Persian and Babylonian wisdom: Pseudo-Demokritos and others on Demokritos’ training by Magians and Chaldeans (first century BCE on)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persian and Babylonian wisdom: Pseudo-Demokritos and others on Demokritos’ training by Magians and Chaldeans (first century BCE on),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 15, 2024,

Ancient authors: Pseudo-Demokritos (ca. 60s CE), Four Books: On the Making of Purple and Gold – Natural and Secret Questions 3-4 (link); Summary of work by Pseudo-Demokritos in Synesios (Synesius), Letter to Dioskoros (fourth century CE); Cicero (mid-first century BCE), On Ends 5.87 (link); Pliny (first century CE), Natural History 24.156-167; Tatian, Address to the Greeks 17 (link [coming soon]); Clement of Alexandria (late second century CE), Tapestries / Stromateis 1.15.69 (link); Diogenes of Laertes (early third century CE), Lives 9.34-36, 41-42 (link); Philostratos (early third century CE), Life of Apollonios of Tyana 1.1-2 (link); Hippolytos, Refutation of All Heresies 1.13.1.

Comments: By the first century BCE, it became quite common for Greek and Roman authors to claim that well-known Greek philosophers from the past had, at some time in their careers, made a journey to far-off foreign lands in order to test or expand their wisdom by consulting foreign sages. So, for instance, in another post (link) I have pulled together references to legends about Pythagoras’ and Plato’s journeys, particularly focussed on Egypt, but also on Persia (Magians), Babylonia (Chaldeans) or India (naked sages) in some cases. Demokritos (or: Democritus) of Abdera (a Greek colony in Thrace), a pre-Socratic philosopher who was likely active in the fifth and early fourth centuries BCE, was sometimes mentioned in those materials. He was most known for his atomic theory, but there are other more secretive types of knowledge associated with him.

This post digs deeper into legends about Demokritos’ source of foreign wisdom (again apparently beginning in the first century BCE). Here, too, Babylonian Chaldeans, Indian naked sages, and even Ethiopian wise men make an appearance at times. But the more important focus remains on Persian Magians and especially the Zorastrian figure of Ostanes (on which also go to this link) as the source for Demokritos’ more secretive knowledge.

Very important here are the remains of a largely lost work attributed to Demokritos (in other words by a pseudo-Demokritos) called simply Four Books, which Matteo Martelli convincingly argues dates from the time of emperor Nero (60s CE). This is a book that purports to have secret recipes for dyeing things purple, silver, or gold, with the latter two being a predecessor to alchemy (the medieval notion that one might be able to find the right mixture of substances to create actual gold or silver from scratch). Only some citations survive of the work, one of which goes into the foreign source of this knowledge. Plus we have Synesios’ letter to Dioskoros in which the work is explained to some degree.

The work attributed to Demokritos, of course, presents the Magian Ostanes as a wise figure, whereas some of the other references to the legendary stories are quite dismissive of the idea of wise Magians (e.g. Pliny the Elder) or wise barbarians in general (e.g. Diogenes of Laertes). In Synesios’ letter, Demokritos’ initiation by the Magian Ostanes takes place within an Egyptian temple alongside other Egyptian priests, however. Even then, the letter emphasizes that these techniques are Persian, rather than Egyptian.

Works consulted: J. Bidez and F. Cumont, Les mages hellénisés: Zoroastre, Ostanès et Hystaspe d’après la tradition grecque (Paris: Société d’Éditions les Belles Lettres, 1938) (link); M. Martelli, The Four Books of Pseudo-Democritus, Ambix Supplement 1 (London: Routledge, 2013) (link).


Pseudo-Demokritos (60s CE)

[Explanation of the origin of secret dyeing techniques indirectly from Ostanes]

. . . (3) After learning these things [about the secret recipe for purple dye which precedes this section] from the previously mentioned teacher [likely the Magian Ostanes] and understanding the distinction between materials (or: the matter), I worked to combine natural powers (or: natures). Since our teacher died before our completion, while we were still occupied with determining the materials, I was trying to bring him back from Hades. As soon as I was ready to do it, I immediately summoned him saying: “Are you giving me any gift in return for what I did for you?” As I was saying this, he was remaining silent. Since I summoned him several times asking how to combine natural powers, he said to me that it was difficult to speak, because the lower spirit (daimōn) was not permitting him to do so. Now he only said: “The books are in the temple (hieron).” After returning to the temple, I was searching, if in fact I might be able to find the books. He had not mentioned about them when he was alive, and he died without a will. Some claim that he used a poison for separating soul from body. According to his son, he died suddenly during a banquet. However, before death, he made sure that the books were to be shown only to his son, if he made it beyond his first years. But we knew nothing about them.

