Scythians: Lucian on Toxaris’ and Anacharsis’ differing encounters with Greeks (late second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Scythians: Lucian on Toxaris’ and Anacharsis’ differing encounters with Greeks (late second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 25, 2023,

Ancient author: Lucian of Samosata (late second century CE), The Scythian (link to Greek text; link to full translation).

Comments: The present speech by Lucian of Samosata was perhaps delivered in Macedonia with a father and son in the audience praised by the end. This provides an example of a Greek-speaking author – in this case a “barbarian” Syrian himself (link on Lucian’s self-identifications) – portraying “barbarian” Scythians by way of a story set in the time of Solon (sixth century BCE). Scythians make their appearance in more than one of Lucian’s writings, so he seems to have them at top of mind when it comes to barbarians (on which go to this link coming soon). The image of the Scythians in this story ends up being a relatively positive one, more along the lines of wise barbarians in some respects. Yet – as can be expected with Lucian’s satirical approach – there are also tensions pointing to negative Greek perceptions, as when the Athenian characters laugh at Anacharsis’ outfit. And overall Toxaris the Scythian and Solon (as embodiment of Athenian superiority) are affirmed for acculturation and promulgation of the superiority of Athenian ways. Anacharsis himself learns his lesson and devotes himself to conversations with Solon.

There is tension in the speech between Lucian’s self-identification as a barbarian, in some sense like Anacharsis, and the supposedly superior ways of the Greeks. Lucian imagines a group of Greeks who addressed him when he, as a barbarian, first showed up among Greeks. Remember that Lucian, of course, is highly enculturated into Greek forms of learning himself, but approaches even that in a satirical manner.

Source of the translation: H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler, The Works of Lucian, 4 volumes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905), public domain, adapted and modernized by Daniel Mitchell and Harland.


[Narrator introduces Toxaris, the non-elite Scythian settled in Athens]

Anacharsis was not the first Scythian who was inspired by the love of Greek culture to leave his native country and visit Athens. Anacharsis had been preceded by Toxaris, a man of high ability, noble sentiments, and an eager student of the best manners and customs.  However, in his homeland, Toxaris was neither a member of royal lineage nor a member of those accustomed to wearing elite fashions [i.e. unlike Anacharsis]. Instead, he was one of what they [Scythians] call “an eight-hoof man,” a term which implies possession of a wagon and two oxen. Toxaris never returned to Scythia, but died at Athens, where he presently came to be ranked among the heroes [i.e. deceased people of renown who were venerated at tombs or shrines].  Sacrifice is still offered to “the foreign physician “, as he was styled after his heroic deification. I think some explanation of the significance of this name, the origin of his worship, and his connection with the sons of Asklepios will not be out of place here. It will be clear from this account that the Scythians do not stand alone in conferring immortality on mortals and sending them to keep company with Zamolxis [actually a Thracian deity], since it is also possible for the Athenians to make gods out of Scythian people on Greek soil.

[Stories about Toxaris’ healings both while alive and as a hero]

At the time of the great plague, the wife of Architeles, a man who was a member of the Areopagos [i.e. the Athenian judicial council], had a vision: the Scythian Toxaris stood over her and commanded her to tell the Athenians that the plague would cease if they would sprinkle their back-streets with wine. The Athenians attended to his instructions, and after several sprinklings had been performed, the plague troubled them no more. This is the case regardless of whether it was that the perfume of the wine neutralized certain noxious vapours, or that the hero, being a medical man, had some other knowledge behind his advice.

However that may be, he continues to this day [as a deceased hero] to draw a fee for his professional services in the form of a white horse, which is sacrificed on his tomb. This tomb was pointed out by Deimainete as the place from which Toxaris issued his instructions about the wine. Beneath the tomb, Toxaris’ body was found buried, his identity being established not merely by the inscription (of which only a part remained legible), but also by the figure depicted on the monument. The figure was a Scythian with a ready-strung bow in his left hand and what appeared to be a book in his right hand. You may still make out more than half the figure, with the bow and book completely intact. However, the upper portion of the stone, including the face, has suffered from the ravages of time. It is situated not far from the Dipylos, on your left as you leave the Dipylos for the Academy. The mound is of no great size, and the pillar lies fallen. Nontheless, it never lacks a garland, and there are recorded statements to the effect that patients of fever have been known to be cured by the hero, which indeed is not surprising, considering that he once healed an entire city.

