Medes: Nearchos and Strabo on neighbouring bandit-peoples and on Median customs (early first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Medes: Nearchos and Strabo on neighbouring bandit-peoples and on Median customs (early first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 20, 2024,

Ancient authors: Nearchos and Apollodoros of Artemita, as discussed by Strabo, Geography 11.13 (link).

Comments: In this section Strabo surveys territories previously under the control of the Medes and addresses one of his favourite topics: bandit-peoples. Throughout his Geography, Strabo categorizes many different populations, particularly those in the mountains, as bandits by nature. Drawing on Nearchos (who accompanied Alexander on his expeditions) Strabo speaks of four main bandit peoples around the Zagros mountains in what is now Iran: Mardians, Ouxians, Elymaians, and Kossaians.  Strabo then goes on to sketch out some Median customs and suggests that both the Persians and the Armenians inherited the same customs from the Medes.


[For Strabo’s preceding discussion of Baktrians and Sogdianians, go to this link].

[Medes and neighbouring peoples]

(11.13.5) In ancient times Greater Armenia ruled all of Asia, after it broke up the empire of the Syrians [i.e. Assyrians]. However, later on in the time of Astyages it was deprived of that great authority by Cyrus and the Persians, although it continued to preserve much of its ancient dignity. Ekbatana was winter residence for the Persian kings, and likewise for the Macedonians who, after overthrowing the Persians, occupied Syria. Still today it provides the kings of the Parthians the same advantages and security.

[Mardians, Ouxians, Elymaians, and Kossaians as bandit-peoples in mountainous territory, according to Nearchos]

(11.13.6) Greater Media is bounded on the east by Parthia and the mountains of the Kossaians, bandit-men (lēstrikoi anthropoi), who once supplied the Elymaians, with whom they were allies in the war against the Susians and Babylonians, with thirteen thousand bowmen. Nearchos says that there were four bandit peoples (lēstrika ethnē): among these the Mardians were situated next to the Persians; the Ouxians (or: Uxians) and Elymaians next to the Mardians and the Susians; and the Kossaians next to the Medians.

Nearchos says that whereas all four exacted tribute from the kings, the Kossaians also received gifts at the times when the king, after spending the summer in Ekbatana, went down into Babylonia. However, Alexander put an end to their great audacity when he attacked them in the winter time. So then, Greater Media is bounded on the east by these peoples, and also by the Paraitakenians, who border on the Persians and are themselves likewise mountaineers and bandits (lēstrikoi); on the north Greater Media is bounded by the Kadousians who live above the Hyrkanian sea, and by the other peoples which I have just described; on the south Greater Media is bounded by Apolloniatis, which the ancients called Sitakene, and by the mountain Zagros, at the place where Massabatike is situated, which belongs to Media, though some say that it belongs to Elymaia; and, on the west by the Atropatians and certain Armenians. There are also some Greek cities in Media, founded by the Macedonians, among which are Laodikeia, Apameia and the city near Rhagai, and Rhaga itself, which was founded by Nikator. By him it was named Europos, but by the Parthians Arsakia; it lies about five hundred stadium-lengths to the south of the Caspian Gates, according to Apollodoros of Artemita.

(11.13.7) Now most of the country [of Greater Media] is high and cold. Likewise with the mountains which lie above Ekbatana and those in the neighbourhood of Rhagai and the Caspian Gates, and in general the northerly regions extending from there to Matiane and Armenia. However, the region below the Caspian Gates, consisting of low-lying lands and hollows, is very fertile and productive of everything but the olive, and even if the olive is produced anyway, it is dry and yields no oil. This, as well as Armenia, is an exceptionally good horse-pasturing country. . . [omitted lengthy discussion of Nesaian horses and of other local products and of the size of the country].

[Customs of Medes and others influenced by them, including Persians and Armenians]

(11.13.9) As for customs, most of theirs and of those of the Armenians are the same, because their countries are similar. The Medes, however, are said to have been the originators of customs for the Armenians, and also, still earlier, for the Persians, who were their masters and their successors in the supreme authority over Asia. For example, their “Persian” stole, as it is now called, and the court they pay to their kings, and their ornaments, and the divine reverence paid by subjects to kings, came to the Persians from the Medes. And that this is true is particularly clear from their dress. For tiara, kitaris-head-dress, pilos-skull-cap, tunics with sleeves reaching to the hands, and pants are indeed suitable things to wear in cold and northerly regions, such as the Medes wear, but not at all suitable in southerly regions.

Most of the settlements possessed by the Persians were on the Erythraian sea, farther south than the country of the Babylonians and the Susians. But after the overthrow of the Medes the Persians acquired in addition certain parts of the country that reached to Media. However, the customs even of the conquered looked to the conquerors so worthy of reverence and appropriate to royal pomp that they submitted to wear women’s clothing instead of going naked or lightly clad, and to cover their bodies all over with clothes.

(11.13.10) Some say that Medeia introduced this kind of clothing when she, along with Jason, held dominion in this region, even concealing her face whenever she went out in public in place of the king. They also say that the Jasonian hero-shrines, which are much revered by the barbarians, are memorials of Jason and above the Caspian Gates on the left is a large mountain called shrine-of-Jason (Jasoneion). On the other hand, the clothing and the name of the country are memorials of Medeia. It is said also that Medos her son succeeded to the empire and left his own name to the country. In agreement with this are the shrines for Jason (Jasoneia) of Armenia and the name of that country and several other things which I will discuss.

(11.13.11) The following is also a Median custom: to choose the bravest man as king. Still, this is not the practice among all Medians but only among the mountaineers. More general is the custom for the kings to have many wives; this is the custom of the mountaineers of the Medes, and all Medes, and they are not permitted to have less than five. Likewise, the women are said to account it an honourable thing to have as many husbands as possible and to consider less than five a disaster.

Now even though the rest of Media is extremely fertile, the northerly mountainous part has poor soil. Anyways, the people live on the fruits of trees, making cakes out of apples that are sliced and dried, and bread from roasted almonds. They also squeeze out a wine from certain roots, and they use the meat of wild animals, but do not breed tame animals. That is how much I add concerning the Medes. As for the institutions in common use throughout the whole of Media, since they prove to have been the same as those of the Persians because of the conquest of the Persians, I will discuss them in my account of the latter.

[For Strabo’s subsequent discussion of Armenians, go to this link].


Source of translation: H.L. Jones, Strabo, 8 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1917-28), public domain (passed away in 1932), adapted by Harland.

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