Phrygians: Alexander Polyhistor, Hermogenes, and others on Phrygian Matters (first century BCE on)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Phrygians: Alexander Polyhistor, Hermogenes, and others on Phrygian Matters (first century BCE on),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 6, 2023,

Ancient authors: Alexander Polyhistor (mid-first century BCE), On Phrygian Matters = FGrHist 273; Hermogenes, On Phrygia = FGrHist 795; Metrophanes of Eukarpia, On Phrygia = FGrHist 796 (link to FGrHist); Aristotle (fourth century BCE), Politics 1.1257b (link); Ovid, Metamorphoses 11.85-193 (link).

Comments: Surviving ethnographic materials concerning the Phrygians are surprisingly scant. Even Strabo, who devotes considerable attention to this part of Anatolia has very little to say about Phrygians as a people (link). Several Greek authors do make reference to so-called “Phrygian tales” or “Phrygian writings” but, as James Rives (2005) shows, such terms were a catchword for accounts that equated gods with accomplished humans of the old days (“Euhemerizing” accounts) or interpreted myths allegorically. They actually had little or nothing to do with Phrygians as a people.

Because of this dearth of materials, it is important to give some attention to three consciously ethnographic writings that are only extant in citations by others, even though these passages do not go into many details about Phrygian customs. Below you will find brief passages from works on Phrygians by Alexander Polyhistor, Hermogenes, and Metrophanes of Eukarpia in Phrygia. All of them seem to contain local stories concerning particular locales or legendary Phrygian figures, including stories about king Midas, about Nannakos, about Sangan, and about the Mother goddess, Attis, and Gallos. Furthermore, there is the notion that Phrygians made important discoveries in music (on which see Pliny at this link). Also noteworthy regarding Phrygians is Ephoros’ story about their invention of mysteries which is dealt with in another post (link).

As Lynn Roller (1983) clarifies, there is a sense in which widely circulating Greek legends about the Phrygian king Midas specifically capture developing Greek imaginations (later inherited by Romans) about Phrygians generally. As early as the seventh century BCE, king Midas is depicted in Greek vase paintings, particulary regarding the story of Midas capturing Dionysos’ foster-father and/or sidekick Silenos and, as a result of such misbehaviour, growing donkey-ears. The mid-fifth century BCE vase to your right pictures Midas enthroned and with donkey ears addressing the captured Silenos, with a satyr and maenad in the background (link to British Museum info). Now I have also added below two literary passages regarding the most well known Greek legend depicting this Phrygian as greedy and stupid. This story of Midas’ golden-touch is known as early as Aristotle in the fourth century BCE but is more fully developed by the Latin poet Ovid, who pulls together a variety of Greek legends in a new way around 8 CE. These, too, provide glimpses into Greek and Roman perceptions of easterners like the Phrygians.

Works consulted: J. B. Rives, “Phrygian Tales,” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 45 (2005): 223–44 (link); L.E. Roller, “The Legend of Midas,” Classical Antiquity 2 (1983): 299–313 (link).

Source of the translations: Translations of Alexander, Metrophanes, and Hermogenes by Harland, except Pseudo-Plutarch adapted from W.W. Goodwin, ed., Plutarch’s Morals, 5 volumes (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1874) (link), public domain; H. Rackham, Politics, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1932), public domain (Rackham passed away in 1944 and copyright not renewed), adapted; Ovid translation © 2000 A.S. Cline (link), used with permission for non-commercial purposes. Photo of vase from the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).


Alexander Polyhistor, On Phrygian Matters = FGrHist 273

F73 = Stephanus of Byzantion, Ethnika (epitome by Hermolaos), at “Akmoneia” (162)

Akmoneia. A city in Phrygia, as Alexander Polyhistor writes in the third book of On Phrygia. And it was founded by Akmon son of Maneus.

F74 = Stephanus of Byzantion, Ethnika (epitome by Hermolaos), at “Gallos” (28)

Gallos. A river of Phrygia. The local residents are called Potamogallitians, according to Timotheos, and Potamogallenians, according to Promathidas, about which Polyhistor writes in the third book of On Phrygia that Gallos and Attis cut off their private parts, and that Gallos came to the river Terias, lived there and named the Gallos river. Those who cut off their private parts are called “Galloi” after him.

