Baliaridians and other barbarian peoples off Iberia: Diodoros on their paradoxical customs (mid-first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Baliaridians and other barbarian peoples off Iberia: Diodoros on their paradoxical customs (mid-first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 1, 2024,

Ancient authors: Diodoros of Sicily (mid-first century BCE), Library of History 5.16-18 (link).

Comments: Diodoros continues his discussion of inhabitants on islands further west of Sicily and Sardinia and along the coast of Iberia (Spain). The discussion of the inhabitants of the Baliarides (now Balearic) islands (now in Spain) characterizes them as “barbarians” and goes into some details about their expertise in slinging stones and their supposedly “paradoxical” customs, including sexual customs.


[For Diodoros’ preceding discussion of Sikanians, Sicilians, Sardinians and other island peoples, go to this link.]

Book 5

[Mixed “barbarians” on Pityussa island]

16  But now that we have spoken about Sardinia at sufficient length, we will discuss the islands in the order in which they lie. After those we have mentioned there comes first an island called Pityussa [modern Ibiza and Formentera, Spain],​ the name being due to the multitude of pine-trees (pityes) which grow throughout it. It lies out in the open sea and is distant from the pillars of Herakles a voyage of three days and nights, from Libya a day and a night, and from Iberia one day. In size it is about as large as Korkyra [Corfu, Greece]. (2) The island is only moderately fertile, possessing little land that is suitable for the vine, but it has olive trees which are engrafted upon the wild olive. Of all the products of the island, they say that the softness of its wool stands first in excellence. The island is broken up at intervals by notable plains and highlands and has a city named Eresos, a colony of the Carthaginians. (3) And it also possesses excellent harbours, huge walls, and a multitude of well-constructed houses. Its inhabitants consist of barbarians of all kinds (barbaroi pantodapoi), but Phoenicians are most prevalent. The date of the founding of the colony falls one hundred and sixty years after the settlement of Carthage [which may here be assumed to be 814 BCE].

[Natives of the Baliarides islands and their lifestyle]

17  There are other islands lying opposite Iberia, which the Greeks call “Gymnesiai” because the inhabitants go around naked (gymnoi) in the summer time. But the inhabitants of the islands and the Romans call these islands the “Baliarides” because the natives (egxōrioi) are most skillful among men in hurling (ballein) of large stones with slings. The larger of these is the largest of all islands after the seven – Sicily, Sardinia, Cyprus, Crete, Euboea, Kyrnos, and Lesbos –​ and it is a day’s voyage away from Iberia. The smaller island lies more to the east and maintains great droves and flocks of every kind of animal, especially of mules, which stand very high and are exceptionally strong. (2) Both islands have good land which produces fruits and a population of inhabitants numbering more than thirty thousand. However, when it comes to produce, they raise no wine whatsoever. Consequently the inhabitants are one and all exceedingly addicted to indulgence in wine because of the scarcity of it among them. They are altogether lacking in olive-oil and therefore prepare an oil from the mastich-tree, which they mix with the fat from pigs. They anoint their bodies with this oil.

(3) Of all men, these people are the fondest of women and value them so highly above everything else that, when any of their women are seized by visiting bandits (lēstai) and carried off, they will give as ransom for a single woman three and even four men. They build their homes under hollow rocks, or they dig out holes along the faces of sharp crags. They generally put many parts of them underground, and in these they pass their time, having an eye both to the shelter and to the safety which such homes afford. (4) Silver and gold money is not used by them at all, and as a general practice its importation into the island is prevented. The explanation they offer for this is that a long time ago Herakles made an expedition against Geryones, who was the son of Chrysaor and possessed both silver and gold in abundance. So in order to avoid others wanting their possessions, they have made wealth in gold and silver alien from themselves. And so, in keeping with this decision of theirs, when in early times they served once in the campaigns of the Carthaginians, they did not bring back their pay to their native homeland but spent it all to buy women and wine.

[Paradoxical customs]

18  These people also have a paradoxical custom which they observe in connection with their marriages: During their wedding festivities the relatives and friends take turns sleeping with the bride. The oldest man goes first, then the next oldest, and the rest in order. The last one to enjoy this privilege is the bridegroom. (2) Peculiar also and altogether strange is their practice regarding the burial of the dead: They dismember the body with wooden knives, and then they place the pieces in a jar and pile a heap of stones on top.

[Military customs and slinging stones]

(3) Their equipment for fighting consists of three slings, and of these they keep one around the head, another around the belly, and the third in the hands. In the business of war they hurl much larger stones than do any other slingers, and with such force that the missile seems to have been shot, as it were, from a catapult. Consequently, in their assaults upon walled cities, they strike the defenders on the battlements and disable them, and in pitched battles they crush both shields and helmets and every kind of protective armour. (4) They are so accurate in their aim that in the majority of cases they never miss the target before them. The reason for this is the continual practice which they get from childhood, in that their mothers force them, while still young boys, to use the sling continually. For, there is set up before them as a target a piece of bread fastened to a stake, and the novice is not permitted to eat until he has hit the bread. At that point, the child takes it from his mother with her permission and devours it.

[For Diodoros’ subsequent discussion of peoples of an island off Libya, go to this link (coming soon)].


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), adapted by Victoria Muccilli and Harland.

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