Anacharsis: A Scythian Philosopher in a Greek World

The Life of Anacharsis

The famous philosopher of antiquity, Anacharsis, was a Scythian and an oddity in a Greek-centric world of philosophy. There are many stories of Anacharsis, plenty of which contain conflicting accounts and uncertain accounts of his life and his relationship with Solon. Nevertheless, the wisdom he had to offer on Greek society was quite insightful and useful into even modern times for the behavior humans display and the contradictions they seem to ignore or at least overlook. His life, as recorded by numerous authors, does not have a smooth timeline and more or less follows this pattern. He is from Scythia (somewhere in perhaps southern Ukraine or southwest Russia), came to Athens, became friends with Solon, spent time in Greece then left and died in Scythia. The problem for these events is dating because there are no solid dates for his life and we’re forced to do some guessing.

There are a few stories surrounding his reason for visiting Greece and when he came. Herodotus relates a story from the Peloponnesians that Anacharsis had been sent by the Scythian king to learn from the Greeks. When he later returned home he told the king that all the Greeks were eager to learn except the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) although they spoke and listened with discretion. In the same chapter he also says the Greeks invented this story since Anacharsis was put to death (Herodotus,  4.77). The writer Diogenes cites the comedic playwright Hermippus from the 5th century BC in his account of Anacharsis. He recorded the date of Anacharsis’ arrival in Athens during the archonship of Eucrates in the 48th Olympiad (591-588). Archons were magistrates elected in Athens yearly which changed duties over time as Athens’ government evolved. When Anacharsis was alive the Archon’s power was being reduced, especially by Solon, ushering in more democracy. The Olympiad was the four year period between the Olympic Games held at Olympia. Based on this scale, events taking place in an Olympiad can occur during any point in the four years. At the bare minimum, Anacharsis came to Athens at some point between this archonship and Olympiad during the early 6th century BC (Diogenes, 1.8).  

When Anacharsis came to Athens he visited the house of Solon, desiring to speak with him and possibly become his guest. Solon told him that usually men picked guests from their own countrymen but Anacharsis replied that he was in the country and thus was a man he could talk to. Solon agreed to make him a guest (Diogenes, 1.8). The writer Lucan has a different account. He said Anacharsis was born to the royal family in Scythia and decided to explore the world a bit. He portrayed Anacharsis as having difficulty adjusting to Athens and wanting to sail home. He landed in Piraeus, the port city near Athens, and explored the city where he met Toxaris, a Scythian man who had left his family to go to Athens and whom Anacharsis drew inspiration from. Toxaris counseled Anacharsis to go see Solon who would appear poor and plain but was well-traveled and very wise. Solon happened to be walking towards them and Toxaris introduced Anacharsis to him who, afterwards, instructed and guided him through Greek culture (Lucan, Scythian).

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Another work by Lucan describes a long dialogue between Anacharsis and Solon where they tour Athens and discuss their respective cultures, although it mostly centers on Greece. In the first section of the story, Solon and Anacharsis visit a gymnasium and witness men performing wrestling and pankration. Anacharsis did not understand why men were engaging in physical recreation as it appeared excessively violent and dirty to him. Most people know that the Greeks had the Olympic Games but they also had three other major games: the Isthmian, Pythian and Nemean Games. This was in addition to the local games cities might hold or even just competitions between men in the same gymnasium. Solon responded to Anacharsis that the activities he saw were done to improve their bodies. He thought Anacharsis might become a participant but Anacharsis responded that if any man were to touch him in that way then he’d discover Scythians do not wear scimitars for ornament. When Anacharsis was told that the prizes for winning were essentially leaves he laughed at their simplicity as any man could have them however Solon explained that the fame attached to them was the value competitors wanted (Lucan – Anacharsis, A Discussion of Physical Training).