F75 = Stephanus of Byzantion, Ethnika (epitome by Hermolaos), at “Pharnakia”

Pharnakia. Place and city in the Pontic region next to Trapezountos . . . There is also a Pharnakia in Phrygia, as Alexander [Polyhistor] writes in the third book of On Phrygia.

F76 = Pseudo-Plutarch, On Rivers / De fluviis 10 (link to Greek)

Marsyas is a river of Phrygia, flowing by the city Kelainai, and formerly called the “Fountain of Midas” for the following reason: Midas, king of Phrygia, travelling in the remoter parts of the country and wanting water, stamped upon the ground. Then a golden fountain appeared. But since water ended up being gold, and both he and his soldiers were ready to perish for thirst, he invoked the compassion of Bacchos, who listened to his prayers and supplied him with water. The Phrygians having by this means quenched their thirst, Midas named the river that issued from the spring the “Fountain of Midas.”

Afterwards it was called Marsyas, upon the following occasion: When Marsyas was overcome and flayed by Apollo, certain satyrs are said to have sprung from the stream of his blood, as also a river bearing the name of “Marsyas,” just as Alexander Cornelius [Polyhistor] records in his third book of On Phrygian Matters (Phrygiakoi).

But Euemeridas the Knidian tells the story after this manner. It happened that the wine-bag which was made of Marsyas’s skin, being corroded by time and carried away negligently by the wind, finally fell from the land into Midas’s well. Floating along with the stream, was taken out by a fisherman. Then Pisistratos the Lakedaimonian [Spartan], being commanded by the oracle to build near the place where the relics of the satyr were found, reflected upon the accident and, in obedience to the oracle having built a fair city, called it Norikon, which in the Phrygian language signifies a “wine-bag.” In this river grows an herb called the pipe, which being moved in the wind yields a melodious sound, as Derkyllos reports in his first book of Satyrics.

Near to this river also lies the mountain Berekyntos, deriving its name from Berekyntos, the first priest to the Mother of the Gods. Upon this mountain is found a stone which is called “machaira,” very much resembling iron. If any one sheds light on it while the solemnities of the Mother of the Gods are performing, he then goes mad, as Agatharchides reports in his Phrygian Matters (Phrygiakoi).

F77 = Pseudo-Plutarch, On Music 6 (link to Greek)

Alexander in his collection of things On Phrygia says that Olympos was the first to bring into Greece the technique of touching the strings with a quill; next to him were the Idaian [i.e. Phrygian] Dactyls [on which compare Ephoros at this link]. Hyagnis was the first that sang to the pipe, after him his son Marsyas, and then Olympos. He says that Terpander imitated Homer in his verses and Orpheus in his musical compositions, but that Orpheus never imitated any one, since in his time there were none but such as composed to the pipe. This was in a way that was quite different from that of Orpheus. Klonas, a composer of nomes for flute-music, and somewhat later than Terpander, as the Arkadians affirm, was born in Tegea or, as the Boiotians claim, at Thebes. After Terpander and Klonas flourished Archilochos. Yet there are some writers who affirm that Ardalos the Troizenian taught the manner of composing to wind-music before Klonas. There was also the poet Polymnestos, the son of Meles the Kolophonian, who invented the Polymnestian measures. Furthermore, they write that Clonas invented the nomes Apothetus and Schoinion. Pindar and Alkman, both lyric poets, make mention of Polymnestos. But they claim Philammon (the ancient Delphian) was the author of several of the lyric nomes said to be instituted by Terpander.

F 78 = Stephanus of Byzantion, Ethnika (epitome by Hermolaos), at “Metropolis”

Metropolis. A city in Phrygia which was founded as a colony by the Mother of the Gods, as Alexander writes in the work On Phrygia (Peri Phrygia). There is also another city of the same name in Phrygia.


Hermogenes, On Phrygia = FGrHist 795

F1 = Scholiast on Apollionos of Rhodes, Voyage of the Argo 2.722

Sangarios, a river of Phrygia. Now Myrleanos says that it is called Sangaron. In his work, On Phrygia, Hermogenes says that since a certain Sangan was impious towards goddess Rhea, the water was changed and the river was named Sangarion. As Xanthos says, nearby this river there is a temple of Demeter [Meter may be intended] of the mountain.

