Celtiberians, Iberians, and Lusitanians: Diodoros on their customs and military skill (mid-first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Celtiberians, Iberians, and Lusitanians: Diodoros on their customs and military skill (mid-first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified August 13, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=17218.

Ancient authors: Diodoros of Sicily (mid-first century BCE), Library of History 5.33-38 (link).

Comments: After dealing with the Galatians, Diodoros turns to a discussion of populations further west. He describes a mixed population of Celts and Iberians, Celtiberians (in what is now Spain), and also deals with Lusitanians. His characterization of these peoples remains focussed on their military techniques and prowess, as with the other Celts. However, there is less of an emphasis on “savage” customs in comparison with the picture of the Galatians further east. There is the notion that these people tend to engage in banditry, nonetheless. On the other hand, Diodoros also chooses to focus on the extreme hospitality that Celtiberians supposedly offered to strangers. Diodoros finishes this section with an extensive discussion of mining activities near the Pyrenees mountain range, outlining successive colonial or imperial extractions by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans.

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 Galatians or Celts, go to this link.]

Book 5

[Celtiberian military customs]

33  Now that we have spoken at sufficient length about the Celts, we will turn our history to the Celtiberians (Keltibēres) who are their neighbours. In ancient times these two peoples, namely, the Iberians (Ibēres) and the Celts, kept warring among themselves over the land. However, when they later dealt with their differences, settled upon the land together, and agreed to intermarriage with one other, the two peoples received the appellation given above due to such intermixture. Since it was two powerful peoples (ethnē) that united and the land of theirs was fertile, it came to pass that the Celtiberians advanced far in fame and were subdued by the Romans with difficulty and only after they had faced them in battle over a long period.

(2) It appears that this people provides for warfare not only excellent horsemen but also foot-soldiers who excel in prowess and endurance. They wear rough black cloaks, the wool of which resembles the hair of goats. (3) As for their weapons, certain of the Celtiberians carry light shields like those of the Galatians and certain of them carry circular wicker shields as large as an aspis [round Greek shield]. They wind protective material made of hair around their shins and calves and they wear bronze helmets adorned with purple crests on their heads. The swords they wear are two-edged and wrought of excellent iron, and they also have daggers measuring a hand-span in length which they use in fighting at close quarters.

(4) A peculiar practice is followed by them in the fashioning of their defensive​ weapons: They bury plates of iron in the ground and leave them there until in the course of time the rust has eaten out what is weak in the iron and what is left is only the most unyielding. They then fashion from this excellent swords and other objects for war.​ The weapon which has been fashioned in the manner described cuts through anything which gets in its way. No shield or helmet or bone can withstand a blow from it, because of the exceptional quality of the iron. (5) They are adept at fighting in two styles. They first carry on the contest on horseback, and when they have defeated the horsemen they dismount, and assuming the role of foot-soldiers they engage in amazing battles. They have a peculiar and strange custom: careful and cleanly as they are in their ways of living, they nevertheless observe one practice which is low and is very filthy. For they consistently use urine to bathe the body and wash their teeth with it, thinking that in this practice is constituted the care and healing of the body.

[Hospitality towards strangers]

34 Regarding the customs they follow towards criminals and enemies, the Celtiberians are cruel; but toward strangers they are honourable and humane. For instance, when strangers come among them, everyone of them asked them to stop at their homes and they are rivals to one another in this hospitality. Any among them who are attended by strangers are spoken of with approval and regarded as beloved by the gods.


(2) For their food they use meats of every description, of which they enjoy an abundance, since the country supplies them with a great quantity of honey, although the wine they purchase from merchants who sail over the seas to them.


(3) Among the peoples neighbouring the Celtiberians, the most advanced is the people of the “Vakkaians” (or Vaccaians), as they are called. For this people each year divides among its members the land which it tills. Making the fruits the property of everyone, they measure out a portion to each man. For any cultivators who have appropriated some part for themselves, they have set the penalty as death.

