Parapamisadians: Curtius Rufus on peoples east of Baktria (first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Parapamisadians: Curtius Rufus on peoples east of Baktria (first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 4, 2024,

Ancient author: Quintus Curtius Rufus (first century CE), History of Alexander 7.3.4-19 (link).

Comments: In this passage, the Roman historian Curtius Rufus continues to relate tales of Alexander’s campaigns further east, in this case reaching the northeastern edge of the Persian empire, in what is now Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan. Rufus zeroes in on the Parapanisadians, a people living east of the Baktrians in what we would call the Hindu Kush mountain range (then called Parapanisos) in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. He characterizes this people as uncivilized even among “barbarians” and emphasizes the correspondence between their extremely cold, mountainous environment and the rough or savage nature of their lifestyle.

Note that Rufus is confused about the geography (even if his source – perhaps Kleitarchos, directly or indirectly – was not) and at times imagines these adventurous tales taking place near the Black Sea and the Caucasus mountain range (i.e. much further west). It is not unusual for such geographical confusions to arise (compare the regular confusion of Ethiopia and India) in a context where maps as we understand them did not exist at all and the ancient authors were sometimes or often imaginatively writing about far-off places they would never see.


[Arimaspians and setting the scene in northeastern Persia near the Indus valley, bordering modern Pakistan, although Rufus is confused about the geography]

(7.3.4-19) When these matters had been arranged in this way, Alexander, having made Arsames satrap of the Drangae [i.e. Drangiana, the northeastern most area of the former Persian empire, modern Sistan and Baluchestan Province, bordering Pakistan], ordered a march to be proclaimed against the Arimaspians, whom even at that time they called the “Benefactors,” having changed their name from the time when they had aided the army of Cyrus with shelter and supplies at a time when the army was almost worn out by cold and lack of food [cf. Diodoros, Library 70.81, perhaps both drawing on Kleitarchos’ work on Alexander]. It was the fifth day since he had come into that region. He learned that Satibarzanes, who had revolted and gone over to Bessos [both Persian satraps], with a force of cavalry had again invaded Aria [also in the area of Drangiana]. Therefore Alexander sent against him Karanousa and Erigyios with Artabazos and Andronikos; they were followed by 6000 Greek foot-soldiers and 600 horsemen. He himself set in order the descent group of the “Benefactors” within sixty days, and gave them a great sum of money because of their extreme loyalty to Cyrus.

[Subjugation of the Arachosians in Dragiana]

After leaving Amedine (who had been Darius’ secretary) to govern them, Alexander then subdued the Arachosians, whose territory extends to the Pontic sea [i.e. the Black Sea, so Rufus is confusing the location of Dragiana, imagining it is near the Black Sea rather than much further east near modern Pakistan]. There he met the army which had been commanded by Parmenion. It consisted of 6000 Macedonians, 200 nobles, 5000 Greeks, with 600 cavalry, beyond doubt the flower of all the king’s forces, Menon was made governor of the Arachosians, and 4000 infantry and 600 cavalry were left as a garrison.

[Parapanisadians, a most uncivilized people in the Hindu Kush range]

The king himself with his army entered the territory of a people (natio) not very well known even to their neighbours since there were no trading connections with them. They are called the Parapanisadians (Parapanisadae) [i.e. people of the Parapanisos / Hindu Kush range], a wild (agrestis) descent group (genos) of men who are especially rude (inconditus) even among barbarians. The harshness of their climate had also hardened the nature of the inhabitants.

[Location and lifestyle]

They mostly face toward the very cold northern pole. On the west they border the land of the Baktrians and on the south their territory slopes toward the Indian sea [i.e. northeast of Dragiana, in what is now Afghanistan and Tajikistan]. They build huts of unbaked brick. Because the land is lacking in timber – with even the ridge of the mountain bare – they use the same brick up to the very top of their buildings. But their structure is broader at the base and gradually becomes narrower as the work grows, and finally it comes together very much like the keel of a ship. There they leave an opening and let in light from above. They bury deep in the ground any vines and trees that have been able to live in such a frozen soil; in winter these remain buried and when the end of winter comes to open the earth, they are restored to the sky and to the sun. But such deep snows cover the ground and are bound so fast by ice and almost perpetual cold, that there is no trace of any birds or wild animals. What may be called a dim shadow of the sky rather than light, and resembling night, broods over the earth, so that objects which are near at hand can hardly be seen.

[Experiences of Alexander’s army in these uncivilized conditions]

Abandoned in this absence of all human civilization, the army then endured all the bad things that could be experienced: hunger, cold, fatigue, despair. The unusual cold of the snow caused the death of many. To many it brought frost-bite of the feet, to very many blindness of the eyes. It was especially harmful to those who were fatigued because, when their strength gave out, they stretched themselves out on the ice itself. When they ceased to move around, the force of the cold so bound them fast, that when they struggled to rise again, they could not do so. But they were roused from their inactivity by their fellow-soldiers, for there was no other cure than to be forced to go on. Only at that point, with their natural warmth returning, did any strength return to their limbs. If any could reach the huts of the barbarians, they were quickly restored. But such was the darkness that the only thing which revealed the buildings was their smoke.

[Reaction of the local people to the army]

When the natives, who had never before seen a stranger in their country, suddenly caught sight of armed men, they were paralysed with fear and brought them whatever they had in their huts, begging them to spare their lives. The king went around on foot among his troops, lifting up some who were lying down on their faces and, by the aid of his body, supporting those who were following with difficulty. Now in the van, now in the centre, now at the rear of the army he was everywhere present with all sorts of labour. Finally, they came to more cultivated places and the army was revived by an abundance of supplies; at the same time also those who had not been able to keep up came into the camp which they had pitched.

From there the army proceeded to the Caucasus mountains, whose range divides Asia by a continuous ridge [Rufus continues to be confused about the geography; Parapanisos = Hindu Kush is in mind in the original story since Caucasus does not work geographically here and the people involved correspond to the Parapanisos range]. . . [omitted following episodes].


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.

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