Karmanians, Ichthyophagians, and others: Nearchos, Onesikritos, Juba, and Pliny on the area around the Persian Gulf (fourth century BCE-first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Karmanians, Ichthyophagians, and others: Nearchos, Onesikritos, Juba, and Pliny on the area around the Persian Gulf (fourth century BCE-first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified July 10, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=17113.

Ancient authors: Nearchos (late fourth century BCE), FGrHist 133; Onesikritos (late fourth century BCE), FGrHist 134; and Juba II (late first century BCE), FGrHist 275; as discussed by Pliny the Elder (first century CE), Natural History 6.96-101, 108-111 (link; link to FGrHist).

Comments: In this excursus, Pliny the Elder makes extensive use of the voyage reports (or: periplus literature) of Nearchos and Onesikritos (both of whom were involved in Alexander’s activity as far as India), apparently as communicated by Juba II (late first century BCE). In the process, Pliny touches on the peoples these other authors mentioned, particularly those in the area of the Persian Gulf and the southern coast of Iran, what was then known as Karmania and Gedrosia. Both the so-called “Fish-eaters” and the “Turtle-eaters” come up, on which also see both Nearchos and Agatharchides at this link.

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.


[Voyage reports of Onesikritos and Nearchos partially via Juba]

(6.96-101) Now before we go on to a detailed account of these countries [Karmania, Persis, and Arabia], it is suitable to indicate the facts reported by Onesikritos after sailing with the fleet of Alexander around from India to the interior of Persis, and quite recently related in detail by Juba [II, king of Numidia, ca. 30-25 BCE] . . . [omitted sentence]. The record of the voyage of Onesikritos and Nearchos does not include the names of the official stopping places nor the distances travelled. To begin with, no sufficiently clear account is given of the position of the city of Xylinopolis (“Timber-city”), founded by Alexander, which was their starting point, nor is the river on which it stood indicated.

Nevertheless they give the following places worth mentioning: the town of Arbis, founded by Nearchos during his voyage; the river Arbion, navigable by ships; an island opposite to Arbis, eight miles away; Alexandria, founded in the territory of this people by Leonnatos at the order of Alexander; Argenos, with a serviceable harbour; the navigable river Tonberon, in the neighbourhood of which are the Paririans; then the Ichthyophagians (“Fish-eaters”), covering so wide a space of coast that it took thirty days to sail past them; the island called the “Island of the Sun” and also the “Couch of the Nymphs,” the soil of which is red in colour, and on which all animals without exception die, from unknown causes; the Orian people; and, the Karmanian river Hyktanis, allowing harbourage and producing gold.

[Peoples near Karmania]

The travellers noted that it was here that the Great and Little Bear constellations first became visible, and that Arcturus is not visible at all on some nights and never all night long. They also noted that the rule of the Persian kings extended to this point, and that copper, iron, arsenic and red-lead are mined here. Next there is the cape of Karmania [roughly equivalent to the Kerman province of Iran, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf], from which it is a passage of five miles to cross to the Arabian people of the Makians on the opposite coast [equivalent of modern Oman]. There are three islands, of which only Orakta (twenty-five miles from the mainland) [perhaps Qeshm Island] has a supply of fresh water and is inhabited. Four islands are at the end of the gulf.

[Peoples near Persis]

Off the coast of Persis [i.e. the modern region of Fars, Iran, on the eastern coast of what is now the Persian Gulf, above Karmania], the neighbourhood of these islands, the fleet was terrified by thirty foot-long sea-serpents that swam alongside the island of Arados and that of Gauratai, both inhabited by the Gyanian people. At the middle of the Persian gulf is the river Hyperis, navigable for merchant vessels; the river Sitioganos, from which it is seven days’ voyage up to Pasargadae; the navigable river Phrystimus; and, an island that has no name.

[Peoples in Susiana]

The river Granis, carrying vessels of moderate size, flows through Susiana [centred on Susa / modern Shush, Iran], and on its right bank live the Dedmontanians, who manufacture asphalt. There is the river Zarotis [Zohre], the mouth of which is difficult to navigate except for those familiar with it, as well as two small islands. Next there are: a shallow stretch of water like a marsh which nevertheless is navigable by way of certain channels; the mouth of the Euphrates; and, a lake formed in the neighbourhood of Charax [Spasinou] by the Eulaios and the Tigris. Then by the Tigris they [the voyagers] reached Susa. There after three months’ voyaging they found Alexander celebrating a festival. It was seven months since he had left them at Patala.

That was the route followed by the fleet of Alexander. But subsequently it was thought that the safest route is to start from Syagros promontory [perhaps Ras Fartk, Yemen] in Arabia with a west wind (the native name for which in those parts is Hippalos) and make for Patala [in India], the distance being reckoned as 1,332 miles. The following period considered it a shorter and safer route to start from the same cape and steer for the Indian harbour of Sigeros, and for a long time this was the course followed, until a merchant discovered a shorter route, and the desire for gain brought India nearer. Actually, the voyage is made every year, with companies of archers on board, because these seas used to be very greatly infested by pirates. . . [omitted discussion of the voyage route from Egypt to India in connection with trading in Pliny’s time].

[Peoples along the southern coast of Iran]

(6.108-111). Moreover in this region the sea then makes a double inroad into the land [i.e. our Red Sea and our Persian Gulf]. The name given to it by our countrymen [Romans] is the “Red sea,” while the Greeks call it the “Erythraian sea” [i.e. modern Red Sea, Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean together or interchangeably]. The name comes from king Erythras or, according to others, in the belief that the water is given a red colour by the reflexion of the sun. Still others say that the name comes from the sand and the soil, and others that it is due to the actual water being naturally of such a character. . . . [omitted details about the Erythraian sea].

[Turtle-eaters and other peoples in Karmania or Gedrosia]

Onesikritos and Nearchos write that from the river Indus to the Persian gulf [also modern Persian Gulf] and from there to Babylon by the marshes of the Euphrates is a voyage of 1,700 miles. In an angle of Karmania [i.e. on the Gulf of Oman] are the Chelonophagians (“Turtle-eaters”), who roof their houses with the shells and live on the meat of turtles. These people inhabit the promontory that is reached next after leaving the river Arabis [perhaps the Porali river, Pakistan]. They are covered all over, except their heads, with shaggy hair, and they wear clothes made of the skins of fishes.

After the district belonging to these people, in the direction of India there is said to be an uninhabited island, Kaskandros, fifty miles out at sea, and next to it, with a strait flowing between, Stoidis, with a valuable pearl-fishery. After the promontory the Karmanians are adjoined by the Harmozaians, though some authorities place the Arbians between them, stretching all along the coast for four hundred and twenty-one miles. This promontory is the location of the port of the Macedonians and the altars of Alexander. The rivers are Siccanas and then the Dratinos and the Salson. After the Salson is cape Themisteas, and the inhabited island of Aphrodisias. . . [omitted material].

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