Writings about Europe by non-Europeans in the ancient world

Dec 2019
44
Los Angeles
Reading about ancient history through the middle ages, every source I see is by a European writing about themselves or non-Europeans. I read about ancient Egypt but it's always the Greeks writing about them; what did the ancient Egyptians say about the Greeks/Romans/Minoans? Surely Egypt had scholars who wrote about outsiders, right?
 
Mar 2018
984
UK
Welcome to Historum! You've asked an interesting and difficult question, which is probably why nobody has answered you yet.

Writing history is essentially an "invention" of a Greek, Herodotus. Before that myths or moralistic tales were what was mostly written down. You could also argue a lot of ancient historians (and even some modern ones!) were more interested in a good story than historical accuracy. So, to the best of my knowledge, the ancient Egyptians appeared to have not bothered writing much about the Greek/Romans/Minoans. One thing close to history that could be considered is astronomical or court records, exemplified by the Babylonians, but that's more a list of events than any analytical history. But until the Greeks people simply seemed not that interested in writing down how others had lived in the past or how the world was changing. Why? No idea!

I should add that China similarly independently "invented" the "historian" since at least since unification, but they had rather little contact with the west. There are *some* Chinese accounts of their second hand knowledge about Rome, which make rather entertaining reading:

 
Dec 2019
44
Los Angeles
Welcome to Historum! You've asked an interesting and difficult question, which is probably why nobody has answered you yet.

Writing history is essentially an "invention" of a Greek, Herodotus. Before that myths or moralistic tales were what was mostly written down. You could also argue a lot of ancient historians (and even some modern ones!) were more interested in a good story than historical accuracy. So, to the best of my knowledge, the ancient Egyptians appeared to have not bothered writing much about the Greek/Romans/Minoans. One thing close to history that could be considered is astronomical or court records, exemplified by the Babylonians, but that's more a list of events than any analytical history. But until the Greeks people simply seemed not that interested in writing down how others had lived in the past or how the world was changing. Why? No idea!

I should add that China similarly independently "invented" the "historian" since at least since unification, but they had rather little contact with the west. There are *some* Chinese accounts of their second hand knowledge about Rome, which make rather entertaining reading:

Thanks for the reply. I do find it bewildering that all these ancient civilizations weren't curious enough about outsiders to go out and study them. The one exception is, yes, the Chinese. I've been reading a bit lately about the origins of Indo-Europeans, and how a lot of details in Norse Mythological stories match up with Chinese place names and accounts written by Chinese scholars before the big migrations. The bit about Chinese scholars is both interesting and frustrating because mostly when you read some account about such and such culture, investigations are not done into what other nations/people on other continents said of it, like they don't exist. There's this weird assumption that places and peoples are all vacuum sealed from each other, with no effect on each other except for when invasions happen.
 
Feb 2017
526
Latin America
Writing history is essentially an "invention" of a Greek, Herodotus. Before that myths or moralistic tales were what was mostly written down. You could also argue a lot of ancient historians (and even some modern ones!) were more interested in a good story than historical accuracy.
Herodotus is no less moralistic nor mythical. He relates myths about the Greeks as if they were true, and constantly mixes the myths of other peoples like the Scythians as well. He talks of dog-headed and one-eyed creates as well as giant ants and hippogriffs, for crying out loud. He is no inventor of anything. We have historical writing from the Sumerians and Egyptians who listed their kings and their wives as well as the lands they ruled and the battles they waged. They're no more intermixed with mythology than anything Herodotus says. Even Thucydides takes Homer as factual, in spite of all his writing about flying gods fighting each other, for the most part. Thucydides only doubts Homer when it comes to army sizes. Literally.

So, to the best of my knowledge, the ancient Egyptians appeared to have not bothered writing much about the Greek/Romans/Minoans.
There's a lot of ethnography in Egyptian inscriptions, tablets and papyri. We know a great deal about the Libyans, Mitanni, Habiru, Canaanites, Hyksos and Hittites thanks to Egyptian writing. It is the Egyptians who recorded the Sea Peoples with the most detail. And obviously, they wrote about the Greeks and Romans when they were ruled by them. Egyptian hieroglyphic and demotic writing only stopped in late antiquity. If they didn't write much about the Greeks and Romans before it's simply because they were irrelevant politically and socially.

In other words, the Egyptians before Greco-Roman rule did write a great deal about Europe, especially when talking about the Sea Peoples which came from all over Southern Europe, not to mention the Egyptians conquered Cyprus which one can consider as part of Europe, and this fact is related in their written sources.


One thing close to history that could be considered is astronomical or court records, exemplified by the Babylonians, but that's more a list of events than any analytical history. But until the Greeks people simply seemed not that interested in writing down how others had lived in the past or how the world was changing. Why? No idea!
The Egyptians recorded the Hyksos takeover, the battles of Megiddo and Kadesh and the struggle against the Sea Peoples. So they did in fact had quite the "analytical history". The Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians and Assyrians also recorded history outside of astronomy. The Assyrians' history is almost as rich as that of Herodotus, as we can see for example with how they recorded in great detail the battle with Hezekiah in a cuneiform tablet. You can see Near Eastern "analytical history" with the books of Kings and Chronicles, which are taken from archival records. So no, it's not true that only until the Greeks came about people weren't interest in writing history.

