Lycians, Lydians, and Egyptians: Pseudo-Plutarch on the effeminacy of grief (third-fourth centuries CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Lycians, Lydians, and Egyptians: Pseudo-Plutarch on the effeminacy of grief (third-fourth centuries CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 25, 2024,

Ancient author: Pseudo-Plutarch, Letter of Consolation to Apollonios 22 (link).

Comments: The author of this letter (attributed to Plutarch) ostensibly aimed at consoling a person who had lost his son emphasizes, among other things, that lengthy or more emotive forms of mourning themselves are characteristic of women, not men.  This document illustrates well how issues of gender were part and parcel of the categorization and characterization of peoples. The author does this by offering several “barbarian” examples, starting with Lycians (in southwestern Asia Minor / Turkey〉 and moving on to other easterners who are considered effeminate, namely, Lydians (also in Turkey), Egyptians, and Syrians. The idea of easterners being effeminate was a widespread stereotype among the Greek elites. This is contrasted to supposedly manly peoples, especially Celts (and, of course, Greeks would be imagined as courageous as well, though more balanced).


[Lycian customs]

(22) They say that the lawgiver of the Lycians​ ordered his citizens, whenever they mourned, to dress like women and then to mourn. He wanted to make it clear that mourning is effeminate and unbecoming to decent men who possess a free-born upbringing [cf. Valerius Maximus – link]. It is true that mourning is truly feminine, weak, and lower-class, since women tend toward it more than men, and barbarians more than Greeks, and inferior men more than better men.

[Manly Celts and Galatians contrasted with effeminate Egyptians, Syrians and Lydians]

Among the barbarians themselves, it not the most noble, such Celts and Galatians, and all the others who by nature are filled with a more manly spirit who tend to mourn; rather, it is those such as Egyptians, Syrians and Lydians who do so. For it is recorded that some of these peoples go down into pits and remain there for several days, not desiring even to see the light of the sun since the deceased also is bereft of it. At any rate the tragic poet Ion,​ who was not without knowledge of the foolishness of these peoples, has represented a woman as saying: “The nurse of healthy children I have come, / to supplicate you, from the mourning pits.” Some of the barbarians even cut off parts of their bodies, their noses and ears, and mutilate other portions of their bodies as well. They think that they gratify the dead by abandoning moderate emotions which Nature calls for in such cases. . . [omitted several sections].

[Return to the theme]

. . . (26) Therefore, over people who die, men of good sense should not be carried away by sorrow beyond the natural and moderate limit of grief, which so affects the soul, into useless and barbarian mourning, and they should not to wait for that outcome which has already been the lot of many in the past, the result of which is that they terminate their own lives in misery because they have put off their mourning, and gain nothing but a forlorn burial in their garments of sorrow, as their woes and the ills born of their unreasonableness follow them to the grave. . . [omitted remainder].


Source of translation: F.C. Babbitt, Plutarch: Moralia, 5 vols., LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1927-1936), public domain (Babbitt passed away in 1935), adapted by Harland.


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