Karmanians, Ichthyophagians, and others: Nearchos, Onesikritos, Juba, and Pliny on the area around the Persian Gulf and Red Sea (fourth century BCE-first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Karmanians, Ichthyophagians, and others: Nearchos, Onesikritos, Juba, and Pliny on the area around the Persian Gulf and Red Sea (fourth century BCE-first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified June 6, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=17113.

Ancient authors: Nearchos (late fourth century BCE), FGrHist 133; Onesikritos (late fourth century BCE), FGrHist 134; and Juba II (late first century BCE), FGrHist 275 F28, 30-37, as discussed by Pliny the Elder (first century CE), Natural History 6.96-101, 108-111, 149-170, 175-179 (link; link to FGrHist).

Comments: In this excursus, Pliny the Elder makes extensive use of the voyage reports (or: periplus literature) of Nearchos and Onesikritos (both of whom were involved in Alexander’s activity as far as India), apparently as communicated by Juba II (late first century BCE, on which go to this link for further ethnographic passages). In the process, Pliny touches on the peoples these other authors mentioned, particularly those in the area of the Persian gulf and the southern coast of Iran, what was then known as Karmania and Gedrosia. Juba also covers peoples and geographical featurs around the Red Sea. Both the so-called “Fish-eaters” and the “Turtle-eaters” come up, on which also see both Nearchos and Agatharchides at this link.


[Voyage reports of Onesikritos and Nearchos partially via Juba]

(6.96-101) Now before we go on to a detailed account of these countries [Karmania, Persis, and Arabia], it is suitable to indicate the facts reported by Onesikritos after sailing with the fleet of Alexander around from India to the interior of Persis, and quite recently related in detail by Juba [II, king of Numidia, ca. 30-25 BCE] . . . [omitted sentence]. The record of the voyage of Onesikritos and Nearchos does not include the names of the official stopping places nor the distances travelled. To begin with, no sufficiently clear account is given of the position of the city of Xylinopolis (“Timber-city”), founded by Alexander, which was their starting point, nor is the river on which it stood indicated.

Nevertheless they give the following places worth mentioning: the town of Arbis, founded by Nearchos during his voyage; the river Arbion, navigable by ships; an island opposite to Arbis, eight miles away; Alexandria, founded in the territory of this people by Leonnatos at the order of Alexander; Argenos, with a serviceable harbour; the navigable river Tonberon, in the neighbourhood of which are the Paririans; then the Ichthyophagians (“Fish-eaters”), covering so wide a space of coast that it took thirty days to sail past them; the island called the “Island of the Sun” and also the “Couch of the Nymphs,” the soil of which is red in colour, and on which all animals without exception die, from unknown causes; the Orian people; and, the Karmanian river Hyktanis, allowing harbourage and producing gold.

[Peoples near Karmania]

The travellers noted that it was here that the Great and Little Bear constellations first became visible, and that Arcturus is not visible at all on some nights and never all night long. They also noted that the rule of the Persian kings extended to this point, and that copper, iron, arsenic and red-lead are mined here. Next there is the cape of Karmania [roughly equivalent to the Kerman province of Iran, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf], from which it is a passage of five miles to cross to the Arabian people of the Makians on the opposite coast [equivalent of modern Oman]. There are three islands, of which only Orakta (twenty-five miles from the mainland) [perhaps Qeshm Island] has a supply of fresh water and is inhabited. Four islands are at the end of the gulf.

[Peoples near Persis]

Off the coast of Persis [i.e. the modern region of Fars, Iran, on the eastern coast of what is now the Persian Gulf, above Karmania], the neighbourhood of these islands, the fleet was terrified by thirty foot-long sea-serpents that swam alongside the island of Arados and that of Gauratai, both inhabited by the Gyanian people. At the middle of the Persian gulf is the river Hyperis, navigable for merchant vessels; the river Sitioganos, from which it is seven days’ voyage up to Pasargadae; the navigable river Phrystimus; and, an island that has no name.

[Peoples in Susiana]

The river Granis, carrying vessels of moderate size, flows through Susiana [centred on Susa / modern Shush, Iran], and on its right bank live the Dedmontanians, who manufacture asphalt. There is the river Zarotis [Zohre], the mouth of which is difficult to navigate except for those familiar with it, as well as two small islands. Next there are: a shallow stretch of water like a marsh which nevertheless is navigable by way of certain channels; the mouth of the Euphrates; and, a lake formed in the neighbourhood of Charax [Spasinou] by the Eulaios and the Tigris. Then by the Tigris they [the voyagers] reached Susa. There after three months’ voyaging they found Alexander celebrating a festival. It was seven months since he had left them at Patala.

