Indians: Curtius Rufus on the environment and the peoples (first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Indians: Curtius Rufus on the environment and the peoples (first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 4, 2023,

Ancient author: Quintus Curtius Rufus (first century CE), History of Alexander 8.9; 9.1.24-31; and 9.10.8-12 (link).

Comments: As Alexander of Macedon approaches India in the narrative, the Roman historian Curtius Rufus engages in a substantial aside on the environment and peoples of India, emphasizing the intimate connection between the two. Rufus focusses some attention on the supposed physical appearance of Indians generally, but is especially interested in underlining and critiquing the luxurious lifestyle of kings. When he turns to potential parallels for philosophy, he speaks of Indian sages (likely the gymnosophists) but, unlike other Greek accounts with an emphasis on foreign wisdom (see many examples of “Indian wisdom” under category three), Rufus entirely dismisses these figures as rude and hideous. So much for the notion of barbarian wisdom, in this case. Further on in his narrative he touches on particular peoples, such as the unnamed descent group under king Sopithes, but Rufus seems hesitant here too to accept the reputation of this people for wisdom. In fact, Rufus uses a description of Sopithes as an example of the extreme and problematic luxury of Indian kings he had outlined earlier. Later on, Rufus seemingly reserves his most critical assessments for Indian peoples on the coast, who are portrayed as savages.

Source of the translation:  John C. Rolfe, Quintus Curtius [Rufus]: History of Alexander, 2 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1946), public domain (Rolfe passed away in 1943), adapted by Harland.


[Environment of India as a context for peoples]

(8.9) But in order not to foster laziness, which naturally leads to gossip, Alexander set out for India because his reputation was always better during war than after victory. Almost all India looks towards the east, being less extensive in width than in a straight line. The parts which receive the south wind rise to a higher level of ground.

The rest of the country is flat and allows a quiet course through plains to many famous rivers rising in mount Caucasus [not what we call the Caucasus mountains but mountains north of India]. The Indus river is colder than the rest. It carries waters which do not differ much from the sea in colour. The Ganges river, greatest of all the rivers of the Orient, flows towards the south and in a straight channel grazes the great mountain ranges. Then rocks in its course deflect it towards the east. Both rivers flow into the Red sea [i.e. the Indian Ocean]. The Indus carries away its banks along with many trees and a great part of the soil, and is also stopped by rocks, from which it often rebounds. Where the Indus finds a softer soil it is quiet, and forms islands. The Akesines river [perhaps modern Chenab] increases it. The Ganges intercepts the Iomanes river [perhaps the modern Jumna] in its downward course, and the two unite with a great commotion of their waters. For the Ganges opposes a rough mouth to the inflowing river and the waters which are hurled back do not yield. The Diardines river [perhaps the Brahmaputra] is less frequently heard of, because it runs through the remotest part of India. However, it breeds not only crocodiles, as does the Nile, but also dolphins and sea beasts unknown to other peoples. The Ethymantos, curved from time to time into many windings, is made use of by the neighbouring peoples for irrigating their fields. That is why it sends out scanty remains of its waters, now without a name, into the sea. The whole region is divided by many rivers besides these ones, but they are not famous, because they flow through regions that have not yet been approached by us.

[Climate as a context for peoples]

But the parts of India which are nearer the sea are greatly dried out by the north wind. This is checked by the mountain ranges and does not penetrate into the interior, which in consequence is mild for bearing fruits. But in that region the climate varies so much from the normal seasons elsewhere that when other places are burning with the heat of the sun, snows bury India. On the other hand, when other places are stiff with frost, intolerable heat prevails there. Nor is there any reason why Nature should have changed her course. Certainly the sea by which India is washed does not differ even in colour from other seas. Its name was given it from King Erythros [i.e. the Erythraian sea, encompassing what moderns call the Red Sea together with the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean] for which reason the ignorant believe that its waters are red. The land is rich in flax. Most of the inhabitants have their garments made from flax. The bark of the trees is tender and can be used for writing just as papyrus can.


There are birds which can be taught to imitate the sound of the human voice. The animals are unknown to other peoples, except such as are imported from that country. The same land produces rhinoceroses, which are unknown to other peoples. The strength of its elephants is greater than those which men tame in Africa, and their size corresponds to their strength. The rivers which flow slowly in a mild and moderate course carry gold. The sea casts upon its shores gems and pearls. They [Indians] have no greater source of wealth, especially since they have made their vices common among foreign peoples. In fact, this “refuse” of the surging sea is valued at the price which desire sets upon it.

[Character of the peoples of India]

As is the case everywhere, so also with them the situation of the country shapes the character (ingenia) of the people. They cover their bodies in linen robes as far as the feet, clothe their feet in sandals, bind their heads in linen, and precious stones hang from their ears. Those who are eminent among the people for high birth or wealth also adorn their wrists and arms with gold. They comb their hair more frequently than they cut it. The chin is always unshaven. They closely shave the rest of the skin on their faces so that it appears smooth.

[Royal customs and luxury]

Nevertheless, the luxury of their kings, which they themselves call magnificence, surpasses the vices of all other descent groups. When the king allows himself to be seen in public, his attendants carry before him silver pans of incense. They fill with perfumes the entire road where he has decided to be carried. He reclines in a golden vehicle adorned with pearls hanging on every side. The linen robe which he wears is embroidered with gold and purple. His vehicle is followed by armed men and by his body-guard, among whom birds perch on tree branches. They have trained the birds with songs to divert the king from serious affairs. His palace has gold-plated columns. Over all of these runs a vine carved in gold, and silver figures of birds, in the sight of which they take the greatest pleasure, adorn the structure. The palace is open to anyone who comes in when the king is having his hair combed and decorated. It is then that he gives replies to deputations and administers justice to natives.

When his sandals are taken off, his feet are bathed in perfumes. His favourite exercise is hunting, which consists in shooting with arrows animals contained in a preserve among the prayers and songs of his concubines. The arrows are two forearm-lengths long. They discharge the arrows with more effort than effect, because a weapon whose whole power depends upon lightness is burdened by its unsuitable weight.

The king makes shorter journeys on horseback. When he makes a longer expedition, he rides in a chariot drawn by elephants, and the entire bodies of such huge animals are covered with gold. Also, that nothing may be lacking in his abandoned habits, a long line of concubines follows in golden vehicles. This train is separated from that of the queen, but equals it in luxury.

Women prepare his food. They also serve his wine, the use of which is lavish with all the Indian peoples. When the king is overcome by wine and drowsiness, concubines take him to his chamber, invoking the gods of the night in a song, after the custom of the country.

[Philosophers, likely gymnosophists]

Who would believe that in the middle of such vices there would be regard for philosophy? There is one rude and hideous class which they call “sages” [likely the so called gymnosophists or naked philosophers of other Greek ethnographic accounts are in mind]. These consider it glorious to anticipate the day of the fateful death. Anyone whose life is feeble or whose health is impaired is ordered to be burned alive. They regard it as a disgrace to life if you wait for death, and no honour is paid to the bodies of those who die of old age. They believe that the fire is weakened unless it receives them while still breathing. Those who pass their lives in communal services in the city are said skilfully to study the courses of the stars and to predict future events. They believe that no one hastens the day of death who can wait for it unterrified. They regard as gods whatever they have begun to care for, especially trees, the violation of which is a capital offence.

They have divided the months into periods of fifteen days, but the full duration of the year is observed. They reckon time by the course of the moon, not, as most do, when it has reached a full moon, but when it has begun to curve into horns. So they have shorter months, because they reckon their duration according to that phase of the moon.

Also many other things are related [in Curtius Rufus’ source, perhaps Kleitarchos], for which it did not seem to be worth while delaying the progress of our history.

So, then, when Alexander had entered the bounds of India, the lesser kings of the neighbouring descent groups met him intending to submit to him, saying that he was the third son of Jupiter who had arrived in their land; that Father Liber [i.e. Dionysos] and Hercules [i.e. Herakles] were known to them only by repute, but that Alexander was present among them and was seen. The king received them courteously and commanded them to follow him, intending to use them as guides for his routes. . . [omitted following episodes].


[People under king Sopithes]

(9.1.24-31) From there he came into the realm of Sopithes. That descent group (gens), as the barbarians believe, excels in wisdom and is governed according to good customs. They decide which children that are born will be acknowledged and reared not based on the decision of their parents. Rather, this is decided by those in charge of physical examination of children. If these officials have noted any who are conspicuous for defects or are crippled in some part of their limbs, they give orders to put them to death. They marry, not because of consideration of family or rank, but of exceptional personal beauty, because that is what is valued in the children.

A town of this descent group, against which Alexander had moved his forces, was held by Sopithes himself. The gates were shut, but no armed men showed themselves on the walls and in the towers, and the Macedonians were in doubt whether the inhabitants had deserted the city or had hidden themselves treacherously. Then a gate was suddenly opened and the Indian king with two grown-up sons presented himself, a man far surpassing all other barbarians in physical attractiveness. His robe, which covered his legs as well as the rest of his body, was embroidered with gold and purple. He wore golden sandals studded with gems. His shoulders and arms were adorned with pearls and from his ears hung pearls conspicuous for whiteness and size. His golden sceptre was ornamented with beryl. He handed his sceptre to Alexander with a prayer that he might receive it with good fortune and surrendered himself and his children along with his descent group. There are in that region dogs famous for hunting . . . [omitted further explanation of the hunting customs].


[Coastal Indian peoples]

(9.10.8-12) From there he came to the Indians who live along the coast. They occupy a large extent of country which is barren and desolate, and do not interact even with their neighbours. Their solitude has added to their wild dispositions, which are savage by nature. Their nails grow long, never having been cut, and their hair is shaggy and unshorn. They decorate their huts with shells and other things thrown up by the sea. Clad in the skins of wild beasts, they feed upon fish cured in the sun, and also on the flesh of larger animals cast up by the sea.

Therefore, since their supplies were used up, the Macedonians began to suffer at first scarcity, and finally starvation, scrounging everywhere for the roots of palms, because that is the only kind of tree that grows there. And when even this nourishment had failed them, they began to kill their pack animals, not even abstaining from the horses. And when they had nothing to carry their packs, they burned the spoils taken from the enemy, for the sake of which they had traversed the remotest parts of the Orient. . . [omitted following material].

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