox. Therefore, for six months daylight is completely uninterrupted, and for the next six months night is completely uninterrupted.

(37) The land is narrow, exposed to the sun, and spontaneously fruitful. Its inhabitants live in the most equitable way possible, and they live longer and more happily than any mortals. To be sure, because they delight in their always festive leisure, they know no wars, no disputes, and they devote themselves primarily to the sacred rites of Apollo. According to tradition, they sent their first fruits to Delos initially in the hands of their own virgins, and later they sent them through peoples who handed them on in succession to farther peoples. They preserved that custom for a long time until it was profaned by the sacrilege of those peoples. The Hyperboreans inhabit groves and forests, and when a sense of having been satisfied by life (rather than boredom) has gripped them, they cheerfully wreathe themselves in flowers and actually throw themselves into the sea from a particular cliff. For them that is the finest death ritual. . . [omitted description of the Caspian Sea].

(39) To the interior, beside Caspian bay, are the Caspians and Amazons (at least the ones they call the Sauromatidae). Alongside the Bay of Hyrcania are the Albanians, the Moschians, and the Hyrkanians. On Scythian Bay are the Amardians, the Pestikians, and, at this point near the strait, the Derbikians. Many rivers, great and small, flow into that bay, but the famous one, the [missing text in manuscript], descends in a single bed from the Keraunian mountains and makes its outlet into the Caspian in two beds. . . . [omitted description of rivers and other geographical features, the debate about whether there is a sea to the north beyond the Caspian bay, and the beginning of the discussion of islands generally].

[Peoples of Britannia / England and Iurverna / Ireland islands]

(49) Next, as to what kind of place Britannia is and what kind of people it produces, information that is more certain and better established will be stated. The reason is that – lo and behold! – the greatest princeps is opening the long-closed island, and as conqueror of previously unsubdued and previously unknown peoples, the princeps brings with him the proof of his own accomplishments, since he will reveal in his triumph as much as he has laid claim to in war. . . [omitted description of geographical features].

(51) It supports groves and meadows and colossal rivers that sometimes flow to the sea, sometimes back again, with alternating currents, and certain other rivers that produce gems and pearls. It supports peoples and their kings, but all are uncivilized. The farther from the sea, the more ignorant they are of other kinds of wealth, being wealthy only in sheep and land, and — whether for beauty or for some other reason — they have their bodies dyed blue.

(52) They produce, nevertheless, the causes of war and actual wars, and they take turns harassing one another constantly, mainly because they have a strong desire to rule and a strong drive to expand their holdings. They make war not only on horseback or on foot but also from two-horse chariots and cars armed in the Gallic fashion – they call them covinni – on which they use axles equipped with scythes.

(53) On the far side of Britannia, Iuverna [Ireland] is more or less equal in area, but it is oblong with equally extended lateral coastlines. Its climate is hideous for ripening seeds, but the island is so luxuriant with grass — not only abundant but sweet — that sheep stuff themselves in a fraction of the day, and unless they are kept from the pasture, they burst from feeding too long. Its inhabitants are undisciplined and ignorant of all virtue, to a greater degree than any other people, and they are very much inexperienced in piety. . . [omitted geographical descriptions].

[Thule island, perhaps drawing on Pytheas of Massalia, although not stated]

(57) Thule is located near the coast of the Belkians, who are celebrated in Greek poetry and in our own. Because there the sun rises far from where it will set, nights are necessarily brief, but all winter long they are as dark as anywhere, and in summer, bright. All summer the sun moves higher in the sky at this time, and although it is not actually seen at night, the sun nevertheless illuminates adjacent places when its radiance is close by; but during the solstice there is no night, because at that time the sun is now more visible and shows not only its brilliance but most of itself too.

[Peoples on Talge island]

(58) Talge, on the Caspian sea, is fertile without being cultivated and is abundant in every root crop and fruit, but the local peoples consider it an abomination and a sacrilege to touch what grows there. They think that these things have been prepared for the gods and must be saved for the gods. Alongside those coasts that we have called deserted lie a number of equally deserted islands, which, being without names of their own, are called the Scythian Islands.

[India and the customs of its peoples]

(59) The route curves from here to the Eastern sea and to the earth’s eastern rim. This coast, which is first impassable because of the snows and then uncultivated because of the monstrous savagery of the inhabitants, reaches from Scythian Point to Point Kolis. The Androphagians (Man-eaters) and the Sakians are Scythians, and they are separated by a region that is uninhabitable because it is teeming with wild animals. (60) Next, monstrous beasts again render vast tracts unsafe all the way to mount Tabis, which overhangs the sea. At a distance from there the Taurus range rises. The Serians [peoples who deal in silk] are in between, a people full of justice and best known for the trade they conduct without being present, by leaving their goods behind in a remote location.

