Scythians: Lucian on Anacharsis and Solon’s dialogue about the superiority of Greek customs (mid-second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Daniel Mitchell, 'Scythians: Lucian on Anacharsis and Solon’s dialogue about the superiority of Greek customs (mid-second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 27, 2024,

Ancient author: Lucian of Samosata (mid-second century CE), Anacharsis, or Athletics (link).

Comments: Much like his other satirical dialogues involving Scythian characters (Toxaris’ discussion with the Greek Mnessipos at this link and Toxaris’ and Anacharsis’ discussion at this link), this dialogue between the Scythian Anacharsis and the Athenian Solon plays with the idea of the superiority of Athenian or Greek customs and communal organization (politeia) in an ambivalent way.

Our present dialogue begins with Anacharsis’ understandably perplexed and unimpressed perspective on Athenian athletic customs. Here Lucian can use the character to highlight the strange and arbitrary nature of specific customs, such as the reward of a leaf or two for undergoing bloody kick-boxing. What Athenians take for granted as the way things are is thereby problematized and put up for possible critique. Much of this is done in the mode of Anacharsis as the wise foreigner or “barbarian” who sees the faultlines in Greek customs. There are affinities here with the fictional Anacharsis’ critique of Greek ways in the so called Letters of Anacharsis (link), though with far less power.

Yet at the same time, Lucian’s presentation of Solon has him employ these apparently idiosyncratic athletic customs to point to the superiority of the Greek way of life and Athenian communal organization (politeia). This is much like the role of the Scythian Toxaris when he advises Anacharsis to learn from Solon and the Athenians generally in one of the other dialogues (link). Overall this is a playful face off between Greeks and Scythians, so to speak, but only the Greek defence of Athenian customs is presented, and extensively so. The discussion ends with the joke that on some future day Anacharsis can explain Scythian ways. So the “barbarian” perspective is largely silenced. In the process of either dialogue, we perhaps get a sense of Lucian’s own balancing act as a self-identifying Assyrian and “barbarian” outsider (link) who was nonetheless extremely well-trained in Greek learning and emersed within Greek culture.


[Anacharsis’ Scythian challenge regarding strange athletic customs and Athenian ways]

Anacharsis: And for what purpose are your young men (neoi) doing all these things, Solon? Some of them, locked in each other’s arms, are tripping up one another, while others are choking and twisting each other and are grovelling together in the mud, rolling around like pigs. Yet, in the beginning, as soon as they had taken their clothes off [Greek athletics were performed in the nude], they put oil on themselves and took turns at rubbing each other down very peacefully. I saw it. Since then, I do not know what has gotten into them that they push one another around with heads lowered, and they smash their foreheads together like rams. And look there! That man picked the other one up by the legs, threw him to the ground and then fell down on top of him. He won’t let him get up, shoving him down into the mud. And now, after winding his legs around his middle and putting his forearm underneath his throat, he is choking the poor fellow. The other is slapping him sidewise on the shoulder in submission, I think, so that he may not be strangled to death. Even out of consideration for the oil, they do not avoid getting dirty. They rub off the ointment, plaster themselves with mud, mixed with streams of sweat, and make themselves a laughing-stock, to me at least, by slipping through each other’s hands like eels.

Another pair is doing the same in the open courtyard, though not in mud. As you see, they have a layer of deep sand in the pit underneath them, and they both sprinkle each other with it. They heap the dust on themselves of their own accord like so many young roosters to make it harder, I assume, to break loose from grapples, because the sand makes the oil less slippery and gives them a firmer grip on a dry surface.

Others, who are standing upright and are themselves covered with dust, attack each other with kicks and punches. This one here – poor guy – has taken a hit to the jaw, as you see, and looks as if he is going to spit out his teeth with his mouth being so full of blood and sand. But even the official there does not separate them and break up the fight. I’m assuming from his purple cloak that he is one of the refereeing officials. To the contrary, he urges the men on and praises the one who struck the blow. Others additionally are all exerting themselves in different places. They jump up and down as if they were running but stay in the same place, and they spring high up and kick the air.

(5) So I want to know what is the point of all this?  To me, at least, the thing looks like insanity (mania) more than anything else. Nobody can easily convince me that men who act in that way are not out of their minds.

Solon: It’s not surprising that what they are doing seems like that to you, Anacharsis. It is unfamiliar and very different from Scythian customs (ethē). In a similar way, you [Scythians] yourselves probably have many things in your own education and training that would appear strange to us Greeks, if one of us were to observe them as you are doing now. But have no fear, my dear fellow, this is not insanity. Nor is it out of violence that they strike one another and toss each other in the mud, or that they sprinkle each other with dust. The affair has a certain usefulness, which does not lack enjoyment, and it gives much strength to bodies of the young men. As a matter of fact, if you stop for some time in Greece, as I think you will, before long you yourself will be one of the muddy or dusty ones, because it will seem so pleasant and practical at the same time.

Anacharsis: Get out of there, Solon! You Greeks may consider those benefits and pleasures. For my part, if one of you treated me like that, he would discover that we Scythians don’t carry these daggers on our belts for show! But tell me, what name do you give to these performances? What are we to say they are doing?

