Scythian wisdom: Plutarch on Anacharsis at the dinner of the seven sages (early second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Scythian wisdom: Plutarch on Anacharsis at the dinner of the seven sages (early second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 3, 2024,

Ancient author: Plutarch, Dinner of the Seven Sages 1-3, 5-6, 8-10, 12, 21 (link).

Comments: Writing around 250 BCE, Ephoros was among the earlier Greeks (if not the first) to place the Scythian Anacharsis among the legendary seven sages (link). It’s true that, earlier on, Herodotos could admit that Anacharsis was the only wise person among the otherwise stupid Scythians, which is quite a different matter (link). Anyways, many other Greeks, though not all, would follow Ephoros in some way.

In this fictional scenario, Plutarch has the seven sages gathered for a dinner and discussion in Corinth. The character of Anacharsis is portrayed as appearing “savage” but actually being civilized and quite witty in his responses to the other Greek sages poking fun at his status as a “barbarian.” Among the topics addressed by Anacharsis are the meaning of having a “home” and the nature of the soul.

The seven sages also deal with an ostensible debate over wisdom between the Egyptian king Amasis and the Ethiopian king, with the latter depicted falling behind in the competition.  So the discourse addresses the issue of wise “barbarians” in a number of ways.


[Introduction by Diokles as narrator]

[146] (1) [Corinthian ritual expert Diokles:] It seems fairly certain, Nikarchos, that the passing of time will obscure and bring complete uncertainty regarding actual events, if at the present time, in the case of events so fresh and recent, false accounts that have been concocted obtain credence. For, in the first place, the dinner [of sages] was not a dinner of the seven alone, as you and your friends have been told, but of more than twice that number, including myself. I was on intimate terms with Periander because of my profession, and I was also the host of Thales, for he stayed at my house by command of Periander. In the second place, your informant, whoever he was, did not report the conversation correctly. Apparently he was not one of those at the dinner. However, since there is nothing that demands my attention just now, and old age is too untrustworthy to warrant postponing the story, I will begin at the beginning, and tell you, without any omissions, the story which you all seem eager to hear.

[Setting of the dinner at Corinth]

(2) Periander [tyrant of Corinth] had arranged for the entertainment, not in the city but in the dining-hall in the vicinity of Lechaion, close by the shrine of Aphrodite, in whose honour the sacrifice was offered that day. . . [omitted initial sections as they progress to the dinner]. (3) Engaging in such discourse as this along the way, we arrived at the house.

Thales did not care to bathe because we had already had a rub-down. So he visited and inspected the race-tracks, the training-quarters of the athletes, and the beautifully kept park along the shore; not that he was ever greatly impressed by anything of the sort, but so that he should not seem to show disdain or contempt for Periander’s ambitious designs. As for the other guests, each one, after enjoying a rub-down or a bath, was conducted by the servants to the dining-room through the open colonnade.

[Anacharsis’ savage appearance but civilized character]

Anacharsis was seated in the colonnade, and in front of him stood a girl who was parting his hair with her hands. This girl ran to Thales in a most open-hearted way, at which point he kissed her and said laughingly, “Go on and make our visitor beautiful, so that we may not find him terrifying and savage in his looks, when he is, in reality, most civilized.” When I inquired about the girl and asked who she was, he replied, “Have you not heard of the wise and far-famed Eumetis? Really, though, that is only her father’s name for her, and most people call her Kleoboulina after her father.” “I am sure,” said Neiloxenos, “that when you speak so highly of the young woman you must have reference to the cleverness and skill that she shows in her riddles; for it is a fact that some of her conundrums have even found their way to Egypt.” “No indeed,” said Thales, “for these she uses like dice as a means of occasional amusement, and risks an encounter with all comers. But she is also possessed of wonderful sense, a civic mind, and an amiable character, and she has influence with her father so that his government of the citizens has become milder and more popular.” “Yes, said Neiloxenos, “that must be apparent to anybody who observes her simplicity and lack of affectation. But what is the reason for her loving attentions to Anacharsis?” “Because,” replied Thales, “he is a man of sound sense and great learning, and he has generously and readily imparted to her the system of diet and purging which the Scythians employ in treating their sick. And I venture to think that at this very moment, while she is bestowing this affectionate attention on the man, she is gaining some knowledge through further conversation with him.” . . . [omitted subsequent sections].

