Ancient history of diving

Text: Ralf Strandell
A translation from Finnish


This article has been written in an attempt to sched some light on diving in ancient times. To maintain quality, critical translations with facing original text have been sought when possible, or else other credible sources have been used. The translations are, typically, 19th century english because of copyright limitations. The reader is also reminded of the fact that the word “diver” has many meanings. It could describe a person who jumps into water (instead of bottom diving) or it could be allegoric. Further, ancient greek seems to have many words for diving.

The following websites have proven most usefull and are extensively referenced to:,,, Perseus-project, references of Wikipedia articles. The website Lacus Curtius by Bill Thayer also contains many interesting references and ideas to check. Websites featuring rock paintings (Bradshaw foundation), Assyrian texts ( and and Egyptian hieroglyphs ( have proven very helpful, too. Some academic publications of interest are Ragheb, A. A. (2011). Notes on Diving in Ancient Egypt; Frost, F. (1968). Scyllias: Diving in Antiquity [requires free account]; Emilio Rodríguez-Álvarez. The Hidden Divers: Sponge harvesting in the archaeological record of the Mediterranean Basin and The Archaeology of Sponges: Middle Range Theory and Divers in Ancient Greece. These articles have acted as a guide when we interpret pictures and paintings. Reading some of these articles may require registration of a free account at, or Because this article is introductory in nature, a roadmap to interesting litterature, extensive use of links to Wikipedia has been made in order to clarify context. Writer’s own experience and knowledge in diving has been used in places to provide the reader with some insight. Some hypotheses are presented and a multitude of open questions.

This text is not intended as a cohesive story but as an introduction to the world of ancient documens and as a glimpse into the lives of ancient divers, about which not much is known.

Those craving for a book may find “The History of Underwater Exploration” by Robert F. Marx interesting although much of the book discusses modern diving, relatively speaking.

Table of contents

  1. Preface
  2. Stone age, 6500—3950 (Sahara, Denmark)
  3. Mesopotamy, pearls 4500—2400
  4. Egypt, pearls and fishing, 3200—2181
  5. Oldest known litterature
    1. Mesopotamy / Gilgamesh, 2800—2004
    2. Mesopotamy / The code of Hammurabi, 1790
    3. Mesopotamy / Fishing is a big business
    4. Ancient Greece / Ilias (Iliad), 1183—650
    5. Rhodos / Sea law, On goods thrown overboard, 800
  6. Assyrians DID NOT have SCUBA equipment, as is reasoned here, 700
  7. Ancient Greece; Skyllias and Hydna as combat divers, 480
  8. Tomb of a diver, 470
  9. Peloponnesian wars, 425—421
  10. Platon (Plato), Those who dive in wells, 428/427 or 424/423 — 348/347
  11. Diogenes writes, that Seleucus tells that in his book “Diver” that Croton writes that… before the time of Socrates [470/469—399]…
  12. Socrates tries to understand a challenging book on philosophy
  13. Aristippus; the task of dolphins, 435—356
  14. Ancient Greek diving vocabulary
  15. Sponge diving (at least) 400 BCE. Aristoteles (Aristotle) and his students, divers’ tools, ear problems, 3846—322
  16. Phaenias the Eresian mentions the profession (lat.) ‘solenista’, 332
  17. Pearl hunting 4th century BCE.
  18. Siege of Tyre (Alexander the Great), 331
  19. Theophrastus writes about pearls in his book on precious stones, 4th century BC.
  20. Perseus panics in Pella, How divers can be made to keep a secret, 168
  21. Urinatores, divers of the Roman empire
  22. Siege of Numantia, 134—133
  23. Roman civil war, Oricum, clearance divers of Pompeius (Pompey), 49
  24. Roman civil war, Caesars troops, Hirtius, Mutina, underwater message delivery (wetnotes), 43
  25. The fishing trip of Antonius (Antony) and Cleopatra, 41—40
  26. Isidore of Charax, description of Parthia, oysters from a depth of 20 fathoms or 36 meters
  27. Natural history by Plinius (Pliny), 23—79
  28. Oppian, Fishing, 100—200
  29. Athenaeus writes about the good in life and references ancient long since lost books and happens to mention diving, too 200—300
  30. Codex Iuris Civilis, Callistratus, sea law, 529—534
  31. Referenced websites

6500—4400 BCE. Stone age. Swimming is a key skill for a diver.

We can assume that diving developed gradually. People first ventured to collect food from the intertidal zone and were probably beckoned to wade in search of more. Eventually, someone ducked to reach something from the bottom. Our hypothesis is that as this became more common, freediving was born. That such activities were taking place can be seen from the kitchen middens of the mesolithic Ertebølle culture in Denmark, for example. Another path to freediving would have been seine net fishing, a more advanced technology, as hinted by some egyptian tomb paintings. Obviously, the development of freediving, especially to greater depths, is related to the development of swimming. It is hard to believe that people who could not swim, would have jumped off boats equipped with weights and ropes — a diving technology used for millennia in Mesopotamia. Hence, the first freedivers may very well have been hunter—gatherers of the mesolithic era.

The oldest record of swimming can be found in rockpaintings. On the sandstone plateau of Gilf Gebir (south-western Egypt) in Sahara a cave decorated with cave paintings has been found. This cave, Cave of Swimmers, contains neolithic rockpaintings from 6500—4400 BCE. (1) that seem to depict swimming. This theory has been disputed however, citing the dryness of the Sahara desert and claiming that the people depicted float in a mythical river of the underworld towards something (especially because the swimmers seem to be in a row). (2) It is strange then that one swimmer actually face in the opposite direction on the wall. Proof of lakes in Sahara has also been found (Mount Uweinat and 3: New Scientist: Northern Darfur Mega-Lake) around 200 kilometers south. These facts, combined with countless anatomically correct depictations of giraffes and other animals, would seem to prove that the area has been lusher and lakes have existed before desertification took place. It is possible then that the rockpaintings depict actual swimming (or even diving as some swimmers are out of horizontal position?). If these paintings do not depict swimming but a mythical journey in the river of the dead (or something like that) then at least they show weightlessness or floating. Hands do not point backwards as one would expect from someone just levitating. Hands do not point to the sides like wings of a bird either. Is it not common to depict flying with people spreading their arms, as if imitating birds? The position however that these figures have taken is exactly a swimmers pose. The knees are bent and hands have been stretched far to the front. Based on the reasoning above we believe that these paintings depict actual swimming, or the models at least, have been actual swimmers. Freediving would not be a big leap then.


  1. The ‘Cave of Beasts'(Gilf Kebir, SW Egypt) and its chronological and cultural affiliation: Approaches and preliminary results of the Wadi Sura project; International Colloquium: The Signs of Which Times? Chronological and Palaeoenvironmental Issues in the Rock Art of Northern Africa, Royal Academy for Overseas Sciences, Brussels, 3-5 June, 2010pp. 197-216; Frank Förster*, Heiko riemer* & Rudolph Kuper*
  2. Bradshaw Foundation has a large exhibition of rock paintings.
  3. New Scientist: Northern Darfur Mega-Lake

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Note: One can find a picture on-line, depicting mermaids, that is allegedly from the Cave of Swimmers. The publishers of the picture were not the most credible ones and when investigating the issue further it became clear that these pictures could be found neither at The British Museum nor in Bradshaw foundations collections. We posted a question then in the Cavers of Facebook group which has 20.000 members world-wide to reach people who have actually visited the cave. It was soon confirmed that no mermaid paintings exist in the cave and that it is a cunning image manipulation.

