Libyans, Egyptians, Iberians, and Celts: Diodoros on Herakles’ civilizing expeditions (mid-first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Libyans, Egyptians, Iberians, and Celts: Diodoros on Herakles’ civilizing expeditions (mid-first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 6, 2024,

Ancient authors: Diodoros of Sicily (mid-first century BCE), Library of History 4.17-19 (link).

Comments: Diodoros’ discusses Herakles’ labours in the terms of civilizing expeditions. Herakles is presented as a military leader engaging in conquests whereby previously savage peoples (e.g. repeated references to peoples engaging in human sacrifice of foreigners) are subdued and pacified. In the process, Libyans, Egyptians, Iberians, and Celts are characterized as requiring subjugation by an external power. The brief mention of Julius Caesar’s later conquest of the Celtic region is by no means incidental to the force of this narrative, which may be seen as a justification of conquest as much as it is a characterization of supposedly barbarous peoples. This narrative pattern of civilizing campaigns is echoed in many other competitive stories about other kings, including the Egyptian stories about the conquests of their own pharaoh Sesostris (Senwosret), as related by Diodoros (link) and, earlier, by Herodotos (link). However, in the present myth, Egyptians (as represented by Bousiris) are the conquered barbarians rather than the conquerors.


[For Diodoros’ preceding discussion on supposed Libyan versions of Dionysos’ story, go to this link].

Book 4 

[Herakles and the Cattle of Geryones in Iberia (tenth labour)]

17  Eurystheus then imposed a tenth labour on Herakles: namely, bringing back the cattle of Geryones which pastured in the parts of Iberia which slope towards the [Atlantic] ocean. Realizing that this task called for preparation on a large scale and involved great hardships, Herakles gathered considerable military equipment and many soldiers that would be adequate for this expedition. (2) For it had been broadcast abroad throughout all the inhabited world that Chrysaor (“Carrier of the Golden Sword”),​ who received this appellation because of his wealth, was king over the whole of Iberia and that he had three sons to fight at his side, who excelled in both strength of body and deeds of courage which they displayed in contests of war. It was known, furthermore, that each of these sons had at his disposal great forces which were recruited from war-like peoples (ethnē). It was because of these reports that Eurystheus, thinking any expedition against these men would be too difficult to succeed, had assigned to Herakles the labour just described.

[Herakles begins his journey from Crete]

(3) But Herakles met the perils with the same bold spirit which he had displayed in his achievements up to this time. He gathered his forces and brought them to Crete, having decided to make his departure from that place. For this island is especially well situated for expeditions against any part of the inhabited world. Before his departure he was magnificently honoured by the natives. As he wanted to show his gratitude to the Cretans, he cleansed the island of the wild beasts which infested it. And this is the reason why in later times not a single wild animal, such as a bear, wolf, serpent, or any similar beast was to be found on the island. This deed he accomplished for the glory of the island, which, the myths relate, was both the birthplace and the early home of Zeus.

[Challenging Antaios in Libya]

(4) Setting sail, then, from Crete, Herakles put in at Libya, and first of all he challenged to a fight Antaios,​ whose fame was broadcast abroad because of his strength of body and his skill in wrestling, and because it was Antaios’ custom to kill all foreigners (xenoi) whom he had defeated in wrestling. Grappling with Antaios, Herakles killed the giant. Following on this great deed, he subdued Libya which was full of wild animals. He also subdued large parts of the adjoining desert. He brought it all under cultivation, so that the whole land was filled with ploughed fields and such plantings in general as bear fruit, much of it being devoted to vineyards and much to olive orchards. Generally speaking, Libya – which before that time had been uninhabitable because of the large numbers of wild beasts which infested the whole land – was brought under cultivation by him and made inferior to no other country in terms of its prosperity. (5) He likewise punished with death anyone who defied the law or arrogant rulers and gave prosperity to the cities. The myths relate that he hated every kind of wild beast and lawless men. Herakles attacked them because of the fact that even while an infant the serpents had attempted to kill him and the fact that, when he became a man, he became subject to the power of an arrogant and unjust despot [Eurystheus] who laid upon him these labours.

[Slaying king Bousiris / Busuris in Egypt and establishing the Pillars]

18  After Herakles had killed Antaios, he passed into Egypt and put to death Bousiris,​ the king of the land, who made it his practice to kill the strangers who visited that country. Then he made his way through the waterless part of Libya, and coming upon a land which was well watered and fruitful he founded a city of marvellous size, which was called Hekatompylos (“One-hundred-gates”), giving it this name because of the multitude of its gates. And the prosperity of this city continued until comparatively recent times, when the Carthaginians made an expedition against it with notable forces under the command of able generals and made themselves its masters.

[Arriving in the land of the Iberians]

(2) After Herakles had visited a large part of Libya, he arrived at the ocean near Gadeira [modern Cádiz, Spain],​ where he set up pillars on each of the two continents. His fleet accompanied him along the coast and on it he crossed over into Iberia. And finding there the sons of Chrysaor encamped at some distance from one another with three great armies, he challenged each of the leaders to single combat and killed them all. Then, after subduing Iberia, he drove off the renowned herds of cattle. (3) He then traversed the country of the Iberians, and since he had received honours at the hands of a certain king of the natives, a man who excelled in piety and justice, he left with the king a portion of the cattle as a present. The king accepted them, but dedicated them all to Herakles and made it his practice each year to sacrifice to Herakles the most beautiful bull of the herd. And it came to pass that the kine are still maintained in Iberia and continue to be sacred to Herakles down to our own time . . .  [omitted an excursus on the Pillars of Herakles].

[Herakles in the Celtic region]

19 Herakles, then, delivered over the kingdom of the Iberians to the noblest men among the natives. Passing into the Celtic region and traversing its length and width, he and his army put an end to the lawlessness and murdering of foreigners (xenoi) to which the people had become addicted. And since a large population of men from every tribe flocked to his army of their own accord, he founded a great city which was named Alesia [probably in Burgundy, France] after the “wandering” (alē) on his campaign. (2) But he also mingled among the citizens of the city many natives of the Celtic region, and since these Celts outnumbered the others, the inhabitants as a whole were barbarized.

The Celts up to the present time hold this city in honour, looking upon it as the hearth and mother-city of all the Celtic region. For the entire period from the days of Herakles, this city remained free and was never sacked until our own time. But at last Gaius Caesar, who has been pronounced a god because of the magnitude of his achivements, took it by storm and made it and the other Celts subjects of the Romans [ca. 52 BCE, as described in Caesar’s Gallic War 7.68]. (3) Herakles then made his way from the Celtic region to Italy. As he traversed the mountain pass through the Alps, he made a highway out of the route (which had previously been rough and almost impassable). As a result, the Alps can now be crossed by armies and baggage-trains. (4) The barbarians who had inhabited this mountain region had the custom of  butchering and plundering any armies that passed through when they came to the difficult portions of the way. However, Herakles subdued them all, killed those that were the leaders in lawlessness of this kind, and made the journey safe for succeeding generations. And after crossing the Alps he passed through the level plain of what is now called Galatia​ [i.e. Cisalpine Gaul] and made his way through Liguria.

[For Diodoros’ subsequent discussion of the Ligurians, go to this link].


Source of the translation: C. H. Oldfather, Diodorus Sicilus: Library of History, volumes 1-6, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1935-1952), public domain (passed away in 1954 and copyright not renewed), adapted by Victoria Muccilli and Harland.

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