[Scythians compared to Greeks]

(5) After the tables had been cleared away and garlands distributed by Melissa, and we had poured libations, and the flute-girl, after playing a brief accompaniment for our libations, had withdrawn, then Ardalos, addressing Anacharsis, inquired if there were flute-girls among the Scythians. Anacharsis answered on the spur of the moment, “No, nor grape-vines either.” When Ardalos again said, “But the Scythians must have gods,” he replied, “Certainly, they have gods who understand the language of men.. They are not like the Greeks, who, although they think they converse better than the Scythians, yet believe that the gods have more pleasure in listening to the sound produced by bits of bone and wood.”

At that point, Aesop said, “I would have you know, my friend, that the modern flute-makers have given up the use of bones from fawns, and use bones from asses, asserting that the latter have a better sound. This fact underlies the riddle which Kleoboulina made in regard to the Phrygian flute: “Full on my ear with a horn-bearing shin did a dead donkey smite me.” So we may well be astonished that the ass, which otherwise is most gross and unmelodious, yet provides us with a bone which is most fine and melodious.”

“That, without question,” said Neiloxenos, “is the reason for the complaint which the people of Bousiris make against us of Naukratis, becausewe are already using asses’ bones for our flutes. But for them even to hear a trumpet is a fault, because they think it sounds like the bray of an ass. You know, of course, that an ass is treated insultingly by the Egyptians on account of Typhon.”

[Discussion of the Egyptian king’s letter about the competition in wisdom with the Ethiopian king]

(6) There was a pause in the conversation, and Periander, noticing that Neiloxenos wanted to begin his remarks, but was hesitating, said, “I am inclined to commend both cities and rulers that take up the business of foreigners first and of their own citizens afterwards; and now it seems to me that we should for a few minutes put a check on our own words, which are, as it were, in their own land where they are well known, and grant audience, as in a legislative sitting, to the royal communication from Egypt, which our excellent friend Neiloxenos has come to bring to Bias, and which Bias wishes to consider with all of us together.” “Indeed,” said Bias, “in what place or company would a man more readily take the risk, if he must, of answering such questions, especially since the king has given instructions to begin with me, and after that the matter is to come around to all the rest of you?”

As he said this Neiloxenos offered him the packet, but Bias bade him by all means to open it and read it aloud. The contents of the letter were to this effect:

“Amasis, king of the Egyptians, to Bias, wisest of the Greeks. The king of the Ethiopians is engaged in a contest in wisdom against me. Repeatedly beaten in everything else, he has crowned his efforts by framing an extraordinary and awful demand, bidding me to drink up the ocean. My reward, if I find a solution, is to have many villages and cities of his, and if I do not, I am to withdraw from the towns lying around Elephantine. I beg therefore that you will consider the question, and send back Neiloxenos without delay. And whatever is right for your friends or citizens to receive from us will meet with no let or hindrance on my part.”

After this had been read, Bias did not wait long, but, after a few minutes of abstraction and a few words with Kleoboulos, whose place was near his, he said, “What is this, my friend from Naukratis? Do you mean to say that Amasis, who is king of so many people and possessed of such an excellent great country, will be willing, for the consideration of some insignificant and miserable villages, to drink up the ocean?” Neiloxenos answered with a laugh, “Assume that he is willing, and consider what is possible for him to do.” “Well, then,” said Bias, “let him tell the Ethiopian to stop the rivers which are now emptying into the ocean depths, while he himself is engaged in drinking up the ocean that now is; for this is the ocean with which the demand is concerned, and not the one which is to be.”

As soon as Bias had said these words, Neiloxenos, out of happiness, hurried to embrace and kiss him. The rest of the company also commended the answer, and expressed their satisfaction with it, and then Cheilon said with a laugh, “My friend, before the ocean disappears entirely in consequence of being drunk up, I beg that you sail back to your home in Naukratis and take word to Amasis not to be trying to find out how to make way with so much bitter brine, but rather how to render his government drinkable and sweet to his subjects, because in these matters Bias is most adept and a most competent instructor. If Amasis will only learn them from him, he will have no further need of his golden foot-tub to impress the Egyptians, but they will all show regard and affection for him if he is good, even though he be shown to be in his birth ten thousand times more lowly than at present.” “Yes, indeed,” said Periander, “it surely is right and proper that we all contribute an offering of this sort to the king, ‘each man in his turn,’ as Homer has said. For to him these extra items would be more valuable than the burden of his mission, and as profitable for ourselves as anything could be.” . . . [omitted subsequent sections].