In the Near East region there is however an ancient god probably related to agriculture that got a fish tail because of its name and some confusion. Some Mesopotamian reliefs depict people with fish skin cloaks too (as will be seen later on). These, of course, may or may not be related to Greek myths about mermaids. The fish tails etc. should be seen as allegoric and as related to fishing.

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Gathering oysters (or diving?) in Denmark 5300—3950 BCE.

Some websites claim that the oldest archaeological proof of diving dates back to 5400 BCE. when the scandinavian Ertebølle-culture (Kjøkken-møddinger in some sources) had spread across the shores of Denmark and southern Sweden. Such a claim cannot be made, however (1). Archaeological digs have proven that the Ertebølle culture (and a couple of others) have consumed a vast amount of subtidal oysters (Osterea Edulis) and also intertidal oysters (Cardium Edule, Vardium Lamarcii). The subtidal oyster beds remain submerged even during low tide, but they could be in shallow water and they could be exposed during the greatest low tides in the spring and in the autumn. Oyster beds have existed near the excavations, but because they have been destroyed their exact locations and depths are not known. Hence, it is impossible to say whether those oysters were collected by wading in shallow water or by freediving.

In any case it is clear that subtidal oysters were collected for food during the mesolithic stone age in Denmark (2).


  1. Nicky Milner, “Oysters cockles and kitchenmiddens – Consuming shellfish on Danish middens”, pdf:ResearchGate.
  2. Igor Gutiérrez-Zugasti, Søren H. Andersen et-al., Shell midden research in Atlantic Europe: State of the art, research problems and perspectives for the future, Quaternary International, Volume 239, Issues 1–2, 1 July 2011, Pages 70-85.

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Fishing and pearl hunting in Mesopotamy and in Egypt

Mother-of-pearl oysters in Mesopotamy 4500—2400— BCE.

In Mesopotamia, archaeologists have discovered shells (1) that can only have been collected by diving and that are dated to 4500 BCE.

Another discovery, the Standard of Ur (2), dated to 2600—2400 BCE., contains mother-of-pearl, lapis lazuli and red sandstone. Mother-of-pearl oysters live quite deep. Read more about pearl hunting.

Standard of Ur: Helmisimpukkaa, lasuurikiveä ja punaista kalkkikiveä.

Sumerian language has a word for diving: ñiñri: to dive; to sink, founder (reduplicated ñiri5, ‘to seek refuge’).


  1. Robert F. Marx. The history of underwater exploration, page 7. Published 1990. url:
  2. Wikipedia: Standard of Ur
  3. John A. Halloran. Sumerian Lexicon, version 3. url:

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Egypt 3200—2181 BCE.

Theban VI dynasty in Egypt (1) used a lot of shell ornaments around 3200 BCE.

The old kingdom. Cowry shells, Cypraeidae, were collected during low tide along the east coast of Africa because of a high demand of them (2). They were used both as amulets and as decoration and as money. Murex shells, on the other hand, were used for making dye. Mother-of-pearl oysters have been collected both for decoration purposes and for the pearls. Oysters have been hunted and sea urchins have been traded too. Trade of products from the seabed of the Red sea was extensive (3) during the old kingdom (2686—2181 BCE.):

Although the Red Sea trade in shells, sea urchins and coral formed a secondary focus for ancient Egyptian expeditions to, or trade with, the Red Sea, it still represented a fairly signifcant aspect of Old Kingdom commerce and society.

As a result of the trade in shells there was a lot of unused shells. This “waste” was even used in the bricks of a fortification. One can assume that at least someone has made a living (or at least made some profit) collecting shells. Wading and freediving would then have been obvious ways to get more shells to sell.

Traditional seine net fishing (Oppian 100-200 jaa.) (video) also mandated some freediving (4,5), albeit to shallow depths. One had to check whether there was any fish in the net and if the net got entangled in the bottom it had to be freed. When enough fish had been driven into the net, the net could be drawn on land. All this required frequent dives and the Nile crocodile was a constant threat. Paintings depicting fishing scenes have survived (4):

A wall painting depicting seine net fishing can be found in The tomb of Anktifi (2100 BCE.). Attention is drawn to the men in the center as they are bigger than the others on land and thus stand in water. One is diving to see the catch while the other one has resurfaced. Another picture of diving can be found in the tomb of Djar in Deir el-Bahar (11th dynasty). In that picture there is a diver completely submerged and arranging the bottom weights of the net or perhaps freeing it from obstructions (5). Read more in Notes on diving in ancient Egypt, Ashraf Abdel-Raouf Ragheb, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology (5).
Picture published with explicit written permission.
Copyright Thierry Benderitter


  1. Robert F. Marx. The history of underwater exploration, page 7. Published in 1990. url:
  2. Cowrie shells and their imitations as Ornamental Amulets in Egypt and the Near East, Polish Archaeology in the Mediterranean 23/2, Special Studies: Beyond ornamentation.  Jewelry as an Aspect of Material Culture in the Ancient Near East , edited by A. Golani , Z. Wygnańska, 2014
  3. Ras Budran and the Old Kingdom trade in Red Sea shells and other exotica, British Museum Studies in Ancient Egypt and Sudan 18 (2012): 107–45, Gregory Mumford
  4. Osirisnet: Tombs of Ancient Egypt, online, url:
  5. Ragheb, A. A. (2011), Notes on Diving in Ancient Egypt. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 40: 424-427. doi:10.1111/j.1095-9270.2011.00322.x, online:

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Oldest known litterature

2800—2004 BCE. Epic of Gilgamesh, table XI

According to Wikipedia, Gilgamesh [<Bilgamesh = “Ancestor/Elder was a young man”] was a historical king of the Sumerian city-state Uruk and a hero of mesopotamian mythology. It is estimated that Gilgamesh lived round 2800—2500 BCE. The earliest mentions of him are from 2112—2004 BCE. The oldest of these is the story on Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the nether world (3). Enkidu, friend of Gilgamesh, visits the nether world and on return he tells about the sorrow and misery of the dead (Version A).

The conversation between Gilgamesh and Enkidu may contain the first hint at diving:
[comments and explanation from scholars would be really welcome here]
Did you see him hit by a ship’s board {(1 ms. adds:) when diving (?)}? How does he fare?
“Alas, my mother!” the man cries to her, as he pulls out the ship’s board ……, he …… cross beam …… crumbs.

Gilgamesh then embarked to seek immortality (A version from Me-Turan; Segment B; 69-71). Later this and a number of other writings were combined as the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The cuneiform writings of the tablets (4), and the Epic of Gilgamesh, represent oldest known litterature. A story about a dive into Apsu (1,2) is included. It tells how Gilgamesh attaches stones to his feet to dive and then removes those in order to resurface (variable weight, skandalopetra diving). Gilgamesh’s method is the same that is used today in pearl hunting in the same geographic area. It is apparent that the writer of the tablet knew about variable weight apnea. The story does not have a happy ending though, as a snake snatches the plant and gains eternal youth instead of Gilgamesh.