Solon: The place itself is called a “gymnasium” by us, Anacharsis, and it is sacred to Lykaian Apollo. You see his statue there: the figure leaning against the pillar, with the bow in his left hand and his right arm bent back above his head, which indicates that the god is resting as if after long exertion. As for these forms of athletics, that one over there in the mud is called “wrestling,” and the men in the dust are also wrestling. When they stand upright and strike one another, we call it using “all-powers” (pankration) [i.e. similar to kick-boxing]. We have other such athletic exercises as well, namely boxing, throwing the discus, and jumping. We present all of them in competitions and the winner is considered best in his class and carries off the prizes.

Anacharsis: And what are these prizes of yours?

Solon: At the Olympic competitions [at Olympia] a crown made of wild olive, at the Isthmian competitions [at Corinth] a crown of pine, at the Nemean competitions [at Nemea] a crown of parsley, and at the Pythian competitions some of the apples sacred to Apollo. With us Athenians at the Panathenaia festival, the oil from the scared olive tree [i.e. the goddess Athena’s olive tree on the Acropolis].

What made you laugh, Anacharsis? Because you think these prizes are insignificant?

Anacharsis: No, the prizes that you have described are completely respectable, Solon. The prizes may well cause those who generously offered them to receive glory and may well make the contestants themselves very eager to carry away such rewards. The result is that they will go through all these preliminary hardships and risks – getting choked and broken in two by one another – for apples and parsley. This is as if it were not possible for anyone who wants these prizes to get plenty of apples without any trouble, or to wear a crown made of parsley or pine without having his face smeared with mud or letting himself be kicked in the stomach by his opponent!

Solon: (10) But, good man, it is not the gifts themselves that we have in view! They are merely symbols of the victory and tokens to identify the winners. But the reputation that goes with them is worth everything to the victors, and to attain it – even to be kicked – is nothing to men who seek to capture fame through hardships. Reputation cannot be acquired without hardships, and the man who covets it must put up with many unpleasant things at the outset before he finally can expect the profitable and delightful outcome of his labours.

Anacharsis: By this delightful and profitable outcome, Solon, you mean that everybody will see the victors wearing crowns and will applaud them for their victory, after they have pitied them for their taking blows long beforehand, and that the victors will be overjoyed to have apples and parsley in compensation for their hardships!

Solon: I am saying that you are still not familiar with our ways. After a little while, you will think differently about these things, when you go to the competitions and see that great crowd of people gathering to look at such spectacles, see the theatres that will hold thousands filling up, see the contestants applauded, and see the contestant who wins being viewed as equal to the gods.

Anacharsis: That is precisely the most contemptible part of the whole affair, Solon: if the contestants undergo this treatment in the presence of not just a few but rather a great many spectators and witnesses of the brutality, who no doubt offer congratulations to the athletes on seeing them gushing with blood or getting strangled by their opponents. For these are the extreme enjoyments that go with their victory!

With us Scythians, Solon, if anyone strikes a citizen, or assaults him and throws him down, or tears his clothing, the elders impose severe penalties upon the attacker, even if the offence takes place in front of just a few witnesses, not to speak of such large assemblies like those at the Isthmos and at Olympia which you describe. I assure you, I cannot help pitying the contestants for what they go through, and I am absolutely amazed at the spectators. These are prominent men who come, as you say, from every direction to the competitions, and they neglect their urgent business and squander their time away with such things. I cannot yet conceive what pleasure it is to them to see men punched, pummelled, smashed on the ground, and crushed by one another.

Solon: If it were the time now, Anacharsis, for the Olympic, the Isthmian or the Panathenaic competitions, what occurs there would by its own merits have informed you that we had not wasted our energy on all this. Merely talking about the delightfulness of the proceedings there is not enough to convince you as thoroughly as you would be convinced if you yourself were sitting in the midst of the spectators and observing the manly perfection, physical beauty, wonderful condition, powerful skill, irresistible strength, daring, rivalry, indomitable resolution, and inexpressible effort for victory. I am very sure that you would never have stopped praising, cheering and clapping.

Anacharsis: Absolutely, Solon, and with me laughing approvingly and jeering! For I see that all these things which you have outlined – the perfection, the condition, the beauty, the daring – are being wasted for you without any great objective in view, since your people are not in peril, your farms are not being ravaged, your friends and relatives are not being violently carried off. So the competitors are all the more ridiculous if they are the flower of the people, as you say, and yet they endure so much for nothing. They make themselves miserable and defile their beautiful, great bodies with sand and black eyes to get possession of an apple and an olive-branch when they have won! You see, I like to keep mentioning the prizes, which are so fine! But tell me, do all the contestants get them?

Solon: Not at all. Only one among everyone who is the winner.

Anacharsis: Then, Solon, do so many contestants endure the hardships upon the uncertain and precarious chance of winning? Knowing further that there will certainly be only one winner and several losers. The losers will have received blows and in some cases even wounds for nothing?

[Solon’s answer within the context of Athenian ideals of communal organization and superior customs]

Solon: It seems that you have never done any thinking about the proper way to organize a community (politeia) yet, Anacharsis. Otherwise you would not disparage the best customs. If you ever make it your aim to find out how a community is to be organized in the best way possible, and how its citizens are to reach the highest degree of excellence, you will then praise these exercises and the rivalry which we display in regard to them. Then you will know that they have much that is useful mixed in with hardships, even if you now think our energy is spent on them for no reason.