[Anacharsis’ visit and the Athenians’ insults about his Scythian outfit]

However, my reason for mentioning Toxaris was this. He was still alive at the time when Anacharsis landed at Peiraieus [i.e. port of Athens] and made his way up to Athens, in no small state of distress. As a foreigner (xenos) and a barbarian (barbaros), everything was strange to Anachrarsis, and many things made him uncomfortable. He didn’t know what to do with himself. He saw that everyone was laughing at his outfit, and he could find no one to speak his native language. In short, he was very sick of his travels and made up his mind that he would just see Athens, and then retreat to his ship without loss of time, get on board, and so sail back to the Bosporos. Once at Bosporos, he had no great journey to perform before he would be home in Scythia again [on the opposite, northern shore of the Black Sea].

[Interaction between Anacharsis and Toxaris]

In this frame of mind he had already reached the Kerameikos subdivision [of Athens], when a good spirit appeared to him in the guise of Toxaris. The attention of the Toxaris was immediately drawn to the dress of his native land, and it was likely that he would not have had any difficulty in recognizing Anacharsis, who was of noble birth and of the highest rank in Scythia. Anacharsis, on the other hand, could not be expected to see a fellow Scythian in Toxaris. Toxaris was dressed in the Greek style without sword or belt, he didn’t wear a beard, and, in light of his fluent Greek speech, he might have been an Athenian born man. Time had completely transformed Toxaris.

“You are surely Anacharsis, the son of Daucetas? ” he said, addressing him in the Scythian language. Anacharsis wept tears of joy. He not only heard his mother-tongue, but heard it from one who had known him in Scythia. “How is it that you know who I am, stranger (xenos)?” he asked. “I too am of that land. My name is Toxaris, but it is probably not known to you, for I am a man of no renowned family. “

“Are you that Toxaris,” exclaimed the Anacharsis, “of whom I heard had left his wife and children in Scythia for his love of Greece and had gone to Athens, and was there living in high honour?” (5) “If my name is still remembered among you, then, yes, I am that Toxaris.”

[Anacharsis’ hesitant request for ethnographical information about Athenians and Greece]

“Then,” said Anacharsis, “you see before you a disciple, who has caught your enthusiasm for Greece. It was with no other objective than this that I set out on my travels. The hardships that I have endured in the lands through which I passed on my way here are countless. I had already decided, when I met you, that I would return to my ship before the sun set because I was so disturbed at the strange and ridiculous sights that I have seen. And now, Toxaris, in the name of our native gods, Akinakes (Scimitar) and Zamolxis [actually a Thracian diety], I ask you: take me by the hand, be my guide, and make me acquainted with all that is best in Athens and in the rest of Greece: their great men, their wise laws, their customs, their assemblies, their constitution, and their everyday life. You and I have both travelled far to see these things: you will not let me to depart without seeing them?”

“What! come to the very door, and then turn back? This is not the language of enthusiasm. However, there is no fear of that. You will not go back, Athens will not let you off so easily. She is not so much at a loss for charms with which to detain the foreigner. She will take such a hold on you that you will forget your own wife and children, if you have any.

[Consulting the philosopher Solon, superior Greece personified]

Now I will put you into the best way of seeing Athens, yes, and Greece and the glories of Greece. There is a certain philosopher living here. He is an Athenian but has travelled a great deal in Asia and Egypt, and he mingled with the most eminent men. But besides this, he is not counted among wealthy men – indeed, he is quite poor – so, be prepared for an old man, dressed as plainly as could be. Yet his virtue and wisdom are held in such esteem, that he was employed by these men to draw up a constitution, and his ordinances inform the way they live. Make this man your friend, study him, and rest assured that in knowing him, you will know Greece, because he is the epitome of everything that is excellent in the Greek character. I can do you no greater service than to introduce you to him.”

“Then let us lose no time Toxaris! Take me with you as you go to him, even though I’m afraid of the possibility that he may disregard your petitions on my behalf.”

“You know not what you say. Nothing gives him greater pleasure than to have an opportunity of showing his hospitality to foreigners strangers. Only follow me, and you will see how courteous and benevolent he is, and how devout a worshipper he is of the god who is Friend of Strangers [i.e. Zeus Xenos]. But wait: how fortunate! here he comes towards us. See, he is wrapped in thought and mutters to himself. . .”

“Solon!” Toxaris yelled, “I bring you the best of gifts: a foreigner who craves your friendship. He is a Scythian of noble family, but he has left behind everything and come here to enjoy the society of Greeks, and to view the wonders of their land. I have thought of a simple solution which will enable him to do both – to see everything that is to be seen and to form the best acquaintances. In other words, I have brought him to Solon, who, if I know anything of his character, will not refuse to take him under his protection and to make him a Greek among Greeks.”