Since we did not find them despite having searched, we undertook the difficult task of mixing and combining substances and natural powers (or: natures). When we completed the combination of the materials, after some time a festival happened in the temple and all of us were feasting. We were inside the inner-shrine (naos) when a block of stone fell apart on its own. We were not seeing anything inside it. But . . . he said that the books of his father had been stored within this block of stone, and he brought them forward into our midst. After looking closely, we were being amazed that we had not neglected anything except this very useful saying that we found there: “Nature delights in nature, nature conquers nature, nature controls nature.” We were very amazed at how he had summarised all his work in such a short saying. . . [omitted subsequent collection of recipes for dyeing purple, gold and silver].


Synesios (fourth century CE)

[Dioskoros’ / Synesios’ summary of portions of the Four Books, with mention of Ostanes]

With God’s approval, Synesios (or: Synesius), the philosopher, sends greetings to Dioskoros (or Dioscorus), priest of the great Sarapis in Alexandria.

(1) I did not neglect the letter which you have sent to me about the book by divine Demokritos. Instead, carefully questioning myself with much effort and toil, I ran to you. Therefore, it is set before us to say who that man, the philosopher Demokritos, was. He came from among the Abderans and, being someone who inquires into nature, he investigated all natural questions and composed writings about all natural phenomena. Abdera is a Thracian city, but he became a very learned man when he went to Egypt and was led into the mysteries by the great Ostanes in the temple of Memphis along with all the Egyptian priests. Receiving his principles from Ostanes, he composed four books on dyeing, concerning gold, silver, precious stones and purple. I mean that, receiving his principles, he wrote alongside the great Ostanes. For he was the first to write that “nature delights in nature, and nature controls nature, and nature conquers nature,” and so on.

(2) But it is necessary that we follow in the footsteps of the philosopher and learn what his opinion is, and in what order his arguments follow one another. It is clear to us that he made two catalogues, on the white [i.e. silver] and on the yellow [i.e. gold]. First he listed the solid substances. Then he listed the washes, that is, the liquid substances, yet none of those are taken into account in our technique. In talking about the great Ostanes, Demokritos himself testifies that Ostanes did not use Egyptian methods for applying and roasting. Instead, he used to smear the substances on the outside and heat them to make the potion (pharmakon) sink in. He said that the Persians do it that way. And this is what he said: “If you do not make the substances very thin and do not dissolve and make them watery, you will not achieve any result.”

[Beginning of the detailed commentary on the work of pseudo-Demokritos]

(3) Let us move on to the words of Demokritos and listen to him speaking. He said: “and rhubarb from Pontos [i.e. the Black Sea area].” Look how perceptive the remarks of this man are. By speaking of plants, he spoke in riddles in order to indicate their flower: for plants produce flowers. But he said “and rhubarb from Pontos,” just because Pontos is fed by rivers; all the rivers flow into the Pontos. So he made it very clear to us and showed how to make the physical materials (sōmata) or the substances watery, and darken and make them thin. . . [omitted remainder involvng a discussion between Dioskoros and Synesios].


Cicero, On Ends (mid-first century BCE)

[Pythagoras’ and Demokritos’ journeys to Egypt and the Persian Magians]

(5.87) Why did he [Plato] later visit Archytas at Tarentum, or the other Pythagoreans, Echekrates, Timaios and Arion, at Lokri, intending to add to his picture of Socrates an account of the Pythagorean system and to extend his studies into those branches which Socrates repudiated? Why did Pythagoras himself scour Egypt and visit the Persian Magians (Magi)? Why did he travel on foot through those vast barbarian lands and sail across those many seas? Why did Demokritos do the same?. . . [omitted remainder of dialogue].


