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Photius' excerpt of Ctesias' Indica


Medieval miniature of 'big foor men'. From a manucript by the Dutch author Jacob van Maerlant.
People with big feet on a medieval miniature
Ctesias was a Greek physician who stayed at the court of the Persian king Artaxerxes II Mnemon from 404 to 398/397. He wrote several books about Persia and India. They are now lost but were quoted by ancient authors; consequently, we are able to judge their value as history (low) and as works of art (entertaining). The following text is an excerpt from the Indica by the Byzantine scholar Photius (c.815-897); the translation was made by J.H. Freese and was found at Tertullian.Org. Quotes in purple are believed to be interpolations.


Also read the same author's History of India, in one book, in which he employs the Ionic dialect more frequently.

[1] In regard to the river Indus, he says that, where it is narrowest, it is seven, where it is widest, thirty-five kilometers broad.

[2] He declares that the population of India is almost greater than that of the whole world.

[3] He also mentions a worm found in this river, the only living creature which breeds there.

[4] Beyond India there are no countries inhabited by men.

[5] It never rains there, the country being watered by the river.

[6] He says of the pantarba, a kind of seal-stone, that 477 seal-stones and other precious stones, belonging to a Bactrian merchant, which had been thrown into the river, were drawn up from the bottom, all clinging together, by this stone.

[7] He also speaks of elephants which knock down walls, of little apes with tails four cubits long, and of cocks of very large size; 

[8] of the parrot about as large as a hawk, which has a human tongue and voice, a dark red beak, a black, beard, and blue feathers up to the neck, which is red like cinnabar. It speaks Indian like a native, and if taught Greek, speaks Greek.

[9] He next mentions a fountain which is filled every year with liquid gold, from which a hundred pitcherfuls are drawn. These pitchers have to be made of earth, since the gold when drawn off becomes solid, and it is necessary to break the vessel in order to get it out. The fountain is square, sixteen cubits in circumference, and a fathom deep. The gold in each pitcher weighs a talent. At the bottom of the fountain there is iron, and the author says that he possessed two swords made from it, one given him by the king, the other by his mother, Parysatis. If this iron be fixed in the ground, it keeps off clouds and hail and hurricanes Ctesias declares that the king twice proved its efficacy and that he himself was a witness to it.

[10] The Indian dogs are very large and even attack lions.

[11] There are great mountains, from which are dug sardonyx, onyx, and other seal-stones.

[12] It is intensely hot and the sun appears ten times larger than in other countries; large numbers of people are suffocated by the heat.

[13] The sea is as large as that of Greece; it is so hot on the surface and to a depth of four fingers that fish cannot live near it, but keep on the bottom.

[14] The river Indus flows across plains and between mountains, where the Indian reed [bamboo] grows. It is so thick that two men can hardly get their arms round it, and as tall as the mast of a merchant-ship of largest tonnage. Some are larger, some smaller, as is natural considering the size of the mountain. Of these reeds some are male, others female. The male has no pith and is very strong, but the female has.

[15] The martikhora is an animal found in this country. It has a face like a man's, a skin red as cinnabar, and is as large as a lion. It has three rows of teeth, ears and light-blue eyes like those of a man; its tail is like that of a land scorpion, containing a sting more than a cubit long at the end. It has other stings on each side of its tail and one on the top of its head, like the scorpion, with which it inflicts a wound that is always fatal. If it is attacked from a distance, it sets up its tail in front and discharges its stings as if from a bow; if attacked from behind, it straightens it out and launches its stings in a direct line to the distance of a thirty meter. The wound inflicted is fatal to all animals except the elephant. The stings are about a foot long and about as thick as a small rush. The martikhora is called in Greek anthropophagos [man-eater], because, although it preys upon other animals, it kills and devours a greater number of human beings. It fights with both its claws and stings, which, according to Ctesias, grow again after they have been discharged. There is a great number of these animals in India, which are hunted and killed with spears or arrows by natives mounted on elephants.

[16] Observing that the Indians are extremely just, Ctesias goes on to describe their manners and customs.

[17] He mentions a sacred spot in an uninhabited district, which they honor under the name of the Sun and the Moon. It is a fifteen days' journey from mount Sardo. 

[18] Here the Sun is always cool for thirty-five days in the year, so that his votaries may attend his feast and after its celebration may return home without being scorched. In India there is neither thunder, lightning, nor rain, but winds and hurricanes, which carry along everything that comes in their way, are frequent. The sun, after rising, is cool for half the day, but for the remainder is excessively hot in most parts of the country.