Translation (1): “Utanapishtim spoke to Gilgamesh, saying: “Gilgamesh, you came here exhausted and worn out. What can I give you so you can return to your land? I will disclose to you a thing that is hidden, Gilgamesh, a… I will tell you. There is a plant… like a boxthorn, whose thorns will prick your hand like a rose. If your hands reach that plant you will become a young man again.” Hearing this, Gilgamesh opened a conduit(!) (to the Apsu) and attached heavy stones to his feet. They dragged him down, to the Apsu they pulled him. He took the plant, though it pricked his hand, and cut the heavy stones from his feet, letting the waves(?) throw him onto its shores.

Tablet XI. Photograph by Mike Peel ( [CC BY-SA 4.0


  1. The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated by Maureen Gallery Kovacs, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1989
  2. Maier, John R., “Gilgamesh and the Great Goddess of Uruk” (2018). SUNY Brockport eBooks. 4. (selityksiä)
  3. Gilgameš, Enkidu and the nether world (table XII, translation) and (translitteration)

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1790 BCE. Code of Hammurabi. Paragraphs relating to marine traffic.

The code of Hammurab (1) (1790 BCE.) rules:

  • §234 A boatman must be paid 2 shekels in silver for building a 60 GUR boat.
  • §235 Boats come with a one year guarantee.
  • §236 If a man hires his boat to a boatman, and the boatman is careless and sinks or wrecks the boat, then the boatman must replace the boat to the owner.
  • §237 If a man hires a boatman and a boat to transport grain, wool, oil, dates or any other type of freight, and the boatman is careless and sinks the boat or wrecks its cargo, then the boatman must replace the boat and whatever portion of the cargo he wrecked.
  • §238 If a boatman is careless and sinks a boat and refloats it, he has to pay up to half of the boats worth in silver to the owner of the boat.
  • §239 A boatmans salary is 6 GUR of grain per year.
  • §240 If a boat underway collides with a ferryboat or with an anchored ship sinking it, the owner of the boat that was sunk must declare [under oath?] what he lost, and the boatman responsible must compensate for the losses.

Two conclusions can be drawn from the text: Firstly, sunk boats have been refloated, although it is not clear from what depth. Second, if a boatman sinks a boat worth his ten year salary, and is bound by law to compensate for any losses, he will do whatever is possible to recover the boat and as much as possible of its freight. He might even hire divers to do it, especially as the epic of Gilgamesh already mentions variable weight freediving to collect something from the bottom of the sea. Not forgetting the standard of Ur, in the decoration of which mother-of-pearl oysters have been used, oysters that live quite deep, one could argue that diving probably took place to greater than vading depths.


  1. Hammurabi, Robert Francis Harper. The code of Hammurabi King of Babylon [2250 BC]. Chicago/London. 1904.

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1300 BCE. Fishing is a big business (and who wouldn’t want to wear a fish?)

As diving is closely related to fishing (and seafaring in general), a mythical Abgail/Apkallu relief from 1300 BCE. is of interest to us. A wealthy looking bearded man wearing a fish skin and some tools(?) is portrayed in a relief in the city of Nimrod (founded 1300 BCE.). According to myth, there were seven ancient wizards, Apkallus, but in this particular image

  • the person portrayed is wealthy and important; a king, a priest, a wizard or a symbolic figure… [the elaborately plated beard, plentiful decoration, ending up in a relief]
  • a cloak made of fish skin is an obvious and powerful symbol of fishing. An important man like him would not wear a fish without a significant reason.
  • there are two knives(?) on the belt
  • the man is carrying something in his left hand; either a tool or a symbolic object.
  • > is it a curved knife? Why doesn’t it feature two knobs, one for each hand in either end, then? The handle seems impractical for a cutting tool.
  • > is it a scaler (a tool to remove fish scale)? The handle would be quite large and of strange shape.
  • > is it a basket for collecting oysters? Maybe?
  • > is it a freediving weight? Maybe? A diver would need two kilograms or more.
  • where ordinary people see a bracelet, a diver sees weights, although this guess is probably wrong: the clothing is elaborate and expensive.
  • is this image verifiably related to fishing? Does it feature a tool/tools used by fishermen and divers? I do not know.
Abgal, Nimrud, Assyria, 1300BCE.
Plate 6 fish god (A second series of the monuments of Nineveh) 1853 (cropped) ; Public Domain

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1183—650 BCE. Ilias (Iliad), ancient Greece

The Epic of Ilias (1), or The Iliad, is written in verse and it was intended to be memorised by poets and conveyed as oral tradition before writing had developed. It describes the power stuggle between the Greeks and the Tojans and the Trojan war. One specific event mentioned has been dated to the year 1183 BCE.

Diving for oysters is mentioned in the epic. Even if one would not trust the epic to be a historical description of events, it nonetheless mentions diving, and this mentioning took place around or before 750—650 BCE. when the epic was written down.

Diving was used in allegorical sense, as is exemplified by verse 470: “Dropp’d downright, with a diver’s plunge, and died.” Verse 511 on the other hand mentions sponges from the sea: “Then all around with a wet sponge he wiped“.

Ilias, verses 906-915:
Patrocles sees how Kebriones suffers a fatal blow and plunges down from his chariot. Patrocles then throws a mocking comment (old english translation):

He diver-like, from his exalted stand [906]
Behind the steeds pitch’d headlong, and expired;
O’er whom, Patroclus of equestrian fame!
Thou didst exult with taunting speech severe.

Ye Gods, with what agility he dives! [910]
Ah! it were well if in the fishy deep
This man were occupied; he might no few
With oysters satisfy, although the waves
Were churlish, plunging headlong from his bark
As easily as from his chariot here.[915]
So then—in Troy, it seems, are divers too!


  1. Homeros, “Ilias”, english translation by William Cowper (1731-1800), published on-line by Ted Garvin, Melissa Er-Raqabi, Fred Robinson and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team (, url:

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Rhodean sea law, 9th century BCE.

Rhodos had a large commercial fleet on Mediterranean around the years 1000—600 BCE. It is possible that it had been created by Foenikian immigrants. Trading took place as far as in Spain. The Rhodean sea law is dated to around 800 BCE. Law writing started on Greek mainlaind too, at that time (1). The law has not been preserved in its entity, but Roman law texts (1) contain fragments relating to cargo thrown overboard to save the ship. The history of the law is not entirely known (2), but it is clear that extensive trade over seas required some legislation, especially as shipwrecks happened and merchandise had occasionally to be thrown overboard to avoid harm. We can assume that the remaining fragments reflect the original law from about 800 BCE. A partial translation of the latin law text (3) can be found below.

Sed si navis, quae in tempestate iactu mercium unius mercatoris levata est,
But if a ship, from which someones merchandise is thrown overboard during a storm,

in alio loco summersa est et aliquorum mercatorum merces per urinatores extractae sunt data mercede,
sinks somewhere else, and divers recover the merchandise of others,

rationem haberi debere eius, cuius merces in navigatione levandae navis causa iactae sunt,
the owner of the merchandise thrown into the sea [to save the ship] has the right to compensation

ab his, qui postea sua per urinatores servaverunt, Sabinus aeque respondit.

Eorum vero, qui ita servaverunt, invicem rationem haberi non debere ab eo, qui in navigatione iactum fecit,

si quaedam ex his mercibus per urinatores extractae sunt:
if divers recover some of his merchandise:

eorum enim merces non possunt videri servandae navis causa iactae esse, quae perit.