[Lusitanians and their military customs]

(4) The most valiant among the Iberians are those who are known as Lusitanians, who carry in war very small shields which are interwoven with cords of sinew and are able to protect the body unusually well, because they are so tough. By shifting this shield easily as they do in their fighting – now here, now there – they cleverly ward off every blow which comes at their bodies. (5) They also use barbed javelins made entirely of iron, and wear helmets and swords very much like those of the Celtiberians. They hurl the javelin with good effect, even over a long distance, and, in the end, are fearless in dealing their blows. Since they are nimble and wear light arms, they are swift both in flight and in pursuit, but when it comes to enduring the hardships of a stiff fight, they are far inferior to the Celtiberians. In time of peace they practise a kind of dance which requires very nimble moving limbs. In their wars, they march into battle with even step and raise a battle-song as they attack the enemy.

[Customs of banditry]

(6) A peculiar practice is done among the Iberians and particularly among the Lusitanians: when their young men come to the height of their physical strength, those who are the very poorest among them in worldly goods and yet excel in vigour of body and daring equip themselves with no more than valour and arms. They gather in naturally protected parts of the mountain where they form into bands of considerable size and then descend upon Iberia and collect wealth from their banditry (lēsteuein). They continually practise this banditry in a spirit of complete disdain. For using as they do light arms and being altogether nimble and swift, they are a most difficult people for other men to subdue. (7) Generally speaking, they consider the naturally protected parts and crags of the mountains to be their native land. They flee to these places for refuge, places which large and heavily equipped armies find hard to traverse. Consequently, although the Romans in their frequent campaigns against the Lusitanians rid them of their great spirit of disdain, they were nevertheless unable to put a complete end to their banditry even though they often tried.

[Silver-mining customs and colonial extraction]

35  Since we have presented the facts concerning the Iberians, we think that it will not be foreign to our purpose to discuss the silver mines of the land. For this land possesses, we may venture to say, the most abundant and most excellent known sources of silver. The land returns great revenues to the workers of this silver.

(2) Now in the preceding books which told about the achievements of Herakles, we have mentioned the mountains in Iberia which are known as the Pyrenees.​ Both in height and in size these mountains are found to excel all others. They stretch from the southern [Mediterranean] sea practically as far as the northern [Atlantic] ocean​ and extend for some three thousand stadium-lengths, dividing Galatia from Iberia and Celtiberia. (3) Since the mountains contain many thick and deep forests, in ancient times, we are told, certain herdsmen left a fire and the whole area of the mountains was entirely consumed. Due to this fire, since it raged continuously day after day, the surface of the earth was also burned and the mountains, because of what had taken place, were called the Pyrenees [i.e. the Greek word “pyr” for “fire” is contained in the designation]. Furthermore, the surface of the burned land ran with much silver. Since the elementary substance out of which the silver is worked was melted down, there were formed many streams of pure silver.


(4) Now the natives were ignorant of the use of the silver, and the Phoenicians, as they pursued their commercial enterprises and learned of what had taken place, purchased the silver in exchange for other goods of little if any worth. And this was the reason why the Phoenicians, as they transported this silver to Greece and Asia and to all other peoples, acquired great wealth. So far indeed did the merchants go in their greed that, in case their boats were fully laden and there still remained a great amount of silver, they would hammer the lead off the anchors and have the silver perform the service of the lead. Because the Phoenicians prospered greatly over the years thanks to this commerce, the result was that they sent out many colonies, some to Sicily and its neighbouring islands, and others to Libya, Sardinia, and Iberia.

36  But at a much later time the Iberians, having come to know the peculiar qualities possessed by silver, sunk notable mines. By working the most excellent and, we may say, the most abundant silver to be found, they consequently received great revenues. The manner, then, in which the Iberians mine and work the silver is in part as follows: (2) the mines being marvellous in their deposits of copper, gold and silver, the workers of the copper mines recover from the earth they dig out a fourth part of pure copper, and among the unskilled workers in silver there are some who will take out a Euboic talent in three days. All the ore is full of solid silver-dust which gleams forth from it. Consequently, a man may well be amazed both at the nature of the region and at the diligence displayed by the men who labour there. (3) Now at first unskilled labourers, whoever might come, carried on the working of the mines. These men took great wealth away with them, since the silver-bearing earth was convenient at hand and abundant.