[19] It is not the heat of the sun that makes the Indians swarthy; they are so naturally. Some of them, both men and women, are very fair, though they are fewer in number. Ctesias says that he himself saw five white men and two white women.

[20] In support of his statement that the sun cools the air for thirty-five days, he mentions that the fire which streams from Etna does no damage to the middle of the country through which it passes, because it is the abode of just men, but destroys the rest. In the island of Zacynthus there are fountains full of fish, out of which pitch is taken. In the island of Naxos there is a fountain from which sometimes flows a wine of very agreeable flavor. The water of the river Phasis, if allowed to stand a day and a night in a vessel, becomes a most delicious wine. Near Phaselis in Lycia there is a fire which never goes out, but burns on a rock both night and day. It cannot be extinguished by water, which rather increases the flame, but only by throwing earth upon it.

[21] In the middle of India there are black men, called Pygmies, who speak the same language as the other inhabitants of the country. They are very short, the tallest being only two cubits in height, most of them only one and a half. Their hair is very long, going down to the knees and even lower, and their beards are larger than those of any other men. When their beards are full grown they leave off wearing clothes and let the hair of their head fall down behind far below the knees, while their beard trails down to the feet in front. When their body is thus entirely covered with hair they fasten it round them with a girdle, so that it serves them for clothes. They are snub-nosed and ugly.

[22] Their sheep are no bigger than lambs, their oxen, asses, horses, mules, and other beasts of burden about the size of rams.

[23] Being very skillful archers, three thousand of them attend on the king of India.

[24] They are very just and have the same laws as the Indians. They hunt the hare and the fox, not with dogs, but with ravens, kites, crows, and eagles.

[25] There is a lake 140 kilometer in circumference, the surface of which, when riot ruffled by the wind, is covered with floating oil. Sailing over it in little boats, they ladle out the oil with little vessels and keep it for use. They also use oil of sesame and nut oil, but the oil from the lake is best. The lake also abounds in fish.

[26] The country produces much silver and there are numerous silver mines, not very deep, but those of Bactria are said to be deeper. There is also gold, not found in rivers and washed, as in the river Pactolus, but in many large mountains which are inhabited by griffins. These are four-footed birds as large as a wolf, their legs and claws resembling those of a lion; their breast feathers are red, those of the rest of the body black. Although there is abundance of gold in the mountains, it is difficult to get it because of these birds.

[27] The Indian sheep and goats are larger than asses, and as a rule have four young ones, sometimes six, at a time. There are neither tame nor wild pigs.

[28] The palm trees and dates are three times as large as those of Babylon.

[29] There is a river of honey that flows from a rock.

[30] The author speaks at length of the Indians' love of justice, their loyalty to their kings and their contempt of death.

[31] He also mentions a fountain, the water from which, when drawn off, thickens like cheese. If three obols' weight of this thick mass be crushed, mixed with water, and given to any one to drink, he reveals everything that he has ever done, being in a state of frenzy and delirium the whole day. The king makes use of this test when he desires to discover the truth about an accused person. If he confesses, he is ordered to starve himself to death; if he reveals nothing, he is acquitted.

[32] The Indians are not subject to headache, ophthalmia, or even toothache; to ulcers on the mouth, or sores in any other part of the body. They live 120, 130, 150, and some even 200 years.

[33] There is a serpent a span in length, of a most beautiful purple color, with a very white head, and without teeth. It is caught on the burning mountains, from which the sardonyx is dug. It does not sting, but its vomit rots the place where it falls. If it is hung up by the tail it discharges two kinds of poison, one yellow like amber, when it is alive, the other black, when it is dead. If one drinks only as much of the former as a grain of sesame dissolved in water, his brain runs out through his nose and he dies immediately; if the other poison is administered, it brings on consumption, which does not prove fatal for at least a year.

[34] There is a bird called dicaerus["just"], the size of a partridge's egg. It buries its excrement in the ground in order to hide it. If any one finds it and takes only a morsel of it about the size of a grain of sesame in the morning, he is overcome by sleep, loses consciousness, and dies at sunset.

[35] There is also a tree called parebus, about the size of an olive, which is only found in the royal gardens. It bears neither flowers nor fruit, and has only fifteen very stout roots, the smallest of which is as thick as a man's arm. If a piece of this root, about a span in length, be put near any body of matter, gold, silver, brass, stones, in fact, everything except amber, it attracts it; if a cubit's length of it be used, it attracts lambs and birds, the latter being generally caught in this way. If you wish to solidify a gallon of water, you need only throw in a piece of the root the weight of an obol; the same with wine, which can be handled like wax, although on the next day it becomes liquid again. The root is also used as a remedy for those suffering from bowel complaints.

