Texts of Greek and Latin authors on the Far East

Texts of Greek and Latin authors on the Far East : from the 4th c. B.C.E. to the 14th c. C.E.


The little known work of the renowned French historian of Southeast Asia George Coedès entitled Textes d’auteurs grecs et latins relatifs à l’Extrême-Orient has not hitherto been rendered into English, and even at the time of its first publication in 1910 was only printed 500 times (p. x). A first step towards rectifying this has resulted in this latest addition to the antipodean series Studia Antiqua Australiensia (SAA), Texts of Greek and Latin Authors on the Far East from the 4th century B.C.E. to the 14th century C.E. I: Texts and Translations (henceforth the Texts), being a translation of the Greek and Latin texts by J. Sheldon, with the original preface and introduction of Coedès translated by G. Fox. Perhaps for the first time, for much of it, the Anglophone world will thus have access to this significant collection of select Greek and Latin material.


S. Lieu in the foreword to this 2010 edition explains the creation of the Texts. One learns that the front cover map is a reproduction of the Neapolitan manuscript containing the Ptolemy’s map of Serike (p. xii), and that intriguingly a Chinese translation of this work of Coedès had been made in 1987 (p. xiv). Justifying this new English translation, however, is the mandate of the International Union of Academies Project ‘China and the Mediterranean World’, which is ‘to collect a corpus of European, Chinese and Central Asian texts, which contain references to the other culture, and publish these in their original as well in translation in Chinese, English and French’ (p ix). This search for evidence from classical authors, already much bolstered by Coedès’ volume, made a translation of it all the more necessary when it was discovered that it was no longer in copyright (p. xiii). There might moreover not have been a more appropriate scene for such a translation than under the series SAA, because it is in the National Library of Australia in Canberra that one of the few copies of Coedès’ work is housed, among the larger library of his writings that it holds (p. xi).


Coedès, as he states in his original preface (p. xv) translated by G. Fox, defines texts pertaining to ‘L’extreme orient’, as opposed to simply those mentioning the Seres. It is moreover the ethnic ‘Seres’, and not the far more common sericum or shriko/n, which he has sought; his is not a contribution to the history of silk. As Lieu says, Coedès’ openly avowed decision to eschew attempts at identification has necessitated the creation of a supplementary second volume of commentary (p. x). The original introduction, also translated by Fox, was for this reason rendered into English, providing an idea of the ‘status of scholarship at the time’ (p. xii). It is a comprehensive overview of the texts contained in the volume, which together with Coedès’ bibliography at its start (pp. xviii-xix) is an interesting summary of the historical identifications that were made in the 19th century.


The texts themselves, as compiled by Coedès span the period from the 4th century BC, when the first reference to Serike by Ctesias is found, to late Byzantine ethnographic excerpts. Translated by J. Sheldon, the Greek and Latin texts are printed in columns parallel to their English translation, on the same page, making it quite possible to easily scrutinise together text and translation. The authors are chronologically ordered, and the translations into English faithful to the Latin and Greek, more literal than with flourish, as befits a corpus of this nature. It is expected that both the classicist and non-classicist will find the ease of access and clear layout of the texts a great boon. There are only minor slips – ‘Phruni’ on p. 73 should more accurately be reflected as ‘Phruri’, Crassus on p. 113 should be ‘proconsul, and not merely ‘consul’, and Kommneni’ on p. 155 should be ‘Komneni’. Furthermore, Coedès’ collection, extensive as it is, may not be complete. Modern corpora, such as the digitised Thesaurus Linguae Graecae may potentially reveal excerpts he might have missed. A search, for example, made under ‘Sh=rej’ reveals George Cedrenus, Pseudo-Sphrantzes, and John Tzetzes among a few whose references to the ethnic Seres are absent in the Texts – and that only for the word in the nominative.


Also noteworthy in this new edition of Coedès’ work is the inclusion, along with the maps from the original of the orient according to Strabo, Pomponius Mela, the Periplus Maris Erythryaei and Ptolemy (pp. xxxvii-xl), of an index to the texts, something which was lacking in the original and consequently bemoaned[1]. The entries are highly detailed and differentiated; ‘Chryse’ has for instance four entries according to its various definitions. By the same note, however, the pedant might question its ready identification of Sinai with Thinai, although the two are distinguished under ‘Sinai’. Nevertheless the index is otherwise a tour de force of the relevant mentioned place-names and people, and should make this new edition, along with the texts themselves, an important source of reference.