But at a later time, after the Romans had made themselves masters of Iberia, a multitude of Italians have swarmed to the mines and taken great wealth away with them, such was their greed. (4) For they purchase a multitude of slaves whom they turn over to the overseers of the working of the mines. And these men, opening shafts in a number of places and digging deep into the ground, seek out the seams of earth which are rich in silver and gold. And not only do they go into the ground a great distance, but they also push their diggings many stadium-lengths in depth and run galleries off at every angle, turning this way and that, in this manner bringing up from the depths the ore which gives them the profit they are seeking.

37  Great also is the contrast these mines show when they are compared with those of Attica [i.e. at Laureion].​ Although the men who work the Attic mines have expended large sums on the undertakings, yet “now and then, what they hoped to get, they did not get, and what they had, they lost,” so that it would appear that they met with misfortune in a kind of riddle [attributed to Homer in the so-called Herodotean Life of Homer 35]. (2) The exploiters of the mines of Spain, in their hopes,​ amass great wealth from their undertakings. For their first labours are remunerative, thanks to the excellent quality of the earth for this sort of thing. They are always discovering more splendid veins, rich in both silver and gold. For all the ground in that region is a tangled network of veins which wind in many ways. (3) Now and then, as they go down deep, they come upon flowing subterranean rivers, but they overcome the might of these rivers by diverting the streams which flow in on them by means of channels leading off at an angle. For being urged on as they are by expectations of gain, which indeed do not deceive them, they push each separate undertaking to its conclusion. The most surprising thing of all is that they draw out the waters of the streams they encounter by means of what is called by men the “Egyptian screw,” which was invented by Archimedes of Syracuse at the time of his visit to Egypt. And by the use of such screws they carry the water in successive lifts​ as far as the entrance, drying up in this way the spot where they are digging and making it well suited to the furtherance of their operations. (4) Since this machine is an exceptionally ingenious device, an enormous amount of water is thrown out, to one’s astonishment, by means of an insignificant amount of labour. All the water from such rivers is brought up easily from the depths and poured out on the surface. Someone might be amazed at the inventiveness of the craftsman [i.e. Archimedes],​ in connection not only with this invention but with many other greater ones as well. His fame has encompassed the entire inhabited world and we will give a detailed and precise account when we come to the period of Archimedes.

38  But to continue with the mines, the slaves who are engaged in the working of them produce for their masters revenues in sums defying belief. However, the slaves themselves wear out their bodies both by day and by night in the diggings under the earth, dying in large numbers because of the exceptional hardships they endure. For no respite or pause is granted them in their labours. Instead, compelled beneath blows of the overseers to endure the severity of their plight, they throw away their lives in this wretched manner. Though some of them can endure it by virtue of their bodily strength and their persevering souls, suffering such hardships over a long period. Indeed death in their eyes is more to be desired than life, because of the magnitude of the hardships they must bear.


(2) Although many are the astounding features connected with the mining just described, a man may be amazed not the least at the fact that not one of the mines has a recent beginning. Instead, all of them were opened by the covetousness of the Carthaginians at the time when Iberia was among their possessions. It was from these mines, that is, that they drew their continued growth, hiring the ablest mercenaries to be found and winning with their aid many and great wars. (3) For it is generally true that, in their wars, the Carthaginians never rested their confidence in soldiers from among their own citizens or gathered from their allies. Instead, when the Carthaginians subjected the Romans and the Sicilians and the inhabitants of Libya to the greatest perils, it was by means of money derived from their abundant mines that they conquered them in every instance. For the Phoenicians, it appears, were from ancient times clever men in making discoveries to their gain, and the Italians are equally clever in leaving no gain to anyone else.

[Tin mining]

(4) Tin also occurs in many regions of Iberia, not found, however, on the surface of the earth, as certain writers continually repeat in their histories, but dug out of the ground and smelted in the same manner as silver and gold. For there are many mines of tin in the country above Lusitania and on the islets which lie off Iberia out in the ocean and are called because of that fact the Kassiterides.​ (5) Tin is brought in large quantities also from the island of Britannia to the opposite Galatia,​ where it is taken by merchants on horses through the interior of the Celtic region both to the Massalians and to the city of Narbo, as it is called. This city is a colony of the Romans, and because of its convenient situation it possesses the finest market to be found in those regions.

[For Diodoros’ subsequent discussion of Ligurians, go to this link (coming soon)]

Leave a comment or correction

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