Ktesias - Conman
Conmen and fraudsters have been the bane of human existence for thousands of years but perhaps one of the most blatant is the explorer as a Conman. This is so because a faker who says he has been to place X who has not been to place X risks being found out by someone who does in fact get to place X and therefore exposed.
The reason is that if you’ve never been to a place you are almost certainly going to get something wrong and if the place is made up someone may find out that the place is in fact made up by not finding it where it is supposed to be.
Thus we get past historical accounts of places that turn out to be spectacularly wrong.
Perhaps the place to start in terms of Con Men talking about places that don’t exist is the fantasies of some early ethnographers. In some cases their accounts are so distorted that wilful distortion is obviously the case.
Thus we can start with the Greek Historian Ktesias, who should be some sort of patron deity to fraudsters and tellers of lying tales. Ktesias lived in the 4th century B.C.E., and lived for a time at the court of the Persian King, as Royal Physician. This gave him an unparallelled opportunity see things from from the point of view of the Persians and of course access to a vast number of reliable informants concerning Persian history and affairs. Well Ktesias muffed it, it seems. It appears that his Persica is unreliable and too a large extent a series of melodramatic stories of harem intrigue and frankly extremely unreliable.1
But Ktesias contribution to fraudulent exploration was not his flawed to the point of incredulity History of Persia, (Also called the Persica.), but his short work in one book Indika about India. The book is a collection of marvels and just plain batshit insane “facts”. It is in fact virtually complete nonsense and our author tries to sell it as “true”!
Now India was not some incredibly far away place at the ends of the earth. It was partially occupied by the Persian empire, that controlled at this time the Indus valley. So that one would think that there were plenty of Persian officials etc., who would have some real knowledge of India. Also we know that before Ktesias several Greeks had been to India. For example the Greek explorer Skylax had sailed down the Indus river for the Persian King Darius I in the late 6th century B.C.E. So the bottom line is that one would think that reliable information would be available concerning India at the Persian court.2
Well instead we get a pot porrui of lying fantasy and utter nonsense about India in Ktesias’ short book.
Now unfortunately, or is it fortunately, we do not have Ktesias’ book. What instead is we have a summary and numerous references to its content by ancient writers and Byzantine scholars.
Thus the most useful account of the Indika, is the summary of in the Bibliotheca by the Byzantine Scholar Photius prepared in in the 9th century C.E.3 The surviving references to Ktesias’ book make it abundantly clear that it contains virtually no information that is even remotely reliable concerning India, but is instead a great mass of fantasy and lies.
The following are examples of Ktesias’ fantasizing:
(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 Ktesias declares that the king twice proved its efficacy and that he himself was a witness to it.4
Aside from the absurdity of the story what gives Ktesias away is his claim that he got two iron swords from it. I suspect that Ktesias knew it was nonsense but with lying calculation declared it was true and made up a supporting detail that makes it clear he knew it was nonsense.
Ktesias is of course just beginning. First we get the Indian reed:
(14) The river Indus flows across plains and between mountains, where the so-called Indian reed 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.5
(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 hundred feet. 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 Ktesias, 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.6
Possibly in this description is a distorted picture of a Tiger, however it is bluntly totally insane. Ktesias is however merely starting the journey to making shit up land.
Later Ktesias claims:
(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. Ktesias says that he himself saw five white men and two white women.7
So Ktesias is claiming he talked to actual Indians and yet his account has can be read above and below is filled with utter nonsense. If that is the case then it is obvious he made up a lot or simply didn’t care. Certainly it is hard to believe that he was just repeating what Indians told him. More than likely he was making crap up to entertain his Greek readers. Very few if any who would where ever likely to visit India.
And how about Dog Headed men?!
(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-headed"). [They live on raw meat.] They number about 120,000.8
And now we get something like Unicorns:
(45) In India there are wild asses 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 colour 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.9
Another Ancient Writer records Ktesias saying the same thing but with added details of absurdity.
(52) I have learned that in India are born Wild Asses as big as horses. All their body is white except for the head, which approaches purple, while their eyes give off a dark blue colour. They have a horn on their forehead as much as a cubit and a half long the lower part of the horn is white, the upper part is crimson, while the middle is jet-black. from these variegated horns, I am told, the Indians drink, but not all, only the most eminent Indians, and round them at intervals they lay rings of gold, as though they were decorating the beautiful arm of a statue with bracelets. And they say that a man who has drunk from this horn knows not, and is free from, incurable diseases: he will never be seized with convulsions nor with the sacred sickness, as it is called, nor be destroyed by poisons. Moreover if he has previously drunk some deadly stuff, he vomits it up and is restored to health.10
And how about this bit of absurdity:
(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. Ktesias says 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.11
And how about this piece of nonsense:
(23)…he also describes a tribe of men called the Monocoli who have only one leg, and who move in jumps with surprising speed; the same are called the Umbrella-foot tribe because in the hotter weather they lie on their backs on the ground and protect themselves with the shadow of their feet; and that they live not far away from the Cave-dwellers; and again westward from these are some people without necks, having eyes in their shoulders.12
This only a sample of the acres and acres of nonsense in what survives of Ktesias on India. Unlike Herodotus who exercised at least some judgment and tried to be careful Ktesias reported wonders and marvels and apparently claimed that they were true and not simply what he was told. Also unlike Herodotus the tales and marvels are not simply an occasional element; they in fact suffuse Ktesias’ whole account from beginning to end to such an extent that it is hard to distinguish any actual reality from the fantasy.13
Now given that Ktesias was for years Court Physician at the court of the Persian King and thus had ample opportunity to learn truthful and accurate information about India, to say nothing of his meeting actual people who had been to India and actual Indians, the fact that his account is a compendium of silliness can only mean that it is wilfully so.