Their conversation continued into the usefulness of such activities. Solon talked about how children are raised by their mothers or nurses and later men would take over the education of these boys, teaching them many things and training their bodies. They learned about music, arithmetic, writing, reading, tales with morals, sayings from wise men and ancient deeds people performed. They hear who is revered for great deeds and sung about and want to become heroes themselves based in tales from Hesiod and Homer. As they grow older they are taught the laws (displayed in large letters publicly), learn to speak properly, act justly and reject violence. Sophists and philosophers expand their minds on these topics and expose them to greater challenges. They are taken to the theater to see stories of heroes and villains and can listen to comedians mock the society and learn criticism. The physical training specifically prepares them for war by exposing them to violence, blood, exhaustion and the elements. In order to persevere in hardship, they need to experience it and overcome failure. They also use it to impress their neighbors into recognizing their excellence and to not sit idle or indulge in vices. Thus, physical exercise and sport is an endlessly useful activity (Lucan – Anacharsis, A Discussion of Physical Training).

Lucan’s writings are the most extensive on Anacharsis while other works speak of him in quotes or quick stories. One issue we have to grapple with is the timeline from Anacharsis’ life to the time of the authors who wrote about him. Certain authors lived a bit closer to his time, such as Herodotus or Diogenes, but plenty lived hundreds of years after him, including Lucan. Can you imagine an outsider’s perspective on George Washington in 2350, telling long stories about him from personal stories and anecdotes with no writings or archaeological evidence at all? This creates an issue in accuracy regarding his life. We can’t be certain that any of this happened, either in full detail or only in the bits and pieces of truth which have been woven into tales far larger than the truth. In any event, reading and analyzing his story is quite fun and can tell us a bit about the Greeks.

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From the bits and pieces of his life after staying with Solon as a guest, we gain slight insights into what happened to him. Theoxenus is quoted as saying Anacharsis was eventually given Athenian citizenship and inducted into the mysteries, a high honor for a foreigner from a culture which was little respected in the elite society of urban-dwelling Greeks (Lucan, Scythian). Diogenes states Anacharsis had a Greek mother which is why he spoke the language and wrote extensively (Diogenes, 1.8). Again, we don’t have his writings or a definite lineage and in ancient times you could learn languages quickly by living with native speakers or getting a teacher. This makes it likely he could have picked up Greek at any point or over the course of living in Greece. Strabo states that Ephorus credited Anacharsis with many inventions although he also says he thought it a lie. There was also a letter he wrote which was to Croesus although there is no proof for this. He expresses that he is learning from the Greeks and while in Sardis wants to meet the king (Strabo, 7.3.9). Aelian wrote that Scythians normally were nomadic within their own country but Anacharsis chose to extend his journeys through Greece and was admired by Solon (Aelian, Varia Historia). Cicero references a letter Anacharsis sent to Hanno where he expressed his humble way of living as the best (Cicero, Tusculanae Disputationes). At some point he departed Greece and made his way back to his home, or at least nearby.

We have a few versions of Anacharsis’ death and Herodotus includes the most information. He wrote that Anacharsis returned to a place in Scythia he called the Woodland which was seemingly rural. He died there when a Scythian saw him worshipping Cybele and told King Saulius. The king went to see if it was true and after seeing Anacharsis, shot an arrow at him. He was introduced to Cybele when he visited Cyzicus and from that point on the people of Scythia said he was killed for practicing strange customs. Another account is from Tymnes, a deputy of Ariapithes, who said that Anacharsis was part of the royal family and if it is true then the man who killed him was his own brother (Herodotus, 4.76). Diogenes recorded that Anacharsis was killed out during a hunt with his brother or for performing Greek rites (Diogenes, 1.8) and Josephus simply states that the Scythians killed him. We have arrived at the sad end for such an inquisitive and amazing figure that really should be talked about more than in the footnotes of philosophers. Alas, a lack of written material does hurt you historically as an abundance of parchment ensures you stay relevant.

The Parables of Anacharsis

Throughout his life, Anacharsis had a large number of his stories recorded (if we accept they aren’t all simply invented outright). Diogenes and Plutarch have more extensive reportings on his activities which I’ll be pulling from mainly. It’s important to keep in mind that, regardless of the accuracy of the events, we can learn valuable lessons from considering activities or events from a different perspective, especially when they’re from a person who’s unfamiliar with what you are doing or why you are doing it. This list won’t be ordered since there’s not much criteria.