Even a casual read of the Texts elicits some major interpretive questions. How are the differences and progress in knowledge to be accounted for? Does an ethnographic tradition lie underneath many of the recurring themes and descriptions? Do any of the references actually describe real people, or are some of them simply semi-legendary constructions of a mythical ‘other’? Certain sub-themes main be discerned among some of the passages. For instance, the role of the Seres in Roman imperial ideology,  or the role they might have played in a cognitive expanding of the horizons that must have occurred in the time of Ptolemy, when the boundaries of the known world were perhaps dramatically extended beyond the traditionally conceived limits of the oikoumene. The Seres in Florus’ account of the eastern embassies to Augustus (p. 19) might also be illuminating. In all other references to the embassies of eastern peoples to Augustus (Eutropius Breviarium 7.10, Aurelius Victor De Caesaribus 1, Suetonius Augustus 21.2, Cassius Dio 54.9.8-10 and most instructively the Res Gestae 31) no mention is made of the Seres.  Florus alone mentions them in this context. Could he have been inspired by an ideology of imperial world-rule which by the 2nd century, in the light of the clarification made by geographers such as Ptolemy, saw the Seres as the easternmost peoples of the known world?


What Texts offers, insofar as it is a conspectus of ‘Seres’ texts, is an idea of evolving, and often too unchanging ethnographic concepts of further eastern peoples. The excerpts before Ptolemy, thus, seem to situate the Seres between the Indians and Scythians (eg. Mela pp. 9-11, Pliny p. 12 primi…noscantur Seres). There is the recurring trope, found first in Ctesias, mentioned by Strabo, and colourfully detailed by Pliny, of the Seres as a long-lived, tall, almost superhuman people with red hair and blue eyes. Ptolemy’s description of the places and peoples of the furthest east is by far the longest excerpt (pp. 24-71) and perhaps by the accident of the evidence offers the most detailed insight into the land of the Sinai, first mentioned by the Periplus Maris Erythryaei as Thinai (pp. 21-22), and its towns, cartographically attached to longitudinal points highly complex to unravel.


The region of Serike is for Ptolemy clearly beyond India. Yet Ptolemy represents no major paradigm shift in scientific ethnographical knowledge. Solinus in the 3rd century seems to follow Pliny (pp. 84-7), although Marcian of Heraclea in the 5th century (pp.116-122), who mentions Sinai, may have followed Ptolemy. The Seres also appear as a paradisiacal other as they enter early Christian thought. Bardesan’s account of the laws of the Seres, supplemented in Texts quite helpfully by the original Syriac Book of the Laws of the Nations (pp. 76-80), as well as the similar excerpts by Pseudo-Clement (pp.77-78) and Origen (pp. 82-84), depict the Seres as an Edenic people untouched by pagan customs. An anomalous case is the Expositio Totius Mundi et Gentium from the 4th century, which has the Camarini as the furthest eastern peoples in place of the Seres; yet they too are long lived and maintain order through unwritten laws. The inclination, beginning with Pliny, to present the Far East as a perfect world to be aspired to seems to persist within the classical tradition.


Another theme that persists, which Texts makes clear, is the almost metonymic use of the Seres and silk in poetry, from Virgil to Theodorus Prodromus in the 12th century. Indeed the texts collected by Coedès and presented in this new edition are embedded in classical scholarly traditions. A tradition in which tropes and poetic images were preserved, and from which armchair geographers drew recurring descriptions of the far east. This practice is discernible from Strabo and apparent even in the middle Byzantine Eusthatius’ commentary on Dionysius of Periegetes (pp.155-158), whose thoughts might almost be termed a commentary on commentary. Interest lies in the variety of the sources that the geographers used. Ethicus and Julius Honorius might have (pp. 108-110), as mentioned in the introduction (p. xxxiii), drawn on the imperial cartographic tradition that began with Agrippa’s Chorographia[2], while the anonymous cosmography of Ravenna might be based on unknown itineraries. The great benefit of a compilation like the Texts lies in presenting these problems of Quellenforschung in all their clarity.


