Egyptians, Taurians, and Celts: Cicero’s Philus engages in ethnographic discourses for philosophical aims (mid-first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Egyptians, Taurians, and Celts: Cicero’s Philus engages in ethnographic discourses for philosophical aims (mid-first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified September 10, 2023,

Ancient authors: Cicero (mid-first century BCE), On the Republic 3.13-17 (link).

Comments: In Cicero’s The Republic (an homage to Plato, in a sense), he has Philus, one of the Roman characters, extensively explain the ostensible views of the Greek Stoic philosopher Karneades. Karneades and Philus are presented as arguing that justice is not natural, but that different peoples’ sense of what is right or pious varies considerably and is cultural. This discourse in which Philus presents evidence of variations in customs from one descent group to the next has affinities with similar arguments by Epiktetos (link), Sextus Empiricus (link), and Bardaisan (link), who all stress variability in customs and laws between peoples.

In this case, the variable customs are somewhat consistently portrayed as negative ones that are distanced from justice. As a result, we have negative statements about Egyptian worship of animals, Greek humanizing of the gods (citing Persian aversion to the practice), and supposed Taurian or Celtic or Egyptian or Carthaginian human sacrifice, for instance.

Works consulted: M.E.C. Leemreize, “Framing Egypt: Roman Literary Perceptions of Egypt from Cicero to Juvenal” (Ph.D., Leiden, Leiden University, 2016), especially pages 115-128 (link).

Source of translations: C.W. Keyes, Cicero: De re publica. De legibus, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1928), public domain (passed away in 1943).


[Justice is not natural]

(3.13-17) Lucius Furius Philus [defending the position that government cannot be run without injustice by recounting the views of the Greek Stoic Karneades]: . . . For the justice which we are investigating is a product of government, not of nature at all. For if justice were natural, then, like heat and cold, or bitter and sweet, justice and injustice would be the same thing to everyone.

[Example of diverse and conflicting customs and sense of right among different peoples]

[Worship of animal-like figures among Egyptians]

But in actual fact, if one could visit many diverse descent groups (gentes) and cities and examine them, travelling around in Pacuvius’ famous “chariot of winged snakes,” he would see first of all, that among the famous and always changeless descent group of the Egyptians, which preserves written records of the events of countless ages, a bull that the Egyptians call Apis is considered a god. Also many other monsters and animals of every sort are held sacred as divine.

[Worship of human-like figures among Greeks]

Then, too, he would see among the Greeks, just as with us Romans, magnificent shrines, adorned with sacred statues in human form. This is a custom which the Persians considered wicked. In fact, Xerxes is said to have ordered the Athenian temples to be burned for the sole reason that he thought it sacrilege to keep the gods whose home is the whole universe closed up within walls. But later Philip, who planned an attack on the Persians, and Alexander, who actually made one, gave as their excuse for war the desire to avenge the temples of the Greeks. The Greeks had thought it proper never to rebuild them, so that posterity might always have before its eyes a monument of Persian impiety.

[Human sacrifice among Taurians, Celts, and Carthaginians; Banditry among Cretans and Aitolians]

How many peoples, such as the Taurians on the shores of the Euxine [Black Sea], the Egyptian king Bousiris, the Gauls [or: Celts in Greek], and the Carthaginians, have believed human sacrifice to be both pious and most pleasing to the immortal gods! Indeed, men’s principles of life are so different that the Cretans and Aitolians consider banditry (latrocinor) honourable, and the Lakedaimonians [Spartans] used to claim as their own all the territory they could touch with their spears.

[Varying customs about land and agricultural produce]

The Athenians also used actually to take public oaths that all lands which produced olives or grain were their own. The Gauls [or: Celts] think it is disgraceful to grow grain by manual labour. Consequently, they go out armed and harvest other men’s fields. We ourselves, indeed, the most just of men, who forbid the descent groups beyond the Alps to plant the olive or the vine, so that our own olive groves and vineyards may be the more valuable, are said to act with prudence in doing so, yet not with justice.


So that you can easily understand that wisdom and equity do not agree. Indeed, Lykourgos, famed as the author of excellent laws and a most equitable system of justice, provided that the lands of the rich should be cultivated by the poor as if the latter were slaves. But if I wished to describe the conceptions of justice, and the principles, customs, and habits which have existed, I could show you, not merely differences in all the different descent groups, but that there have been a thousand changes in a single city, even our own city, in regard to these things.

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