Ctesias of Cnidus

Ctesias of Cnidus: Greek physician who stayed at the court of the Persian king Artaxerxes II Mnemon from 404 to 398/397. Ctesias wrote several books about Persia and India. These books 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).

Early life

The Suda, a tenth century Byzantine dictionary that contains much information about ancient authors, writes about Ctesias:

He was the son of Ctesiarchus or Ctesiochus, from Cnidus. As a physician, he cared - in Persia - for [king] Artaxerxes II Mnemon, who had ordered him to come. He composed a History of the Persians in twenty-four books.

All sources agree that Ctesias was born in the Carian town of Cnidus, in the extreme southwest of modern Turkey. In Antiquity, Cnidus was well-known for its doctors, which were called "Asclepiads". It is likely that Ctesias was indeed a physician: he quotes other doctors and delights in the description of wounds.

POW, but when?

It is certain that Ctesias came to Persia as a prisoner of war, but it is unclear when he was taken captive. Some ancient and modern scholars have assumed that he took part in the campaign of prince Cyrus the Younger against his brother, king Artaxerxes II Mnemon (r.404-358), in 401 BCE. There is something to be said for this solution of the problem. There were many Greek mercenaries in Cyrus' company, and although they defeated Artaxerxes' army at Cunaxa near Babylon, many were taken captive when Cyrus died. It is certain that Ctesias was present at Cunaxa, but when we read his account of the battle, it is clear that Ctesias was already Artexerxes' court physician.

Another argument against the theory that Ctesias was taken prisoner at Cunaxa, is that it forces us to assume that Ctesias stayed only six or seven years at the Persian court. His History of the Persians breaks off in 398/397, and Ctesias claims that he had by then served as court physician for seventeen years. When we accept that Ctesias came to Artaxerxes' court during the Cunaxa campaign, we must read "seven" instead of "seventeen" (ζ͵ instead of ιζ͵); this is not impossible, but it is poor method.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. In 420, Pissuthnes, the satrap of Lydia revolted against king Darius II Nothus (423-404). The Persian commander Tissaphernes was able to incite a rebellion among Pissuthnes' Greek mercenaries and Pissuthnes was executed. (Ctesias described this rebellion in book eighteen of the History of the Persians.) In 414, Pissuthnes' son Amorges rebelled; he was supported by the Carians and the Athenians. It is plausible that Tissaphernes took Ctesias of Cnidus captive when Amorges' rebellion was suppressed. (If Ctesias was captured in 414, we may assume that he was born between 444 and 434.)

In Persia

Ctesias was a respected physician, but it is uncertain whether he served at the king's court immediately after his capture. The fragments we possess do not show intimate knowledge of the royal court of Darius II; he may have stayed at Tissaphernes' court instead. On the other hand, the discovery of one scrap of papyrus containing a hitherto unknown chapter of Ctesias' History of the Persians, can change our view. In any case, it was certainly not uncommon for Greek doctors to become court physician in Persia. The Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c.480-c.429) tells us the story of a prisoner of war named Democedes of Croton, who cured king Darius I the Great.note

In 412, Ctesias' hometown Cnidus left the Athenian, anti-Persian alliance, the Delian League. This was an important event, because it offered the Persians a new naval base in the Aegean sea. It is likely that this incident played a role in Ctesias' life, but we do not know how. When we assume that he was already present at the Persian court, he may have played a role in the negotiations which led to the defection of Cnidus. When we assume that he served in a lower position, the Cnidian rebellion enabled him to move upward in the Persian hierarchy.

What is certain, is that Ctesias was already Artaxerxes' personal physician when the latter became king in the spring of 404. As we have already seen above, Artaxerxes' brother Cyrus the Younger marched to Babylonia with an army of Greek mercenaries; Cyrus' men defeated Artaxerxes' army at Cunaxa, but their master was killed in action (autumn 401). It is certain that Ctesias was present at Cunaxa and cured his king's wounds. Later, he played a role in the negotiations between the Greek mercenaries and the Persians.

As we have already seen, Athens had been the leader of an anti-Persian alliance. In 431, war had broken out between Athens and a coalition of Greek towns led by Sparta. After the revolt of Amorges, which Athens had supported (above), the Persians had started to pay the Spartans, who built a navy and were able to defeat Athens in 405. The Persians were unpleasantly surprised when the Spartans turned against their ally: they supported Cyrus the Younger in 401 and their general Thibron invaded Asia in 400. Ctesias was to play a crucial role in the Persian counter-offensive.

The satrap of Persia's territories in northwest Turkey, Pharnabazus, had suffered from Spartan aggression and understood that it was important to check Spartan power. Euagoras, the king of Salamis on Cyprus, had his own reasons to fear the Spartan navy. Consequently, he wanted to build a strong fleet to attack Sparta at home; he had already found an Athenian admiral, Conon. What was lacking, was money, which could be obtained in Persia. Ctesias conducted the negotiations in 398/397; Artaxerxes ordered money to be sent and a fleet to be built. In August 394, the Spartans were decisively defeated off Cnidus.

Back in Cnidus

By then, Ctesias had returned to his home town; he may have witnessed Conon's victory. It is likely that he started to write his History of the Persians after his return. Other works were the History of India (to which On the Asian tributes probably was an appendix), and a medical treatise. Three other books were called Periodos, "description of the earth". The existence of two books On mountains and a publication On rivers is disputed.

It is unknown when Ctesias died, but we can make an educated guess. We already saw that he was probably captured in 414 (above) and from this, we deduced a year of birth between 444 and 434. In Antiquity, someone who reached the age of forty (more or less Ctesias' age in 398), had a fair chance to reach the age of seventy as well; this results in a year of death between 374 and 364.