Diodoros, Library of History (mid-first century BCE)

[Demokritos, Plato and other Greeks learning from Egyptians]

(1.96.1-9) Now that we have examined these matters, we must enumerate what Greeks who have won fame for their wisdom and learning visited Egypt in ancient times, in order to become acquainted with its customs and learning. (2) For the priests of Egypt recount from the records of their sacred books that they were visited in early times by Orpheus, Mousaios, Melampos, and Daidalos, also by the poet Homer and Lykourgos of Sparta, later by Solon of Athens and the philosopher Plato, and that there also came Pythagoras of Samos and the mathematician Eudoxos,​ as well as Demokritos of Abdera and Oinopides​ of Chios. (3) As evidence for the visits of all these men they point in some cases to their statues and in others to places or buildings​ which bear their names, and they offer proofs from the branch of learning which each one of these men pursued. They argue that all the things for which they were admired among the Greeks were transferred from Egypt.


Pliny the Elder (first century CE)

[Pythagoras and Demokritos as transmitters of Magian medical knowledge to the Greeks]

(24.156-167) My proposed task of discussing amazing plants suggests that I also say a few words about those that are Magian. For what plants are more amazing than those? These were first brought to the notice of our part of the world by Pythagoras and Demokritos, who followed as their authority the Magians. Pythagoras declares that water is congealed by the plants coracesia and calicia; but I find no mention of them in other authorities, nor does Pythagoras tell us anything else about them. The same authority [Pythagoras] gives the name of minyas, or corinthia, to a plant of which, he says, the decocted juice, used as a fomentation, immediately heals the bites of serpents. He adds that if it is poured on the grass and a person happens to tread on it, or if by chance it is sprinkled on the body, inevitable death ensues; so absolutely devilish is the poison of this plant, except that it counteracts other poisons. The same Pythagoras calls aproxis a plant whose root catches fire at a distance like naphtha. I have spoken about this in my section on the marvels of the earth. He also informs us that the symptoms of diseases which have attacked the human body when the cabbage is in blossom – even though the patient has been cured – are felt to recur every time this plant blossoms. He speaks of a similar peculiarity following diseases which have attacked when wheat, hemlock or the violet is in flower. I am aware that this book of his is ascribed by some to the physician Kleemporos, but an ancient and unbroken tradition assigns it to Pythagoras. Were the author anyone else, the mere fact that he has considered the result of his labour worthy of that great thinker enhances the authority of a book. But who would believe that Kleemporos acted so, since he published other works, and that under his own name?

