Persians and neighbouring eastern peoples: Ammianus Marcellinus on Persian territories and lifestyles (late fourth century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persians and neighbouring eastern peoples: Ammianus Marcellinus on Persian territories and lifestyles (late fourth century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified August 30, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=17380.

Ancient authors: Ptolemy and others as discussed in Ammianus Marcellinus (late fourth century CE), Roman AntiquitiesRes Gestae  23.6.1, 10-14, 41-84 (link).

Comments: Drawing on Strabo, Ptolemy (Geography 6), and others, Ammianus Marcellinus’ late fourth century digression provides a somewhat extensive survey of Persian provinces and neighbouring eastern peoples as far as the Serians (Chinese). At the time Ammianus was writing, the Persian, Sasanian empire was well-established as a major power (functioning from the third to seventh centuries CE), but he also has in mind the earlier Parthian, Arsacid empire (third century BCE-third century CE) and, of course, the major Persian power of the fifth to fourth centuries BCE.  Ammianus himself was a participant in the failed campaign against the Sasanian Persians under the emperor Julian (ca. 363 CE).

After outlining the location and setting of various peoples, he turns to a generalizing description of Persian or eastern peoples, beginning with a physical description. Ammianus outlines a number of stereotypes that stand in some tension with one another (as stereotypes often do), but the common Greek and Roman characterization of Persians as overly sexual and effeminate remains important. Nonetheless, this is accompanied by an acknowledgement of Persian success in war. Notions of Persian propriety regarding bodily functions and attention to law are placed alongside their supposedly cruel and violent character, as they are pictured readily flaying slaves or common people alive, for instance.

Works consulted: M. Sommer, “The Eternal Persian: Persianism in Ammianus Marcellinus,” in Persianism in Antiquity, ed. R. Strootman and M.J. Versluys (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2017), 345-354.

Source of translation: J. C. Rolfe, Ammianus Marcellinus: Roman History, 3 volumes, LCL (Cambridge: HUP, 1935-1940), public domain (Rolfe passed away in 1943), adapted and modernized by Harland.

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[For Ammianus’ previous discussion of Thracians and other Black Sea peoples, go to this link.]

[Introduction to the digression on Persian territories]

(23.6.1) Affairs have reached a point where I am led in a rapid digression to explain the topography of the Persian kingdom, carefully compiled from the descriptions of the peoples, in only a few of which the truth has been told, and that barely. My account, however, will be a little fuller, which will be to the advantage of complete knowledge. For anyone who aims at extreme brevity in telling of the unknown tries to discover what he should leave out rather than what he may explain more clearly. . . [omitted discussion of the Parthian empire of the Arsacids].

(23.6.10-14) I will now describe the lie of the land so far as my purpose allows, doing so briefly and succinctly. These regions [under Persian control] extend to a wide area in length and breadth,​ and run all along the Persian gulf, which has many islands and peoples all around. . . [omitted geographical details]. In the northern direction, to the Caspian Gates​ it borders on the Kadousians (Cadusii), on many descent groups of the Scythians, and on the Arimaspians, wild, one-eyed men. On the west it touches Armenia, Niphates,​ the Asian Albanians, the Red Sea,​ and the tent-living Arabians, whom men of later times called the Saracens.​ Under the southern heaven it looks down on Mesopotamia. Opposite the eastern front it extends to the Ganges river, which cuts through India and empties into the southern ocean. Now there are in all Persia these greater provinces, ruled by second-rulers (vitaxae) or commanders of horsemen, by kings, and by satraps – enumerating the large number of smaller districts would be difficult and superfluous – namely, Assyria, Susiana, Media, Persis, Parthia, Greater Karmania, Hyrkania, Margiana, the Baktrians, the Sogdians, the Sakians, Scythia at the foot of Imaus,​ and beyond the same mountain, Serika, Aria, the Paropanisadians, Drangiana, Arachosia, and Gedrosia. . . [omitted gradual survey of each province].

[For Marcellinus’ discussion of Chaldeans and Magians, go to this link.]