Anacharsis: I assure you, Solon, I had no other object in coming to your land from Scythia – crossing over such a vast stretch of land and across the wide and stormy Euxine sea [Black Sea] – than to learn the laws (nomoi) of the Greeks, to observe your customs (ethē), and to familiarize myself with the best form of communal organization (politeia). That is why I chose you in particular out of all the Athenians for my friend and host, out of respect for your reputation.  For I used to hear that you were a maker of laws, an inventor of excellent customs, an introducer of advantageous practices, and – in a word – the creator of a communal organization. So be quick about teaching me and making me a disciple. For my part, I would gladly sit beside you without meat or drink as long as you could endure talking and listen to you with enthusiasm while you described communal organization and laws.

Solon: (15) It is not easy to go over every single aspect of the matter in brief, my friend. However, if you gradually absorb it, you will discover all the opinions we hold about the gods and about parents, marriage, and everything else in detail. You will discover what we think about our young men, and how we deal with them from the time when they begin to understand good from bad in order to make them physically mature and able to withstand hardships.

Now I will tell you so that you may learn why we prescribe these exercises for them and compel them to train their bodies. It is not done simply on account of the contests so that the athletes may be able to take the prizes; very few out of the entire number have the capacity for that. Rather, it is because we seek a certain greater good from it for the entire community and for the young men themselves.

There is another competition which is open to all good citizens in common. There is a crown that is not made of pine, olive or parsley, but contains in itself all human joy, that is to say, freedom for each person on an individual basis and for the community in general, wealth, glory, enjoyment of ancestral festivals, safety for one’s family, and in short the fairest blessings that one could pray to receive from the gods. All these things are interwoven in the crown that I speak of, and they accrue from the contest to which these exercises and hardships lead.

Anacharsis: So then, Solon, you astounding person, when you had such magnificent prizes to explain, you spoke of apples, parsley, a sprig of wild olive and a bit of pine?

Solon: But really, Anacharsis, even those prizes will no longer appear minuscule to you when you understand what I mean. They originate in the same purpose. They are all small parts of that greater contest and of the crown, which I described in detail as being of a completely joyous nature. Our conversation, which is departing in some way or another from the natural sequence of events, first touched upon the events occurring at the Isthmos [at Corinth], Olympia and Nemea. However, as we are relaxing and you are eager to listen, as you say, it will be an easy matter for us to go back to the beginning, namely to the common competition which, as I say, is the purpose of all these practices.

[Anacharsis’ inferiority in sustaining the heat]

Anacharsis: It would be better to do so, Solon, for by keeping to the highway our talk would make greater progress, and perhaps knowing these prizes might persuade me to never again laugh at those others, if I should see a man thinking he’s superior because he wears a crown made of wild olive or parsley. But if it is all the same to you, let us go into the shade over there and sit on the benches, so as not to be annoyed by the men who are shouting at the wrestlers. Besides – I might as well be direct! – I no longer find it easy to stand the sun, which is fierce and burning as it beats upon my bare head. I had decided  to leave my felt cap at home, so as not to be the only person among you in a foreign outfit. But the season of the year is all consuming, because the star which you call the Dog burns everything up and makes the air dry and parching. The sun, now hanging overhead at mid-day, produces this blazing heat, which is unsustainable to the body. I wonder, therefore, how it is that you, as an elderly man, do not perspire in the heat as I do, and do not seem to be troubled by it at all. You don’t even look around for a shady spot to move into but endure the sun with ease.

Solon: These useless exertions, Anacharsis, the continual rolling around in the mud and the open-air struggles in the sand give us our immunity from the beams of the sun, and we have no further need of a cap to keep its rays from striking our heads.

So then, let us go. Do listen to me, though, that you should not rely on the things which I may say to you as though they are fully comprehensive, as if they are exact laws. Whenever you think I am incorrect in anything that I say, contradict me at once and set my reasoning straight. Certainly, we cannot fail to accomplish one thing or the other. Either you will become firmly convinced after you have exhausted all the objections that you think should be made, or else I will learn that I am not correct in my view of the matter. In that event the entire city of Athens could not be too quick to acknowledge its gratitude to you, because in so far as you instruct me and re-educate in a better viewpoint, you will have conferred on Athens the greatest possible benefit. For I could not keep anything from Athens, but will now contribute it all to the public.

Taking my stand in the Pnyx [i.e. the hill on which the Athenian popular assembly gathered], I will say to everyone: “Men of Athens, I made you the laws which I thought would be most beneficial to the city, but this guest of mine” – and then I’ll point to you, Anacharsis — “a Scythian, in fact, but a wise man (sophos), has taught me and re-educated me in better forms of education and training. Therefore, let Anacharsis be written down as your benefactor and let his statue be set up in bronze beside the legendary mascots named for each of the tribes (literally, eponymous ones), or on the Acropolis beside Athena.” You may be very sure that the city of Athens will not be ashamed to learn what is to her advantage from a foreign guest.

[Anacharsis as uncivilized nomad compared to the civic Athenian sprung from the earth]

Anacharsis: Ah, that is just what I used to hear about you Athenians, namely that you never really mean what you say. For how could I, a nomad and a roamer, who have lived my life on a wagon, visiting different lands at different seasons, having never lived in a city or seen one until now – how could I explain communal organization (politeia) and instruct in law and order men who have sprung from the soil (autochthones) and have inhabited this very ancient city for so many years?

