Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'People on an idyllic island in the Atlantic off Libya: Diodoros on their natural resources and on Carthaginian colonization plans (mid-first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified June 14, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=16536.
Ancient authors: Diodoros of Sicily (mid-first century BCE), Library of History 5.19-20 (link).
Comments: As Diodoros continues to survey islands near the Strait of Gibraltar, he goes on to vaguely sketch out life on an ideal island out in the Atlantic, where people live in beauty with an abundance of food. The fact that Diodoros’ tone of seriousness does not change between discussions of islands and their peoples that we know did exist and those that may not have (or at least not in the idyllic form presented) is a further warning about the blurry boundaries between fact and fiction in ethnographic materials generally. In some respects, this image of a utopian island (in this case to the west) may be compared with Diodoros’ narrative (drawing on one Iamboulos) regarding an island off the eastern coast of India (link). In both cases, some ideal climate with a near perfect lifestyle is imagined to exist at the furthest, largely-unknown limits of the world. Diodoros also touches on Phoenician explorations and colonization efforts, as well as the supposed Carthaginian emergency plan to settle this ideal, mysterious island.
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.
[For Diodoros’ preceding discussion of peoples from the islands off the Iberian peninsula, go to this link]
[Ideal environment on the island]
19 But now that we have discussed what relates to the islands which lie within the pillars of Herakles, we will give an account of those which are in the ocean. For there lies, out in the deep off Libya [i.e. imagined to be in the Atlantic west of the African continent], an island of considerable size. Situated in the ocean, it is a number of days voyage to the west away from Libya. Its land is fruitful, much of it being mountainous and not a little being a level plain of surpassing beauty. (2) Through it flow navigable rivers which are used for irrigation, and the island contains many parks planted with trees of every variety and gardens in great multitudes which are traversed by streams of sweet water. On it also are private villas of costly construction, and throughout the gardens banqueting houses have been constructed in a setting of flowers, and in them the inhabitants pass their time during the summer season, since the land supplies in abundance everything which contributes to enjoyment and luxury. (3) The mountainous part of the island is covered with dense thickets of great extent and with fruit-trees of every variety. Inviting men to life in the mountains, it has cozy glens and springs in great number.
[Ideal food and climate]
To put it briefly, this island is well supplied with springs of sweet water which not only makes the use of it enjoyable for those who pass their life there but also contribute to the health and vigour of their bodies. (4) There is also excellent hunting of every manner of beast and wild animal, and the inhabitants, being well supplied with this game at their feasts, lack of nothing which pertains to luxury and extravagance. For, in fact, the sea which washes the shore of the island contains a multitude of fish, since the character of the ocean is such that it abounds throughout its extent with fish of every variety. (5) Generally speaking, the climate of the island is so altogether mild that it produces in abundance the fruits of the trees and the other seasonal fruits for the larger part of the year, so that it would appear that the island, because of its exceptional felicity, were a dwelling-place of the gods and not of men.
20 In ancient times, this island remained undiscovered because of its distance from the entire inhabited world, but it was discovered at a later period for the following reason. The Phoenicians, who made voyages continually for purposes of trade since ancient times, planted many colonies throughout Libya and not a few as well in the western parts of Europe. Since their ventures turned out according to their expectations, they amassed great wealth and attempted to voyage beyond the Pillars of Herakles into the sea which men call the ocean.
(2) First of all, on the strait itself by the pillars they founded a city on the shores of Europe, and since the land formed a peninsula, they called the city Gadeira [Cadiz]. In the city, they built many works appropriate to the nature of the region, and among them a costly temple of Herakles [i.e. Tyrian Melkart], and they instituted magnificent sacrifices which were conducted after the manner of the Phoenicians. This shrine has come to be held in an honour beyond the ordinary, both at the time of its building and in comparatively recent days down even to our own lifetime. Also many Romans, distinguished men who have performed great deeds, have offered vows to this god, and these vows they have performed after the completion of their successes.
(3) The Phoenicians, then, while exploring the coast outside the pillars for the reasons we have stated and while sailing along the shore of Libya, were driven by strong winds a great distance out into the ocean. After being storm-tossed for many days, they were carried ashore on the island we mentioned above. When they had observed its beauty and nature, they let everyone know about it.
Consequently, the Tyrrhenians, at the time when they were masters of the sea, planned to dispatch a colony to it, but the Carthaginians prevented their doing so, partly out of concern that many inhabitants of Carthage would move there because of the excellence of the island, and partly in order to have ready in it a place in which to seek refuge against an incalculable turn of fortune, in case some total disaster would overtake Carthage. For it was their thought that, since they were masters of the sea, they would thus be able to move, households and all, to an island which was unknown to their conquerors.
[For Diodoros’ subsequent discussion of Britons, go to this link (coming soon)].