[Old Persia]

(23.6.41-74) Beyond these tracts of land [Scythian territory on the west coast of the Caspian Sea], but extending farther to the south, next to the seacoast lies Old Persia, rich in small fruits,​ date-palms, and plenty of excellent water. For many rivers flow through it into the above-mentioned gulf [Persian gulf, though never stated immediately above], the greatest of which are the Batradites,​ Rogomanios, Brisoana, and Bagrada rivers. But the inland cities are the greater ones (it is unclear why they built nothing conspicuous along the seacoast); notable among these are Persepolis,​ Ardea, Habroatis, and Tragonike. But only three islands are to be seen there: Tabiana, Fara, and Alexandria.

[Parthians]

Near these to the north are the Parthians, dwelling in lands abounding in snow and frost. Their land is cut by the Choatres river, more copious than the rest, and the following cities are more important than the others: Oinounia, Moisia, Charax, Apamia,​ Artakana and Hekatompylos,​ from which place one reckons along the Caspian Sea to the Caspian Gates 1040 stadium-lengths. There the inhabitants of all the districts are savage and warlike, and take such pleasure in war and conflict, that one who loses his life in battle is regarded as happy beyond all others. For those who depart from this life by a natural death they assail with insults, as degenerate and cowardly.

[Arabians]

On the south-eastern border of these are the “happy” Arabs,​ so‑called because they are rich in the fruits of the field, as well as in cattle, dates, and many varieties of perfumes. A great part of their lands border to the right [west] on the Red sea, and on the left [east] form the boundary of the Persian sea, and the people know how to avail themselves of all the advantages of both elements. On that coast there are both many anchorages and numerous safe harbours, trading cities in an uninterrupted line, uncommonly splendid and richly adorned residences of their kings, natural hot springs of remarkable curative powers, a conspicuous abundance of brooks and rivers, and a very healthy climate. The result is that, to perceptive men, they clearly lack nothing for supreme happiness. And while they have an abundance of towns inland and on the coast, as well as fruitful plains and valleys, yet the choicest cities are Geapolis and Naskos, Baraba, and also Nagara, Maiphe, Taphra, and Dioskouris.​ Moreover, in both seas, and near to the shore, there are many islands, which it is not worth while to enumerate. The most prominent among them is Turgana,​ on which there is said to be a great temple of Sarapis.

[Karmania east of old Persia]

Beyond the frontier of this people Greater Karmania [now Kerman, Iran] rises with lofty peaks, extending as far as the Indian sea, supplied with products of the soil and fruit trees, but far inferior in fame and in extent to the lands of the Arabs. Nonetheless, the country is no less rich in rivers, and equally blessed with a fertile soil. The rivers better known than the rest are the Sagareus, Saganis, and Hydriakos. There are also cities which, though few in number, are very rich in all that contributes to the maintenance and enjoyment of life. Conspicuous among them are Karmana, mother city of them all, Portospana, Alexandria, and Hermoupolis.

[Hyrkanians on the southeastern coast of the Caspian Sea]

Proceeding inland, one meets with the Hyrkanians (Hyrcanians), whose coast the sea of the same name [Hyrkanian or Caspian sea] washes [overlapping with modern northern Iran and southwestern Turkmenistan].​ Among them, since the leanness of their soil kills the seeds, less attention is given to agriculture, but they live on hunting wild animals, of which there is a huge variety and abundance. There are also many thousand tigers, and numerous other wild animals. I remember that I gave an account quite a while ago regarding the techniques they use to capture them.​ Despite this situation, they are not unacquainted with the plough, but some districts where the soil is richer are covered over with sown fields. Groves of trees are also not lacking in places suited for planting them, and many people support themselves by commerce on the sea.​ Here are two rivers well known by name, the Oxos and the Maxera, over which tigers, driven by hunger, sometimes swim and unexpectedly cause great losses to the neighbouring places. They also have some strong cities, among lesser towns. Two are on the sea, Sokanda and Saramanna, and others inland, Asmourna, Sale, and, better known than these, Hyrkana.