When Anacharsis heard how Solon was writing the laws in Athens he laughed and compared them to spiderwebs. They could catch the small and weak but the rich could tear through them. Solon answered that men would not break the laws as it would benefit neither person. Plutarch sides with Anacharsis here. Anacharsis also visited the Athenian Assembly and said he was amazed that wise men plead for causes fools would decide (Plutarch, Solon). This was near the time of his first meeting with Solon.

When Anacharsis would sleep after a feast at Solon’s house he would cover his genitals with his left hand and his mouth with his right, believing he needed stronger restraint on the tongue (Plutarch, De garrulitate).

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Anacharsis was asked by someone what the Greeks use money for and he replied, “…to count with.” (Plutarch, Quomodo; Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists 5.49).

The following are more random and from Diogenes. 1.8:

He said vines had three types of grapes: the 1st for pleasure, the 2nd for intoxication and the 3rd for disgust.

He wondered why experts competed in Greek games while non-experts gave awards.

When he was asked why he avoided becoming drunk he responded that he watched how drunks behaved.

He wondered why Greeks prohibited telling lies except in trade.

When asked what was both good and bad in men he answered, “The tounge”.

He said it was better to have one friend of great worth than many worth nothing at all.

Some people credit him with inventing the anchor or potter’s wheel but it’s a bit odd since he wasn’t really an inventor and is mostly discredited.

He was remembered for his sayings with the proverb, “To talk like a Scythian”.

Unless a new text is discovered (please archaeologists, just find a couple) this is what we have for Anacharsis. In the sources below I have separated the accumulated texts into the sources I’ve used here and the other texts which mention him yet have remained unused here. If you wish to continue your learning or require additional material, feel free to use them. It is my hope that some visitor may come across these sources and find a use in them or simply enjoy the abundance of stories about Anacharsis. 

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Authors are cited by their names and the chapters in their books which are used or the specific book if more than one per author is being used or the book as a whole was drawn from. The Additional Sources below refer to other stories about Anacharsis which I haven’t used but are available for your convenience.

Herodotus, The Histories – Book 4, Chapter 46, 76-78

Diogenes, Lives of Eminent Philosophers – Book 1, Chapter 1, 8-9

Flavius Josephus, Against Apion – Book 2, Section 262

Strabo, Geography – Book 7, Chapter 3, Sections 8-9

Book 15, Chapter 1, Section 22

Aelian, Varia Historia – Book 5, Chapter 7

Cicero, Tusculanae Disputationes – Book 5: WHETHER VIRTUE ALONE BE SUFFICIENT FOR A HAPPY LIFE, Chapter 32

Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists – Book 5, Chapter 49


Anacharsis, A Discussion of Physical Training

The Scythian


Solon – Chapter 5

Quomodo quis suos in virtute sentiat profectus, Section 7

De garrulitate, Section 7

Additional Sources

Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists – Book 11, Chapter 32, 50, 64 – Book 14, Chapter 2

Strabo, Geography – Book 7, Chapter 3, Sections 8-9 – Book 15, Chapter 1, Section 22

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics – Book 10, Chapter 6

Diodorus Siculus, Library – Book 9, Chapters 6 & 26

Pausanias, Description of Greece – Attica, Chapter 22

Phaedrus, The Fables of Phaedrus – Book 3, Prologue, To Eutychus

Pliny the Elder, The Natural History – Book 7, Chapter 57

Plutarch, Quaestiones Convivales – Book 6, Chapter 7, Section 2

Septem sapientium convivium – Intro, Sections 3, 5, 7, 11-14, 21

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. jkaybay says:

    Hmmm – wise man! I think I remember one of these from Classical Studies in high school (the left hand, right hand one).
    On another note, can I share my new blog with you? It will focus on highlighting ethical products for people on budget – I feel that it’s an important topic as we face climate change in the face of a pandemic-induced recession.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. troviusmos says:

      It’s also hard to find ethical products in general


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