That was the route followed by the fleet of Alexander. But subsequently it was thought that the safest route is to start from Syagros promontory [perhaps Ras Fartk, Yemen] in Arabia with a west wind (the native name for which in those parts is Hippalos) and make for Patala [in India], the distance being reckoned as 1,332 miles. The following period considered it a shorter and safer route to start from the same cape and steer for the Indian harbour of Sigeros, and for a long time this was the course followed, until a merchant discovered a shorter route, and the desire for gain brought India nearer. Actually, the voyage is made every year, with companies of archers on board, because these seas used to be very greatly infested by pirates. . . [omitted discussion of the voyage route from Egypt to India in connection with trading in Pliny’s time].

[Peoples along the southern coast of Iran]

(6.108-111). Moreover in this region the sea then makes a double inroad into the land [i.e. our Red Sea and our Persian Gulf]. The name given to it by our countrymen [Romans] is the “Red sea,” while the Greeks call it the “Erythraian sea” [i.e. modern Red Sea, Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean together or interchangeably]. The name comes from king Erythras or, according to others, in the belief that the water is given a red colour by the reflexion of the sun. Still others say that the name comes from the sand and the soil, and others that it is due to the actual water being naturally of such a character. . . . [omitted details about the Erythraian sea].

[Turtle-eaters and other peoples in Karmania or Gedrosia]

Onesikritos and Nearchos write that from the river Indus to the Persian gulf [also modern Persian Gulf] and from there to Babylon by the marshes of the Euphrates is a voyage of 1,700 miles. In an angle of Karmania [i.e. on the Gulf of Oman] are the Chelonophagians (“Turtle-eaters”), who roof their houses with the shells and live on the meat of turtles. These people inhabit the promontory that is reached next after leaving the river Arabis [perhaps the Porali river, Pakistan]. They are covered all over, except their heads, with shaggy hair, and they wear clothes made of the skins of fishes.

After the district belonging to these people, in the direction of India there is said to be an uninhabited island, Kaskandros, fifty miles out at sea, and next to it, with a strait flowing between, Stoidis, with a valuable pearl-fishery. After the promontory the Karmanians are adjoined by the Harmozaians, though some authorities place the Arbians between them, stretching all along the coast for four hundred and twenty-one miles. This promontory is the location of the port of the Macedonians and the altars of Alexander. The rivers are Siccanas and then the Dratinos and the Salson. After the Salson is cape Themisteas, and the inhabited island of Aphrodisias. . . [omitted material].

[Further geographical features and peoples]

(149-156) According to Juba the voyage beyond on that side has not been explored, because of the rocks Juba omits to mention Batrasavave, the town of the Omanians, and the town of Omana which previous writers have made out to be a famous port of Karmania, and also Homna and Attana, towns said by our traders to be now the most frequented ports in the Persian gulf, After the Dog’s River, according to Juba, there is a mountain looking as if it had been burned; the Epimaranitian peoples (gentes), then the Ichthyophagians (Fish-eaters), an uninhabited island, the Bathyxnian peoples, the Eblythaean mountains, the island of Omoemus, port Mochorhae, the islands of Etaxalos and Inchobrichae, the Kadaian people; a number of islands without names, and the well-known islands of Isura and Rhinnea, and the adjacent island on which there are some stone pillars bearing inscriptions written in an unknown alphabet; Port Coboea, the unhabited Bragae islands, the Taludaian people, the Dabanegoris district, mount Orsa with its harbour, Duatas Bay, a number of islands, mount Three-Peaks, the Chardaleon district, the Solonades and Cachinna, also islands belonging to the Ichthyophagianss. Then there are Klarians, the Mamaian coast with its gold-mines, the Kanauna district, the Apitamian and Kasanian peoples, Devade island, the spring Koralis, the Karphatians, the islands of Alaia and Amnamethos, the Darian people; Chelonitis island and a number of islands of the Ichthyophagians, the uninhabited Odanda, Basa, a number of islands belonging to the Sabaians. The rivers Thanar and Amnon, the Ilbric islands, the Daulotos and Dora springs, the islands of Pteros, Labatanis, Koboris and Sambrachate with the town of the same name on the mainland. Many islands to the southward, the largest of which is Kamari, the river Musekros, Port Laupas; the Sabaians, a people of Skenitians, owning many islands and a trading-station at Kalhat which is an outgoing port for India; the district of Amithoskatta., Damnia, the Greater and Lesser Mizi, Drymatina, the Makians; a cape in their territory points towards Karmania, fifty miles away. A remarkable event is said to have occurred there: the governor of Mesene appointed by king Antiochos, Numenios, here won a battle against the Persians with his fleet and after the tide had gone out a second battle with his cavalry, and set up a couple of trophies, to Jupiter and to Neptune, on the same spot. Out at sea off this coast lies the island of Ogyris, famous as the burial-place of king Erythras; its distance from the mainland is 125 miles and it measures 112 miles round. Equally famous is a second island in the Azanian sea, the island of Sokotra, lying 280 miles away from the extreme point of the cape of Syagros.