[Abians further north]

Over against this people to the north the Abians (Abii) are said to dwell, a most kindly descent group (genus). They are accustomed to trample on all mortal things. As Homer sings as part of his tale, Jupiter [Zeus] looks on them with favour from the mountains of Ida.

[Margianians east of Hyrkanians]

Next after the Hyrkanians the Margianians have found homes [overlapping with modern Turkmenistan]. They are almost completely surrounded by lofty hills, and so separated from the [Caspian] sea. And although the greater part of their soil is a desert because of a lack of water, they nevertheless have some towns. But Iasonion, Antiochia,​ and Nigaia​ are better known than the others.

[Baktrians further east still]

The Baktrians possess the lands next to these [overlapping with modern southwestern Tajikistan and southeastern Uzbekistan]. This people (natio) was formerly warlike and very powerful, and always at odds with the Persians, until the Persians reduced all the populations (populi) around them to submission and incorporated them under their own name. In ancient times they were ruled by kings who were formidable even to Arsaces.​ Many parts of this land, like Margiana, are widely separated from the coast, but rich in vegetation. The herds which graze on their plains and mountains are thick-set, with strong limbs, as appears from the camels brought from there by Mithridates and seen for the first time by the Romans at the siege of Kyzikos.​ Several descent groups (gentes) are subject to these same Baktrians, notably the Tocharians. Like Italy, the country is watered by many rivers. Among these rivers, the Artamis and Zariaspes first unite as well as the Ochos and Orgomanes, and when joined they increase the mighty flow of the Oxos with their combined​ waters. There are also cities here which are watered by other rivers, but they recognize these as their betters: namely, Chatracharta, Alikodra, Astatia, Menapila, and Baktra itself, from which the kingdom and the people (natio) have derived their name.

[Sogdians]

Next the Sogdians dwell at the foot of the mountains which they call the Sogdioi (Sogdii), through whose territories two rivers flow which are navigable by ships, the Araxates​ and the Dymas. These streams rush headlong over mountains and valleys into a level plain and form a lake, Oxia by name, which is both long and broad. Here among other towns Alexandria, Kyreschata,​ and the metropolis, Drepsa, are famous.

[Sakians]

Next to these are the Sakians (Sacae), a people (natio) consisting of savages (fera), inhabiting a rough country rich only for cattle, and hence without cities. It is overhung by the mountains Askanimia and Komedos, along the base of which and through a village, which they call Lithinos Pyrgos,​ a very long road extends, which is the route taken by the traders who journey from time to time to the land of the Seres [Silk-people, or Chinese].

[Scythians and Alans]

Along the slopes and at the foot of the mountains which they call Imavi and Apurii are various Scythians living within the Persian territories, bordering on the Asiatic Sarmatians and reaching to the outermost side of the Alans (Halani). These, as if living in a nook of the world, and brought up in solitude, are widely scattered, and are accustomed to common and poor food. And various other descent groups (gentes) live in these parts, which I think it would be superfluous to enumerate here since I am hurrying on to another topic. It is necessary only to know that, among these peoples, which because of the extreme roughness of their land are almost inaccessible, there are some mild and pious people, such as the Iaxartians and the Galactophagians (Milk-eaters),​ whom the bard Homer mentions in this verse: “Of the Galactophagians and Abians, most righteous men” [Iliad 13.6]. Now, among the many rivers of this land, which nature either joins with larger streams or by their own flow carries on to the sea, the Rhymmos, Iaxartes and Daikos are celebrated. But there are only three cities which the region is known to have, namely, Aspabota, Chauriana, and Saga.

