Persians: Agathias on the divergent customs of Zoroaster’s Magians (sixth century CE and earlier)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persians: Agathias on the divergent customs of Zoroaster’s Magians (sixth century CE and earlier),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 4, 2024,

Ancient author: Agathias of Myrina in Asia Minor, aka Agathias Scholastikos, Histories 2.23-26 and 4.30 (link; link to Greek).

Comments: Agathias of Myrina in Asia Minor was a lawyer and historian writing in the sixth century CE. Most of his account is focussed on the reign of the Roman emperor Justinian from 552-559 CE and with relations between Persian-Sasanian kings and the Roman emperor centered at Constantinople.  For that contemporary history, Agathias draws on some Persian sources via a translator named Sergius (as he explains in the final passage below). It may be that Sergius was also an oral informant for other aspects of Agathias’ work.

However, in the main passage below, Agathias takes the death of the Sasanian general Mermoroes (ca. 555 CE) as an opportunity to not only explain Persian customs of burial but also to delve into various other customs of the Magians connected with Zoroaster in particular. For his aside on the Assyrians and a succession of dominant peoples, Agathias expressly draws on Polyhistor (link) and in this passage he briefly mentions Berossos and two otherwise unknown historians that dealt with Median matters.  However, for the Persians and Magians it is unclear what his sources are beyond that his information sometimes reflects direct or indirect knowledge of Ktesias’ account of Persian customs, perhaps via Diodoros or some other later work that used Ktesias (link; see de Jong). Agathias may also work with other earlier Greek ethnographic materials.

The content itself reflects Greek ethnographic approaches that take a negative stance on Magians and Zoroaster (e.g. obsessing about supposed incest), depicting Zoroaster’s changes as a history of decline. So Zoroaster does not come out as a wise barbarian in this material as he does in other Greek ethnographic traditions.

Works consulted: A.F. de Jong, Traditions of the Magi: Zoroastrianism in Greek and Latin Literature (Leiden: Brill, 2015); Frendo 1975 (see information at end of post); J. Suolahti, “On the Persian Sources Used by the Byzantine Historian Agathias,” Studia Orientalia 13 (1947): 1–13. (link)


[Persian burial customs]

(2.23) The following are Persian customs regarding burial: While the flesh is being removed, the bones lie naked and rotting after being scattered over the ground. There is an absolute ban on placing the dead in any kind of tomb or coffin, as well as burying them in the earth.

[Wicked and righteous]

If the birds do not quickly pounce on a body or the dogs do not immediately come and tear it to pieces, they consider the person in question to have had an evil character, and they consider that his soul was wicked, abandoned, and dedicated to the evil lower spirit (damōn). In that case the relatives mourn the dead man even more, because they believe that he is absolutely dead and that he has no shared in a happier fate. Similarly they celebrate the happy fate of the person whose body is most quickly devoured and they are lost in admiration of his soul, which they believe to be perfect, godlike, and certain to ascend to the place of the good.

[Common people]

Regarding common and obscure people, if someone in military service is incapacitated by any very harmful disease, they carry him out while still breathing and conscious. In this case a piece of bread, some water, and a staff are laid beside him. As long as he is able to partake of the food and some strength remains in him, he staves off approaching animals with the stick and scares away potential feasters. Before complete extinction, a stage is reached when the conquering illness prevents him from moving his hands any longer, and then the wretched man – half-alive but already on the point of giving up the ghost – is devoured. In this way, they deprive him of any hope that he may possibly have recovered.

Actually, many have recovered their strength and returned to their homes, just as on the tragic stage men appear from the gates of darkness, lean and pale and fit to frighten any one they meet. When a man returns home in this way, everybody shuns and avoids him as if he is under a curse and still a subject of the powers of the underworld. He is not allowed to resume his ordinary way of life until he has been purified by the Magians (magoi) of the pollution of the death which they had expected would overtake him, and until he has, as it were, established in return a claim to live again.

[Theorizing about human customs generally]

Clearly, the peoples (ethnē) among men, whenever they severally live according to customs which have prevailed for a very long time, regard any violation of them as a thing which they must avoid, as contemptible, and, in fact, as the sort of thing in which no trust should be placed. Nevertheless men have discovered explanations of and reasons for their own customs. These differ in different places, and may be true or merely deliberate fabrications of a plausible nature.