The remaining peoples on the mainland situated further south are the Autaridians, seven days’ journey into the mountains, the Larendanian and Catapanian people, the Gebbanitians with several towns, of which the largest are Nagia and Thomna, the latter with sixty-five temples, a fact that indicates its size. Then a cape the distance between which and the mainland in the Trogodytes’ territory is 50 miles; then the Thoanians, the Aktaians, the Chatramotitians, the Tonabaians, the Antiadaleans and Lexianians, the Agraians, the Kerbanians and the Sabaians, the best known of all the Arabian peoples because of their frankincense these peoples extend from sea to sea. Their towns on the coast of the Red Sea are Merme, Marina, Corolla, Sabbatha, and the inland towns are Naskoss, Kardaua, Karnos, and Thomala to which they bring down their perfumes for export. One division of them are the Atrainitians, whose chief place is Sabota, a walled town containing sixty temples; the royal capital of all these peoples however is Mareiabata, which lies on a bay measuring 94 miles round, studded with islands that produce perfumes. Adjoining the Atramitians in the interior are the Minaeans; and dwelling on the coast are also the Ailamitians with a town of the same name, and adjoining them the Chakoulatians with the town of Sibis, the Greek name of which is Apate, the Arsians, the Kodanians, the Ouadaeans with the large town of Barasasa, and the Lechienians; and the island of Sygaros, into which dogs are not admitted, and so being exposed on the seashore they wander around until they die. Then a bay running far inland on which live the Laianitians, who have given it their name. Their capital is Agra, and on the bay is Laiana, or as others call it Ailana; for the name of the bay itself has been written by our people ‘Laeanitic’, and by others ‘Aelanitic’, while Artemidoros gives it as ‘Alaenitic’ and Juba as ‘Leanitic’. The circumference of Arabia from Charax to Laiana is said to amount to 4,665 miles, though Juba thinks it is a little less than 4,000 miles; it is widest at the north, between the towns of Heroeum and Charax.

(157-170) The lie of the land is as follows: on leaving the Laianitic gulf there is another gulf called Aias in Arabian, on which is the town of Heroim. Formerly there was also the City of Cambyses, between the Nelians and the Marchadians; this was the place where the invalids from the army of Cambyses were settled. Then come the Tyroian people and the harbour of the Daneans, from which there was a project to carry a ship-canal through to the Nile at the place where it flows into what is called the Delta, over a space of 62 miles, which is the distance between the river and the Red Sea.

This project was originally conceived by Sesostris king of Egypt, and later by the Persian king Darius and then again by Ptolemy II, who did actually carry a trench 100 feet wide and 30 feet deep for a distance of 344 miles, as far as the Bitter Springs. He was deterred from carrying it further by fear of causing a flood, as it was ascertained that the level of the Red Sea is 44 feet above that of the land of Egypt. Some persons do not adduce this reason for the abandonment of the project, but say that it was due to fear in case, by making an inlet from the sea, they would pollute the water of the Nile. The Nile provides Egypt with its only supply of drinking-water.