  1. Website with its references.
  2. Dealing with the Abyss: The Nature and Purpose of the Rhodian Sea-Law on Jettison (Lex Rhodia de iactu, D 14.2) and the Making of Justinian’s Digest
  3. Lex Rhodia de iactu in The Roman law library

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800-700 BCE. — Assyrian swimmers

An 8th or 7th century BCE relief is sometimes incorrectly used as an example of scuba diving done by ancient Assyrians. Given the size of the air bag (a camel stomach or a goat skin perhaps?) it is clear that the diver would require quite a lot of weight. One kilogram per one litre or volume, actually. A warriors armor and weapons do weigh a bit, but if the diver breathes from the bag and exhales (discards) the air then he would quickly loose buoyancy and sink to the bottom. On the other hand, if he would exhale back into the bag then the oxygen content would quickly drop (exhaled air only contains 16% of oxygen and the fraction drops during re-breathing). It might also be difficult to blow air back into the bag. The relief thus does not depict diving but swimming with a float (1) instead, as is told also by user myrmekochordia in Reddit. There is also a horse on the relief, but it has been cropped out of the image. The horse was hardly diving either.

Detailed analysis

  • Tidal volume (volume of one breath)(Wikipedia) is 0.5 litres of air at rest on the surface. This translates into 6 to 7 litres per minute. If one is breathing deep and fast the air consumption might become eightfold. A modern recreational diver wearing a drysuit and SCUBA-equipment will consume around 20 litres per minute. This could become 30L/min if the dive requires heavy work. Relaxed diving in a wetsuit might only require 10 L/min. As the assyrian armor and weapons can hardly be described as light weight, we could assume an air consumption of 20L/min.
  • Let us first assume that the swimmer or diver exhales into the water as he is breathing from a sack or a vase with a rate of 20L/min (10-30L/min). The diver will require one kilogram of weight for each litre of volume of the air container in order to submerge. In addition he will need maybe two kilograms more to compensate for the buoyancy of the lungs. If he has less weight he will float and if he has more weight he will sink to the bottom.
  • If it is a sack, it will lose volume in the pace of breathing 20L/min (10-30) and buoyancy lost will be in the region of 20kg/min (10-30). If the diver is neutrally buoyant near the surface, he will start to sink after the first breath, unless he compensates by swimming upwards. Swimming upwards does not help after a couple of breaths however. The diver will sink with an accelerating speed to the bottom as the sack looses volume (hence buoyancy) with every breath and with increasing depth (external pressure).
  • If it is a ceramic vase, an underpressure will form in it (pressure is ~linearly related to the amount of air if both volume and temperature remain constat; ideal gas law: P=nRT/V). The underpressure will swiftly make breathing impossible. The larger the vase the longer this takes, but then again, drag increases. The maximum underpressure achievable can be found in litterature, and one can also recall that a 60cm snorkel already presents a significant challenge (0,06 ATM underpressure). How many breaths could one take? One? Two? Would the dive be shorter than without such a breathing aid? As a hypothesis we present then, that the air jug would only be a hindrance to the diver. This hypothesis could be tested.
  • It is obvious then, that one has to exhale back to the air container. The diver will then also make no bubbles and stays undetected. Buoyancy will also remain constant and no underpressure will form.
  • If the diver breathes the air over and over again, oxygen is inevitably consumed, and the level of consciousness will lower. Exhaled air contains only 16% oxygen whereas fresh air has 21%. Although 16% is still enough to maintain consciousness, the oxygen percentage continues to drop. We could argue then that one could breathe from a (rather large) 20L vase at least for one minute. This would require that the air in the vase is properly mixed and the exhaled breath is not immediately re-breathed. There are two more problems however. First, the drag caused by the vase would lessen any benefit drawn from the air contained within. Second, at any depth the vase would contain a relative underpressure with would make breathing at any depth impossible. Could there be a small net benefit just beneath the surface? This could be experimentally tested.

Attention should be paid to one important detail of the relief: There are horses in the water too (British Museum). A painting exist though that depicts the fishing trip of Antonius and Cleopatra and it features a diver with an air container. This could be due to copying prior art or due to a misunderstanding. The painter hardly was knowledgeable in the art of diving. I can see the need for experimental archaeology, though.

With the reasoning above I conclude that the relief most probably depicts not divers but soldiers using floating aids.


  1. Jean Vaucher, 2018. History of ships. Animal skin floats. url:

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480 BCE. — Skyllias and Hydna (Cyana) as combat divers

Herodotos (485-420 BCE) writes in his book (1) VIII Urania p. 495 (a translation published in 1859) about the sabotage of the fleet of Persian king Xerxes I in the advent of the naval battle at Salamis in 480 BCE.

Now the Persians had with them a man named Scyllias, a native of Scione, who was the most expert diver of his day. At the time of the shipwreck off Mount Pelion he had recovered for the Persians a great part of what they lost; and at the same time he had taken care to obtain for himself a good share of the treasure. He had for some time been wishing to go over to the Greeks; but no good opportunity had offered till now, when the Persians were making the muster of their ships. In what way he contrived to reach the Greeks I am not able to say for certain: I marvel much if the tale that is commonly told be true. ‘Tis said he dived into the sea at Aphetae, and did not once come to the surface till he reached Artemisium, a distance of nearly eighty furlongs. Now many things are related of this man which are plainly false; but some of the stories seem to be true. My own opinion is that on this occasion he made the passage to Artemisium in a boat.However this might be, Scyllias no sooner reached Artemisium than he gave the Greek captains a full account of the damage done by the storm, and likewise told them of the ships sent to make the circuit of Euboea.” [Excerpt copied from]

Scyllias is known by many names. In the obituary (3) written centuries later by Apollonides (2) a latinized form of Scyllus can be found. Pausanias on the other hand uses the name Scyllis. It is also known that Androtius painted a picture of Scyllias – and that is all we know about Androtius.

Pausanias (100 CE) writes in his Description of Greece, book X Phocis & Locis, chapter XIX (4):

“Beside the statue of Gorgias is an offering of the Amphictyons representing Scyllis of Scione,of whom fame says that he dived to the deepest depths of every sea; and he taugh this daughter Hydna to dive too. When the fleet of Xerxes was overtaken by a hurricane off Mount Pelion, these two completed the disaster by dragging away the anchors and moorings of the galleys from below. For this service the Amphictyons dedicated statues of Scyllis and his daughter; but the statue of the latter went to make up the tale of statues carried off by Nero from Delphi. [Of womankind it is only chaste maidens that can dive into the sea.]”

It is worth noting that the translator has added the following peculiar comment to the text: Of womankind it is only chaste maidens that can dive into the sea. Did he believe that non-virgin women fill with water and sink?

Some web pages claim that Scyllis was a sculptor too. This is not claimed by either Herodotos or Pausanias. Pausanias instead mentions two sculptors, students of Daedalus, Dipoenus and Scyllis, and their students in his Description of Greece (II:XV, II:XXII, II:XXXII, III:XVII, V:I, V:XVII, VI:XIX). This Scyllis lived 580 BCE in Sicyon however, a century before Scyllis the diver.

Livius mentions in his History of Rome (Ab urbe condita)(5) book XLIV chapter 10.3. that Androbius painted a picture of Scyllias.