[Persian burial customs as recent and deviant]
Nor do I see anything remarkable in the fact that the Persians also investigate the sources of their own customs and attempt to show that they are superior to those observed everywhere else. But I am very surprised to find that the original inhabitants of the country, who must have been Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Medes, did not have the same beliefs that are held there today.

In the neighbourhood of the city of Ninus and in Babylonia, tombs and graves were made for the dead in the old days, and preserve the memory of a custom in no way different from our own. Whether the contents of these tombs were bodies or ashes (which would involve the assumption that these people were cremated according to the usage which prevails in Greece), the difference between the ancient and the present practice was complete.

[Supposed customs of incest]

(2.24) So the ancients did not hold the opinions which now prevail as to the proper disposal of the dead [i.e. among contemporary Persians]. Even less do did they practise the lawless freedom of sexual intercourse which brands their degenerate successors, who associate freely with their daughters, not to mention their sisters and nieces and even – the most shocking crime of all, in the name of all the laws of nature – with their mothers! That even this abomination was introduced by them can be clearly seen from the tradition that Semiramis, who popularized this disgraceful freedom in Assyria, desired, in ancient times, to have relations with her son Ninyas, and actually made advances to him. Ninyas repelled her in anger, and in the end, seeing her eagerness and impatience, killed his mother as the only alternative to incurring the guilt of incest. Now, if such relations were sanctioned by custom it is impossible to believe that Ninyas would have adopted such brutal methods.

But why should I quote very early cases? Coming to the period just before the rise of the Macedonians and the downfall of the Persians, it is said that Parysatis, wife of Darius and mother of Artaxerxes, conceived the same incestuous passion as Semiramis. When Parysatis made advances to Artaxerxes, he was actually far from putting her to death but did avoide her and pushed her away, which shows that he regarded such a relation as unholy, as a violation of ancestral custom and as something that was not a normal or natural way of life.

[Zoroaster’s role in changing Persians’ customs]

The Persians of today ignore and have abandoned almost all their earlier customs. Instead, they observe certain practices of a different nature that are significantly corrupted in obedience to the doctrines of Zoroaster the son of Horamasdes [the god Ahura Mazda being confused with Zoroaster’s father here].

One cannot state with certainty exactly when when this Zoroaster or Zarades (he is known by both names) was at the height of his power and enacted his laws. The modern Persians say that he lived in the time of Hystaspes, limiting themselves to this general statement, since it is exceedingly doubtful and it is impossible to ascertain definitely whether this Hystaspes was the father of Darius or was another man of the same name.

Anyways, in whatever period he flourished, he was a leader amongst the Persians and a pioneer in Magian skill [magikos]. Morever, he even changed the earlier sacrifices (hierougiai) and added to them a number of elaborate teachings of a heterogeneous character. For example, in ancient times they venerated Zeus and Kronos and all the deities commonly mentioned among the Greeks, though, of course, they did not know them by the same names. As it happened, they called Zeus “Bel” (Belos), Herakles “Sandes,” Aphrodite “Anahita” (Anaitis) and the others this or that as the case might be, as we are told by Berossos [Bel-re’ushu] [Babylonian Matters F12] the Babylonian, as well as by Athenokles and Simakos, writers who have recorded the history of the Assyrians and Medes from its very beginnings.

[Dualism and comparison with Manicheans]

These days, however, they agree in most points of teaching with the sect called Manicheans, since they believe there are two primary principles, one that is good and at the same time has generated the things of highest worth [i.e. Ahura Mazda], the other the exact opposite in both respects [i.e. Angra Mainyu]. To these principles they apply strange names in their own language. For instance, the good divinity, or, perhaps, world-creator, they know as Ormisdates [Ahura Mazda], the evil and destructive one as Arimanes [Angra Mainyu].


 The greatest of all the festivals they celebrate is the one that is called “the slaying of evil things,” in which they kill a vast number of reptiles and such other beasts that are wild and inhabit the wilderness. They offer them to the Magians as though to demonstrate their piety, because they think that in this way they perform actions that gratify the good divinity and cause distress and harm to Arimanes. They reverence water more than anything else, even to the extent of not washing their faces in it and of refraining from touching it except to drink it and use it on their plants.

[Other practices relating to the gods, including worship of fire]

(2.25) They invoke and propitiate many other gods by name, a practice in which they resemble the Greeks, as they do also in having sacrifices, purifications, and divination. They hold fire in honour and regard it as very holy, for which reason the Magians guard it in certain small and supposedly sacred buildings and never let it go out. It is by reference to it that they perform their secret rites and carry on their enquiries into the future. This latter custom [i.e. divining the future] I consider them to have received from the Chaldeans or some other people, since it is not found among the rest of the peoples.