That Demokritos was the author of the book called Handmade Materials (Cheirokmēta) is a well-attested tradition. Yet in this book this most enthusiastic student of the Magians, next to Pythagoras, has told us of far more amazing phenomena. For example, the plant aglaophotis, which received its name from men’s amazement at its magnificent colour, being native, he says, to the marble quarries of Arabia on the Persian side, is therefore also called marmaritis. The Magians use it, he tells us, when they wish to call up gods. The achaemenis, he reports, is of an amber colour, leafless and found among the Taradastilians of India. According to Demokritos, if criminals drink it in wine, they confess all their crimes because they suffer tortures from diverse phantoms of spirits that haunt them. He also called it hippophobas, because mares have an intense aversion to it. The theombrotion grows, says Demokritos, thirty land-measures (schoinoi) from the Choaspes, being like a peacock in its colourings and of a very fine scent. He goes on to state that the kings of Persia take it in drink for all bodily disorders and for instability of intellect and of the sense of justice, and that it is also called semnion from the majesty of its power. Demokritos goes on to mention another plant, the adamantis, a native of Armenia and Cappadocia. He says that if this plant is placed near lions, they lie on their backs and wearily yawn. The reason for the name is because the plant cannot be crushed, Ariana is given as the home of the arianis, a plant of the colour of fire. It is gathered, he says, when the sun is in Leo, and pieces of wood soaked in oil catch fire at its touch. Demokritos says that the therionarca, growing in Cappadocia and Mysia, makes all wild beasts become torpid, and that they cannot be revived unless sprinkled with the urine of a hyena. He tells us that the aethiopis grows in Meroh, that therefore its other name is the merois, that it has the leaf of the lettuce and that it is very beneficial for dropsy if taken in honey wine. The ophiusa he speaks of as growing in Elephantine, which also belongs to Ethiopia, a plant livid in colour and revolting to look at, to take which in drink causes such terrible visions of threatening serpents that fear of them causes suicide; wherefore those guilty of sacrilege are forced to drink it. An antidote is palm wine. The thalassaegle we are told is found along the river Indus, and is therefore also called potamaugis. To drink this causes men to rave, while weird visions beset their minds. The theangelis, Demokritos says, grows on mount Lebanon in Syria, on mount Dicte in Crete, and in Babylon and Susa in Persia. The Magians take it in drink to gain power to divine. The gelotophyllis grows in Baktria and along the Borysthenes. If it is taken in myrrh and wine, all kinds of phantoms appear in the mind, causing laughter which persists until the kernels of pine-nuts are taken with pepper and honey in palm wine. According to the same authority the hestiateris is a Persian plant, so named from its promotion of good fellowship, because it makes the company happy. It is also called protomediap from its use to gain the highest position at court; called casignete, because it grows only in company with its own species, and not with any other plants; and, also called dionysonymphas, because it goes wonderfully well with wine. Helianthes is the name given to a plant with leaves like those of the myrtle, growing in the district of Themiskyra and on the mountains along the coasts of Cilicia. A decoction of it in lion’s fat, with saffron and palm wine added, is used, he says, as an ointment by the Magians and the Persian kings to give to the body a pleasing appearance, and therefore it is also called heliocallis. The same authority gives the name hermesias to a means of procreating children who will be handsome and good. It is not a plant, but a compound of ground kernels of pine nuts with honey, myrrh, saffron and palm wine, with the later addition of theombrotion and milk. He prescribes a drink of it to those who are about to become parents, after conception, and to nursing mothers. This, he says, results in children exceedingly fair in mind and body, as well as good. Of all these plants he adds also the Magian names.

Apollodoros, a follower of Demokritos, added to these plants one that he called aeschynomene, because on the approach of a hand it contracts its leaves, and another called crocis, whose touch, he declares, kills poisonous spiders. Krateuas added the onothuris, by the sprinkling of which in wine he asserted that the fierceness of all animals is calmed. A little while ago a well-known grammarian added anacampseros, by the mere touch of which, he said, love was restored, even though the lovers parted in hatred. These few remarks are quite enough to have been said for the present about the amazing powers ascribed to plants by the Magians, since I will discuss them again on a more fitting occasion.


Tatian of Adiabene (early second century CE)

[Insults for Demokritos based on his origins in Abdera and on his supposed education by the Magian Ostanes]

(17) Concerning the Sympathies and Antipathies of Demokritos [of Abdera, the Greek colony in Thrace], what can we say but this: according to the common saying, the man from among the Abderans is someone with the “logic of an Abderan” (Abdērologos) [i.e. an ethnic insult implying Abderans are stupid]? Now the person who named that city – a friend of Herakles, it is said – was devoured by the horses of Diomedes [cf. Apollodoros, Library of Greek Mythology 2.97]. So the person who boasted about the Magian Ostanes will be delivered up in the day of consummation as fuel for the eternal fire. And you, if you do not stop laughing, will gain the same punishment as the howlers of chants (goētes) [i.e. Persian Magians like Ostanes].


Clement of Alexandria (late second century CE)

[Journeys to Egypt, Babylonia, and Persia]

(69) . . . Demokritos appropriated the Babylonian ethical discourses, for he is said to have combined with his own compositions a translation of the inscription (stelē) of Akikaros. You may find the distinction notified by him when he writes, “thus says Demokritos.” About himself, too, where, bragging about his erudition, he says, “I have travelled the earth than any man of my time, investigating the most remote parts. I have seen the most skies and lands, and I have heard of learned men in very great numbers. And in composition no one has surpassed me. In demonstration, not even those among the Egyptians who are called Arpenodaptians, with whom I lived in exile eighty years, surpassed me.” For Demokritos went to Babylon, Persia, and Egypt, to learn from the Magians and the priests. Pythagoras was enthusiastic about Zoroaster, the Magian of Persia. Those who follow the sect (or: heresy) of Prodikos claim to possess the secret books of Zoroaster.