  1. Herodotos (485-420 eaa.), Henry Cary (1804-1870), “Herodotus; a new and literal version from the text of Baehr, with a geographical and general index by Henry Cary”, 1867, kirja VIII Urania, url:
  2. Apollonides, “Epigrams”, 1st century CE., url:
  3. “The Greek Anthology with an english translation by W. R. Paton in five volumes III”, Book IX The declamatory and descriptive epigrams, published by William Heineman, London, 1917.
  4. Pausanias, “Description of Greece Translated with a commentary by J. G. Frazer In six volumes Vol I”, Book Tenths, Phocis, XIX, url:
  5. Livius, “Ad urbe condita”, book XLIV, ch. 10.3, url:

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470 BCE. — “Tomb of the diver”

A fresco painted on the inside of the stone lid of the Tomb of the diver, Tomba del tuffatore, depicts a young man plunging head first into blue-green water from a pillar or from a platform. Out of thousands of Greek tombs from 700—400 BCE. this is the only one with a fresco depicting humans. Diver is an almost nonexistent motif in Greek art, hence this picture is unique. Tomb paintings were common in Etruscan Italy at that time, but only one of them pictures a diver (Tomb of Hunting and Fishing)(2). That painting could have contributed to the fresco in the Tomb of the diver. The tomb is located in southern Italy in the Greek city of Poseidonia (lat. Paestum) aptly named after god of the sea. It is believed that the skeleton is that of a young man. A jug and the remains of a lyre have been found in the tomb and the other paintings depict a party (a symposium).

Tomb of Diver, Poseidonia
By Unknown – Self-photographed by Michael Johanning (talk · contribs), 2001, Public Domain,
Etruscan tomb, Tomb of Hunting and Fishing
Le Musée absolu, Phaidon, 10-2012 [Public domain]


  1. Holloway, R. (2006). The Tomb of the Diver. American Journal of Archaeology,110(3), 365-388. Retrieved from
  2. Tomb of Hunting and Fishing, Monterozzi necropolis, Tarquinia, Italy, 530-520 BCE, Le Musée absolu, Phaidon, 10-2012, url:,_Monterozzi_necropolis,_Tarquinia,_Italy.jpg

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Divers in the Peloponnesian war around 425—421 BCE.

Thukydides, 432 BCE., History of the Peloponnesian war, book IV, chapter XII (1): Divers smuggled food to the Lakedaimonians (Spartans) who were on an island under siege by the Athenians: ” Divers also swam in under water from the harbour, dragging by a cord in skins poppyseed mixed with honey, and bruised linseed; these at first escaped notice, but afterwards a look-out was kept for them. In short, both sides tried every possible contrivance, the one to throw in provisions, and the other to prevent their introduction.”

Thukydides, 432 BCE., History of the Peloponnesian war, book VII, chapter XXI (2): “The Athenians brought up to them a ship of ten thousand talents burden furnished with wooden turrets and screens, and fastened ropes round the piles from their boats, wrenched them up and broke them, or dived down and sawed them in two. Meanwhile the Syracusans plied them with missiles from the docks, to which they replied from their large vessel; until at last most of the piles were removed by the Athenians. But the most awkward part of the stockade was the part out of sight: some of the piles which had been driven in did not appear above water, so that it was dangerous to sail up, for fear of running the ships upon them, just as upon a reef, through not seeing them. However divers went down and sawed off even these for reward; although the Syracusans drove in others. Indeed there was no end to the contrivances to which they resorted against each other, as might be expected between two hostile armies confronting each other at such a short distance: and skirmishes and all kinds of other attempts were of constant occurrence. “


  1. Thukydides (431 BC), “The History of the Peloponnesian War”, nook IV, chapter XII, translated by Richard Crawley, url:
  2. Thukydides (431 BC), “The History of the Peloponnesian War”, nook VII, chapter XXI, translated by Richard Crawley, url:

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Platon (Plato), 4th century BCE.

Platon’s Protagoras: about confidence, bravery and diving into wells

Platon (Plato) (428/427 or 424/423 – 348/347 BCE.), in the older books of his Dialogues, writes about Protagoras” (1). Platon writes about knowledge, confidence, bravery and foolishness. Two types of confidence exist, that based on knowledge and that which is without ground. While the former may lead to bravery, the latter is just stupid. People who dive in wells, presumably to maintain them, are taken as an example.

Tell me then; who are they who have confidence when diving into a well?
– I should say, the divers.
And the reason of this is that they have knowledge?
– Yes, that is the reason.
And who have confidence when fighting on horseback—the skilled horseman or the unskilled?
– The skilled. […] And that is true of all other things, he said, if that is your point: those who have knowledge are more confident than those who have no knowledge, and they are more confident after they have learned than before.

And have you not seen persons utterly ignorant, I said, of these things, and yet confident about them?
– Yes, he said, I have seen such persons far too confident.
And are not these confident persons also courageous?
– In that case, he replied, courage would be a base thing, for the men of whom we are speaking are surely madmen.
Then who are the courageous? Are they not the confident?
– Yes, he said; to that statement I adhere.

And those, I said, who are thus confident without knowledge are really not courageous, but mad; and in that case the wisest are also the most confident, and being the most confident are also the bravest, and upon that view again wisdom will be courage.
– Nay, Socrates, he replied, you are mistaken in your remembrance of what was said by me. When you asked me, I certainly did say that the courageous are the confident; but I was never asked whether the confident are the courageous; if you had asked me, I should have answered ‘Not all of them’: and what I did answer you have not proved to be false, although you proceeded to show that those who have knowledge are more courageous than they were before they had knowledge, and more courageous than others who have no knowledge, and were then led on to think that courage is the same as wisdom.


  1. Platon, (dialogs) “Protagoras”, translated by B. Jowett, url:

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Platon’s Laches, about bravery

Platon again writes about knowledge, confidence and stupidity:

SOCRATES: And he who descends into a well, and dives, and holds out in this or any similar action, having no knowledge of diving, or the like, is, as you would say, more courageous than those who have this knowledge?
LACHES: Why, Socrates, what else can a man say?
SOCRATES: Nothing, if that be what he thinks.
LACHES: But that is what I do think.
SOCRATES: And yet men who thus run risks and endure are foolish, Laches, in comparison of those who do the same things, having the skill to do them.


  1. Platon, (dialogs:) “Laches”, translated by Benjamin Jowett, url:

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Platon’s Sophist, some sorts of diving

Platon‘s Sophist: Can the concept of hunting be subdivided?
STRANGER: And there is no reason why the art of hunting should not be further divided.
THEAETETUS: How would you make the division?
STRANGER: Into the hunting of living and of lifeless prey.
THEAETETUS: Yes, if both kinds exist.
STRANGER: Of course they exist; but the hunting after lifeless things having no special name, except some sorts of diving, and other small matters, may be omitted; the hunting after living things may be called animal hunting.
STRANGER: And animal hunting may be truly said to have two divisions, land-animal hunting, which has many kinds and names, and water-animal hunting, or the hunting after animals who swim?