[Serians / Chinese]

Beyond these lands of both Scythias [i.e. of Europe and of Asia, with the Tanais river as the likely dividing line],​ towards the east, the summits of lofty walls​ form a circle and enclose the Serians (Seres),​ remarkable for the richness and extent of their country. On the west they are bounded by the Scythians, and on the north and the east they extend to a snow-covered wilderness; on the south they reach India and the Ganges. There are mountains there, called Anniba, Nazavicium, Asmira, Emodon, and Opurocorra. Through this land, consisting of a plain of wide extent,​ surrounded on all sides by precipitous cliffs, two rivers of famous name, the Oichartis and the Bautis,​ flow in a somewhat slow course. The various tracts differ in nature, being now open and flat and now descending in gentle slopes. So the land overflows in grain, flocks and orchards. On this very fruitful soil dwell various descent groups, of which the Anthropophagians (Man-eaters], Anibians, Sizygians and Chardians lie towards the north and the snowy regions. Towards the rising sun are the Rabannians, Asmirians, and the Essedonians, the most famous of all peoples. Close to the Serians, on the west, are the Athagorians, and the Aspakarians. In the south are the Baitians, dwelling on the slopes of high mountains. They are famed for cities which, though not numerous, are large and prosperous. The greatest of these cities – Asmira, Essedon, Asparata, and Sera – are beautiful and well known.

[Serians’ lifestyle and silk]

The Serians themselves live a peaceful life, always unfamiliar with weapons and war. Since to gentle and quiet folk an easy life is pleasurable, they do not trouble any of their neighbours. Their climate is agreeable and healthy: the sky is clear and the winds gentle and very pleasant. There is an abundance of well-lighted woods, the trees of which produce a substance which they work with frequent sprinkling, like a kind of fleece. Then from the wool-like material, mixed with water, they draw out very fine threads, spin the yarn, and make silk (sericum),​ formerly for the use of the nobility, but nowadays available even to the lowest without any distinction. The Serians themselves are frugal beyond all others, live a quiet life, and avoid intercourse with the rest of mortals. When strangers cross the river in order to buy threads or anything else, their goods are laid out and with no exchange of words their value is estimated by the eye alone. They are so abstinent that they hand over their own products without themselves getting any foreign goods in return.

[Arians]

Beyond the Serians live the Arians, exposed to the blasts of the north wind. Through their lands flows a river called the Arias, large enough to carry ships, which forms a great lake called by the same name. Moreover, this same Aria has many cities, among which the following are renowned: Vitaxa Sarmatina, Sotira, Nisibis, and Alexandria, from which the voyage to the Caspian sea is reckoned as fifteen hundred stadium-lengths.

[Paropanisadians and Drangians]

Neighbours to these places are the Paropanisadians (Paropanisadae),​ facing the Indians on the east, and the Caucasus on the west. They themselves also dwell on the slopes of the mountains and through their country (besides some smaller rivers) flows the Gordomaris, rising in Baktria. And they also have some cities, of which the better-known are Agazaka, Naulibos, and Ortospana, from which the distance along the bank of the river to the frontiers of Media next to the Caspian Gates is two thousand, two hundred stadium lengths. Adjacent to the Paropanisadians are the Drangians (Drangiani), connected with them by hills. Their land is washed by the river Arabios, so‑called from the place of its rise.​ Among other towns they are proud of two, Prophthasia and Ariaspe, because of their wealth and fame.

[Arachosia and Gedrosia]

Then, opposite to these, we see Arachosia [overlapping with modern northern Pakistan and southern Afghanistan], on the right facing the Indians. From a much smaller river,​ flowing out from the mighty Indus, from which the whole region takes its name, Arachosia receives an abundance of water. This river forms a lake, called Arachotoskrene.​ Here also among insignificant cities are Alexandria,​ Arbaka, and Choaspa. Now far within Persia lies Gedrosia [overlapping with southeastern Iran and southwestern Pakistan], on the right reaching the frontiers of the Indians. It is made fertile by the Artabios, in addition to smaller streams. Here the Arbitanian mountains come to an end, and from their bases flow other rivers, which mingle with the Indus, losing their names through the size of the greater stream. But here, too, there are famous cities, in addition to islands. But Ratira and Gynaikon-harbour are more highly esteemed than the rest.

But we will not give a detailed account of the seacoast at the extremities of Persia, and wander too far from our subject. So it will be enough to say that the sea extending from the Caspian mountains along the northern side to the above-mentioned strait is nine thousand stadium-lengths. But the southern frontier, from the mouths of the river Nile to where Karmania begins, is reckoned at fourteen thousand stadium-lengths.

