Persian wisdom: Ammianus Marcellinus on Zoroaster, Hystaspes, and the Magians (late fourth century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persian wisdom: Ammianus Marcellinus on Zoroaster, Hystaspes, and the Magians (late fourth century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified August 2, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=13191.

Ancient author: Ammianus Marcellinus (late fourth century CE), Roman AntiquitiesRes Gestae 23.6.25-36 (link).

Comments: In the midst of his survey of easterners and especially the Medes (often interchangeable with Persians among Greek and Roman authors), Ammianus Marcellinus pauses to give considerable attention to the Magians. According to his account, Magian knowledge and skill derives from the Chaldeans (of Babylonia or Assyria), with Zoroaster and Hystaspes (Baktrian or Persian or Median figures) supplementing this body of wisdom. Interestingly, Zoroaster the Baktrian or Hystaspes (Greek equivalent of Vishtaspa) is also presented as travelling to the Brahmans in northern India in order to further supplement Magian wisdom and practice. The account also tries to bring the reader up to date regarding the Magians, suggesting that they still continue to be prominent in the east in Marcellinus’ own time. It is noteworthy that Marcellinus equates the Hystaspes of Zoroastrian fame (see also the Oracles of Hystaspes at this link coming soon) with a king and father of Darius, king of Persia (reigning 522-486 BCE).

Source of translation: J. C. Rolfe, Ammianus Marcellinus, 3 volumes, LCL (Cambridge: HUP, 1935-40), public domain (passed away in 1943), adapted and modernized by Harland.

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[Chaldeans]

Near these [Assyrians] is the land of the Chaldeans, the foster-mother of the old-time philosophy – as they themselves say – where the true skill of divination first made its appearance. Now the most important rivers that flow through those lands, besides the others that I have mentioned, are the Marses, the Royal river, and the Euphrates, which is the greatest of the rivers. The last-named divides into three branches, all of which are navigable, forms several islands, and often thoroughly waters the fields through the diligence of the farmers, and prepares them for the ploughshare and for tree-culture.

[Susianians]

Neighbours to these lands are the Susianians, who have few cities. Conspicuous among them, however, is Susa, often the residence of the kings, and Arsiana, Sele, and Aracha. The others are small and little known. On the other hand, many rivers flow through this region. Most notable among them are the Oroates, Harax, and Mosaios, which along the narrow sandy tract that separates the Caspian from the Red Sea overflow into a great number of pools.

[Medians / Persians]

On the left Media extends, bordering on the Hyrkanian sea. Of this province we read that before the reign of the elder Cyrus and the growth in Persia’s power, it was the queen of all Asia, after it had overcome Assyria, whose many provinces, changed in name to Agropatena, it possessed by the right of conquest. (28) It is a warlike people, and most of all to be feared next to the Parthians, by whom alone it is surpassed. Its territory has the form of a rectangle. The inhabitants of these lands as a whole inhabit a most spacious country, overhung by very lofty mountains, which they call Zagros, Orontes, and Iasonios. (29) Those who live on the western side of the lofty mountain Koronos abound in fields of grain and vineyards, enjoy the fertility of a productive soil, and are rich in rivers and clear springs. (30) Their green meadows produce a noble breed of horses, on which their chiefs – as the writers of old say, and as I myself have seen – when entering battle are accustomed to riding full of courage. These horses they call “Nesaian.” (31) Therefore Media abounds in rich cities, in villages built up like towns, and in a great number of inhabitants. To put it briefly, it is the richest residence of the kings.

[Magian wisdom derived from the Chaldeans and supplemented by Zoroaster and Hystaspes]

In these parts are the fertile fields of the Magians (Magi), about whose sects and pursuits – since we have chanced on this point – it will be in place to give a few words of explanation. According to Plato, the most eminent author of lofty ideas, Magian skill, under the mystic name of “hagisteia,” [i.e. Greek for “ritual” or “service”] is the purest worship of the gods. In ages long past the Baktrian Zoroaster made many contributions to this body of knowledge derived from the secret teachings of the Chaldeans, and after him so did the wise king Hystaspes, the father of Darius.

[Zoroaster’s visit to the Brahmans in India]

When he [Zoroaster, or Hystaspes] had boldly made his way into the unknown regions of upper India, he reached a wooded wilderness, whose calm silence the lofty intellects of the Brahmans control. From their teaching he learned as much as he could grasp of the laws regulating the movements of the earth and the stars, and of the pure sacrificial rites. He [Zoroaster, or Hystaspes] communicated something from what he learned to the understanding of the Magians. Along with the skill of divining the future, the Magians hand this on from generation to generation to later times.

[Magians as a group]

From that time on for many ages down to the present a large class of men of one and the same descent have devoted themselves to the service of the gods. The Magians also say – if it is right to believe them – that they guard a heaven-sent fire on ever-burning braziers in their country, and that a small portion of it, as a good omen, used to be carried before the Asiatic kings. (35) The number of Magians of this origin in old times was very small, and the Persian potentates made regular use of their services in the worship of their gods. It was forbidden to approach an altar or to touch a sacrificial victim before one of the Magians poured the preliminary libations reciting a set form of prayer. But they gradually increased in number and became a strong descent group (gens), with a name of their own. They possessed country residences, which were protected by no great walls, and they were allowed to live in accordance with their own laws. Through respect for sacred obligation, they were held in high esteem. (36) From this seed of the Magians, as the ancient records relate, seven men after the death of Cambyses mounted the Persian throne, but we are told they were overthrown by the party of Darius, who made himself king by the neighing of a horse.

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