Above all, how could I teach you, Solon, who, they say, made it a special study from the beginning to know how to manage a city the best way and what laws it should observe to be prosperous? However, on this subject as well, I must obey you, since you are a law-giver. Therefore, I will contradict you if I think that you are incorrect in anything that you say, so that I may learn my lesson more thoroughly.

See, we have escaped the sun and are now in the shade. Here is a very delightful and opportune seat on the cool stone. So start at the beginning and explain why you take your young men in hand and train them up from boyhood itself, explain how they are shaped into excellent men as a result of the mud and the exercises, and explain what the dust and the rolling around contribute to their excellence. That is what I was most eager to hear at first. You will teach me the rest later, each particular aspect in its own turn, as opportunity offers. But please bear this in mind, Solon, throughout your talk, that you will be speaking to a barbarian. I say this in order that you may not make your explanations too involved or too long, for I am afraid that I may forget the beginning of an explanation if the subsequent explanation should be too wordy.

[Areopagos court case as the model for the discussion, with Anacharsis as juror, and dragging on the preliminaries]

Solon: You yourself, Anacharsis, can regulate that better, wherever you think that my discussion is not fully clear, or that it is meandering far from its channel in a random stream. For you can interpose any question that you will and can cut it short. But if what I say is not unrelated to the case and is beside the point, I suppose there will be nothing to hinder the discourse. This is the case even if I should speak a long time, since that is the tradition in the court of the Areopagos, which passes judgement on our cases of manslaughter. Whenever it goes up to the Areopagos and holds a sitting to judge a case of manslaughter or premeditated wounding or arson, an opportunity is given to each party in the case to be heard, and the plaintiff and defendant plead in turn, either in person or through professional speakers, whom they bring to the bar to plead on their behalf. As long as they speak about the case, the court tolerates them and listens in silence, but if anyone prefaces his speech with an introduction to make the court more favourable, or brings emotion or exaggeration into the case – tricks that are often devised by the disciples of rhetoric to influence the judges – then the announcer (keryx) appears and silences them immediately, preventing them from speaking nonsense to the court and from manipulating the case in words in order that the jurors of the Areopagos may see the bare facts.

So, Anacharsis, I make you a juror of the Areopagos for the present. Listen to me according to the custom of the court and tell me to be silent, if you perceive that I am pressing you with rhetoric. But as long as what I say is pertinent to the case, let me have the right to speak at length. Besides, we will no longer hold our conversation under the sun so as to annoy you, if my talk were prolonged. The shade is thick, and we have plenty of time.

Anacharsis: What you say is reasonable, Solon, and already I am more than a little grateful to you for incidentally teaching me about what takes place in the Areopagos, which is truly admirable and what good judges would do, who intend to cast their ballot in accordance with the facts. On these conditions, therefore, proceed, and in my capacity of a juror of the Areopagos – since you have made me that – I will give you a hearing in the manner of that court.

[Athenian concept of a civic community]

Solon: (20) Then you must first let me tell you briefly what our ideas are about a city and its citizens. We consider that a city is not the buildings, such as walls and temples and docks. These constitute a firm-set, immovable body, so to speak, for the shelter and protection of the community. However, we hold that the complete significance is in the citizens, because it is the citizens who fill it, plan and carry out everything, and keep it safe.

The citizens are something like what the soul is within the individual. So, having noted this, we naturally take care of the city’s body, as you see, beautifying it so that it may be as fair as possible. We not only make it well furnished inside with buildings, but most securely fenced with these external ramparts. But above all and at all hazards we try to ensure that the citizens will be excellent in soul and strong in body, thinking that such men, joined together in communal life, will make good use of themselves in times of peace, will bring the city safely out of war, and will keep it always free and prosperous.

[Upbringing and educational customs]

We entrust their early upbringing to mothers, nurses, and tutors, to train and rear them with free-spirited teachings. When they become capable of understanding what is right (namely when modesty, shame, fear, and ambition arise in them), when their bodies eventually seem prepared for hardships as they grow firmer and become more strongly compacted, we finally take them in hand and educate them. We not only prescribe to them certain disciplines and exercises for the soul, but also in certain other ways of conditioning their bodies for hardships.

We have not thought it sufficient for each man to be as he was born, either in body or in soul. Rather, we want education and disciplines for them by which their good traits may be greatly improved and their bad changed for the better. We take example from the farmers, who shelter and enclose their plants while they are small and young, so that they may not be injured by the breezes, but when the stalk at last begins to thicken, the farmers prune away the excessive growth and expose them to the winds to be shaken and tossed, thereby making them more fruitful.

Their souls we fan into flame with music and arithmetic at first, and we teach them to write their letters and to read them really well. As they progress, we recite to them sayings of wise men, ancient achievements, and helpful fictions, which we have arranged with poetic metre so that they can remember them better. Hearing of certain brave actions and famous exploits, little by little they reach out and are incited to imitate them, in order that they too may have songs sung about them and be admired by men in the future. Both Hesiod and Homer have composed much poetry of that sort for us.