[Characterization of Persian peoples generally]

[Physical appearance]

(23.6.75-84) Among these many men of differing languages there are varieties of persons, as well as of places. But, to describe their bodily characteristics and their customs in general, they are almost all slender, somewhat dark or with a lead-coloured appearance, with eyes that are grim like goats’ eyes, eyebrows joined and curved in the form of a half-circle, not unattractive beards, and long shaggy hair. All of them without exception, even at banquets and on festal days, appear wearing swords. This is an old Greek custom which, according to the trustworthy testimony of Thucydides,​ the Athenians were the first to abandon [History of the Peloponessian War 1.6.1-3 – link].

[Excessive sexuality and moderate eating]

Most of them tend extravagantly to sexual excess, and are hardly contented with a multitude of concubines. They are far from immoral relations with boys.​ Each man according to his means contracts many or few marriages. For this reason, their affection, which divided among various objects, grows cold.​ They avoid splendid and luxurious banquets like the plague, and especially, excessive drinking.​ Except for the kings’ tables, they have no fixed hours for meal-times, but every man’s belly is, as it were, his sundial;​ when this gives the call, they eat whatever is at hand, and no one, after he is satisfied, loads himself with superfluous food.​ They are immensely moderate and cautious, so much so that they sometimes march through an enemy’s gardens and vineyards without coveting or touching anything in fear about the practice of concealing poisons.

[Character]

Besides this, one seldom sees a Persian stop to urinate or step aside in response to a call of nature. They scrupulously avoid these and other unseemly actions. On the other hand, they are so free and easy, and stroll around with such a loose and unsteady gait, that one might think they are effeminate. However, they are, in fact, most gallant warriors, though more crafty than courageous and to be feared only at long range. They are given to empty words, and talk madly and extravagantly. They are boastful, harsh and offensive, threatening in adversity and prosperity alike. They are crafty, arrogant, and cruel, claiming the power of life and death over slaves and common people. They flay men alive, either bit by bit or all at once. No servant who waits upon them or serves at the table is allowed to open his mouth, either to speak or to spit; to such a degree, after the skins are spread,​ are the mouths of everyone controlled.

[Laws]

They are especially afraid of the laws, among which those dealing with ingrates and deserters are particularly severe. Some laws are detestable, namely, those which provide that because of the guilt of a single person all his relatives are put to death.​ For the office of judge, upright men of proved experience are chosen, who have little need of advice from others. Therefore, they ridicule our custom, which at times places eloquent men who are highly skilled in public law behind the backs of judges without education.​ But that one judge was forced to take his seat on the skin of another who had been condemned to death for injustice​ [cf. Herodotos, Inquiries 5.25; Diodoros, Library 15.10] is either a fiction of antiquity or, if once customary, has long since been given up.

[Military techniques and success]

Through military training and discipline, through constant exercise in warfare and military manoeuvres, which we have often described, they cause dread even to great armies. They especially rely on the valour of their horsemen, in which all the nobles and men of rank undergo hard service. For the foot-soldiers are armed like the Murmillo-gladiators,​ and they obey orders like so many horse-boys. The whole throng of them always follows in the rear, as if doomed to perpetual slavery, without ever being supported by pay or gifts. And this people (natio), so bold and so well trained for the dust of Mars, would have brought many other descent groups (gentes) under the yoke in addition to those whom they fully subdued if were they not constantly plagued by domestic and foreign wars.

[Clothing]

Most of them are so covered with clothes gleaming with many shimmering colours, that although they leave their robes open in front and on the sides, and let them flutter in the wind, yet from their head to their shoes no part of the body is seen uncovered. To the use of golden armlets and neck-chains, gems, and especially pearls, of which they possess a great number, they first became accustomed after their victory over Lydia and Croesus. It remains for me to speak briefly about the origin of this gem. . . [omitted discussion of pearls].

[For Ammianus’ subsequent discussion of Thracians (again), go to this link.]

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