[36] There is a river that flows through India, not large, but about 350 meters broad. It is called Hyparchus in Indian, meaning in Greek "bestowing all blessings." During thirty days in the year it brings down amber. It is said that in the mountains there are trees on the banks of the river where it passes through, which at a certain season of the year shed tears like the almond, fir, or any other tree, especially during these thirty days. These tears drop into the river and become hard. This tree is called in Indian Siptakhora, meaning in Greek "sweet," and from it the inhabitants gather amber. It also bears fruit in clusters like grapes, the stones of which are as large as the nuts of Pontus.

[37] On these mountains there live men with the head of a dog, whose clothing is the skin of wild beasts. They speak no language, but bark like dogs, and in this manner make themselves understood by each other. Their teeth are larger than those of dogs, their nails like those of these animals, but longer and rounder. They inhabit the mountains as far as the river Indus. Their complexion is swarthy. They are extremely just, like the rest of the Indians with whom they associate. They understand the Indian language but are unable to converse, only barking or making signs with their hands and fingers by way of reply, like the deaf and dumb. They are called by the Indians Calystrii, in Greek Cynocephali["dog-heads"]. They live on raw meat. They number about 120,000.

[38] Near the sources of this river grows a purple flower, from which is obtained a purple dye, as good in quality as the Greek and of an even more brilliant hue.

[39] In the same district there is an animal about the size of a beetle, red as cinnabar, with very long feet, and a body as soft as that of a worm. It breeds on the trees which produce amber, eats their fruit and kills them, as the wood louse destroys the vines in Greece. The Indians crush these insects and use them for dyeing their robes and tunics and anything else they wish. The dye is superior to the Persian.

[40] The Cynocephali living on the mountains do not practice any trade but live by hunting. When they have killed an animal they roast it in the sun. They also rear numbers of sheep, goats, and asses, drinking the milk of the sheep and whey made from it. They eat the fruit of the Siptakhora, whence amber is procured, since it is sweet. They also dry it and keep it in baskets, as the Greeks keep their dried grapes. They make rafts which they load with this fruit together with well-cleaned purple flowers and 260 talents of amber, with the same quantity of the purple dye, and thousand additional talents of amber, which they send annually to the king of India.

[41] They exchange the rest for bread, flour, and cotton stuffs with the Indians, from whom they also buy swords for hunting wild beasts, bows, and arrows, being very skillful in drawing the bow and hurling the spear. They cannot be defeated in war, since they inhabit lofty and inaccessible mountains. Every five years the king sends them a present of 300,000 bows, as many spears, 120,000 shields, and 50,000 swords.

[42] They do not live in houses, but in caves. They set out for the chase with bows and spears, and as they are very swift of foot, they pursue and soon overtake their quarry. The women have a bath once a month, the men do not have a bath at all, but only wash their hands. They anoint themselves three times a month with oil made from milk and wipe themselves with skins. The clothes of men and women alike are not skins with the hair on, but skins tanned and very fine. The richest wear linen clothes, but they are few in number. They have no beds, but sleep on leaves or grass. He who possesses the greatest number of sheep is considered the richest, and so in regard to their other possessions. All, both men and women, have tails above their hips, like dogs, but longer and more hairy.

[43] They are just, and live longer than any other men, 170, sometimes 200 years.

[44] It is said that beyond their country, above the sources of the river, there are other men, black like the rest of the Indians. They do no work, do not eat grain nor drink water, but rear large numbers of cattle, cows, goats, and sheep, whose milk is their only food. When they drink milk in the morning and then again at mid-day, they eat a sweet root which prevents the milk from curdling in the stomach, and at night makes them vomit all they have taken without any difficulty.