When they enter into civic organization and eventually have to handle communal affairs. . . This point, no doubt, is unrelated to the case, as the subject proposed for discussion at the outset was not how we discipline their souls, but rather why we plan to train their bodies with hardships like these. So I order myself to be silent, without waiting for the announcer to do it, or for you, the juror of the Areopagos, to do it.  I suppose that it was out of respect that you tolerated my saying so many irrelevant things.

Anacharsis: Tell me, Solon, when people do not say what is most essential in the Areopagos, but keep it to themselves, has the court devised no penalty for them?

Solon: Why did you ask me that question? I do not understand.

Anacharsis: Because you are glossing over the part which is best and the most enjoyable for me to hear, namely the bit concerning the soul, while intending to discuss the less essential part, namely gymnastics and physical exercises.

Solon: Why, my worthy friend, I remember your admonitions in the beginning and do not wish the discussion to meander out of its channel for fear of confusing your memory with its flow. However, I will discuss briefly as well, as best I can. To consider it carefully would be matter for another conversation.

We harmonize the young mens’ minds by making them learn by heart the laws of the community. These laws are displayed in public for everyone to read, written in large letters and telling what one should and should not do. We also have them converse with good men, from whom they learn to say what is appropriate and to do what is right, to associate with one another on an equal footing, and not to strive for what is depraved, but to seek what is noble and to do no violence. These good men we call sophists and philosophers. Furthermore, assembling them in the theatre, we instruct them publicly through comedies and tragedies, which show them both the virtues and the vices of people in ancient times so that they may recoil from the vices and emulate the virtues. It’s true that we allow the comedians to abuse and ridicule any citizens whom they perceive to be following practices that are base and unworthy of the city. They do so not only for the sake of those men themselves, since they are made better by chiding, but for the sake of the general public, that they may shun castigation for similar offences.

Anacharsis: I have seen the tragedians and comedians that you are speaking of, Solon, if I am not mistaken. They had on heavy, high foot-gear, clothing that was exuberant with gold stripes and very ludicrous masks with giant gaping mouths. They shouted loudly from out of these masks and strode around in the foot-gear, managing somehow or other to do it safely. At that time, the city was holding a feast in honour of Dionysos, I think. The comedians were shorter, nearer to the common level, more human, and less given to shouting, but their masks were far more ludicrous. In fact the whole audience laughed at them but they all wore long faces while they listened to the tall fellows, pitying them, I suppose, because they were dragging such shoes around!

Solon: It was not the actors that they pitied, good man. No doubt the poet was presenting some ancient disaster to the spectators and declaiming mournful passages to the audience by which his hearers were moved to tears. Probably you also saw flute-players at that time, and others who sang in concert, standing in a circle. Even singing and flute-playing is not without value, Anacharsis.

By all these means, then, and others like them, we sharpen their souls and make them better.

[Training the body]

As to their bodies (since that is what you were especially eager to hear about) we train them as follows: When, as I said, they are no longer soft and without strength, we strip them naked. We think it’s best to begin by getting them used to the weather, making them accustomed to the several seasons so as not to be distressed by the heat or to submit to the cold. Then we rub them with olive-oil and make them supple in order that they may be more elastic. For it would be extraordinary if we should not think that the living body would be put in better condition by the oil, since we believe that leather when softened by oil is harder to break and far more durable, lifeless as it is.

After that, since we have invented many forms of athletics and appointed teachers for each, we teach one young man boxing, for instance, and another the use of “all-powers” (pankration) [kick-boxing], in order that they may become accustomed to enduring hardships, to countering blows, and to not recoiling from fear of injuries. This helps us by creating in these young men two effects that are most useful, since it makes them not only enthusiastic in facing dangers and carefree with regard to their bodies, but above all healthy and strong.

Those of them who put their bent heads together and wrestle learn to fall safely and get up easily, to push, grip and twist in various ways; to stand being choked; and, to lift their opponent high in the air. They too are not engaging in useless exercises. On the contrary, they are indisputably acquiring the one thing which is first and greatest: their bodies become less susceptible to ailments and more vigorous through being exercised thoroughly. There is something else as well, which itself is not insignificant: they become experienced as a result of the training, in case they should ever come to need what they have learned in battle. Clearly such a man, when he closes with an enemy, will trip and throw him more quickly, and when he is down, will know how to get up again most easily. For we make all these preparations, Anacharsis, in anticipation of that contest, namely the contest with military weapons, and we expect to find far superior men disciplined in this way, after we have made them pliable and trained their bodies in the nude, and so have made them healthier and stronger, light and elastic, and at the same time too bulky for their opponents.

[Superior bodies for military purposes]

(25) I suppose you can imagine the consequence: what they are to be like with weapons in hand when even unarmed they would instill fear in the enemy. They show no white and ineffective obesity or pale leanness, as if they were women’s bodies bleached out in the shade, quivering and streaming with profuse sweat at once and panting beneath the helmet, especially if the sun blazes with the heat of noon as it is at present. What use could one make of men like that, who get thirsty, who cannot stand dust, who break ranks the moment they catch sight of blood, who lie down and die before they get within a spear’s cast and face the enemy?

