Ethiopians: Aristokreon on a people ruled by a dog (mid-third century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Ethiopians: Aristokreon on a people ruled by a dog (mid-third century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 19, 2024,

Ancient authors: Aristokreon (mid-third century BCE), FGrHist 667 F2, 3, 4a, 4b (link to FGrHist), as discussed by Pliny the Elder (mid-first century CE), Natural History 6.183, 191-192 (link); Aelian, On the Characteristics of Animals 7.40 (link); and, Plutarch, Against the Stoics on Common Conceptions 1064b (link).

Comments: Aristokreon (about whom we know very little) evidently wrote a work about Ethiopia and its peoples. The most memorable passage for at least three different readers of Aristokreon’s now lost work was the one dealing with the supposed Ethiopian people who had a dog for a king. So this of course relates to the ancient fascination with supposed paradoxical peoples. The notion that a people would have a dog for a king also has affinities with the denigration of Egyptians for “worshipping animals,” implying that the peoples in question were inferior to animals.

Works consulted: S.M. Burstein, “Aristokreon (667),” in Jacoby Online. Brill’s New Jacoby, Part III, edited by Ian Worthington. Brill: Leiden, 2009.


[Size of Ethiopia]

(F2 = Pliny, Natural History 6.183) Similarly there have also been various reports regarding size of the country [of Ethiopia from Syene to Meroe]. The first report was given by Dalion, who sailed up a long way beyond Meroe, and then by Aristokreon, Bion, and Basilis, and also by the younger Simonides, who stayed at Meroe for five years while writing his account of Ethiopia.

[Ptoimphanians ruled by a dog, and other Ethiopian peoples]

(F3 = Pliny, Natural History 6.191-192) Aristokreon reports that on the Libyan side five days’ journey from Meroe is the town of Tolles, and twelve days beyond it another town, Aisar, belonging to Egyptians who fled to escape from Psammetichos (they are said to have been living there for 300 years), and that the town of Diaron on the Arabian side opposite belongs to them. To the town which Aristokrates calls Aisar, Bion gives the name of Sapes, which he says means that the inhabitants are strangers. Their chief city is Sembobitis, situated on an island, and they have a third town named Sinat, in Arabia. Between the mountains and the Nile are the Simbarrians, the Palungians and, on the actual mountains, the numerous peoples (nationes) of Asachians, who are said to be five days’ journey from the sea. They live by hunting elephants. An island in the Nile, belonging to the Sembritians, is governed by a queen. Eight days’ journey from this island are the Nubian Ethiopians, whose town Tenupsis is situated on the Nile, and the Sesambrians, in whose country all the four-footed animals, even the elephants, have no ears. On the African side are: the Ptonebarians; the Ptoimphanians, who have a dog for a king and divine his commands from his movements; the Harusbians, whose town is situated a long distance away from the Nile; and, afterwards, the Arehisarmians, Phalligians, Marigarrians and Chasamarians.

(F4a = Aelian, On the Characteristics of Animals 7.40) Now here are further instances of unsurpassable loyalty by dogs: when Polos the tragic actor died and his body was burning, the dog which he had kept sprang on to the pyre and was burned to death along with him; when the body of Mentor was burning, his Eretrian hounds were burned to death by their own volition and shared his end; and, Theodoros, an excellent harp-player, was placed in the coffin by his relatives, and his Meliteian [Maltese] lap-dog threw itself into the receptacle and was buried along with him. And I have heard that there is a people among Ethiopians among whom a dog is king, and they obey his wishes: when he whines they know that he is in a good mood, but when he barks they understand that he is angry. If Hermippos [of Smyrna; ca. mid-third century BCE] is in anyone’s view a competent authority, he should carry conviction from having cited Aristokreon as a witness to his story. This has not escaped my notice and it was good that I remembered it.

(F4b =Plutarch, Against the Stoics on Common Conceptions 1064b) They say that there is an Ethiopian people (ethnos) ruled by a dog. The dog is called a king and has the privileges and honors of a king. The people do for it whatever is fitting for rulers of cities and leaders.


Source of 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); A.F. Scholfield, Aelian: On the Characteristics of Animals, 3 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1958), public domain in Canada (passed away in 1969), adapted by Harland.

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