F2 = Zenobios, Epitome of the Collection of Proverbs 6.10 (second century CE)

The tears of Nannakos. The proverb is told concerning amazing things in antiquity, or about those wailing excessively. For, as Hermogenes says in Phrygian Matters, Nannakos was a king of the Phrygians before the times of Deukalion. After discovering ahead of time about the imminent cataclysm, he gathered everyone into the temples and, shedding tears along with them, he begged. And Herodas the iambic poet says “even if I weep the tears of Nannakos” [3.10].

F3 = Stephanos of Byzantium, Ethnika, at “Azanoi” (72)

Azanoi, a Phrygian city. . . [Strabo, Herodian, and other citations omitted] . . . Now some call it Azanion, but Hermogenes says:

“It should not be called that, but it is to be called Exouanous. For it is said that it is a place in the countryside and, when a famine happened and the shepherds came together, they were sacrificing in order to gain good pasturage. Now when the gods were not listening, Euphorbos sacrificed an ‘ouanous,’ which is a fox, and an ‘exis,’ which is a hedghog, to the lower spirits.  Now after this satisfied the gods, there was good pasturage and the earth was fertile.  Hearing about this, the neighbours made him priest and leader (archon). From this, they called the city Exouanous, which translates to ‘Hedgehog-fox’ [in Greek]. But it seems to have been changed from Exounous to Azanion.”


Metrophanes of Eukarpia, On Phrygia = FGrHist 796

F1 = Stephanos of Byzantium, Ethnika, at “Eukarpia” (157)

Eukarpia, a People of lesser Phrygia. Metrophanes writes that a bunch of grapes there was so large that a wagon split down the middle from the weight of it. So it was called this because of the fertility. Concerning this place, the barbarians say that Zeus gave the fruitful land to Demeter and Dionysos.


Aristotle, Politics

[Reference to Midas and the golden touch in connection with uselessness of money]

(1.1257b) But at other times, on the contrary, it is thought that money is nonsense, and nothing by nature but entirely a convention, because when those who use it have changed the currency it is worth nothing and because it is of no use for any of the necessary needs of life and a man well supplied with money may often be destitute of the bare necessities of subsistence. Yet it is anomalous that wealth should be of such a kind that a man may be well supplied with it and yet die of hunger, like the famous Midas in the legend. Owing to the insatiable greed of his prayer all the meals served up to him turned into gold. For this reason, people seek for a different definition of riches and the art of getting wealth, and rightly so, because natural wealth-getting and natural riches are different: natural wealth-getting belongs to household management, whereas the other kind belongs to trade, producing goods not in every way but only by the method of exchanging goods.


Ovid, Metamorphoses

[Various Midas legends pulled together and developed]

(11.85-193) Bacchus [alternative name for the god Dionysos] left the fields themselves, and with a worthier band of followers sought out the vineyards of his own mount Tmolos, and the river Pactolos, though at that time it was not a golden stream, nor envied for its valuable sands. His familiar cohorts, the satyrs and female bacchic devotees accompanied him, but Silenos was absent. The Phrygian countrymen had taken him captive, stumbling with age and wine, bound him with garlands, and led him to king Midas, to whom, with Athenian Eumolpos, Orpheus of Thrace had taught the Bacchic rites. When the king recognised him as a friend and companion of his worship, he joyfully led a celebration of the guest’s arrival, lasting ten days and nights on end. And now, on the eleventh day, Morning-star had been seen off the train of distant stars, and the king with gladness came to the fields of Lydia, and restored Silenos to his young foster-child.

Then the god, happy at his foster-father’s return, gave Midas control over the choice of a gift, which was pleasing, but futile, since he was doomed to make poor use of his reward. “Make it so that whatever I touch with my body, turns to yellow gold,” he said. Bacchus accepted his choice, and gave him the harmful gift, sad that he had not asked for anything better. The Berecyntian king departed happily, rejoicing in his bane, and testing his faith in its powers by touching things, and scarcely believing it, when he broke off a green twig from the low foliage of the holm-oak: the twig was turned to gold. He picked up a stone from the ground: the stone also was pale gold. He touched a clod of earth, and by the power of touch, the clod became a nugget. He gathered the dry husks of corn: it was a golden harvest. He held an apple he had picked from a tree: you would think the Hesperides had given it to him. If he placed his fingers on the tall door-pillars, the pillars were seen to shine. When he washed his hands in clear water, the water flowing over his hands would have deceived Danae.

