Barbarian peoples: Caesarius of Nazianzos’ and George the Monk’s collection of extraordinary customs (sixth / ninth centuries CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Barbarian peoples: Caesarius of Nazianzos’ and George the Monk’s collection of extraordinary customs (sixth / ninth centuries CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 3, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=13584.

Ancient authors: Caesarius of Nazianzos (sixth century CE), as cited by George the Monk of Constantinople (ninth century), Chronicle 24-28 (link to Greek).

Comments: The monk George of Constantinople rather ambitiously set out to produce a Chronicle from creation to his own time in the ninth century CE. In the midst of retelling the adventures and conquests of Alexander of Macedon, particularly in relation to Judeans, George takes an ethnographic diversion and draws on pseudo-Palladios (an anonymous author) regarding Alexander, the Indians, and the Brahmans, as I discuss in another post (link).

This ethnographic twist then leads George even further afield with what you have before you here: George summarizes a list of the “paradoxical” customs of various “barbarian” peoples from a now lost work attributed to the sixth-century physician, Caesarius of Nazianzos in Cappadocia (the brother of the Christian bishop Gregory). Each item in the list is quite short and focussed on the extreme and paradoxical, including the by now not unexpected eating of human flesh. Sexual customs are a favourite topic to draw attention to paradoxes. More unusual, perhaps, is the claim that Babylonians have the everyday custom of sleeping with their mothers and killing their siblings.

Some of the other peoples who face the most harsh treatment in the list are the usual suspects, including northern Celts and Britons. George (like Palladius) keeps a special place for the Brahmans, though, perhaps because they can be imagined to live a life similar to Christian ascetics and monks. This is the sort of collection or catalogue of extraordinary “barbarian customs” that you can see well-illustrated at this link, involving Nikolaos of Damaskos, Bardaisan of Edessa, and others in earlier periods. The tradition continued into later centuries, then.

Source of the translation: Translation by Harland, in consultation with R. Stoneman, Legends of Alexander the Great (London: I.B. Taurus, 1994), 30-33.

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[For George the monk’s preceding passage on Indians and the Brahmans, go to this link]

[Survey of the customs of various peoples, drawing on Caesarius as a source; cf. Bardaisan]

Actually, the great Caesarius, brother of Gregory the Great [500s CE], in his description of different peoples (ethnē), as well as their customs, ways, and laws, writes as follows, in shortened form:

In every country and among every people there is either a written law or habits. Law imparts ancestral customs to the lawless.

[Serians (far east Asians)]

The first of these are the Serians (Seres), who live on the edge of the earth. They have as a law an ancestral custom against prostitution, adultery, theft, slander, murder and crime in general.

[Baktrians, Brahmans and Nesiotians portrayed positively]

Now there is a law also among Baktrians or Brahmans and Islanders (Nesiotai) which is the teaching and piety of the ancestors not to eat meat, drink wine, engage in inappropriate sexual intercourse, or engage in any kind of crime. This is done because of much fear and trust of god.

[Other Indians at the opposite extreme, including eating people]

And yet the Indians beside them engage in murder, excessive wine-drinking, and all kinds of shameful behaviour in a frantic and strange manner. In the even further regions they eat people (anthrĹŤpoborein), particularly killing foreigners and tearing them apart like dogs.

[Chaldeans and Babylonians]

A different law for the Chaldaeans and Babylonians is to marry their mothers, to kill their siblings, to murder and to do every action hated by God. They consider these virtuous to accomplish, even if they do them far from their own country.

[Gauls / Celts]

However, among Gauls (Gēlaioi) it is a law for women to engage in farming, to build houses, and to do all kinds of men’s work, but also to engage in prostitution with anyone they want without any hindrance or envy from their husbands. Among these women are some who are war-like and hunt animals, at least animals that are less fierce. They are rulers over the members of the household and dominate the men.

[Britannia]

In Britannia [England] the majority of men sleep with one woman, and many women sleep with one man. They also consider lawless behaviour as a good law and as the ancestral way, and they do so without arousing envy or hindrance.

[Amazons]

Now the Amazons have no husbands, but like wild animals they go beyond their territory during the spring equinox each year and have sex with the neighbouring men, as though it was a celebration or a large festival. Then when they have become pregnant they all go home again. When they give birth, they kill all the male children, but keep alive the female ones and carefully nurse them and raise them. . . [omitted remainder of George’s discussion of developments after the death of Alexander of Macedon].

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