[45] In India there are wild asses [rhinoceroses] as large as horses, or even larger. Their body is white, their head dark red, their eyes bluish, and they have a horn in their forehead about a cubit in length. The lower part of the horn, for about two palms distance from the forehead, is quite white, the middle is black, the upper part, which terminates in a point, is a very flaming red. Those who drink out of cups made from it are proof against convulsions, epilepsy, and even poison, provided that before or after having taken it they drink some wine or water or other liquid out of these cups. The domestic and wild asses of other countries and all other solid-hoofed animals have neither huckle-bones nor gall-bladder, whereas the Indian asses have both. Their huckle-bone is the most beautiful that I have seen, like that of the ox in size and appearance; it is as heavy as lead and of the color of cinnabar all through. These animals are very strong and swift; neither the horse nor any other animal can overtake them. At first they run slowly, but the longer they run their pace increases wonderfully, and becomes faster and faster. There is only one way of catching them. When they take their young to feed, if they are surrounded by a large number of horsemen, being unwilling to abandon their foals, they show fight, butt with their horns, kick, bite, and kill many men and horses. They are at last taken, after they have been pierced with arrows and spears; for it is impossible to capture them alive. Their flesh is too bitter to eat, and they are only hunted for the sake of the horns and huckle-bones.

[46] In the river Indus a worm is found resembling those which are usually found on fig trees. Its average length is seven cubits, though some are longer, others shorter. It is so thick that a child ten years old could hardly put his arms round it. It has two teeth, one in the upper and one in the lower jaw. Everything it seizes with these teeth it devours. By day it remains in the mud of the river, but at night it comes out, seizes whatever it comes across, whether ox or camel, drags it into the river, and devours it all except the intestines. It is caught with a large hook baited with a lamb or kid attached by iron chains. After it has been caught, it is hung up for thirty days with vessels placed underneath, into which as much oil from the body drips as would fill ten Attic kotylae. At the end of the thirty days, the worm is thrown away, the vessels of oil are sealed arid taken as a present to the king of India, who alone is allowed to use it. This oil sets everything alight -wood or animals- over which it is poured, and the flame can only be extinguished by throwing a quantity of thick mud on it.

[47] There are trees in India as high as cedars or cypresses, with leaves like those of the palm tree, except that they are a little broader and have no shoots. They flower like the male laurel, but have no fruit. The tree is called by the Indians carpios, by the Greeks myrorodon [unguent rose]; it is not common. Drops of oil ooze out of it, which are wiped off with wool and then squeezed into stone alabaster boxes. The oil is reddish, rather thick, and so fragrant that it scents the air to a distance of 900 meters. Only the king and his family are allowed to use it. The king of India sent some to the king of Persia, and Ctesias, who saw it, says that he cannot compare the perfume with any other.

[48] The Indians also have very excellent cheese and sweet wine, both of which Ctesias tested himself.

[49] There is a square fountain in India, about five ells in circumference. The water is in a rock, about three cubits' depth down, and the water itself three fathoms. The Indians of highest rank -men, women, and children- bathe in it not only for cleanliness, but as a preventive of disease. They plunge feet foremost into the water, and when they jump into it, it throws them out again on to dry land, not only human beings, but every animal, living or dead, in fact, everything that is thrown into it except iron, silver, gold, and copper, which sink to the bottom. The water is very cold, and agreeable to drink; it makes a loud noise like that of water boiling in a caldron. It cures leprosy and scab. In Indian it is called ballade, and in Greek ophelime ["useful"].

[50] In the mountains where the Indian reed grows there dwells a people about 30,000 in number. Their women only have children once in their life, which are born with beautiful teeth in the upper and lower jaw. Both male and female children have white hair ,on the head and eyebrows. Up to the age of thirty the men have white hair all over the body; it then begins to turn black, and at the age of sixty it is quite black. Both men and women have eight fingers and eight toes. They are very warlike, and 5000 of them -bowmen and spearmen- accompany the king of India on his military expeditions. Their ears are so long that their arms are covered with them as far as the elbow, and also their backs, and one ear touches the other.

In Ethiopia there is an animal called crocottas, vulgarly kynolykos [dog-wolf], of amazing strength. It is said to imitate the human voice, to call men by name at night, and to devour those who approach it. It is as brave as a lion, as swift as a horse, and as strong as a bull. It cannot be overcome by any weapon of steel. In Chalcis in Euboea there are sheep which have no gall-bladder, and their flesh is so bitter that even the dogs refuse to eat it. They also say that beyond the gates of Mauretania the rain is abundant in summer, arid that it is scorching hot in winter. Among the Cyonians there is a fountain which gives out oil instead of water, which the people use in all their food. In Metadrida there is another fountain, some little distance from the sea, the flow of which is so violent at midnight that it casts up on land fishes in such numbers that the inhabitants, unable to pick them up, leave most of them to rot on the ground.

[51] Ctesias relates these fables as perfect truth, adding that he himself had seen with his own eyes some of the things he describes, and had been informed of the rest by eye-witnesses. He says that he has omitted many far more marvelous things, for fear that those who had not seen them might think that his account was utterly untrustworthy.

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