  1. Platon, “Sophist”, translated by Benjamin Jowett, url:

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Croton’s book Diver

In Life of Heraclitus [535—475 BCE.] (1,2) (Note: Heraclitus is not the same person as Heracleitos in book V) Diogenes Laërtius [200-250?] writes: “Seleucus [50…250?], the grammarian, however, says that a man of the name of Croton, in his Diver [Kατακολυμβητής], relates that it was a person of the name of Crates who first brought this book into Greece; and that he said that he wanted some Delian diver [κολυμβητής] who would not be drowned in it.” [Possibly in the long lost book “On Things Believed Falsely”? None of Seleucus’s books are known to have survived.]

It is noteworthy that two different words for diver are used. One as the book’s name [Kατακολυμβητής] and another [κολυμβητής] when referencing actual divers from the island of Delos. The former is prefixed with “down” while the latter is not. Is the former one allegoric or not?


  1. Diogenes Laërtius (535-475). The lives and opinions of eminent philosophers”, (book V, Heraclides), literally translated by C. D. Yonge. Published by G. Bell and sons, ltd, London, 1915, url:
  2. Diogenes Laërtius. Lives of eminent philosophers with an english translation by R. D. Hicks in two volumes. II. Chapter IX:11-13. pp. 418-419. Harvard university press. London. 1959. url:

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470/469—399 BCE. Sokrates: It takes a Delian diver to really understand what Heracleitus tries to tell in his book

Diogenes Laërtius (3rd century CE.) wrote biographies of ancient greek philosophers. In his book Lives of eminent philosophers (1) he writes about the Life of Sokrates, page. 153, as follows: “And they say that Euripides gave him a small work of Heracleitus to read, and asked him afterwards what he thought of it, and he replied, ‘What I have understood is good; and so, I think, what I have not understood is; only the book requires a Delian diver to get at the meaning of it.’ “


  1. Diogenes Laërtius. Lives of eminent philosophers with an english translation by R. D. Hicks in two volumes. I. p.153. Harvard university press. London. 1959. url:

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435—356 eaa. Aristippus: Duty of a dolphin

In the chapter Life of Aristippus [435—356 eaa.] Diogenes Laërtius writes (1): “A man was one day boasting of his skill as a diver; “Are you not ashamed,” said Aristippus, “to pride yourself on your performance of the duty of a dolphin?”

Etruscan hydria (water jug) depicting Tyrrhenian pirates turning into dolphins [did they attack by swimming?]. Attributed to the Micali Painter, 510/500 BCE. Gallerie Nazionali di Arte Antica di Roma Palazzo Barberini. Photo by Carole Raddato, 9 August 2016
Usage rights: CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0


  1. Diogenes Laërtius. Lives of eminent philosophers with an english translation by R. D. Hicks in two volumes. I. p.203. Harvard university press. London. 1959. url:

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Ancient greek swimming and diving vocabulary

Ancient greek seems to have words both for divefishing and sponge diving. In Halieutica (1) the word δύπτης (duptes) is used to describe a dive fisher (as is mentioned by Rodriquez-Alvarez in his research paper – without the letter p) while the word σπογγοτομος (spongotomos, sponge cutter) is used to describe a sponge diver. The translation mentios three other words for sponge divers. The word σπογγοκολυμβητής = σπογγος + κολυμβητής eli “spongokolymbeetees” or swimmer for sponges, on the other hand, is used in (2) Julius Pollus, Onomasticon, VII:137. Platon’s dialogs (Protagoras) mention those who dive in wells, κολυμβωσιν (1). In Life of Heraclituksen the word κατακολυμβητής, down diver [allegoric?] is used. Read more here (4). More words can be found here (5). There is also a magazine article that explains diving vocabulary a little here. A more in-depth study of vocabulary and analysing nuances and telling apart literal and allegoric use of words would require a classical philologists. The undersigned is not capable of such analysis.

Onomasticon VII:137


  1. Oppian, Colluthus, Tryphiodorus with an English translation by A. W. Mair. Published by William Heinemann ltd, London. 192. Halieutica, On Fishing. url: (446, 508)
  2. Julius Pollus. “Julii Pollucis Onomasticon cum annotationibus interpretum. Curavit Guilielmus Dindorfius. Vol I. I-V.”, chapter VII:137. In libraria Kuehniana. Published 1824. url:
  3. J. Adam, A. M. Adam. Platonis Protagoras with introduction notes and appendices. Cambridge university press. 1921. p. 174, Notes on Plato’s Protagoras, XXXIV, 350A/20, url:
  4. E. Pottier. Daremberg & Saglio, Dictionnaire des Antiquités Grecques et Romaines, Librairie Hachette et Cie., Paris, 1877‑1919. url:
  5. Gregory R. Crane, Perseus digital library, English-to-Greek Word Search Results, Tufts university, url:

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Sponge diving (at least) 400 BCE.

Oinochoe (wine jug). 510-490 BCE.
Diver ready to dive. Assistant holds the rope.
The British Museum CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
As used in: The Archaeology of Sponges: Middle Range Theory and Divers in Ancient Greece.

Aristoteles [Aristotle] (384-322 BCE) mentions sponge diving several times. Different types of sponges were used for washing (see Ilias [Iliad]), as water bottles, as padding under armour (1) and dipped in honey for children (2). Aristoteles also shortly mentions the cure of wounds (5). Sponge diving was apparently very demanding. Aristoteles writes that the highest quality sponges must be collected at great depth but near the coastline (3). Hence, deep diving was required. There were hidden dangers in the water, too: Aristoteles writes (4): “Wherever an Anthias-fish is seen, there will be no dangerous creatures in the vicinity, and sponge-divers can dive in security, ant they call these signal-fishes ‘holy-fish’.” Divers also used tools. Aristoteles (6): “Some divers, when they go down into the sea, provide themselves with a breathing-machine, by means of which they can inhale the air from above the surface while they remain for a long time in the water. Nature has provided the elephant with something of this sort by giving him a long nose.” While comparing divers to dolphins, Aristoteles mentions that divers (naturally) resurface like a dolphin, as fast as possible, that is (7). Later writers reporting on sponge diving include Plinius the Elder (8) (23-79 CE) and Oppian (9)(2nd century CE). Athenaeus (10)(3rd century) focused mostly on the good in life — pearls and culinarism, which unarguably are related to diving. He referred ancient litterature and included quotes that would otherwise have been lost. Read more about this below.

Oinochoe (wine jug). 510-490 BCE.
Diver ready to dive. Assistant holds the rope.
The British Museum CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
Full picture.

Aristoteles makes an interesting mention of a divers breathing apparatus. Does he refer to a jar that has been submerged upside down or does he refer to a snorkel? If he means a snorkel (which would be the more credible alternative given that he compares it to an elephants snout), then there are two cases to consider. Either it is a straight tube (a straw snorkel), probably the stem of a vascular plant, or it is a manufactured product — a snorkel featuring an U-tube. The plant possibly used for straw snorkels is mentioned by Emilio Rodríguez-Álvarez in his scientific article. The only use for a straight straw snorkel would be swimming on ones back and thus in military diving. The technology was certainly available to Scyllis and Hydna. All other sorts of diving demand the looking at the bottom, hence, an U-tube. It is probable that the Greek had the technology to manufacture one (besides many other things) in the Aristotelian period: A highly sophisticated computer was manufactured only two centuries later. The quite advanced mechanical astronomical computer of Antikythera (even older computing devices dated back to the times of Arkimes are known).

