Scythians, Thracians, Celts, and Persians: Plato on heavy-drinking and war-like peoples (early fourth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Scythians, Thracians, Celts, and Persians: Plato on heavy-drinking and war-like peoples (early fourth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 23, 2024,

Ancient author: Plato, Laws 1.637 (link).

Comments: In this portion of his Laws, Plato has his dialogue characters deal with the question of what the ideal Greek law-giver’s stance should be with regard to heavy drinking and drunkenness. A Greek law-giver should ensure control of the passions in the population.

Plato has his Athenian character address his Spartan character with a sketch of foreign peoples who are stereotyped as, by nature, war-like and inclined to intoxication, listing Scythians, Celts, Iberians, Thracians (all relative northerners), Persians (easterners), and Carthaginians (southerners previously easterners). Unstated here but assumed is that a war-like nature would go along with uncontrolled drinking because these peoples are viewed as emotionally erratic and out of control (subject to the “passions”). Perhaps also lurking in the background, at least for the northern peoples, is that a cold environment breeds erratic peoples. Plato has his character nonetheless rank some of these drunken peoples as better than others, with Persians portrayed as a little less out of control in their drinking.


. . . Athenian: Oh foreigner of Lakedaimon [i.e. Megillos the Spartan in the dialogue], all such indulgences [such as the drinking at Dionysos’ festivals] are praiseworthy where there exists a strain of firm moral fiber, but where this is relaxed, they are quite stupid. . . [omitted sentences]. But, my dear men, our argument now is not concerned with the rest of humankind but with the goodness or badness of the law-givers themselves. So let us deal more fully with the subject of drunkenness in general for it is a practice of no slight importance, and it requires more than a poor legislator to understand it. I am now referring not to the drinking or non-drinking of wine generally, but to drunkenness pure and simple.

The question is should we deal with it as the Scythians and Persians do, as well as the Carthaginians, Celts, Iberians and Thracians. They are all war-like descent groups (genē). Or should we deal with it as you Spartans do? For you, as you say, abstain from it completely, whereas the Scythians and Thracians, both men and women, take their wine straight and let it pour down over their clothes. They also regard this practice of theirs as noble and splendid. The Persians indulge greatly in these and other luxurious habits which you reject, even if it is done in a more orderly fashion than the others. . . [omitted remainder of dialogue].


Source of translation: H.N. Fowler (d. 1955), W.R.M. Lamb (d. 1961), P. Shorey (d. 1934), R.G. Bury (d. 1951), Plato in Twelve Volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1914-1961), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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