Nevertheless, the whole journey from the Egyptian sea is constantly performed by land, there being three routes: one from Pelousion across the sands, a route on which the only mode of finding the way is to follow a line of reeds fixed in the sand, as the wind causes footprints to be covered up immediately; Another route begins two miles beyond mount Kasios and after 60 miles rejoins the road from Pelousion. Along this route livel the Arabian people of the Autaians. A third route starts from Gerron, called the Agipson route, passing through the same Arabian people, which is 60 miles shorter but rough and mountainous, as well as devoid of watering-places. All these routes lead to Arsino, the city on Karandra bay founded and named after his sister by Ptolemy Philadelphos, who first thoroughly explored the Trogodyte country and gave his own name to the river on which Arsinod stands.

Soon after that comes the small town of Aenon (but other writers give it the name Philoteriai instead) and then there are the Asarrians, a wild Arabian people resulting from intermarriage with the Trogodytes, the islands of Sapirine and Skytala, and then desert stretching as far as Myoshormos, where is the spring of Amos, mount Eos, Iambe island, a number of harbours, the town of Berenike named from the mother of Philadelphos, the road to which from Koptos we have described, and the Arabian peoples of the Autaians and Gebadaians.

The Trogodytes’ country, called in former times Mido and by other people Midio, mount Five-fingers, some islands called the Narrow Necks, the Halonesians about the same in number, Kardamine, and Topazos, which has given its name to the precious stone. A bay crowded with islands, of which the ones called the islands of Matreos have springs on them and those called Erato’s islands are dry; these islands formerly had governors appointed by the kings. Inland are the Kandaians, who are called the Ophiophagians because it is their habit to eat snakes, of which the district is exceptionally productive. Juba, who appears to have investigated these matters extremely carefully, has omitted to mention in this district (unless there is an error in the copies of his work) a second town called Berenike which has the additional name of “All-golden,” and a third called Berenike on the Neck, which is remarkable for its situation, being placed on a neck of land projecting a long way out, where the straits at the mouth of the Red Sea separate Africa from Arabia by a space of only 7 miles. Here is the island of Kytis, which itself also produces the chrysolite.

(175-179) Juba believes that at cape Mossylites begins the Atlantic ocean, navigable with a northwest wind along the coast of his kingdom of the Mauretanias as far as Gades [Cadiz]. His whole opinion must not be omitted at this point in the narrative. He puts forward the view that the distance from the cape in the Indian territory called in Greek the Narrow Head, and by others the Sickle, in a straight course past Burned island to Malichas’s islands is 1,500 miles, from there to the place called Skainei 225 miles, and on from there to Sadanus island 150 miles, making 1,875 miles to the open sea. All the other authorities have held the view that the heat of the sun makes the voyage impossible. Moreover, actual goods transported for trade are exposed to the depredations of an Arabian people living on the islands: who are called the Askitians because they make rafts of timber placed on a pair of inflated ox-hides and practise piracy, using poisoned arrows.

Juba also speaks of some peoples among Trogodytes called the Therothoans (Jackal-hunters), because of their skill in hunting (they are remarkable for their swiftness) and also of the Ichthyophagians, who can swim like creatures of the sea. There are also the Bangenians, Zangenians, Thalibians, Saxinians, Sirekians, Daremians and Domazenians. Overall, Juba states that the people inhabiting the banks of the Nile from Syene as far as Mero are not Ethiopian but Arabian peoples and also that the City of the Sun, which in our description of Egypt we spoke of as not far from Memphis, had Arabian founders. The further bank also is by some authorities taken away from Ethiopia and attached to Africa. (But they lived on the banks for the sake of the water.) However, we will leave this point to the reader to form his own opinion on it, and will enumerate the towns on either bank in the order in which they are reported, starting from Syene.

Starting with the Arabian side of the Nile, we have the Katadoupian peoples. . . [omitted discussion of Bion’s views]. Juba‘s account is different: he says that there is a fortified town called the Great Wall between Egypt and Ethiopia, the Arabic name for which is Mirsios, and then Takompson, Aramon, Sesamos, Pide, Mamuda, Korambis near a spring of mineral pitch, Amodota, Prosda, Parenta, Mania, Tessata, Galles, Zoton, GrauKome, Emeus, Pidibotai, Endondacometai, Nomad peoples living in tents, Kystaipe, little Magadale, Proumis, Nups, Dikelis, Patingas, Breves, New Magus, Egasmala, Kramda, Denna, Kadeus, Mathena, Batta, Alana, Makna, Skammos, Gora, and on an island off these places Abale, Androcalis, Seres, Mallos and Agokes.


Source of the translation: 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.

Leave a comment or correction

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *