Scylax of Caryanda Voyages the Indian Ocean Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Scylax of Caryanda’s voyage expanded communication among India, the Near East, and Greece. His account marked the beginning of the genres of geography and ethnography and was one of the first Greek works written in prose rather than poetry.

Summary of Event

The Historiai Herodotou (c. 424 b.c.e.; The History, 1709) of the Greek historian Herodotus is the main source for the story of a fabulous expedition down the Indus River undertaken by Scylax of Caryanda. According to Herodotus, the Persian king Darius the Great was anxious to expand his empire, both for personal glory and to open lucrative trade channels. He wanted to know where the Indus River met the sea, and thus sent a group of trustworthy men, including a Greek-speaking Persian subject named Scylax, to sail east down the river to the ocean, and thence back to a port in Egypt. The trip lasted thirty months. The information Darius received from Scylax and the others led him to conquer a part of India and to begin sailing the Indian Ocean, presumably for commercial ventures. Scylax of Caryanda Herodotus Darius the Great

The few lines in Herodotus concerning Scylax and his voyage have produced an ocean of discussion about the details. Scholars disagree on nearly every aspect of the voyage, but most believe it did take place.

Herodotus is almost the only source for information on Scylax, a native of the coastal town of Caryanda, close to the hometown of Herodotus, in a region of Ionia (now Turkey) heavily settled by Greeks. His name, Scylax, suggests that he was not Greek but Carian. The Carians inhabited the inner, mountainous regions of southern Ionia and spoke a language which has not yet been deciphered. At the time of the expedition, Caria was subject to Persian rule. Herodotus implies but does not state directly that Scylax was the leader of the Indus River expedition.

Herodotus does not give a date for the expedition, but he presents it as a necessary prelude to Darius’s acquisition of the province of Hindush. More precise dating can be obtained from two monumental inscriptions commissioned by Darius to commemorate important events in his reign because these inscriptions contain a current list of subject provinces. Hindush is absent from the list of provinces of an inscription in Bisitun (near modern-dayHamadan, Iran), dating to 520 b.c.e., but appears on an inscription just two years later.

A particularly vexed question concerns the point of departure of the expedition. Herodotus says that it left from the town Caspatyrus in the region of Pactyice. Numerous attempts to identify locations for these names have proved fruitless. Some believe the most logical place from which Scylax and his expedition would have set sail is the point at which the Kabul and Indus Rivers join, near modern Peshawar, Afghanistan.

The statement by Herodotus that the expedition sailed east down the river to the sea further complicates an understanding of the voyage. The Indus in fact flows southwest to the Indian Ocean, not east. To meet this objection, some scholars suggest that the expedition may have begun farther north of the confluence of the Indus and Kabul Rivers, along the Kabul River itself, which flows east before joining the Indus. It is possible that Herodotus has simply misunderstood his source here. Classical scholar J. L. Myers suggested in 1896 that the expedition actually sailed along the Ganges, which does flow east to the Bay of Bengal, and thence around the Indian subcontinent. This theory has the virtue of explaining why the return voyage took thirty months but does not account for the fact that the Persians never explored or conquered the Ganges Valley.

Scholars are unable to establish with certainty the locations and boundaries of the eastern provinces of the Persian Empire, and thus the location of Hindush is in dispute. It clearly lies somewhere along the Indus River, but possibilities have ranged from the north end of the Indus River to the river’s mouth, where it meets the Arabian Sea. A majority of scholars support the latter area.

It is not known whether Scylax presented a written account of the voyage to Darius the Great or simply reported his information in person. At some point, Scylax wrote a book titled Periplus (voyage around by sea). The work was lost, probably fairly early, judging from the inaccurate and confused quotations from it even by early Greek historians. A fourth century b.c.e. work attributed to Scylax was actually composed more than a century after the voyage and does not appear to have any information from the real Scylax.

Only five fragments from the original book have survived in the works of other Greek writers. They are sufficient to show that the Periplus was not merely a series of notes but rather a connected narrative covering the course of the entire voyage from India to Africa. Scylax recorded the sea route and commented on the topography, flora and fauna, and people he saw and their customs. According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 b.c.e.), Scylax noticed a great difference between Indian kings and their subjects; unfortunately the nature of this difference was either not related or has been lost.


The voyage of Scylax paved the way for the Persian conquest of all of northwest India (now Pakistan) and made possible the sharing of intellectual, scientific, and religious ideas between east and west on a scale much greater than before.

The genres of geographical writing and ethnography begin with Scylax. His little book made such a large impact because Scylax wrote in the east Greek dialect of his region, called Ionic. At the time Scylax lived, the Ionian coast was home to an intellectual explosion in science and philosophy. Many of these early scientific and philosophical works were composed in poetic meters, but prose was starting to take its place as the medium for the straightforward exposition of facts. Scylax, as one of the first writers in Greek to use prose, helped foster its development as a scientific medium. His writings constituted the main source of information about India for the early Greek historians, the philosophers Plato (c. 427-347 b.c.e.) and Aristotle, and through them most of the Western world.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Robin Waterfield. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Darius’s conquest of the Indus appears in book 4, chapter 44. Detailed notes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Karttunen, Klaus. India in Early Greek Literature. Helsinki: Studia Orientalia, 1989. Chapters 2 and 3 discuss the Persian conquest and the accuracy of Greek historical writers. Detailed bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lesky, Albin. A History of Greek Literature. New York: Thomas Crowell, 1966. The section entitled “The Beginnings of Science and Historiography” outlines the beginnings of prose writing on geography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Obregon, Mauricio. Beyond the Edge of the Sea: Sailing with Jason and the Argonauts, Ulysses, the Vikings, and Other Explorers of the Ancient World. New York: Modern Library, 2002. Scylax’s voyage is mentioned and contextualized in relation to ancient travel and exploration.
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Darius the Great; Herodotus. Scylax of Caryanda

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