Diogenes of Laertes (early third century CE)

[Demokritos’ travels and education by Magians and Chaldeans]

(9.34-42) Demokritos was the son of Hegesistratos, though some say of Athenokritos, and others again of Damasippos. He was a native of Abdera or, according to some, of Miletos. He was a pupil of certain Magians and Chaldeans. For when king Xerxes [of Persia, ca. 486-465 BCE] was entertained by the father of Demokritos, he left men in charge (as, in fact, is stated by Herodotos [there is no such extant passage]). From these men, while still a boy, he learned discourses about the gods and about the stars (astrologia).

Afterwards he met Leukippos and, according to some, Anaxagoras, being forty years younger than the latter. But Favorinus in his Miscellaneous History tells us that Demokritos, speaking of Anaxagoras, declared that his views on the sun and the moon were not original but very old, and that he had simply stolen them. Demokritos also pulled to pieces the views of Anaxagoras on the origin of the cosmos and on mind, having a spite against him, because Anaxagoras did not like him. If this is so, how could he have been his student, as some suggest?

According to Demetrios in his book on Men with the Same Name and Antisthenes in his Successions of Philosophers, he travelled into Egypt to learn measurement of th land from the priests, and he also went into Persia to visit the Chaldeans as well as to the Red Sea. Some say that he associated with the naked sages (gynosophistai) in India and went to Ethiopia. Also that, being the third son, he divided the family property. . . [omitted remainder of the account].


Philostratos (early third century CE)

[Demokritos among predecessors to Apollonios of Tyana’s wisdom gained from foreign sources]

(1.1-2) [Initial outline of the ideal of Pythagoras and other followers of Pythagoras omitted] . . . There is much else that they tell of those sages who observe the rule of Pythagoras. But right now I must not deal with such points, but hurry on to the work which I have set myself to complete. For quite similar to theirs was the ideal which Apollonios pursued, and more divinely than Pythagoras he pursued wisdom and soared above tyrants. He lived in times not long gone but not of our own day, yet men know him not because of the true wisdom which he practiced as sage and sanely. But one man singles out one feature for praise in him and another another. While some, because he had interviews with the Magians (Magians) of Babylon and with the Brahmans of India, and with the naked sages of Egypt, put him down as a Magian, and spread the calumny that he was a sage (sophos) of an illegitimate kind, judging of him negatively. For Empedokles, Pythagoras himself, and Demokritos consorted with Magians and uttered many spiritual things (daimonia), yet never stooped to the skill [implying negative uses of secret knowledge]. Plato went to Egypt and mingled with his own discourses much of what he heard from the prophets and priests there. Though, like a painter, he laid his own colours on to their rough sketches, yet he was never considered to be doing Magian things, although envied above all humankind for his wisdom.


Hippolytos (early third century CE)

[Travels to Indian, Egypt and Babylonia]

Now Demokritos was an acquaintance of Leukippos. This was Demokritos of Abdera, son of Damasippos, who met with many naked sages (gymnosophistai) among the Indians and with priests and astrologers in Egypt and with Magians in Babylon. But he speaks like Leukippos about elements, namely, fullness and void, saying that the full is that which is, but the void that which is not. He said this because things are ever moving in the void. . . [omitted remainder].


Source of translations: Pseudo-Demokritos and Synesios translated by Harland in consultation with the Greek texts and a translation in M. Martelli, The Four Books of Pseudo-Democritus, Ambix Supplement 1 (London: Routledge, 2013); H. Rackham, Cicero: De Finibus, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1914), public domain (passed away in 1944), adapted by Harland; C. H. Oldfather, Diodorus Sicilus: Library of History, volumes 1-6, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1935-1952), public domain (copyright not renewed, passed away in 1954), adapted by Victoria Muccilli and Harland (link); 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; W. Wilson, The Writings of Clement of Alexandria, vol. 1 (Ante-Nicene Christian Library; Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1867), public domain, thoroughly adapted and partially re-translated by Harland; R.D. Hicks, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1925), public domain, adapted by Harland; F. Legge, Philosophumena or, the Refutation of All Heresies [by Hippolytus], 2 vols. (London: SPCK, 1921), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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