(61) India is situated not only on the Eastern sea but also on the south-facing sea that we have called the Indian ocean, and it is bounded from this point by the Taurus range and on the west by the Indus river. India occupies a coastline that equals a sail of sixty days and nights. It is so remote from our regions that in a certain part of India neither north star is visible and – again different from elsewhere – shadows fall to the south.

(62) Moreover, it is fertile and teems with a different type of human being and other animals. It sustains ants that are no smaller than the biggest dogs, ants that reportedly guard, like griffins, gold that is mined from deep within the earth, and that pose the greatest threat to anyone who touches it [cf. Herodotos – link; Dio of Prusa – link]. India also sustains monstrous snakes that with their bite and the winding constriction of their bodies can stop an elephant in its tracks. It is so rich in some places and has such productive soil that in this country honey drips from the leaves, trees bear wool, and rafts of split bamboo even convey, like ships, two persons at a time, some even conveying three at a time.

(63) The dress and customs of the inhabitants vary a good deal. Some dress in linen or what we have called wool, others in the skins of birds or wild animals. One subculture goes naked; another covers only their private parts. Some are short and puny, others so tall and huge in body that routinely and with ease they even use elephants – the biggest ones there – in the same way we use horses.

(64) Certain individuals think it is not right to kill any animal and they eat no meat at all. Only fish is used to sustain certain others. Some kill their parents when they are on the verge of decline like sacrificial animals before the parents decline from age and illness, and it is both morally right and absolutely pious to feast on the intestines of the slain parents.

(65) By contrast, when disease or old age have set in, the old and disabled withdraw far from the others and without any fear at all await death in isolation. More prudent individuals, those who are involved emotionally in the practice and pursuit of wisdom, do not wait for death but happily and gloriously bring it on by hurling themselves onto fires. . . [omitted discussion of cities]

(67) The Palibothrians hold the coastline from point Tamus to the Ganges river. From the Ganges to point Kolis, except where it is too hot to be inhabited, are found black peoples, Ethiopians so to speak. From point Kolis to the Indus river the shores are straight, and peoples live there who are fearful and quite prosperous because of the sea’s riches. . . [omitted description of mountains and rivers and mention of Taprobane / Sri Lanka].

[Peoples around the Erythraian sea, including the Persian gulf, Arabian gulf, and Red Sea]

(72) The Greeks call the Red sea the Erythraian sea either because it is that colour or because Erythras ruled there as king. . . [omitted geographical details]. (75) From what we have described here to the Persian gulf, except where the Chelonophagians (“Turtle-eaters”) [cf. Nearchos – link] linger, are deserts. On the gulf itself are located the Karmanians on the right of those sailing in. They have no regular clothes or fruit, no flock or fixed abodes. They dress in fish skins, eat fish meat, and are hairy all over except for their heads. The Kedrosians inhabit the interior, and after them, the Persians. The Saetis [Rud-Gez] reaches the sea through the territory of the Karmanians, and beyond it are the Sandis.

(76) Directly opposite the mouth to the sea are the territory of the Babylonians, that of the Chaldeans, and two famous rivers, the Tigris nearer to Persia and, farther away, the Euphrates. . . [omitted discussion of the Tigris and Euphrates].

(79) A stretch of land that runs between both seas surrounds the other shore of the Persian gulf. It is called Arabia Eudaimon and it is narrow but very productive of cinnamon, incense, and other scents. The Sabaians occupy the greater part of it, the Makians the part nearest the mouth and across from the Karmanians. Forests and cliffs roughen the seafront between the mouths of the two gulfs. A number of islands are located in the middle region of this gulf, but Ogyris is more famous than all the others because the funerary monument of king Erythras is on it.

(80) The Arabians surround the second gulf on all sides. . . . [omitted discussion of cities and forests]. On the right, and in order for anyone who enters the gulf, are the cities of Charra, Arabia, and Adanus; on the other side, from the reentrant angle, the first Berenike, between the Bay of Heroopolis and the Bay of Strobilus; then, between Point Maenorenon and Point Coloba, Philoteris and Ptolemais; farther on, Arsinoe and the other Berenike; then a forest that produces the ebony tree and perfumes; and then a man-made river, which is worth reporting because it is drawn from the Nile in a canal. (81) Outside the gulf, but nevertheless on the Red sea’s main bay, one locale is infested with brute beasts and is therefore a wasteland. Panchaians, whom they call Ophiophagians because they eat snakes, live in another locale. There were pygmies [i.e. supposed “fist-sized” peoples] to the interior, a diminutive species that became extinct from fighting the cranes for the crops they had planted. . . [omitted discussion of creatures including the Phoenix].

[Customs of the Ethiopians and Africans]

(85) The Ethiopians reside beyond there. They occupy the land of Meroe, which the Nile makes into an island by embracing it in its first ambit. Because they have a lifetime longer than ours by almost half, certain Ethiopians are called “Makrobians.” Others are called Automolians, because they came here from Egypt. They are beautiful in physique and worship body and strength exactly as other peoples worship the best virtues. (86) They have the custom of choosing by appearance and strength the chief they are to obey at all costs. Among these people there is more gold than copper, and for that reason they consider gold less valuable. They bedeck themselves with copper, but for criminals they make chains out of gold. (87) It is a place always bursting with sumptuous banquets. Because, as pleases them, it is lawful for anyone who wants to eat to do so and they call the place “Table of the Sun” (Heliou Trapeza), and they claim that everything that has been served there is replenished by a miracle. . . [omitted some animal marvels].

