Persians: Maximus of Tyre on “barbarizing” and the excesses of royal pleasure (late second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persians: Maximus of Tyre on “barbarizing” and the excesses of royal pleasure (late second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified October 13, 2023,

Ancient author: Maximus of Tyre (late second century CE), Orations 33.1-4 (link [no. 34 in Taylor]; link to Greek).

Comments: As several posts on this site show, Greek philosophers like the Platonist Maximus of Tyre integrated peoples and ethnographic knowledge about them within their writing generally.  So although Maximus is outlining Platonist or general philosophical notions about the contrast between pleasure and virtue in this oration, peoples and relations among them naturally come in as illustrations or to make a point. In this oration, Maximus compares mixing pleasure with virtue with mixing Greek customs with barbarian or Persian ones, barbarizing or Persianizing (on which see also Thucydides at this link). Later on, he brings in Persians again as an extreme example of royalty focussed on pleasure rather than virtue while also referring to imperial exploitation of resources from various parts of the empire. Persians were often invoked by Greeks to make a similar point about excessive luxury and pleasure. At the time Maximus was writing, the Parthians had succeeded the earlier Persian empire in the east (on which see posts at this link), but Maximus may primarily have in mind the earlier Achaemenid Persians as an historical example.

Works consulted: A. Lampinen, “Physiognomy, Ekphrasis, and the ‘Ethnographicising’ Register in the Second Sophistic,” in Visualizing the Invisible with the Human Body: Physiognomy and Ekphrasis in the Ancient World, ed. J. Cale Johnson and A. Stavru (De Gruyter, 2019), 227–70, esp. 227-228 (link).

Source of translation: Thomas Taylor, The Dissertations of Maximus Tyrius, 2 vols. (London: C. Whittingham, 1804), public domain, adapted and modernized by Harland.



[Introduction to the discussion of pleasures as opposed to virtues and the pursuit of wisdom]

So in this present inquiry, in which pleasure competes and is compared with virtue, doesn’t pleasure attack virtue, defeat it in opinion, surpass it in the number of supporting witnesses, and obtain control in keeping with emotional responses? As a result, reason, which is the only remaining ally with virtue, is cut and divided. A certain defence of pleasure may be obtained from virtue herself, and some one speaks plausibly when speaking in support of pleasure. That person likewise degrades virtue, and transfers control from the male to the female. That person in fact rejects the lover of wisdom (philosophos) while retaining the name. Give up the name along with your arguments, man!

[Example of mixing categories with reference to Persianizing and barbarizing]

You commit a crime against those who admit that there is nothing common to both wisdom and pleasure, because the lover of pleasure is one person, but the lover of wisdom (philosophos) another. The names and the actions are separated from each other. Their categories (genē) are different, in the same way as Lakonic matters differ from Attic affairs, in the same way as barbarians differ from Greeks. But if – claiming that you are a Spartan or a Greek or a Dorian or a Herakleidian – you admire the Median tiara, the barbarian banquet, or the Persian chariot, you Persianize (persizein), you barbarize (barbarizein), you have abandoned Pausanias, you are a Mede, and you are a Mardonios. Give up the name [lover of wisdom, or philosopher] with the category (genos). . . [omitted paragraph].

[Example of Persian greed and pursuit of pleasure]

. . . Up to this point need may determine the limits of pleasures. But if you pass beyond these limits and proceed farther, you give to pleasures an unstoppable course and close in virtues as with a wall. This is what causes greed, this is the source of tyrants. For the region of Pasargidae [center of the Persian empire] and Cyrus’ cardamom were not sufficient for the king of the Persians. Instead, all of Asia was destined to supply the pleasures of one man. Media raises Nisaian horses for him, Ionia supplies Greek concubines, Babylon raises barbarous eunuchs, Egypt supplies arts of all kinds, India supplies ivory, and Arabia supplies perfume. Rivers also administer to the pleasures of the king, Pactolos river supplying him with gold, the Nile with wheat, and Choaspes with water. But even these are not enough for him. Rather, he desires foreign pleasures and marches against Europe for them, pursuing the Scythians, subverting the Paionians, capturing Eretria, sailing to Marathon, and wandering everywhere.

O most unfortunate poverty! For what can be more poor than a man who incessantly desires? For when once the soul has tasted of pleasures beyond what its wants require, it becomes satiated with former, and aspires after novel, delight. . . [remainder of oration omitted].

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