But these young men of ours have skin that is reddish and coloured darker by the sun, and manly faces. They reveal great vitality, fire, and courage. They are aglow with such splendid condition. They are neither lean and emaciated nor so full-bodied as to be heavy, but symmetrical in their lines. They have sweated away the useless and superfluous part of their tissues, but what made for strength and elasticity is left upon them uncontaminated by what is worthless, and they maintain this form vigorously. In fact, athletics do in our bodies just what blowing winds do to wheat: they blow away the husks and the chaff, but separate the grain out cleanly and accumulate it for future use.

Consequently a man like that cannot help keeping well and holding out under exhausting labours in a protracted manner. It would be long before he would begin to sweat, and he would rarely be found sick. It is as if you should take firebrands and throw them simultaneously into the wheat itself and into its straw and chaff (for I am returning again to the blowing winds analogy). The straw, I take it, would blaze up far more quickly, while the wheat would burn slowly, not with a great blaze springing up nor at a single burst, but smouldering gradually, until in course of time it too was totally consumed.

Neither sickness nor fatigue, then, could easily invade and rack such a body, or readily overmaster it. For the body has been well stocked on the inside and very strongly fortified on the outside against these, so as not to admit them. The body is further conditioned to receive either sun itself or frost to the detriment of the body. To prevent the men from giving way under hardships, an abundant energy, which gushes up from within, fills them at once, since it has been made ready long beforehand and is stored away for the emergency, replenishing them with vigour. This makes them unweary for a very long period, for their first great hardships and fatigues do not diminish their strength but increase it. The more you fan its flame, the greater it becomes.

Furthermore, we train them to be good runners, conditioning them to hold out for a long distance, and also making them light-footed for extreme speed in a short distance. And the running is not done on hard, resisting ground. Rather, it is done in deep sand, where it is not easy to plant one’s foot solidly or to get a purchase with it, since the foot slips from under one as the sand gives way beneath it. We also train them to jump a ditch, if need be, or any other obstacle, even carrying lead weights as large as they can grasp.

Then too they compete in throwing the javelin for distance. And you saw another bronze and circular implement in the gymnasium resembling a little shield without handle or straps. In fact, you tested the implement as it lay there, and thought it heavy and hard to hold on account of its smoothness. Well, they throw that high into the air and also to a distance, competing to see who can go the farthest and throw beyond the rest. This exercise strengthens their shoulders and puts muscle into their arms and legs.

As for the mud and the dust, which you thought rather ludicrous in the beginning, you amazing person, let me tell you why it is put down. In the first place, it is done so that instead of taking their tumbles on a hard surface, the athletes may fall with impunity on a soft one. Secondly, their slipperiness is necessarily greater when they are sweaty and muddy. This feature, in which you compared them to eels, is not useless or ludicrous. This contributes considerably to strength and muscle when both are in this condition and each has to grip the other firmly and hold him fast while he tries to slip away. And as for picking up a man who is muddy, sweaty, and oily while he does his best to break away and squirm out of your hands, do not imagine it’s easy! All this, as I said before, is of use in war, in case one should need to pick up a wounded friend and carry him out of the fight with ease, or to snatch up an enemy and come back with him in one’s arms. So we train them beyond measure, setting them hard tasks that they may manage smaller ones with far greater ease.

The dust we think to be of use for the opposite purpose, that is to prevent them from slipping away when they are grasped. After they have been trained in the mud to hold tightly onto whatever eludes them due to its oiliness, they are given practice in escaping from their opponent’s hands when they themselves are caught, even though they are held in a sure grip. Moreover, the dust, sprinkled on when the sweat is pouring out in profusion, is thought to check it. The dust makes their strength endure long, and prevents them from being harmed by the wind blowing upon their bodies. Their bodies are then unresisting and have the pores open. Besides, it rubs off the dirt and makes the man cleaner.

I would like to put side by side one of those white-skinned men who have lived in the shade and any one you might select of the athletes in the Lykeion, after I had washed off the mud and the dust, and to ask you which of the two you would hope to to be like. I know that even without testing each to see what he could do, you would immediately choose on first sight to be firm and hard rather than delicate, mushy and white, because your blood is scanty and withdraws to the interior of the body.

[Aim of dominance over others]

(30) That, Anacharsis, is the training we give our young men, expecting them to become strong guardians of our city, and that we will live in freedom through them, conquering our foes if they attack us and keeping our neighbours in fear of us, so that most of them will cower at our feet and pay tribute. In peace also we find them far better, for nothing that is base appeals to their ambitions and idleness does not incline them to arrogance. Rather, exercises such as these give them a diversion and keep them occupied. The chief good of the community and the supreme happiness of the city, which I mentioned before, are attained when our young men, striving at our command for the fairest aims, have been most efficiently prepared both for peace and war.

[Anacharsis’ summary of Solon’s point and an ensuing debate about whether Scythians or Athenians are superior warriors]

Anacharsis: Then if the enemy attacks you, Solon, you yourselves will take the field rubbed with oil and covered with dust, shaking your fists at them. They, of course, will cower at your feet and run away, fearing that while their jaws drop in astonishment you may sprinkle sand in their mouths, or that after jumping behind them so as to get on their backs, you may wind your legs about their bellies and strangle them by putting an arm under their helmets. Yes, by Zeus, they will shoot their arrows, naturally, and throw their spears, but the missiles will not affect you any more than as if you were statues, tanned as you are by the sun and supplied in abundance with blood. You are not straw or chaff, so as to give in quickly under their blows. It would be only after long and strenuous effort, when you are all cut up with deep wounds, that you would show a few drops of blood.