(8) Periander at this burst out laughing, and said, “We are fittingly punished, Aesop, for becoming involved in other subjects before introducing all of those from Amasis, to which we gave precedence. I beg, Neiloxenos, that you will look at the rest of the letter and take advantage of the fact that the men are all here together.” “Well, in truth,” said Neiloxenos, “the demand of the Ethiopian can hardly be called anything but a ‘depressing cryptic dispatch,’ to borrow a phrase from Archilochos, but your friend Amasis is more civilized and cultivated in proposing such questions, because he called on the king to name the oldest thing, the most beautiful, the greatest, the wisest, the most common, and besides these, as I can attest, to name also the most helpful thing and the most harmful, and strongest and the easiest.”

“Did the Ethiopian king give an answer and a solution for each of these questions?” “Yes, in his way,” said Neiloxenos, “but you must judge for yourselves when you hear his answers. For my king holds it to be a very important matter [153] not to be caught impugning the answers falsely. Likewise, if the respondent is making any slip in these, he would not have this pass unquestioned. I will read the answers of the Ethiopian as he gave them: (a) ‘What is the oldest thing?’ ‘Time.’ (b) ‘What is the greatest?’ ‘The universe.’ (c) ‘What is the wisest?’ ‘Truth.’ (d) ‘What is the most beautiful?’ ‘Light.’ (e) ‘What is most common?’ ‘Death.’ (f) ‘What is most helpful?’ ‘god.’ (g) ‘What is most harmful?’ ‘An evil spirit.’ (h) ‘What is strongest?’ ‘Fortune.’ (i) ‘What is easiest?’ ‘Pleasure.’

(9) After this second reading, there was silence for a time, and then Thales asked Neiloxenos if Amasis had approved the answers. When Neiloxenos replied that Amasis had accepted some, but was much dissatisfied with others, Thales said, “As a matter of fact there is not a thing in them that cannot be impugned, but they all contain gross errors and evidences of ignorance. For instance, in the very first one, how can time be the oldest thing if a part of it is past, a part present, and a part future? For the time which is to come would clearly be younger than events and persons that now are. And to hold that truth is wisdom seems to me no different from declaring that light is the eye. If he thought the light beautiful, as it really is, how did he come to overlook the sun itself? Among the others the answer about gods and evil spirits evinces boldness and daring, but the one about Fortune contains much bad logic. For Fortune would not be so fickle about abiding with one if it were the mightiest and strongest thing in existence. Nor is death, in fact, the most common thing because it does not affect the living. But, to avoid giving the impression of merely passing judgement upon the statements of others, let us compare answers of our own with his. And I offer myself as the first, if Neiloxenos so desires, to be questioned on each topic; and taking the questions in the order given, I will repeat them, together with my answers: (a) ‘What is the oldest thing?’ ‘god,’ : said Thales, “for god is something that has no beginning.’ (b) ‘What is the greatest?’ ‘Space; for while the universe contains within it all else, this contains the universe.’ (c) ‘What is the most beautiful?’ ‘The Universe; for everything that is ordered as it should be is a part of it. (d) ‘What is the wisest?’ ‘Time; for it has discovered some things already, and shall discover all the rest.’ (e) ‘What is most common?’ ‘Hope; for those who have nothing else have that ever with them.’ (f) ‘What is most helpful?’ ‘Virtue; for it makes everything else helpful by putting it to a good use.’ (g) ‘What is most harmful?’ ‘Vice; for it harms the greatest number of things by its presence.’ (h) ‘What is strongest?’ ‘Necessity; for that alone is insuperable.’ (i) ‘What is easiest?’ ‘To follow Nature’s course; because people often weary of pleasures.'”

(10) When everyone had expressed their satisfaction with Thales, Kleodoros said, “Asking and answering such questions is all right for kings. But the barbarian [i.e. Ethiopian king] who would have Amasis drink up the ocean to do him honour needed the terse retort which Pittakos used to Alyattes, when the latter wrote and sent an overbearing command to the Lesbians. The only answer he made was to tell Alyattes to eat onions and hot bread.” . . . [omitted discussion of similar debates happening among ancient Greeks, using Homer and Hesiod as an example].

