"He marvelled that among the Greeks, those who were skillful in a thing vie in competition; those who have no skill, judge" —Diogenes Laertius, of Anacharsis.

Anacharsis was a Scythian philosopher who travelled from his homeland on the northern shores of the Black Sea to Athens in the early 6th century BC and made a great impression as a forthright, outspoken "barbarian," apparently a forerunner of the Skeptics and Cynics, though none of his authentic works have survived.

Anacharsis was half Greek and the son of a Scythian chief, from a mixed Hellenistic culture, apparently in the region of the Cimmerian Bosporus. He cultivated the outsider's knack of seeing the illogic in familiar things. His conversation was droll and frank, and Solon and the Athenians took to him as a natural philosopher, not unlike the way the French took to Benjamin Franklin. His rough and free discourse became proverbial among Athenians as 'Scythian discourse'.

Arriving in Athens about 589 BC, he came to the house of Solon the philosopher and lawgiver, and told Solon's slave that Anacharsis was come to visit, desired to see Solon, and wanted to enter into hospitable relations. The servant returned with Solon's quintessentially Greek answer, "Men generally limit such hospitality to their own countrymen." Thereupon the Scythian stepped significantly across the threshold, and said that, now that he was in Solon's country, it would be quite suitable.

Anacharis was the first stranger who received the privileges of Athenian citizenship. He was reckoned one of the Seven Sages of Athens, and it is said that he was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries of the Great Goddess, a privilege denied to those who did not speak fluent Greek.

His book paralleling the laws of the Scythians with the laws of the Greeks has been lost. It was he who compared laws to spiders' webs, which catch small flies and allow wasps and hornets to escape.

He exhorted moderation in everything, saying that the vine bears three clusters of grapes: the first wine, pleasure; the second, drunkenness, the third, disgust. So he became a kind of emblem to the Athenians, who inscribed on his statues: 'Restrain your tongues, your appetites, your passions.' (Compare the philosophy of Epicurus.)

His famous Letter to Croesus, the proverbially rich king of Lydia, is apocryphal, but typical of his quality:

"Anarcharsis to Croesus: O king of the Lydians, I am come to the country of the Greeks, in order to become acquainted with their customs and institutions; but I have no need of gold, and shall be quite contented if I return to Scythia a better man than I left it. However I will come to Sardis, as I think it very desirable to become a friend of yours."

When he did return to the Scythians, he was killed, Herodotus (iv, 76) reported, by his own brother, for his Greek ways and especially for the impious attempt to sacrifice to the Mother Goddess Cybele, whose role was unwelcome among the patriarchal Scythians.

Strabo makes him the (probably legendary) inventor of the anchor with two flukes.

The revival of Anacharsis in the 18th century

In 1788 Jean Jacques Barthélemy (1716-95), a highly esteemed classical scholar and Jesuit, published Voyage du jeune Anacharsis en Grèce (The Travels of Anacharsis the Younger in Greece), a learned imaginary travel journal, one of the first historical novels, which a modern scholar has called "the encyclopedia of the new cult of the antique" in the late 18th Century; it had a high impact on the growth of philhellenism in France at the time. The book went through many editions, was reprinted in the United States and translated into German and other languages. It later inspired European sympathy for the Greek struggle for independence and spawned sequels and imitations through the 19th century.


Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers i, 101: brief entry gives many pithy but apocryphal remarks. (

Classical references

Herodotus iv. 76; Lucian, Scytha; Cicero, Tusc. Disp. v. 32; Diogenes Laertius i. 101.

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