This is the gist of what you are saying, unless I have completely misunderstood your comparison. Or else you will then assume those panoplies of the comedians and tragedians, and if a sally forth is proposed to you, you will put on those wide-mouthed headpieces of the actors in order that you may be more formidable to your opponents by playing bogey-man, and will of course wear those high shoes of the actors, for they will be light to run away in, if need be, and hard for the enemy to escape from, if you go in pursuit, when you take such great strides in chase of them.

No, I am afraid that all these clever tricks of yours are silliness, nothing but child’s play, amusements for your young men who have nothing to do and want to lead an easy life. If you wish, whatever happens, to be free and happy, you will require other forms of athletics and real training, that is to say, with weapons. You will not compete against each other in sport, but against the enemy, learning courage in perilous conflict. So let them give up the dust and the oil, teach them to draw the bow and throw the spear. Do not give them light javelins that can be deflected by the wind, but let them have a heavy lance that whistles when it is hurled, a stone as large as they can grasp, a double axe, a target in their left hand, a breastplate, and a helmet.

In your present condition, it seems to me that you are being saved by the favour of some god or other, seeing that you have not yet been wiped out by the onslaught of a handful of light-armed troops. Look here, if I should draw this little dagger at my belt and attack all your young men by myself, I would capture the gymnasium just by shouting, because they would run away and not a single person would dare to face the steel. No, they would gather around the statues and hide behind the pillars, making me laugh while most of them cried and trembled. Then you would see that they were no longer as reddish-bodied as they are now. They would all turn pale in an instant, dyed to another hue by fright. Profound peace has brought you to such a pass that you could not easily endure to see a single plume of a hostile helmet.

Solon: The Thracians who campaigned against us with Eumolpos did not say so, Anacharsis, nor your women [i.e. Amazons, sometimes a subset of the Greek category Scythians] who marched against the city with Hippolyta, nor any others who have tested us under arms. It does not follow, my unsophisticated friend, that because our young men’s bodies are thus naked while we are developing them, they are therefore undefended by armour when we lead them out into dangers. When they become efficient in themselves, they are then trained with weapons and can make far better use of them because they are so well conditioned.

Anacharsis: Where do you do this training with weapons? I have not seen anything of the sort in the city, though I have gone all around the entire city.

Solon: But you would see it, Anacharsis, if you should stay with us longer, and also weapons for every man in great quantity, which we use when it is necessary, as well as crests, trappings, horses, and horsemen amounting to nearly a quarter of our citizens. But to always bear weapons and to carry a dagger at one’s belt is in fact irrelevant in times of peace, as we think. There is a penalty prescribed for anyone who carries weapons unnecessarily within the city limits or brings armour out into a communal place.

[Solon’s characterization of Scythians]

As for your people, you may be pardoned for always living with weapons. You live in unfortified places, which makes it easy to attack you, and your wars are very numerous, and nobody knows when someone may attack him while sleeping, drag him down from his wagon, and kill him. Besides, your distrust (apistia) of one another, which means your relations with each other are chosen on your own rather than shared by fellow members of the community, makes it necessary to always have a steel blade at hand as a defence if anyone tried to commit violence.

[Continued discussion of use of weapons]

Anacharsis: (35) You [Athenians] think it is superfluous to carry weapons without urgent cause. You are careful with your weapons so that they may not be ruined by handling, keeping them in storage with the intention of using them some day when the need yet arises. At the same time, you wear out the bodies of your young men by mauling them and ruining them with sweat when no danger threatens. So is it not then possible, Solon, that you are not nurturing their strength until it is needed but rather expending it fruitlessly in the mud and dust?

Solon: Apparently, Anacharsis, you think that strength is like wine, water or some other liquid. Anyhow, you are afraid that during exertions our strength may seep away unnoticed, as if from an earthen jar, and then be gone, leaving our bodies empty and dry, since they are not filled up again with anything inside. As a matter of fact, this is not the case, my friend: the more one draws out stength by exertions, the more it flows in, like the fable of the Hydra, if you have heard it. That fable says that when one head of the Hydra was cut off, two others always grew back in its place. But if a man is undeveloped from the beginning, and untempered, and has an insufficient base of reserve material, then he may be injured and reduced in flesh by exertions. Something similar is the case with a fire and a lamp, for with one and the same breath you can start the fire again and speedily make it greater, stimulating it with your blowing, or you can put out the light of the lamp, which has not an adequate supply of fuel to maintain itself against the opposing blast. The root from which the flame sprang was not strong, I suppose.

Anacharsis: I do not understand this at all, Solon. What you have said is too subtle for me, requiring keen intellect and penetrating discernment. But by all means do tell me why it is that in the Olympic, Isthmian, Pythian and the other competitions, where many come together to see the young men competing, as you say, you never match them with weapons but bring them out naked and show them receiving kicks and blows. Then, when they have won, you give them apples and parsley. It is worth while to know why you do so.

Solon: We think, Anacharsis, that their zeal for the athletic exercises will be increased if they see those who excel in these exercises receiving honours and having their names proclaimed before the assembled Greeks. For this reason, expecting to appear naked before so many people, they try to attain good physical condition so that they may not be ashamed of themselves when they are stripped, and each makes himself as fit to win as he can. Furthermore, the prizes, as I said before, are not insignificant, for these are to be praised by the spectators, to become a man of note, and to be pointed at with the finger as the best of one’s class. Therefore many of the spectators, who are still young enough for training, go away immoderately in love with manly excellence and hard work as a result of all this.