In other words Ktesias was a wilful liar who deliberately created a sensationalistic account of India and he knew quite well that there would be few Greeks who could contradict him about it. Now I am including under the rubric of calling Ktesias a liar the notion that he was a bullshitter who quite simply didn’t care whether the fantasies and absurdities that he recited were in fact true, but only that they sounded sensationalistic and made good reading and their truth didn’t matter in the slightest. For in the end a bullshitter is a liar at least some of the time and does not care much for truth.
I discount any notion that Ktesias was deceived and was merely a reporter. Ktesias was in a position to learn accurate information and most likely did receive such information. Instead he repeated sensationalistic garbage. I suspect he took accurate information and sensationalized it deliberately to the point that whatever accurate information was almost wholly lost in distortion. Further I expect that when judging what story to include he rejected almost totally the more reasonable story in favour of the sensational one in almost all cases. In other words his lying account of India was wilful.
In the ancient world Ktesias’ account was recognized for what it was, sensationalistic pap.
Thus one writer refers to “…the great number of lies...”14 in Ktesias.
Plutarch refers to Ktesias that:
…he may have filled his books with a perfect farrago of incredible and senseless fables…15
And says regarding Ktesias:
…though it is not infrequent with him in his history to make excursions from truth into mere fiction and romance.16
Aristotle says that Ktesias is “..not to be trusted.”17
Arrian states regarding Ktesias: “Ktesias indeed if indeed Ktesias is of any use as a witness…”.18
The Roman writer Lucian says concerning Ktesias:
…historians and philosophers of old, who have written much that smacks of miracles and fables, I would cite them by name, were it not that you yourself would recognize them from your reading. One of them is Ktesias, son of Ctesiochus, of Cnidus, who wrote a great deal about India and its characteristics that he had never seen himself nor heard from anyone else with a reputation for truthfulness.19
Photius is probably the most restrained. He says concerning Ktesias:
Although he reproaches Herodotus for his old wives’ tales, he is not free from the same defect, especially in his account of India.20
As for modern historians although there have been some who have defended Ktesias perhaps the best indication of contemporary historical attitudes towards him is this acidic comment:
There is excitement in reading Ctesias. One never knows when he will tell the truth for a change.21
Ktesias’ account did serve, despite, or perhaps because of its huge surfeit of bullshit, in providing one of the basis for the lying explorer tale. He told utter whoppers without it appears any shame whatsoever. And although he never claimed to have been to India he claimed his collection of absurdities was true and based on the accounts of those who had been there or where in fact Indians. If he was merely repeating lying tales told by so-called explorers then he was a conduit for fraudulent tales. However has said above given the almost unrivalled density of sheer absurdity in Ktesias’ account it is virtually certain Ktesias was not gulled he most willingly told these tales and claimed they were true, knowing , in fact, that they were largely absurd lies. In fact it is likely he simply didn’t care and was a supreme bullshit artist who knew this nonsense would sell.
As such this sort of cavalier disregard to truth severely shakes any faith in Ktesias’ other writings as truthful or written in good faith.
In the subsequent few thousand years Ktesias’ nonsense would supply much of the content for one lying “true” account of exploration after the other.22 So in his way Ktesias is indeed the a Patron Saint of Conmen and Fraudsters who willfully spin lying tales of far away places.
1. Barber, Godfrey Louis, Sacks, Kenneth S., Ctesias, The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2nd Edition, Ed., N.G.L. Hammond & H.H. Scullard, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1970, p. 300., Bigwood, J. M., Diodorus and Ctesias, Phoenix, No. 3, University of Toronto, Toronto, 1980.
2. Herodotus, The Histories, Book 4, s. 44, Anchor Books, New York, 2007.
3. Photius, Indika, Codex 72, From Bibliotheca, translated, by J. H. Freese, SPCK, London, 1920.
10. Aelian, Aelian On the Characteristics of Animals, Book 4, s. 52, in three volumes, translated by A. F. Scholfield, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1958.
12. Pliny, Pliny Natural History, Book 7, s. 23, in Ten volumes, translated by W.H.S. Jones, The Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass., 1952.
13. For an examination of Herodotus’ method and aims see Lateiner, Donald, The Historical Method of Herodotus, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1989.
14. Antigonus, Historiarum Memorabilium, s. 15, From Antigoni Carystii historiarum memorabilium collectanea, J. Beckmann, Lips., 1791.
15. Plutarch, Plutarch’s Lives, Artaxerxes, s. 1, translated by John Dryden, Revd. Arthur Hugh Clough, The Modern Library New York, 1965.
16. IBID. s. 6.
17. Aristotle, Aristotle Historia Animalium, Book 8, s. 28 (606), in Three volumes, translated by A.L. Peck, The Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass., 1965.
18, Arrian, Arrian Anabasis, Book 5, s. 4, in Two volumes, translated by Cliff Robson, The Loeb Classical Library, G.P. Putnam’s sons, New York, 1933.
19. Lucian, Lucian, v. 1, A True Story, in eight volumes, translated by A. M. Harmen, G.P. Putman’s Sons, New York, 1921, p. 251.
21. Momigliano, A. D., Book Review of Ctésias, La Perse, L'Inde, The Classical Review, v. 62 Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1948, p. 132.
22. See for example Mandeville, John, (Pseudonym), The Book of Marvels and Travels, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012.