The students of Aristoteles (the Peripathetic school) apparently wrote a book on natural science, Problems (Problemata), based on his teachings. Although if was probably written in the centuries after his death, it is often counted among the works of Aristoteles. The book contains a chapter on ears (11)(Problemata, XXXII, 960b, chapter 5), and not surprisingly, it discusses the ear problems experienced by ancient Greek divers.

1. The first chapter discusses blushing of ears; not related to diving.

2. Why is it that the ear-drums of divers burst in the sea?
Is it because the ear, as it fills with water, is subject to violent pressure, because it retains the breath? Surely, if this is the reason, the same thing ought to happen in the air. Or is it because a thing breaks more easily if it does not yield, and more readily under pressure from what is hard than from what is soft? Now that which is inflated is less yielding, and the ears, as has been said, are inflated because the breath is retained in them; and so the water, which is harder than the air, when it presses upon them bursts them.

3. Why do divers tie sponges round their ears?
Is it in order that the sea may not rush violently in and burst the ear-drums? For thus the ears do not become full, as they do when the sponges are removed.

[a more probable reason was to block the entry of sea water and hence avoid swimmers ear (and worse, especially if the ear was punctured). A sponge kept the ears dry and because of its structure it did not cause underpressure damage in the ear.]

4. Why does earwax have a bitter taste?

… no comment …

5. Why do sponge-divers slit their ears and nostrils?

Is it in order that the breath may pass more freely? For it is by this way that the breath seems to pass out; for it is said that they suffer more from difficulty of breathing by being unable to expel the breath, and they are relieved when they can as it were vomit the breath forth. It is strange, then, that they cannot achieve respiration for the sake of its cooling effect; this appears to be a greater necessity. Is it not quite natural that the strain should be greater when the breath is held, since then they are swollen and distended? But there appears to be a spontaneous passage of the breath outwards; and we must next consider whether breathing inwards is so also. Apparently it is; for they enable the divers to respire equally well by letting down a cauldron; for this does not fill with water, but retains the air, for it is forced down straight into the water; since, if it inclines at all from an upright position, the water flows in.

10. Why is it that, if water has flowed into the ear, one pours olive oil in, though the moisture in the ear cannot pass out through another liquid?
Is it because the oil floats on the surface of the water and, owing to the adhesive nature of the oil, the water clings to it when it comes out, the object being to make the water come out with the oil? Or is It in order that the ear may be lubricated and the water therefore come out? For oil being smooth acts as a lubricant.

11. Why is it that the ear-drums of divers are less liable to burst if they pour olive-oil beforehand into them?
Does the reason for their bursting already mentioned still hold good, but the oil poured into the ears cause the sea-water, which subsequently enters the ear, to glide smoothly over its surface, just as happens on the exterior parts of the bodies of those who anoint themselves? The sea-water gliding smoothly along does not make a violent impact upon the inside of the ear, and so does not break the drum.

A passage of text in Problemata book XXIII chapter 30 is also worth noting: “Why is it that the upper parts of the sea are saltier and hotter than the depths.” and book XXV chapter 11: “Why is the air from bubbles and the air which comes up from beneath the water never wet?
[Clearly, divers have learned about the salinity and temperature at depth].

Read more about sponge diving in ancient Greece: E. Rodríguez-Álvarez: The Archaeology of Sponges: Middle Range Theory and Divers in Ancient Greece and The Hidden Divers: Sponge harvesting in the archaeological record of the Mediterranean Basin.


  1. Aristoteles, Historia animalium, book V, chapter 16, 548b:1
  2. The history of underwater exploration, Robert F. Marx, page 7.
  3. Aristoteles, Historia animalium, book V, chapter 16, 548b:20-30
  4. Aristoteles, Historia animalium, book IX, chapter 37, 620b:34
  5. Aristoteles, Historia animalium, book IX, chapter 44, 630a:7
  6. Aristoteles, Parts of animals, book II, chapter XVI
  7. Aristoteles, Historia animalium, book IX, chapter 48, 631a:30
  8. Plinius the Elder, Historia Naturalis, several places, read more below.
  9. Oppian, Halieutica [fishing], read more, read more below.
  10. Athenaeus, Banquet of the learned (Deipnosophistae), read more below.
  11. Aristoteles or the Peripathetic school, Problemata, XXXII, 960b, chapter 5
  12. E. Rodríguez-Álvarez, The Archaeology of Sponges: Middle Range Theory and Divers in Ancient Greece and The Hidden Divers: Sponge harvesting in the archaeological record of the Mediterranean Basin,, url:

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Phaenias the Eresian mentions the profession ‘solenista’ (lat.), 332 BCE.

Book III, chapter 40 of Athenaeus mentions: “And the people who collect this sort of oyster [subtidal; can be found down to -60m] are called Solenistæ, as Phænias the Eresian [ 332 BCE.] relates in his book which is entitled, The Killing of Tyrants by way of Punishment.”

Not a single work of Phaenias has been preserved.

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Pearl hunting, 4th century BCE.

Athenaeus explains: “Chares of Mitylene [belonging to the court of Alexander the Great], in the seventh book of his Histories of Alexander…”: “There is caught in the Indian sea, and also off the coast of Armenia, and Persia, and Susiana, and Babylonia, a fish very like an oyster; and it is large and oblong, containing within the shell flesh which is plentiful and white, and very fragrant, from which the men pick out white bones which they call the pearl. And they make of them necklaces and chains for the hands and feet, of which the Persians are very fond, as are the Medes and all Asiatics, esteeming them as much more valuable than golden ornaments.”

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331 BCE — Siege of Tyre

Alexander the Great in the Colimpha.
Public Domain.

In Diving bells through the centuries (1), Bevan J. writes about a dive that Alexander the Great allegedly performed with the diving bell “Colimpha” in 332 BCE:

Alexander the Great is credited with the first recorded bell dive in 332 BC. Legend has it that he descended in a bell called Colimpha at the Siege of Tyre. Aristotle described how his pupil, Alexander the Great, peered out of his bell to observe underwater sheep and dogs and even one gigantic creature that took three days to pass by! But before we credit Alexander the Great with being the first saturation diver as well, we have to consider that his bell was probably an atmospheric observation bell since it was referred to as a glass case, covered with asses skins and provided with a door made fast with chains. Another version describes the bell as constructed of wood, fitted with glass windows and a lid impregnated with resin, wax and other substances to make it water tight. Whilst the accuracy of any of the accounts is questionable, it may at least be reasonable to presume that Alexander the Great made some sort of a dive in some sort of a bell.

This old book (2), from circa 1338-1410 CE, tells about Colimpha. See picture below.

Contrary to what is said about Colimpha above, no text by Aristoteles mentions Alexander the Great diving (and not a single letter is known (3) that Alexander would have sent to Aristoteles). Similarly, Parallel lives – Alexander (4), a comparative biography describing Alexanders character and written by Plutarchos, mentions neither divind nor a “Colimpha”. The Anabasis of Alexander (5), which is considered to be a reasonably credible source, and which is written by Arrian the Nikomedian, does not mention a diving bell either. We can thus argue that Colimpha is a product of imagination (6) eventhough it is known that upside-down jars (not diving bells) were used by some divers for air. Underwater apple trees and getting swallowed by a whale reveal the romantic and imaginary character of the book. What is very noteworthy though, is that the idea of a diving bell and the dream of diving in one did already exist in the 3rd century CE.