Really, Anacharsis, if the love of fame was banished from the world, what new blessing would we ever acquire, or who would want to take any glorious action? But as things are, even from these contests they give you an opportunity to infer what they would be like in war, defending country, children, wives, and shrines with weapons and armour, when contending naked for parsley and apples they bring into it so much enthusiasm for victory.

What would your feelings be if you witness quail-fights and cock-fights here among us, and no little interest taken in them? You would laugh, of course, particularly if you discovered that we do it in compliance with law, and that all those of military age are required to present themselves and watch the birds spar to the extreme limit of exhaustion. Yet this is not laughable, either: their souls are gradually affected by an appetite for dangers in order that they may not seem baser and more cowardly than the roosters, and may not show the white feather [i.e. surrender] early on account of wounds, weariness or any other hardship.

As for testing them with weapons and watching them get wounded – no! It is bestial (thēriōdes) and terribly cruel and, more than that, unprofitable to kill off the most efficient men, who can be used to better advantage against the enemy.

[Further positive Greek example of the Lakedaimonians]

As you say that you intend to visit the rest of Greece, Anacharsis, keep it in mind that, if ever you go to Lakedaimon [i.e. Sparta], do not laugh at them, either. Do not imagine that they are exerting themselves for nothing when they rush together and strike one another in the theatre over a ball, or when they go into a place surrounded by water, divide into companies and treat one another like enemies, naked as with us. They do this until one company drives the other out of the enclosure, crowding them into the water – the descendents of Herakles driving out the descendents of Lykourgos, or the reverse. Afterwards there is peace for the future and nobody would think of striking a blow. Above all, do not laugh if you see them getting flogged at the altar and dripping blood while their fathers and mothers stand by and are so far from being distressed by what is going on that they actually threaten to punish them if they do not withstand lashes of the whip, and call on them to endure the pain as long as possible and be commited under torture. As a matter of fact, many have died in the competition, not wanting to lower themselves in giving up before the eyes of their relatives while they still had life in them, or even to move a muscle of their bodies. You will see honours paid to their statues, which have been set up by the city of Sparta using funds of the institution of the People .

When you see all that, do not assume they are crazy, and do not say that they are undergoing misery without any stringent reason, since it is due neither to a tyrant’s violence nor to an enemy’s maltreatment. Lykourgos, their law-giver, could defend it by telling you many good reasons which he has discerned for punishing them. Lykourgos is not unfriendly to them, and does not do it out of hatred, nor is he violently wasting the young blood of the city. Instead, he wants those who are destined to preserve their country to be tremendously committed and superior to every fear. Yet, even if Lykourgos does not say so, I assume that you see for yourself that such a man, on being captured in war, would never betray any Spartan secret under torture inflicted by the enemy. Instead, he would laugh at them and take his whipping, matching himself against his flogger to see who would give up.

Anacharsis: But what about Lykourgos himself, Solon? Did he get flogged in his youth, or was he then over the age-limit for the competition, so that he could introduce such an innovation with safety?

Solon: He was an old man when he made the laws for them on his return from Crete. He had gone to visit the Cretans because he was told that they enjoyed the best laws, since Minos, a son of Zeus, had been their law-giver.

Anacharsis: Then why is it, Solon, that you have not imitated Lykourgos and do not flog your young men? It is a splendid practice, and worthy of you Athenians!

Solon: Because we are content, Anacharsis, with these exercises, which are our own. We do not much care to copy foreign customs.

Anacharsis: No: you understand, I think, what it is like to be flogged naked, holding up one’s arms, for no advantage either to the individual himself or to the city in general. Oh, if ever I am at Sparta at the time when they are doing this, I expect I will very soon be stoned to death by them before the People for laughing at them every time I see them getting beaten like robbers, pick-pockets or others who do similar things. Really, it seems to me that the city stands in need of hellebore [a flower imagined to cause madness], if it mishandles itself so ridiculously.

[Final joke about Anacharsis having a chance to explain Scythian customs at some future time]

Solon: (40) Do not think, my worthy friend, that you are winning your case by default, or in the absence of your adversaries, as the only speaker. There will be someone or other in Sparta who will reply with a proper defence of this practice.

However, as I have told you about our ways, and you do not seem to be much pleased with them, I do not think it will be unfair to ask you to tell me in your turn how you Scythians discipline your young men, what exercises you use in bringing them up, and how you make them good men.

Anacharsis: It is entirely fair, to be sure, Solon, and I will tell you the Scythian customs, which are not imposing, perhaps, or on the same plane as yours, since we do not dare to receive a single blow in the face – we are cowards! The customs will be explained, however, no matter what they are. But let us put off the discussion, if you will, till tomorrow, so that I may quietly ponder a little longer over what you have said, and get together what I must say, going over it in my memory. At present, let us go away with this understanding, for it is now evening.


Source of translation: A. M. Harmon, Lucian, volumes 1-5, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1913-1936), public domain (passed away in 1950), adapted and modernized by Daniel Mitchell and Harland.

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