[Scythian Anacharsis on management of the household]

(12) When this discussion had come to an end, I said that it seemed to me [the Corinthian Diokles] to be only fair that these men should tell us how a house should be managed. “For,” I said, “only a few persons are in control of kingdoms and cities, whereas we all have to deal with a hearth and home.” Aesop laughed and said, “Not all, if you include also Anacharsis in our number, [155] because not only has he no home, but he takes an immense pride in being homeless and in using a wagon. They say Helios (Sun) makes his rounds in a chariot in the same way, occupying now one place and now another in the heavens.” “And that, I would have you know,” said Anacharsis, “is precisely the reason why he solely or preeminently of all the gods is free and independent, and rules over everything and is ruled by none, but is king, and holds the reins. Only you seem to have no conception of his chariot, how surpassing it is in beauty, and wondrous in size. Otherwise you would not, even as a joke, have humorously compared it to ours. It seems to me, Aesop, that your idea of a home is limited to these protective coverings made of mortar, wood, and tiles, just as you were to regard a snail’s shell, and not the creature itself, as a snail. Quite naturally, then, Solon gave you occasion to laugh, because, when he had looked over Croesus’s [king of Lydia] house with its costly furnishings, he did not instantly declare that the owner led a happy and blessed existence in it for the good reason that he wished to have a look at the good within Croesus rather than at his good surroundings. But you, apparently, do not remember the fox of your own story. For the fox, having entered into a contest with the leopard to determine which was the more ingeniously coloured, insisted it was but fair that the judge should note carefully what was within her, because there she said she should show herself more ingenious. You go around inspecting the works of carpenters and stone-masons, and regarding them as a home. Yet you do not consider the inward and personal possessions of each man, his children, his partner in marriage, his friends, and servants. Even though it be in an ant-hill or a bird’s nest, yet if ants and birds possess sense and discretion, and the head of the family shares with them all his worldly goods, he dwells in a goodly and a happy home. This then,” Anacharsis said, “is my answer to Aesop’ insinuation, and my contribution to Diokles. And now it is right that each of the others should disclose his own opinion.”

At that point, Solon said that “The best home seemed to him to be where no injustice is attached to the acquisition of property, no distrust to keeping it, and no repentance to spending it.” Bias said, “It is the home in which the head of the household, because of his own self, maintains the same character that he maintains outside of it because of the law.” Thales said, “The home in which it is possible for the head of the household to have the greatest leisure.” Kleoboulos said, “If the head of the household has more who love him than fear him.” Pittakos said that “The best home is that which needs nothing superfluous, and lacks nothing necessary.” Cheilon said that “The home should be most like to a city ruled by a king; and then he added that Lykourgos said to the man who urged him to establish a democracy in the city: ‘Do you first create a democracy in your own house.’”. . . [omitted sections].

[Scythian Anacharsis on the soul and the body]

(21) Following him Anacharsis said that as Thales had presented the excellent hypothesis that soul exists in all the most dominant and most important parts of the universe, there is no proper ground for wonder that the most excellent things are brought to pass by the will of god. “For the body,” he continued, “is the soul’s instrument, and the soul is god’s instrument. Just as the body has many movements of its own, but the most, and most excellent, from the soul, so the soul performs some actions by its own instinct. However, in other it yields itself to god’s use for him to direct it and turn it in whatsoever course he may desire, since it is the most adaptable of all instruments. For it is a dreadful mistake to assume that, on the one hand, fire is god’s instrument, and wind and water also, and clouds and rain. By means of these he preserves and fosters many a thing, and ruins and destroys many another, but that, on the other hand, he never as yet makes any use whatever of living creatures to accomplish any one of his purposes. No, it is far more likely that the living, being dependent on god’s power, serve him and are responsive to his movements even more than bows are responsive to the Scythians or lyres and flutes to the Greeks.” . . .[omitted remainder of discussion].


Source of translation: F.C. Babbitt, Plutarch: Moralia, 5 vols., LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1927-1936), public domain (Babbitt passed away in 1935), adapted by Harland.

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