“It is as I told you, Anacharsis: having seen Solon, you have seen everything. Gaze on Athens! Gaze on Greece! You are a foreigner no longer: everyone knows you, everyone is your friend. This is what it means to possess the friendship of the venerable Solon. Conversing with him, you will forget Scythia and all that is in it. Your toils are rewarded, your desire is fulfilled. In him you have the fount of Greek civilization, in him the ideals of Athenian philosophers are realized. Happy man – if you know your happiness – to be the friend and intimate of Solon!”

It would take too long to describe the pleasure of Solon at Toxaris’ “gift,” his words on the occasion, and his subsequent social interaction with Anacharsis; to describe how he gave him the most valuable instruction, procured him the friendship of all Athens, showed him the sights of Greece, and took every trouble to make his stay in the land a pleasant one; and, to describe how Anacharsis for his part regarded the sage with such reverence, that he was never willingly absent from his side.

Suffice it to say that the promise of Toxaris was fulfilled: thanks to Solon’s help, Anacharsis speedily became familiar with Greece and with Greek society, in which he was treated with the consideration due to one who came thus strongly recommended.  For Solon was also a lawgiver here, and those whom he respected were loved and admired by all. Finally, if we may believe the story of Theoxenos, Anacharsis was presented with the freedom of the city and initiated into the mysteries. Nor does it seem likely that Anacharsis would ever have returned to Scythia, if Solon had not died.

[Lucian’s Anacharsis-like experience as a barbarian and the Solon-like father and son in the audience]

And now perhaps I had better put the moral to my tale, if it is not to wander about aimlessly. What are Anacharsis and Toxaris from Scythia doing here in Macedonia today, bringing old man Solon with them all the way from Athens? It is time for me to explain. The fact is, my situation is pretty much that of Anacharsis: I crave for your indulgence in venturing to compare myself with royalty. After all, Anacharsis was also a barbarian, and no one could say that we Syrians are inferior to Scythians. I am not comparing myself with Anacharsis the king, but Anacharsis the barbarian.

When first I set foot in your city, I was filled with amazement at its size, its beauty, its population, its resources and splendour generally. For a time I was dumbfounded with admiration. The sight was too much for me. I felt like the young Telemachos from the islands [of Ithaca] having just come to the palace of Menelaos [cf. Homer, Odyssey 4.1- link], and I might well have thought so, as I viewed this city in all its pride – as that one poet says: “She is a garden, whose flowers are every blessing.”

(10) Affected in this way, I had to reflect on what course I should adopt. For as to lecturing here, my mind had long been made up about that. What other audience could I have before me that I should pass by this great city in silence? In truth, I set about inquiring into who the great men were, because it was my plan to approach them and secure both their patronage and support in facing the public.

Unlike Anacharsis, who had but one informant, Toxaris, and a barbarian at that, I had many. They all told me the same tale, in almost the same words: “Foreigner,” they said, “we have many excellent and able men in this city. Nowhere else will you find more. However, there are two who stand out as preeminent, who are without a rival in birth and in prestige, and who, in learning and eloquence, might be matched with the ‘Ten Orators’ of Athens. They are regarded by the public with feelings of absolute devotion: their will is law. They wish for nothing but that which is in the best interests of the city. Their courtesy, their hospitality towards foreigners, their unassuming benevolence, their modesty in the midst of greatness, their gentleness, their affability— all of these you will presently experience and will have something to say on the subject yourself.”

“But – wonder of wonders! – these two are of one house, father and son [perhaps praising a father and son being addressed in a Macedonian audience]. For the father, conceive to yourself a Solon, a Perikles, an Aristides: as to the son, his manly attractiveness and noble stature will attract you at the first glance. If he says just two words, your ears will be taken captive by the charm that sits upon his tongue. When he speaks in public, the city listens like one man, open-mouthed. It is Athens listening to Alkibiades. Yet the Athenians presently repented of their infatuation for the son of Kleinias, but here love grows to reverence. The welfare of this city, the happiness of her citizens, are all bound up in one man [i.e. Alkibiades]. Once you let the father and son admit you to their friendship, then the city is yours; they have but to raise a finger to put your success beyond a doubt.”

Such, by Zeus (if it is even necessary to swear on it), was the unaltering report I heard from them, and I now know from experience that it fell far short of the truth. As the Keian poet [Bacchylides] cries: “Up then, and do not waste your days in idle procrastination.” I must strain every nerve, work body and soul, to gain these friends. Once I succeed in this, fair weather and calm seas are before me, and my haven is near at hand.

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