Celtic, Indian, and Assyrian wisdom: Polyhistor on Pythagoras’ education by wise barbarians (first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Celtic, Indian, and Assyrian wisdom: Polyhistor on Pythagoras’ education by wise barbarians (first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 25, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=18008.

Ancient authors: Alexander Polyhistor (early-mid first century BCE), FGrHist 273 F94, as cited by Clement of Alexandria, Tapestries 1.68-72, and Cyril of Alexandria, Against Julian 4.27-28 (not included in FGrHist).

Comments: These passages further suggest that Alexander Polyhistor had considerable interest in the idea of wise “barbarians.”  Both Clement and Cyril suggest that Polyhistor’s work on Pythagorean Symbols suggested that Pythagoras himself was educated, in part by a variety of foreigners (to Greeks), including Celtic, Indian, and Assyrian figures. Cyril’s long list of foreign wise men may or may not accurately reflect Polyhistor’s own story.


Polyhistor, FGrHist 273 F94,

Alexander [Polyhistor], in his book On Pythagorean Symbols, reports that Pythagoras was a student of Zaratos the Assyrian (some think that he is Ezekiel; but he is not, as I will show), and claims that, in addition to these, Pythagoras consulted with Galatians and Brahmans.

Polyhistor in Cyril of Alexandria

Actually, not all barbarians are absolutely savage (agrious). Rather, sometimes they reach towards goodness and fairness with the result that they have obtained a name worthy of emulation. In his work On Pythagorean Symbols, Alexander who is also called Polyhistor reports that Pythagoras regularly turned to an Assyrian by descent, namely Zoroaster [Zarathustra]. They also pursued wisdom alongside Egyptians who are called prophets and, in fact, alongside Chaldeans among Assyrians, Druids among Celts, Persian Baktrians among Samanaians, more than a few among Celts, Magians among Persians, naked sages among Indians, Anacharsis among Scythians, and Zamolxis in Thrace. . . .

(27) . . . βαρβάρους γε µὴν οὐχὶ δὴ πάντας ἁπλῶς ἀγρίους, [B] ἥκοντας δὲ πρὸς τοῦτο χρηστότητος καὶ ἐπιεικείας ἔσθ’ ὅτε τινάς, ὥστε καὶ ἀξιοζήλωτον ὄνοµα λαχεῖν. (28) ἱστορεῖ γοῦν Ἀλέξανδρος ὁ ἐπίκλην Πολυΐστωρ ἐν τῷ Περὶ Πυθαγορικῶν συµβόλων Ἀσσυρίῳ τὸ γένος ὄντι τῷ Ζωροά‹στρῃ› φοιτῆσαι τὸν Πυθαγόραν. ἐφιλοσόφησαν δὲ καὶ παρ’ Αἰγυπτίοις οἱ κεκληµένοι προφῆται, καὶ µὴν καὶ Ἀσσυρίων Χαλδαῖοι καὶ Γαλατῶν οἱ ∆ρυΐδαι καὶ ἐκ Βάκτρων τῶν Περσικῶν Σαµαναῖοι, καὶ Κελτῶν οὐκ ὀλίγοι καὶ παρὰ Πέρσαις οἱ Μάγοι, καὶ παρ’ Ἰνδοῖς οἱ γυµνοσοφισταί, καὶ αὐτὸς Ἀνάχαρσις παρὰ Σκύθαις, Ζάµολξις ἐν Θρᾴκῃ·


Source of translations: Translations by Harland.

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