[Borrowing components from various peoples]

So that, or nearly that, is the nature of their beliefs, which make a very composite body of teaching, in forming which they have drawn contributions from many peoples. And this state of affairs is also what I should have expected. In fact, I know of no other organized community (politeia) which has been subjected to such a confusing variety of changes or which through its submission to an endless succession of dominations by other peoples has failed so clearly to achieve any degree of continuity. So no wonder it still bears the image of many different modes and customs. . . [omitted section on Assyrians and a succession of powerful peoples, on which go to this link].

[Artaxerxes / Ardashir and the Magians’ increased position, reigning ca. 211-224 CE]

(2.26) . . . [omitted several sentences of paragraph] A certain Persian named Artaxares (Ardashir) – a man of very humble and obscure origin, but a man of action, full of energy and with the ability to modify existing conditions – collected together some associates and attacked and overthrew the king, Artabanos. Assuming the crown himself, he restored the Persians to their imperial position once again, having brought to an end the Parthian dominion. He was held fast by Magian rites (magika . . . hierougia) and performed its secrets himself. As a result of his support, the Magian tribe (phylē) became more powerful and arrogant at that time. Actually, this tribe had made its influence felt in previous times, even though it had never before been elevated to such a position of honour and immunity. However, the Magian tribe had since been ignored by the authorities.

For example, a long time ago when Cambyses the son of Cyrus died, the Magian Smerdis [likely pertaining in some way to the historical Bardiya / Gaumata the Magian] stole the throne for himself. The party of Darius would not have objected nor exectued Smerdis himself and many of his associates unless they had held, as they did, that the Magians were not entitled to the distinction of sitting upon the royal throne. Far from regarding this slaughter as abominable, they instead thought this deserved to be remembered, with the result that they actually made the anniversary of the revolution a festival called “the Slaughter of the Magians,” when they perform sacrifices of thanksgiving.

[Present roles of Magians]

However, at present, the Magians are the objects of universal favour and esteem. The government is carried on in keeping with their wishes and instructions. They superintend details of civic life, such as the making of contracts or the institution of a suit at law, examining the conduct of the business and giving a decision upon it. The Persians would not regard any action whatever as legal or just unless it was ratified by a Magian. . . [omitted remainder of book 2, all of book 3, and first part of book 4].

[Agathias’ explanation of some of his Persian sources]

(4.30.2-5; translation by J.D. Frendo, adapted) . . . I have kept my promise and given a complete chronological record of the reigns of the kings of Persia. It is, I think, a true and an accurate one since it is based on Persian sources. Sergius the interpreter managed in fact during a stay in Persia to prevail upon the keepers of the royal archives to grant him access to the relevant literature. He did so, as it happens, in response to frequent requests from me. Fortunately, when he stated that his sole purpose was to preserve even for us [Byzantine “Romans” centred in Constantinople] the memory of what they, the Persians, knew and cherished, they immediately obliged, thinking that it would enhance the prestige of their kings if the Romans too were to learn what kind of men they were together with their numbers and the order and manner in which the succession has been maintained. What Sergius did then was to take the names, dates,and principal events and put them into good Greek. This was a task for which he was peculiarly well-fitted being far and away the best translator of his day, so much so that his talents had won him the admiration of Chosroes [Khosrow II, reigning ca. 591-628 CE] himself and made him the acknowledged master of his subject in both empires [Sasanian-Persian empire and Roman empire centred in the east].

After having made what must have been an extremely accurate translation, he was as good as his word and most obligingly brought me all his material, urging me to fulfil the purpose for which it had been entrusted to him. And that is exactly what I have done. Consequently even if there are some discrepancies between my account of the reign of Kavad and Procopius’ [contemporary historian known for his Wars] version of it we must follow the authority of the Persian documents and credit their contents with greater veracity.


Source of translation: W.S. Fox and R. E. K. Pemberton, Passages in Greek and Latin Literature Relating to Zoroaster and Zoroastrianism, K.R. Cama Oriental Institute Publication (Bombay: D.B. Taraporevala Sons & Co., 1929), public domain, adapted by Harland. Translation of portion of book four by J.D. Frendo, Agathias: The Histories (Books 2-4), Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 2a (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1975), adapted.

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