I should add that China similarly independently "invented" the "historian" since at least since unification, but they had rather little contact with the west. There are *some* Chinese accounts of their second hand knowledge about Rome, which make rather entertaining reading:

China didn't invent the historian either, since again that figure existed in the Near East too. And the Chinese did have history contemporaneous to Herodotus and Thucydides. The Zhanguo Ce, the Guoyu, the Zuo Zhuan, the Gongyang Zhuan, the Guliang Zhuan, the Spring and Autumn Annals and the Shujing are all contemporaneous to Herodotus and Thucydides. Sima Qian, the writer of the Shiji, also based his history on scribal records. Heck, the Shang oracle bones of the second millennium BCE contain historical information already.

And the Chinese didn't just write about the Romans and Europe, taking their information from the Parthians, but they also wrote about the Greeks, the "Yuan" as they called them, even distinguishing types of Greeks such as the Da Yuan, basically the Greco-Bactrian kingdom, which the Han invaded and turned into a vassal state.

To summarise, the Egyptians did write about Europe even before Alexander conquered them. Their main information on Europe as far as I know comes from their records about the Sea Peoples, which came from places like Sardinia and Sicily or at least attacked them, while the Egyptians also conquered Cyprus at one point. They basically describe the Sea Peoples as ravagers coming in boats similar to how the Anglo-Saxons described the Vikings saying how they destroyed everywhere they went. They even portrayed the Sea Peoples in their stelae and papyri, with horned helmets and coming in great number from their ships until the pharaoh defeated them.

The Assyrians at least also seem to have talked about the Greeks, describing them as sailors and coming as raiders of their lands. The Hittites record some information about them too, and we have the famous "Aleksanda" Hittite cuneiform tablet which records a Greek name ruling over a Hittite or Luwian kingdom. The Persians called the Greeks "Yonna" or "Yavanna", which is the Persian rendering of Ionian and which passed on into Sanskrit, also as "Yonna" or "Yavanna", and Chinese, as "Yuan".

The Persians in their own inscriptions describe them as subjugated peoples no different from any other nation they subjugated, while the Sanskrit sources portrayed them as rather barbaric invaders needing to be converted to Indian culture, as in the Ashoka inscriptions where Greeks are shown as converts to Buddhism. The Chinese show them as being not that much different from any other "barbarian" they faced, though they do say the Greeks had a particular kind of horse that was big and sturdy and could run faster than other horses, this being one of the reasons why they invaded the Greco-Bactrian kingdom.

The Indians don't really notice Europe other than notices about the Greeks and possibly the Romans later on, as Romans traded with the Indians and Indians also docked in Roman Egypt and at Iraq in what is called "the gate of India". They do notice their astronomical system and described a rather garbled version of it, but other than that Indians don't really take particular notice of Europe. The Chinese meanwhile called the Roman Empire "Da Qin" or "Opposite China" which also means they basically called Europe that way, seeing it as being at the other extreme of the world as they knew it. There was a Chinese traveller whose name escapes me right now who tried to go to Europe but stopped at Parthian Mesopotamia and never reached any Roman territory.

Speaking of the Parthians, their inscriptions also certainly talk about the Romans. They even left a conflation of Greeks and Romans in later Persian and Arabic writings. In later Zoroastrian sources written in the Middle Ages, the Greeks and Romans are portrayed as ravagers and invaders. Alexander is called "the Accursed" and remembered as a tyrannical persecutor of Zoroastrianism. The Shahnamah tries to portray him not as a conqueror but as semi-rightful usurper in order to show how he didn't quite defeat the Persians in battle or, if he did so, it was only because the Persians let it. The tendency to not be quite as positive to the Greeks and Romans is also continued in the Bible and in Jewish sources, where the Jews describe the Greeks as invaders who tyrannised the people of Israel.
 

johnincornwall

Ad Honorem
Nov 2010
8,008
Cornwall
Thinking about your 'through the middle ages' there are a lot of sources in arabic - from North Africa, the Middle East or indeed Europe (Iberia).

Although I never got the time to learn arabic a lot of them have been translated in the last 2 centuries and are quite often quoted
 
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sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
5,682
Sydney
the Muslim writers tended to put all Europeans under the tag "franks" ,if Western or "Imperial" if referencing Byzantium
they did mention them as opponents in various conflicts and had numerous reference to them
the Muslim tradition brought some of this knowledge to Asia
India didn't seems to be particularly curious about the West probably because they didn't fight them
same for China and non Muslim south East Asia
 
Feb 2017
526
Latin America
India didn't seems to be particularly curious about the West probably because they didn't fight them
same for China and non Muslim south East Asia
Chinese did fight the Greeks at least once when they invaded and vassalised the Greco-Bactrian kingdom (Da Yuan as they called them). The Indians did also fight the Greeks. Aside from resisting Alexander, Chandragupta Maurya ousted Seleucus from northern India and most of Bactria, while the later Indo-Greeks would attempt to take Pataliputra.
 

sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
5,682
Sydney
true but it wasn't a sustained confrontation leading to an historical tradition
 
Dec 2019
44
Los Angeles
the Muslim writers tended to put all Europeans under the tag "franks" ,if Western or "Imperial" if referencing Byzantium
they did mention them as opponents in various conflicts and had numerous reference to them
the Muslim tradition brought some of this knowledge to Asia
India didn't seems to be particularly curious about the West probably because they didn't fight them
same for China and non Muslim south East Asia
Any recommendations on books? Translated of course.
 

sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
5,682
Sydney
none particularly , some of the info come from various histories of Muslim Spain , Islam conquest of the Byzantium provinces and the crusades