Ligurians: Diodoros on their harsh environment, hard work and noble spirit (mid-first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Ligurians: Diodoros on their harsh environment, hard work and noble spirit (mid-first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 30, 2024,

Ancient authors: Diodoros of Sicily (mid-first century BCE), Library of History 4.20 and 5.39 (link).

Comments (Harland and Maia Kotrosits): On the mention of Liguria in Diodoros’ narrative about the expeditions and achievements of Herakles, Diodoros has an ethnographic aside on Ligurians (on which also see Strabo at this link) living in the area around what is now modern Genoa, Italy, near the Alps (and therefore adjacent to or among Celts). Diodoros stresses the difficulties with cultivating the land and the extremely hard-working people these environmental conditions supposedly created, giving an anecdote about a woman who gave birth while working.

Further on in his narrative when he arrives in the Ligurians’ territory again, Diodoros provides further comment. He once again characterizes them as a particularly tough people due to their harsh environmental conditions. As with Diodoros’ brief sketch of Britons, there is an emphasis on the simple yet durable or in some sense noble lifestyle. In other words, they are primitive, but in a “good” sense (romanticized and contrasting to the savagery of the Galatians). A Ligurian is pictured being able to defeat the fiercest Galatian in hand-to-hand combat, and Ligurians generally are able to endure hardships much more than other peoples. Here it is especially clear how constructions of gender facilitate a racializing imagination: the Ligurians are a masculine people, and this includes Ligurian women.

For more on ethnography and gender see Kotrosits, “The Ethnography of Gender” (link).


[For Diodoros’ preceding discussion of Herakles’ civilizing campaigns as far as the Iberians and Celts, go to this link]

Book 4 

20  The Ligurians (Ligyes) who live in Liguria [area near modern Genoa, Italy] possess a soil which is stony and completely terrible. In return for the labours and exceedingly great hardships of the natives, the land produces only scanty crops which are squeezed from it. For this reason, the inhabitants are small in build and are kept vigorous by their constant exercise. For since they are far removed from the care-free life which accompanies luxury, they are light in their movements and excel in vigour when it comes to contests of war. (2) In general, the inhabitants of the region nearby are used to continuous work. Since cultivating the land requires so much labour, the Ligurians have become accustomed to require the women to share in the hardships of cultivation. And since both the men and the women work side by side for hire, it came to pass that a strange and surprising thing took place in our day in connection with a certain woman. (3) She was pregnant and, while working for hire alongside the men, she was seized by labour-pains in the midst of her work and quietly withdrew into an area with bushes. Here she gave birth to the child and then, after covering it with leaves, she hid the baby there and rejoined the labourers, continuing to endure the same hardship as that in which they were engaged and giving no hint of what had happened. When the baby cried and the occurrence became known, the overseer could in no way persuade her to stop her work. In fact, she did not desist from the hardship until her employer took pity upon her, paid her the wages due her, and set her free from work.

[For Diodoros’ subsequent discussion of Romans, go to this link].


[For Diodoros’ preceding discussion of Celtiberians and Lusitanians, go to this link.]

Book 5

[Ligurians and their harsh environment]

39  Since we have discussed the Galatians, the Celtiberians, and the Iberians, we will turn to the Ligurians. The Ligurians inhabit a land which is stony and altogether wretched. The life they live is, by reason of the toils and the continuous hardships they endure in their labour, a grievous one and unfortunate. (2) For the land being thickly wooded, some of them cut down the wood the whole day long, equipped with efficient and heavy axes. Others, whose task it is to prepare the ground, do in fact for the larger part quarry out rocks by reason of the exceeding stoniness of the land. For their tools never dig up a clod without a stone. Since their labour entails such hardship as this, it is only by perseverance that they surmount Nature and that after many distresses they gather scanty harvests, and no more.

Because of their continued physical activity and minimum of nourishment, the Ligurians have slender and vigorous bodies. To aid them in their hardships they have their women, who have become accustomed to labour on an equal basis with the men. (3) They are continually hunting, whereby they get abundant game and compensate in this way for the lack of the fruits of the field. Consequently, spending their lives as they do on snow-covered mountains, where they are used to traversing unbelievably rugged places, they become vigorous and muscular of body. (4) Some of the Ligurians, because of the lack among them of the fruits of the earth, drink nothing but water [i.e. not wine]​, they eat the meat of both domestic and wild animals, and they fill themselves with plants which grow in the land. The land they possess was not visited by the most kindly of the gods, namely, Demeter and Dionysos.

[Primitive lifestyle and customs]

(5) The Ligurians spend nights in the fields, rarely in a kind of crude shanty or hut, more often in the hollows of rocks and natural caves which may offer them sufficient protection. (6) In pursuance of these habits they have also other practices by which they preserve the manner of life which is primitive and lacking in implements. Speaking generally, in these regions the women possess the vigour and might of men, and the men those of wild beasts. Indeed, they say that often times in campaigns the mightiest warrior among the Galatians has been challenged to single combat by a quite slender Ligurian and been killed.

(7) The weapons of the Ligurians are lighter in their structure than those of the Romans. Their protection is a long shield worked in the Gallic fashion and a shirt gathered in with a belt. They throw the skins of wild animals around themselves and carry a sword of moderate size. But some of them, now that they have been incorporated into the Roman system, have changed the type of their weapons, adapting themselves to their rulers.

(8) They are venturesome and of noble spirit, not only in war, but in those circumstances of life which offer terrifying hardships or perils. As traders, for instance, they sail over the Sardinian and Libyan seas, readily casting themselves into dangers from which there is no relief. For although the vessels they use are more cheaply fashioned than make-shift boats and their equipment is the minimum of that usual on ships, yet to one’s astonishment and terror they will face the most fearful conditions which storms create.

[For Diodoros’ subsequent discussion of Tyrrhenians or Etruscans, go to this link.]


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 and copyright not renewed), adapted by Victoria Muccilli and Harland.

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