Egyptians, Ethiopians, Indians and others: Depictions of “pygmies” in Greek and Roman art (fifth century BCE-first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Egyptians, Ethiopians, Indians and others: Depictions of “pygmies” in Greek and Roman art (fifth century BCE-first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 26, 2023,

Athenian red-figure drinking-cup (rhyton) in the form of a “pygmy” carrying a crane with Nike, Silenos and Maenad around the neck (ca. 450 BCE; now in the Akademisches Kunstmuseum, Bonn, inv. 545):

Athenian red figure wine-jug depicting a “pygmy” fighting a crane (430-420 BCE; now in the National Archaeological Museum, Madrid):

Fresco from a house at Pompeii (VI.6.8; first century CE or earlier) depicting “pygmies” dealing with marvellous creatures, including crocodiles and a hippopotamus (now in the Naples Archaeological Museum, inv. 113195):

Fresco from the “House of the Physician” in Pompeii (VIII.5.24; first century CE or earlier) depicting “pygmies” in a banquet scene with music and sex (now in the Naples Archaeological Museum, inv. 113196):

Comments: As early as the eighth century BCE, Greek legends about “fist-sized” (pygmē) peoples battling cranes already circulated, as referenced in Homer’s Iliad (3.1-7):

“When the armies were ready, each company with its leader, / the Trojans advanced with a raucous shouting, like cranes / whose shrieks fill the sky as they flee from the storms of winter / and the endless rain, and fly toward the river Ocean, / bringing swift death through the air to the Pygmy troops. / But the Argives advanced in silence, breathing out fury, eager to fight and stand by each other in battle” (trans. Mitchell 2011).

Some of the earlier visual representations here echo that story of the battle between “pygmies” and cranes. However, the “pygmies” or other conceptions of extremely little people were by no means limited to expressly mythological narratives. In connection with a fascination with supposed ethnographic marvels, ancient authors imagined – or referred to other peoples’ imaginings – about such fist-sized peoples living in various places at or beyond the edges of the known world, including:

  • India: Ktesias, Indian Matters (link); Pliny, Natural History 6.70, 7.25 (link); Philostratos, Life of Apollonios of Tyana 3.47 (link); Pseudo-Palladios, On the Life of the Brahmans 1.7-10 (link);
  • Libya: Herodotos, Inquiries 2.32 (link);
  • Egypt on the southern portion of the Nile: Pliny, Natural History 6.187-89; Strabo, Geography 17.2.1;
  • Ethiopia on the Red Sea: Pomponius Mela, Description of Lands 80 (link);
  • near the Black Sea: Pliny, Natural History 4.44; and,
  • the legendary northern island of Thule: Eustathios of Thessalonika, Commentary on the Iliad 3.6.

As Molly Swetnam-Burland (2009, 450) suggests, representations of pygmies in Roman art, such as the frescoes from Pompeii here, could also play a role in the denigration of subjugated peoples and in the legitimation of hegemonic ethnic or racial hierarchies: “After annexation, landscapes increasingly portrayed the residents of Egypt as less than human, both physically, as small-scale pygmies, and culturally, as animal worshipers who must fight for their lives against the very animals they revere.”

In modern colonial contexts since the eighteenth century, of course, the notion of a common race of “pygmies” (with explorers, missionaries, and even anthropologists identifying or debating what height justified such categorization) continued to play an important role in colonial imaginaries and in the construction of racial hierarchies (on which see Ballard 2006).

Works consulted: C. Ballard, “Strange Alliance: Pygmies in the Colonial Imaginary,” World Archaeology 38 (2006): 133–51 (link); M. Swetnam-Burland, “Egypt Embodied: The Vatican Nile,” American Journal of Archaeology 113 (2009): 439–57 (link).

Source of images: Photo of vase with pygmy carrying a crane by Dan Diffendale (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0); photo of wine-jug with pygmy fighting a crane by Marie-Lan Nguyen (CC BY 2.5), photo of fresco from Pompeii with pygmies battling cranes by Heath (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0); photo of second Naples fresco by Harland.

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