His own mind could scarcely contain his expectations, dreaming of all things golden. As he was celebrating, his servants set a table before him, heaped with cooked food, and loaves were not lacking. Then, indeed, if he touched the gift of Ceres [goddess of grain, equated with Demeter] with his hand, her gift hardened. If he tried, with eager bites, to tear the food, the food was covered with a yellow surface where his teeth touched. He mixed pure water with wine, the other gift of his benefactor, but molten gold could be seen trickling through his lips.

Dismayed by this strange misfortune, rich and unhappy, he tries to flee his riches, and hates what he wished for a moment ago. No abundance can relieve his famine: his throat is parched with burning thirst, and, justly, he is tortured by the hateful gold. Lifting his shining hands and arms to heaven, he cries out: “Father, Bacchus, forgive me! I have made a mistake. But have pity on me, I beg you, and save me from this costly evil!” The will of the gods is kindly. Bacchus, when he confessed his fault restored him, and took back what he had given in fulfilment of his promise. “So you do not remain coated with the gold you wished for so foolishly,” he said, “go to the river by great Sardis, make your way up the bright ridge against the falling waters, till you come to the source of the stream, and plunge your head and body at the same moment into the foaming fountain, where it gushes out, and at the same time wash away your mistake.” The king went to the river as he was ordered: the golden virtue coloured the waters, and passed from his human body into the stream. Even now, gathering the grains of gold from the ancient vein, the fields harden, their soil soaked by the pale yellow waters.

Hating wealth, Midas lived among woods and fields, and the mountain caves Pan always inhabits. But he remained dull-witted and, as before, his foolish mind was destined once again to hurt its owner. Mount Tmolos, stands steep and high, commanding a wide view of the distant sea, its sloping sides extending to Sardis on the one side, and as far as tiny Hypaipa on the other. While Pan was there, playing light airs on his reeds glued together with wax, he boasted of his pipings, to the gentle nymphs, and dared to speak slightingly of Apollo’s song compared with his own, and entered an unequal contest with Tmolos, the god of the mountain, as judge.

The aged judge was seated on his mountain-top and shook his ears free of the trees. Only an oak-wreath circled his dark hair, and acorns brushed against his hollow temples. Looking at the god of the flocks he said: “There is nothing to prevent my judging.” Pan sounded the rustic reeds, and entranced Midas (who chanced to be near the playing) with wild pipings. Following this, sacred Tmolos turned his face towards that of Phoibos [Apollo]: his forests followed.

Phoibos’s golden hair was wreathed with laurel from Parnassos, and his robes dyed with Tyrian purple, swept the earth. He held his lyre, inlaid with gems and Indian ivory, in his left hand, and the plectrum in the other. His attitude was that of a true artist. Then with skilled fingers, he plucked the strings, and Tmolos, captivated by their sweetness, ordered Pan to lower his pipes in submission to the lyre.

The judgment of the sacred mountain-god satisfied all opinions, and yet Midas’s voice alone challenged it and called it unjust. The god of Delos did not allow such undiscriminating ears to keep their human form, but drew them out and covered them with shaggy grey hair, and made them flexible at the base, and gave them powers of movement. Though the rest was human, Midas was punished in that sole aspect: he wore the ears of a slow-moving ass. He was anxious to conceal them, and tried to detract from the shameful ugliness of his head with a purple turban. But the servant who used to trim his long hair with a blade, found it out, who, since he dare not reveal the disgrace he had seen, but eager to broadcast it to the four winds, and unable to keep it to himself, went off quietly and dug a hole in the soil. In a tiny voice, he whispered to the hollow earth, and buried his spoken evidence under the infill, and stole away having closed up the hidden trench. But a thick bed of quivering reeds began to shoot up there, and as soon as they had grown, at the end of the year, they gave the burrower away: stirred gently, then, by the wind they repeated the buried words, and testified against his master.

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