[Hanno and Eudoxos as sources]

(89) Moreover, nothing noteworthy meets those who follow the shores eastward. Everything is a wasteland, defined by desolate mountains, and more a riverbank than an oceanfront. After that, there is a huge tract without inhabitants. For quite a long time it was uncertain whether there was sea beyond and whether the earth had a periphery, or whether, with the seawaters eliminated, Africa extended without end. (90) Hanno the Carthaginian [link], however, was dispatched by his people to explore it. When he had exited our sea through the mouth of ocean and circumnavigated a great part of it, he had reported back that Africa was deficient not in sea but in the hustle and bustle of human life. In the time of our ancestors, while running away from king Lathyrus of Alexandria, a certain Eudoxos set out from the Arabian gulf by this sea, as Nepos affirms, and he sailed all the way to Gades. That is why its coasts are, to a certain extent, known. (91) There are, then, on the other side of what we have just called wastelands, mute peoples for whom nodding their head is a substitute for speaking. Some make no sound with their tongue. Others have no tongues. Still others have lips that even stick together except for a hollow reed beneath their noses through which to drink by means of a straw, and when the desire for eating comes over them, they reportedly suck in, one by one, kernels of the grain that grows all over. (92) To some, fire was so unfamiliar before Eudoxos arrived, and seemed so amazing, and pleased them so much, that they really even felt like embracing the flames and hiding the burning sticks in their clothing until it did them harm.

(93) Beyond them a bend of the great seacoast encloses a large island on which they tell that only women live. These women are hairy all over and essentially fertile without having sex with men. They have such a rough and brutish character that chains can barely prevent certain ones from resisting. Hanno reported this information, and because he had brought back leather skinned from the ones he slaughtered, credibility has been given to it. (94) Beyond this bay a tall mountain, Theón Ochéma, as the Greeks call it, burns with perpetual fire. (95) Beyond the mountain, there is a verdant hill, which extends over a long stretch on a long coastline; from this hill are to be seen the fields — more extensive than can be taken in completely — that belong to the Goat-Pans and Satyrs. As a result, this explanation has received credence: although there is nothing civilized on this hill, no place of residence, no footprints, and although by day there is only a solitary wasteland and an even emptier silence, nevertheless by night fires flare up close together and are revealed like a sizable army camp, and they shake cymbals and beat drums, and horns are heard that sound louder than human ones.

(96) Then the Ethiopians again. These people, the Hesperians by name, are not at this point the rich ones we have mentioned, and being smaller and uncouth, they are not very much like them in physique. In their territory there is a spring that is at least credible as the Nile’s source. . . [omitted description of animals]. (100) From that point begins the oceanfront that faces west and is bathed by the Atlantic ocean. The Ethiopians take up its first part, but no one takes up the middle, which is either parched, covered with sand, or infested with snakes. . . [omitted geographical descriptions].

(103) Next after the stretch that the wild beasts infest are the Himantopodians, hunched and rubber-legged, who reportedly slither rather than walk. Then there are the Pharusians, who were well-off in the days when Hercules went to the Hesperides, but who are now squalid and, except for eating mutton, very poor. (104) Afterwards, there are richer fields and lovely meadows abounding in citron, terebinth, and ivory. Not even the coasts of the Nigritians and the Gaetulians, who are quite nomadic, are infertile. Those coasts are very famous for purple and murex, the most effective dyeing materials. Anything they have dyed is instantly recognizable anywhere.

(105) The remainder is the outer coast of Mauretania and Africa’s extreme corner as it comes to its last point. The region is richly endowed, but less so, with those same sources of wealth. As to the rest, it is even richer in soil and so fertile that it not only yields in extreme abundance the kinds of grain that are sown but also puts forth freely some kinds that are not sown. . . [omitted legend of Antaeus].

(107) Some humans occupy the forests, but being less nomadic than those we have just mentioned, others live in cities. The wealthiest cities, albeit the wealthiest among small ones, are considered to be Gilda, Volubilis, and Banasa, all far from ocean, but nearer to it Sala and Lixos, which is right on the Lixus river. Farther on is the colony of Zilia, and the Zilia river, and the place we started from, Point Ampelusia, which now turns into our Strait, which is the terminus both of this work and of the Atlantic coastline.


Source of the translation: F. E. Romer, Pomponius Mela’s Description of the World (Ann Arbour, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1998), copyright University of Michigan Press, used with permission from the copyright holder, excerpted and modified by Harland. Link to the full work as freely shared by the press on Hathitrust.

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