Indians: Skylax of Karyanda, a Persian imperial ethnographic expedition, and paradoxical peoples (late sixth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Indians: Skylax of Karyanda, a Persian imperial ethnographic expedition, and paradoxical peoples (late sixth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 23, 2024,

Ancient authors: Skylax of Karyanda in Caria (late sixth century BCE), FGrHist 709 F1, 5, 7a-b (link to FGrHist), as cited by Herodotos (late fifth century BCE), Histories 4.44; Aristotle, Politics 1332b (link); Philostratos of Lemnos, The Life of Apollonios of Tyana 4.45-47 (link); John Tzetzes (twelfth century CE), Book of Histories, or Chiliades 7, lines 629-652 (link; link to Greek).

Comments: Along with Hekataios of Miletos (link), Skylax (or: Scylax) of Karyanda is among the earliest ethnographic writers in Greek, although he may well have been Carian (rather than Greek) by origin himself.  The brief references to and citations of Skylax’s work suggest he was instrumental in a Persian imperial expedition into India in order to further Darius’ aims of conquest (see Herodotos’ passage). So once again there is an intimate relation between imperial expansionist ambitions and conquest, on the one hand, and the pursuit of ethnographic knowledge, on the other (on which also see Strabo’s discussion of Gallus’ expedition into Arabia for the Romans at this link). Aristotle indicates that Skylax explained the relation between kings and subjects in Indian contexts. Two other significant ethnographic citations involve supposed paradoxical peoples of India. This Skylax is not to be confused with the author of one of the surviving circumnavigation writings, known as pseudo-Skylax (link). That author likewise enumerates paradoxical peoples along the journey. The two are confused in some of the ancient sources.

Works consulted: P. Kaplan, “Skylax of Karyanda (709),” in Jacoby Online. Brill’s New Jacoby – Second Edition, Part III, edited by Ian Worthington. Brill: Leiden, 2019.


Herodotos (late fifth century BCE)

[Skylax as key figure in an Persian imperial expedition along the Indus river for the purposes of conquest]

(F1 = 4.44) Now regarding Asia, most of it was discovered by Darius [king of Persia, ca. 522-486 BCE]. There is a river Indus, in which so many crocodiles are found that only one river in the world has more. Darius, desiring to know where this Indus empties into the sea, sent ships manned by Skylax, a man of Karyanda [in Caria / southwestern Turkey], and others whose word he trusted. They set out from the city Kaspatyros and the Paktyic country, and sailed down the river towards the east and the sunrise until they came to the sea. Voyaging over the sea westwards, they came in the thirtieth month to that place from where the Egyptian king sent the Phoenicians previously mentioned [4.42] to sail around Libya. After this circumnavigation, Darius subdued the Indians and made use of this sea. Thus it was discovered that Asia, with the exception of parts towards the rising sun, was in other respects like Libya.


Aristotle (fourth century BCE)

[Kings and subjects in India]

(F5 = 1332b) But since every political community is composed of rulers and subjects, we must therefore consider whether the rulers and the subjects should change or remain the same through life. For it is clear that their education also will have to be made to correspond with this distribution of functions. If then it were the case that the one class differed from the other as widely as we believe the gods and heroes differ from human beings, having first a great superiority in regard to the body and then in regard to the soul, so that the pre-eminence of the rulers was indisputable and manifest to the subjects, it is clear that it would be better for the same persons always to be rulers and subjects once and for all. However, since this is not easy to secure and since we do not find anything corresponding to the great difference that Skylax states to exist between kings and subjects in India, it is clear that for many reasons it is necessary for all to share alike in ruling and being ruled in turn.


Philostratos (early third century CE)

[Paradoxical phenomena and peoples in India]

(F7a = 3.45-47) Since the following conversation has also been recorded by Damis as having been held upon this occasion with regard to the mythological animals, fountains and people encountered in India, I [Philostratos] must not leave it out, for there is much to be gained by neither believing nor yet disbelieving everything. Accordingly Apollonios asked the question, whether there was there an animal called the man-eater (martichoras [tiger]). Iarchas replied: “And what have you heard about the make of this animal? For it is probable that there is some account given of its shape.” “There are,” replied Apollonios, “tall stories current which I cannot believe. For they say that the creature has four feet, and that his head resembles that of a man, but that in size it is comparable to a lion. While the tail of this animal puts out hairs a cubit long and sharp as thorns, which it shoots like arrows at those who hunt it.” Apollonios further asked about the golden water which they say bubbles up from a spring, and about the stone which behaves like a magnet, and about the men who live underground and the pygmies also and the shadow-footed men. Iarchas answered his questions in this way: “What have I to tell you about animals or plants or fountains which you have seen yourself on coming here? For by this time you are as competent to describe these to other people as I am. But I never yet heard in this country of an animal that shoots arrows or of springs of golden water.” . . . [omitted tale of amazing stones]. As to the pygmies, he [Iarchas] said that they lived underground, and that they lay on the other side of the Ganges and lived in the manner which is related by everyone. As to men that are shadow-footed or have long heads, and as to the other poetical fancies which the treatise of Skylax recounts about them, he said that they didn’t live anywhere on the earth, and least of all in India.


John Tzetzes (twelfth century CE)

[Paradoxical peoples in India]

(F7b) There is a book by Skylax of Karyanda / [630] that writes about men who live around the Indian land, / whom they call the Skiapodians (Skiapodai; “Shade-feet”) and the Otoliknians (Ōtoliknoi; “Winnowing-fan-ears”). / Regarding them, the Skiapodians have extremely wide feet, / after dropping to the ground at noon time, and by stretching out their feet above them, they make shade for themselves. / The Otoliknians, on the other hand, have large ears, / which they use to cover themselves like parasols. / This same Skylax also writes countless other things / regarding the Monophthalmians (“One-eyed-people”) and the Enotokoitians (“Large-ears-for-beds people”), / and countless other outlandish marvels. / [640] He tells about these things as if they were true and not fabricated. / But since I am ignorant of these things, I consider them to be lies. / That they really are true is attested by the fact that countless others claim / to have seen such things and other marvels even more incredible in their lifetime, Ktesias, Iamboulos, Isigonos, / Rheginos, Alexander, Sotion and Agathosthenes, / Antigonos and Eudoxos, Hippostratos, countless others, / including Protagoras himself and even Ptolemy, and Akestorides himself and other prose-writers, / some of whom I am personally familiar with and others I am not. / [650] Among those men, whose writings in complex metres I am personally familiar with, / are Zenothemis, Pherenikos along with Philostephanos, / and, in turn, there are countless others whom I am not familiar with.


Source of translations: H. Rackham, Politics, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1932), public domain (Rackham passed away in 1944 and copyright not renewed); F.C. Conybeare, Philostratus: The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, volume 1, LCL (London: William Heinemann, 1912), public domain, adapted by Harland; John Tztezes by Vasiliki Dogani (link), adapted by Harland.

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