Scythians, Germans, and others: Pliny the Elder on peoples on the western and northern coasts of the Black Sea (first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Scythians, Germans, and others: Pliny the Elder on peoples on the western and northern coasts of the Black Sea (first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified July 3, 2023,

Ancient author: Pliny the Elder, Natural History 4.80-83, 88 (link).

Comments: As Pliny the Elder approaches where the Danube empties into the Black Sea (in what is now Romania), he turns to a brief ethnographic description of the peoples nearby, including both “Scythians” and Germanic peoples. Pliny briefly suggests that the peoples known as “Scythians” had spread far and wide but that “Scythians” was no longer the name used for most of them. Pliny is also helpful for some other terminological issues, as he claims to know what varying designations actually refer to the same people (e.g. Sarmatians are Sauromatians), but we do not know if he is right on these. His theoretical interest in ethnic identification and categorization is noteworthy nonetheless. His suggestion that there were Troglodytes (here spelled without the “L”) in this region shows just how widely applied that designation for “Cave-dwellers” was (on which see many other Troglodytes, particularly in the deserts of Egypt and Ethiopia at this link). In other words, Troglodytes were not a people but rather a label (much like “barbarians”) that others put on particular groups for living a supposedly uncivilized lifestyle.

Pliny’s Roman military career focussed at first on service near the Rhine (see Syme 1969), so it is understandable that he shows interest in northern peoples and particularly Germanic ones, as here. Pliny also wrote a now lost work precisely on Germanic Wars.

Works consulted: Ronald Syme, “Pliny the Procurator,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 73 (1969): 201–36 (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.


[Scythians, Getians, Sarmatians, Alanians, and Rhoxolanians]

(4.80-83) From this point [where the Danube empties into the Black Sea] all the peoples (gentes) in general are Scythian. However, various peoples have occupied the lands adjacent to the coast: in one place are the Getians, who are called “Dacians” by the Romans; at another place are the Sarmatians, called the “Sauromatians” by the Greeks, including the section of them called Hamaxomians (“Wagon-dwellers”) or Aorsians; and, at another place are the low-born Scythians descended from slaves or else the Troglodytes (Trogodytes here; “Cave-dwellers”), and then the Alanians and Rhoxolanians.

[Sarmatian Iazygians, Basternians and other Germanic peoples]

The higher parts between the Danube and the Herkynian forest as far as the winter quarters of Pannonia at Carnuntum [Petronell-Carnuntum, Austria] and the plains and level country of the German frontiers. These are occupied by the Sarmatian Iazygians, while the Dacians whom they have driven out hold the mountains and forests as far as the Pathissum [Tisa] river. From the river Maros [Mureș] (or else the Duria [Dora Riparia] river, if it is that one which separates them from the Suebians and the kingdom of Vannius), the opposite side of the country is occupied by the Basternians and then other Germans. Agrippa describes the whole of this area from the Danube to the sea as being 1200 [Roman] miles long and 396 wide, as far as the river Vistula [now in Poland] in the direction of the Sarmatian desert.

[Comment on the use of the designation “Scythians”]

The name of Scythians has spread in every direction, as far as the Sarmatians and the Germans. However, this old designation [i.e. “Scythians”] has not continued for any except the most remote sections of these peoples, living almost unknown to the rest of humankind.

[Peoples moving north and east along the coast of the Black Sea]

After the Danube come the towns of Kremniskoi (Cremniscoi) and Aipolion (Aepolium), the Makrokremnian mountains, and the famous river Tyras [Dniester], which gives its name to the town on the site which previously was called Ophiusa. A large island in the Tyras river which is inhabited by the Tyragetians (Tyragetae) is one hundred and thirty [Roman] miles from the False-mouth of the Ister [Danube]. Then come the Axiakians (Axiacae) named from the river Axiakes. Beyond them are the Krobyzians, the river Rhode, the Sangarian gulf, the port of Ordesos, and one hundred and twenty miles from the Tyras the river Borysthenes [Dnieper] and the lake and people (gens) of the same name, and the town fifteen miles inland from the sea, the old names of which were Olbiopolis and Miletopolis. Returning to the coast, we come to the port of the Achaians and the island of Achilles, famous for the tomb of that hero. One hundred and twenty-five miles from this is a peninsula stretching out at a slant in the shape of a sword, and called the “Racecourse of Achilles” from having been his exercising ground. Its length is given by Agrippa as eighty miles. The whole of this stretch is occupied by the Scythian Sardians and Sirakians.

Then there is a wooded region that has given its name to the Forest Sea that washes its coast. The inhabitants are called Enoikadians (Enoecadioe). Beyond is the river Pantikapes [Somara], which forms the boundary between the nomadic and agricultural peoples, and then the Akesinos. Some authorities say that below Olbia the Pantikapes flows into the Borysthenes. However, those who are more accurate make the Hypanis [Bug] a tributary of the Borysthenes, so it is erroneous to put the latter in a region of Asia. . . [omitted sections of the continuing description moving east, with further mention of peoples without much detail].

[Sauromatians, Maotians, and supposed Man-eaters]

(88) After Taphrai [on the Tauric Chersonesos; modern Crimean peninsula], the interior of the mainland is occupied by the Auchetians and the Neurians, in whose territories respectively are the sources of the Hypanis [Bug] and the Borysthenes [Dnieper] rivers, as well as the Gelonians, Thyssagetians, Boudinians, Basilidians and Agathyrsians, the last being a dark-haired people. Above them are the nomads and then the man-eaters (Anthropophagi / Anthropophagoi), and after lake Bukes above lake Maiotis [Sea of Azov] there are the Sauromatians and Essedonians. Along the coast, as far as the river Tanais, are the Maiotians from whom the sea receives its name. Finally, behind the Maiotians are the Arimaspians. Then come the Ripaian mountains and the region called Pterophoros, because of the feather-like snow continually falling there. This is a part of the world that lies under the condemnation of nature and is plunged in dense darkness, and occupied only by the work of frost and the chilly lurking-places of the north wind.

Leave a comment or correction

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *