Babylonian wisdom: Iamblichos on Mesopotamian legends and his training in Magian skills (mid-second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Babylonian wisdom: Iamblichos on Mesopotamian legends and his training in Magian skills (mid-second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified June 1, 2024,

Ancient authors: Iamblichos, Babylonian Story, as summarized by Photios (eighth century CE), Bibliotheke, or Collection of Books, codex 94 (link; link to Greek of Iamblichos) and as described by Scholia on Photios, codex 94 (link).

Comments: If this fictional story about Babylonian lovers (written after 166 CE) was truly by a Babylonian named Iamblichos (not the neo-Platonic figure), as Photios’ eighth century book review says or by an Assyrian (according to a later scribe who corrected Iamblichos in the marginal note at the bottom of this post), then this would be a case of non-dominant perspectives. But there is also reason to doubt even the self-description as part of the fiction (see Millar). Anyways, we have here an author presenting himself as though he has been trained in Babylonia in the skills of the Magians.

This fictional, novelistic story about two lovers also has digressions which suggest the ethnographic interests of the author, whether Babylonian, Assyrian, or Greek. This demonstrates again how ethnographic concerns cross ancient genres of literature and are by no means limited to ethnography proper. On this, see many other posts dealing with ethnographic fiction (although all ancient ethnography borders on fiction) on this site, particularly Diogenes’ novel on Thule (Iink) and Lucian’s fictional True Story (link).

Works consulted: E. Almagor, “Anonymous, On Persia (696)” In Jacoby Online. Brill’s New Jacoby, Part III, edited by Ian Worthington. Brill: Leiden, 2019; F. Millar, The Roman Near East, 31 BC-AD 337 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), pp. 489-493.


[Introduction to the fictional story set in Babylon]

Read the dramatic story of Iamblichos, a narrative of love adventures. The author engages in less foul language than Achilles Tatius [author of Leukippe and Kleitophon], but he is more immoral than the Phoenician Heliodoros [author of Ethiopian Story]. Of these three writers, who have all adopted the same subject and have chosen love intrigues as the material for their stories, Heliodoros is more serious and restrained, Iamblichos less so, while Achilles Tatius pushes his obscenity to an audacious level. The style of Iamblichos is soft and flowing. If there is anything vigorous and full in it, it is less characterized by intensity than by what may be called titillation and nervelessness. Iamblichos is so distinguished by excellence of style and arrangement and the order of the narrative that it is to be regretted that he did not devote his skill and energies to serious subjects instead of playful fictions. The characters of the story are a beautiful couple named Rhodanes and Sinonis, united by the tie of mutual love and marriage. Garmos, king of Babylon, having lost his wife, falls in love with Sinonis and is eager to marry her. Sinonis refuses and is bound with chains of gold, while Rhodanes is placed upon the cross by Damas and Sakas, the king’s eunuchs. . . [omitted detailed outline of the plot].

[Digression on Euphrates, Tigris and Mesopotamia and on the temple of Aphrodite]

By way of digression the author relates the history of the temple [of Aphrodite] and the little island, which is formed by the surrounding waters of the Euphrates and Tigris. The priestess of Aphrodite had three children, Euphrates, Tigris, and Mesopotamia. The last [Mesopotomia], who was born ugly, being changed into a woman so beautiful that three suitors quarrelled for her hand. Bochoros, the most famous judge of the time, was chosen to decide their claims, and the three rivals pleaded their cause. Now Mesopotamia had given one of them the cup from which she drank, had crowned the second with a wreath of flowers from her own head, and had kissed the third. Bochoros decided that she belonged to the one whom she had kissed, but this decision only embittered the quarrel, which ended in the death of the rivals by one another’s hands.

In another digression the author gives details of the temple of Aphrodite. The women who visit it are obliged to reveal in public the dreams they have had in the temple. This leads to minute details of Pharnuchus, Pharsiris and Tanais, from whom the river is named. Pharsiris and Tanais initiated those who lived on the banks of the river into the mysteries of Aphrodite. Tigris died in the little island just mentioned, after having eaten of some roses in the buds of which, not yet full blown, lurked a poisonous little beetle. Tigris’ mother believed she had made him a demi-god by her Magian skills (ekmageuein).

[Iamblichos as a Babylonian trained in Magian skills]

Iamblichos then describes different types of Magian knowledge (magikē): Magian (magos) use of locusts, Magian use of lions, and Magian use of mice (myes). According to him, the last is the oldest, the mysteries (mysteria) being called after the name of these animals. There are also Magian uses of snakes, divination by the dead, and divination by ventriloquism, the ventriloquist being called by the Greeks Eurykles and by the Babylonians Sacchuras. The author calls himself a Babylonian and says that, after having learned Magian knowledge (magikē), he devoted himself to the study Greek learning (paideia). He flourished in the reign of Soaimos, the Achaimenid and Arsakid, who occupied the throne of his fathers and was afterwards a Roman senator and consul, and king of Greater Armenia. At this time Marcus Aurelius was Roman emperor [ca. 161-180 CE].

When Aurelius sent Verus, his adopted brother and son-in-law and colleague in the empire, to make war against Vologaisos the Parthian king, Iamblichos predicted the beginning, the course, and end of the war. He also tells how Vologaisos fled over the Euphrates and Tigris, and how the kingdom of Parthia became a Roman province. . . [omitted continuing summary of the plotline of the novel].


Scribe’s marginal note in a manuscript of Photios’ summary (ninth century CE)

This Iamblichos was a Syrian [i.e. Assyrian] by descent (genos) on both his father’s and his mother’s side, a Syrian not in the sense of the Greeks who have settled in Syria, but of the native ones [i.e. Assyrians or Arameans], familiar with the Syrian language and living by their customs. Until, as he says, a Babylonian tutor (tropheus) took charge of him, and taught him the Babylonian language and customs and stories, of which (he says) one is the tale which he is now writing down. The Babylonian [who trained him] had been taken prisoner at the time when Trajan invaded Babylon, and was sold to the Syrian by the dealers in spoils. He was skilled in barbarian learning, to the extent of having been one of the royal secretaries while in his native land. As for Iamblichos himself, who knew his native Syrian language, and subsequently learned also the Babylonian language, he says that he afterwards, by application and use, acquired Greek also, to the extent of becoming skilled rhetor.


Source of translations: J.H. Freese, The Library of Photius: Volume 1 (London: SPCK, 1920), public domain; Scholia translation by F. Millar, The Roman Near East, 31 BC-AD 337 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), pp. 491, adapted by Harland.

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