History of the Persians

Ctesias' History of the Persians is a strange work. The author claims that he will correct many of the untrue ideas of the Greeks and blames Herodotus for telling many lies. Because Ctesias spent seventeen years in Persia, was court physician and served as diplomat, we might expect him to be a position to keep his promises and to write a truly reliable history of the Achaemenid Empire. However, this is not what Ctesias has done. Few ancient authors are as unreliable as Ctesias. Plutarch of Chaeronea calls his work "a perfect farrago of extravagant and incredible tales".note

However, others considered him an important source. The Athenian orator Isocrates and the philosopher Plato knew Ctesias' work and the Macedonian philosopher Aristotle of Stagira had read his description of the legendary Assyrian king Sardanapalus. Only when the Christian historian Orosius (fifth century) wrote his Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, there was an alternative history of the ancient Near East, and was Ctesias forgotten. We know the History of the Persians from an ancient reworking (by Diodorus of Sicily) and a Byzantine excerpt (by the ninth-century patriarch of Constantinople, Photius).

The History of the Persians starts with three books of Assyrian history. They follow Herodotus' conception of Near-Eastern history: no distinction is made between the Assyrian and Babylonian history. Almost all the subject matter of these books is legendary. Then, we read three books about the history of the Medes. Again, Ctesias is inspired by Herodotus, who also believed that there had been a long period in which the Medes ruled a vast Asian empire. What Ctesias has to tell about the Median monarchy, is entirely fictional.

Books seven, eight and nine deal with the beginning of the reign of the Persian king Cyrus the Great (r.559-530 BCE). From what we know of Ctesias' work, he did not describe Cyrus' greatest deed: the capture of Babylon. This is unlikely to be a result of the poor transmission of Ctesias' work: Photius' excerpt may be somewhat unbalanced, but it does not omit important events.

The next three books describe Cyrus' wars against the Indians, and his death in battle. Here Ctesias is following a tradition that was unknown to Herodotus: in the first book of his Histories, he writes that Cyrus died during a war against the Massagetes.note Taken together, the five books on Cyrus are a kind of vie romancée, comparable to the Education of Cyrus by Ctesias' contemporary Xenophon (c.430-c.355). Probably, Xenophon copied Ctesias, not the other way round.

Both historians agree that Cyrus was succeeded by Cambyses, to whose reign (r.530-522) Ctesias devotes the twelfth book. For once, Ctesias seems to offer reliable information: he writes that Cambyses conquered Egypt because the Egyptians were betrayed. This is correct (more), but it is probably a lucky incident: Ctesias does not even know the name of the traitor or his monarch.

Book thirteen, fourteen and fifteen are dedicated to the coup of the Magian in 522, to the counter-coup of Darius the Great, to his reign (r.522-486) and to the reign of his son Xerxes (486-465). Although Ctesias adds some details and has changed the names of the actors, his story is essentially that of Herodotus. This can clearly be seen at the end: he knows the details of the first seven of eight years of Xerxes' reign - which he could have found in Herodotus - and then jumps to Xerxes' death. Another remarkable aspect is that Ctesias knows the name of important eunuchs. It is possible that Ctesias, himself a courtier, based his History of the Persians on what he heard from courtiers, who were especially interested in court history.

The next three books are dedicated to the reigns of Artaxerxes I and Darius II (r.464-424 and r.423-405). It included the stories of the revolt of a general named Megabyzus and the brief interregnum of Xerxes II and Sogdianus, for which Ctesias is our only source.

The first years of king Artaxerxes II is the subject of the next three books. The story focuses on the attempt of Artaxerxes' brother Cyrus the Younger to seize the Persian throne, which culminated in the battle at Cunaxa (autumn 401). This part of Ctesias' work is relatively well-known, because it is quoted at great length by the Greek author Plutarch of Chaeronea, who wrote a biography of Artaxerxes.

The last book tells how Artaxerxes sent Ctesias to the west, where he had to conduct negotiations (above). The History of the Persians breaks off in 398/397, the year in which Ctesias returned to Cnidus.

It is a strange book. Ctesias makes strange mistakes (for example, he thinks that Nineveh is situated on the banks of the Euphrates). However, he is one of our most important sources for the Achaemenid Empire between Xerxes' expedition to Greece (480-479) and the revenge of the Greeks and the Macedonian king Alexander the Great (336-323).

History of India

To understand Ctesias' History of India, we must know what he meant with the word "history". This is not history in our sense, but simply means "research". What Ctesias offers is therefore not a story about the past, but the result of an inquiry. In Persia, he heard stories from officials who had visited the country along the river Indus (modern Pakistan); these officials, Ctesias must have interviewed. Therefore: history.

As far as we can deduce from Photius' summary, there is no system in Ctesias' book: everything is put together. It is therefore easy to understand the judgment of the ancient literary critic Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who states that the works of Ctesias were "entertaining but badly composed".note

India is pictured as if it is "the big other": everything is different from Greece, it is a country without past (therefore: no history in our sense) and without individuals (at least not in Photius' epitome). Ctesias' India is just a foreign culture, with the stress on foreign. His information is, not surprisingly, highly unreliable: when he had heard a strange story, he wrote it down. India is a fairy tale country, situated on the edges of the earth.

And yet, sometimes it is possible to see beyond Ctesias' strange stories. Then we can discover to what Indian realities the Greek physician is referring. Take, for example, the people and wild animals of India - fairy tale beings who were to become popular in ancient and medieval bestiaries.

But these are exceptions. Ctesias' History of India remains a puzzling text that does indirectly refer to ancient India, but in ways we cannot comprehend. In Antiquity, it was not very popular: after Alexander the Great had visited the Indus valley, eyewitness accounts became accessible, which superseded Ctesias' work.


This page was created in 2000; last modified on 28 April 2020.