Another reality such a compilation presents all too clearly is that of the fragmented and almost piecemeal insight one has into ethnographic knowledge of the Far East. The excerpts that present ‘innovations’ in knowledge – Pausanias’ earliest description of silk originating in animals instead of trees (pp. 73-75), Ammianus’ possible mention of the Great Wall (p. 95), Procopius’ introduction of the term Serinda (p. 125), the first attestation of Tzinitza in Cosmas Indicopleustes (pp. 130-132), Theophylact’s account of Taugast (pp. 135-138, only perhaps dubiously identifiable with China) – only highlight how much has been lost. The divergences and additions to knowledge may on the other hand have been rare and individual instances (Cosmas’ cosmography perhaps being, functionally speaking, late antique equivalent to the Periplus Maris Erythryaei). To be seen in connection with these variations are the other, less commonly mentioned places positioned in the furthest eastern regions. Such are Aelian’s satyr people (p. 81), maybe inspired loosely by the islands of the satyrs found in Ptolemy (p. 60), or the valuable account of the Camarini in the Expositio Totius Mundi et Gentium. Might the Camarini have referred to the Cambodian Khmers[3]? There are also the lands of Chryse and Argyre, in Pomponius Mela and Ptolemy, which may refer to the Malayan Peninsula[4]. The ‘Far East’ in Greco-Roman eyes, in the sum of even the relatively brief accounts contained in Texts, do not permit of a simple definition. Further study based on the varying purposes and scopes of the authors and excerpts in Texts will hopefully elucidate these discrepancies and details, and the general sense of a tension between occasional insight and a persistent scholarly ethnographic tradition.


It is unclear whether Coedès is right to so swiftly dismiss the usefulness of these texts on learning about China (p. xxxvi). What one does learn at least is the ancient occidental perspective on its furthest eastern regions. The evidence for actual contact between China and Mediterranean Greco-Roman worlds is limited to a handful of instances, such as the mission of Gan Ying under the later Han dynasty (even then only at the fringes) or the so-called embassy from Daqin that arrived at Luoyang in 166 AD[5]. The claims of a lively Roman-Chinese trade on the ‘Silk Roads’ have also, since Coedès, been shown to be largely unconvincing[6]. Indeed the counterpoint to Texts, Hirth’s China and the Roman Orient, presents a startlingly similar picture of Chinese understanding of the occidental world – partly mythical, hard to reconcile directly to historical reality, and persistent through the centuries, very little changed.


Naturally the intent of someone like a Coedès, and of such a collection as Texts, would have been the discovery of early contacts and intercultural interactions, early occidental viewpoints and descriptions of China. Yet standards of accuracy vastly differ between the ancient and modern eras, as well as purpose and method. As seen there are names to go by – Seres and Cosmas’ Tzinitza (possibly reconcilable to Sanskrit Cīnasthāna), and a few ethnographic details in the passages. The planned commentary volume to Texts should provide some answers in the way of historical identification, in response to Coedès’ hope in 1910 that more scholarly criticism of these texts ‘will potentially be fruitful for the orientalist’ (p. xxxvi). Yet even before then, and even if one may never hope to definitively solve problems of identification the twin perusal of Texts, having been rendered from Coedès’ French into such accessible English, alongside Hirth’s volume should show that there are many similarities amid the differences between the ancient occidental and oriental conceptions of each other.


If Codes’ original wish was that his volume would hold relevance for the orientalist, Texts produced under SAA should at least go some way to modernising it, with clear and unpretentious translations of the French, Greek and Latin. The problems of a historical question, especially one that has much relevance for the 21st century – the early knowledge of the orient in the occident – are best revealed in a corpus of evidence. This slim volume does just that, and should become a useful work of reference for all, not just classically-trained, students of early Eurasian history.

[1] Blagden, C.O.  Review of Coedès 1910 Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (Apr. 1911), p. 539.

[2] Nicolet, C. Space, Geography and Politics in the Early Roman Empire (Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press, 1991) pp. 95-6.

[3] This suggestion, based on the similarity of the names, and geographical proximity, was made to me by Professor E.A. Judge in a personal communication.

[4] On which possibility since Coedès see P. Wheatley’s The Golden Khersonese: Studies in the Historical Geography of the Malayan Peninsula before A.D. 1500 (Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1961) which is by far the most recent and comprehensive study.

[5] Hirth, F. China and the Roman Orient (Shanghai, 1885) contains all known evidence.

[6] This is the import of Rashke, M. ‘New Studies in Roman Commerce in the East’ Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt, Geschichte und Kultur Roms in Spiegel der neueren Forschung Bd. IX.II (1978) pp. 604-1361.

Texts compiled by George Coedès; texts revised and translated by John Sheldon; with contributions by Samuel N.C. Lieu and Gregory Fox Vol 1: Texts and Translations; (Studia Antiqua Australiensia Vol. 4). Turnhout: Brepols Publishers. 2010. 185pp. ISBN 978-2-503-53366-7.


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