Serians (Chinese), Ottorokorians and others: Pliny the Elder on the savage silk people (first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Serians (Chinese), Ottorokorians and others: Pliny the Elder on the savage silk people (first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified June 20, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=15866.

Ancient authors: Amometos, Hekataios of Abdera and others as discussed in Pliny the Elder (first century CE), Natural History 6.53-57 (link).

Comments: The elite Roman author Pliny the Elder here makes his way east from the Scythians, sketching out peoples associated with silk – “Serians” – and then moving south towards the Himalayas, where the Attacorians or Ottorokorians (as in Ptolemy’s Geography 6.16) are placed on the northern side of the range. He claims to be drawing on fourth and third century BCE Greek accounts.  While Serians (Chinese) are noted for their production of silk, they are nonetheless characterized as savage like animals. Compare Pausanias’ discussion of Serians and silk at this link. Others in the area north of the Himalayas are labelled eaters of human flesh, just like the Anthropophagian Scythians further west.

Source of the translation: H. Rackham, W.H.S. Jones, and D.E. Eichholz, Pliny: Natural History, 10 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1938-1962), public domain (Rackham passed away in 1944, Jones passed away in 1963, copyright not renewed as well), adapted by Harland.

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[Moving east from the man-eating Scythians]

(6.53-57) After leaving the Caspian sea and the Scythian ocean our course takes a bend towards the eastern sea as the coast turns to face eastward. The first part of the coast after the Scythian promontory is uninhabitable on account of snow, and the neighbouring region is uncultivated because of the savagery of the descent groups (gentes) that inhabit it. This is the country of the Anthropophagian (Anthropophagi) Scythians who eat human bodies. For this reason, the adjacent districts are abandoned deserts with plenty of wild beasts lying in wait for human beings as savage as themselves. Then we come to more Scythians and to more deserts inhabited by wild beasts, until we reach a mountain range called Tabis which forms a cliff over the sea. Not until we have covered nearly half of the length of the coast that faces north-east is that region inhabited.

[Serians, silk-people]

The first human occupants are the people called the Serians (Seres) [silk-people, Chinese], who are famous for the woollen substance obtained from their forests. After soaking the substance in water, they comb off the white down of the leaves, and so supply our women with the double task of unravelling the threads and weaving them together again. So much labour is involved and so distant is the region of the world from which it comes for a Roman matron to flaunt transparent raiment in public.  Even though they are mild in character, the Serians nonetheless resemble wild animals in that they also shun the company of the remainder of humankind and wait for trade to come to them.

[Attacorians / Ottorokorians and others headed towards northern India]

The first river found in their territory is the Psitharas, next the Cambari, and third the Lanos, after which come the Malay peninsula, the bay of Cirnaba, the river Atianos and the descent group of the Attacorians (Attacoriae) [likely the Ottorokorians of Ptolemy, Geography 6.16; perhaps the Uttarakuru, north of the Himilayas] on the bay of the same name, sheltered by sun-bathed hills from every harmful blast, with the same temperate climate as that in which the Hyperboreans live. The Attacorians are the subject of a monograph by Amometos [third century BCE or earlier; FGrHist 645], while the Hyperboreans have been dealt with in a volume by Hekataios [of Abdera, fourth century BCE]. After the Attacorians there are the descent groups of the Thunians and Focarians, and the Casirians (Casari), situated in the interior in the direction of the Scythians. The Casirians eat human bodies. Also the nomads among Indians reach this point in their wanderings. Some writers state that they are actually in contact with the Ciconians (Cicones) and also the Brisarians (Brisari) on the north.

We now come to a point after which there is complete agreement as to the descent groups: the range of mountains called the Hemodi mountains [Himalayas]. This is where the Indian descent group begins, bordering not only on the eastern sea but on the southern sea as well, which we have called the Indian ocean. . . [omitted account of Indian people in this post].

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