Military diving in the siege of Tyre in 331 BCE is documented in Anabassis of Alexander (5), book II, chapter XXI: “These stones Alexander determined to drag out of the sea; but this was a work accomplished with great difficulty, since it was performed from ships and not from the firm earth; especially as the Tyrians, covering their ships with mail, brought them alongside the anchors of the triremes, and cutting the cables of the anchors underneath, made anchoring impossible for the enemy’s ships. But Alexander covered many thirty-oared vessels with mail in the same way, and placed them athwart in front of the anchors, so that the assault of the ships was repelled by them. But, notwithstanding this, divers under the sea secretly cut their cables. The Macedonians then used chains to their anchors instead of cables, and let them down so that the divers could do no more harm.”


  1. J. Bevan. Diving bells through the centuries. Rubicon Foundation archive,.url:
  2. Marco Polo. Jehan de Grise [illustrator], Romance of Alexander. 1338-1410. Bodleian library. url:,t+,rsrs+0,rsps+10,fa+,so+ox%3Asort%5Easc,scids+,pid+ae9f6cca-ae5c-4149-8fe4-95e6eca1f73c,vi+84b96590-d837-4a8a-95b1-61c8f6177f3c
  3. Paul Halsall. The History Sourcebook: The Need for Source Criticism: A Letter from Alexander to Aristotle? 1998-1999. url:
  4. Plutarchos. Parallel lives – Alexander. url:
  5. Arrian Nikomedian. Anabasis of Alexander. url:
  6. Maddy (full name not known). Maddy’s ramblings: Alexander’s ventures underwater. 2018. url:

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Theophrastus writes about pearls in his book on precious stones, 4th century BCE.”

Theophrastus [371—287] speaks in his treatise on Precious Stones, and says, ‘But among the stones which are much admired is that which is called the pearl [Margaritae, Uniones], being transparent in its character; and they make very expensive necklaces of them. They are found in an oyster which is something like the pinna, only less. And in size the pearl resembles a large fish’s eye.’ “

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Perseus panics in Pella (Macedonian divers), 168 BCE.

Livius, in his History of Rome (1), recounts that as consul Quintus Marcius Philippus attaced Macedonia, king Perseus ordered the treasure of Pella to be thrown in the sea. [Philippus was consul during 186 and 169; Perseus flew to Pella in 168 and lost the third Macednian war]

Translation: “Perseus, having at length recovered his spirits, after the panic with which he had been seized, began to wish that obedience had not been paid to the orders which he had given in his fright, to throw the treasures at Pella into the sea, and to burn the naval arsenals at Thessalonica. Andronicus, indeed, whom he had sent to Thessalonica, deferred the execution of his order, leaving him time for repentance, which accordingly took place; but Nicias, less provident, threw into the sea what treasure he found at Pella: his error, however, turned to be not without remedy, inasmuch as the greatest part of that treasure was brought up again by divers. Nevertheless, Perseus was so very much ashamed of his terror on the occasion, that he caused the divers to be privately put to death, together with Andronicus and Nicias, that there might be no living witness of such dastardly conduct.

It must be noted that the Romans won the war and this is their version of what happened. The defeated enemy king is portrayed as an unfair indecisive coward. How surprising! A version by Perseus himself might be different, but none exists. What if the divers acted without permission?


  1. Titus Livius [59BC—17AD]. The History of Rome. Translated from the Original with Notes and Illustrations by George Baker. Book XLIV (44). Chapter X. University of Adelaide. url: also

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Urinatores – the divers of ancient Rome

Diving vocabulary in Latin

The latin-finnish dictionary by Adolf V. Streng (2) explains: urinator, oris m. [< urinari ‘to dive’] diver. The Latin word urinari stands for diving and urinator is a (male) diver. The text of Plinius also contain the forms urinans and urinantes. The feminine form urinatrix can only be found in modern litterature discussing birds. Surprisingly though, more specific terms exist, such as Solenista, a collector of a certain mussels, probably razor shells (see Athenaeus). Those shells can also be collected during low tide and not just by diving.

Diving took many forms

  • As we know from Assyria, Egypt and Greece, divers collected mother-of-pearl shells for decoration, oysters for food, sponges for washing, beauty, padding, and the cure of wounds. Some too self-confident fish were catched by hand (by pushing down the sharp dorsal fin). The collectors of razor clams were called solenistae, and while those can collected on sheltered beaches during low tide, they can also be dived (see Athenaeus). We could call all these professions dive-fishing.
  • Recovery of cargo from the bottom of the sea was also performed by divers: The freight of sunked ships, or goods thrown overboard to save a ship from harm, was recovered as is explicitly told in the sea law on jettisoned goods, Lex Rhodia de Iactu. The law tells who has right to compensation and how much should be paid. This activity took place in seaports and along rivers, such as in the Tiber harbour of Rome. This activity could be called salvage diving. Some tools were also used from the surface and without diving (1st and 2nd century CE or earlier)(5).
  • As is later explained in this post, divers were used for carrying both messages on rolled lead slates and food to cities under siege, for building or demolishing underwater barriers (in front of harbours to stop enemy ships from entering), for cutting anchor ropes of enemy ships or attaching ropes to them in order to steal them, and for freeing stuck anchors. All this could be called military diving. It is also worth remembering that Vegetius mentions (4) that every soldier and workman in the Roman army (including even miners) were taught to swim.
  • Greek litterature mentions divers, who dive in wells (obviously to repair and maintain them). The Romans obviously built piers, even using some concrete (1), and we can guess that divers were used to check the suitability of the seabed for poles/foundations and for other tasks. This hints at the existence of inspection divers and underwater construction workers (just like in military diving).

We have now concluded the existence of dive-fishers, salvage divers, military divers, inspection divers and underwater construction workers. Their equipment included weights for descent, ropes for pulling the diver back, olive oil for underwater vision, sponges over ears, salt water resistant bronze sickles or knives and even snorkels and sometimes upside down vases containing air. Romans used lead slates for carrying notes (at least once).

Epigraphs that mention divers

Six different epigraphs (3) (search term: urinat*) mention divers. Divers (urinator), grain dealers (frumentarius), money changers / bankers (mensarius) and fishers had much in common. At least they raised statues together for their patrons (patrono)(and to the emperor) for various merits. Many epigraphs have, unfortunately, sustained damage making their reading a challenge. I will not even attempt an accurate translation here.

Source: Epigraph datenbank
  • Ostium (a seaport near Rome): corpus urinatorum Ostiensium, The divers guild of Ostium. Years 151-150. AE 1982, 00131, EDCS-08600067
  • Ostium: To the patron of money changers (corpus mensorum), grain dealers (corpus frumentariorum) and divers (corpus urinatorum) guild. […]patrono / corporum mensorum / frumentariorum / et urinatorum decurioni adlecto / Africae Hippone Regio / corpus mercatorum / frumentariorum / q(uin)q(uennali) perpetuo[…]. EDCS-05700302 CIL 14, 00303
  • Rome: A monument raised by the guilds of divers and fishermen of river Tiber: Ti(berio) Claudio Esquil(ina) Severo / decuriali lictori patrono / corporis piscatorum et / urinator(um) q(uin)q(uennali) III eiusdem corporis / ob merita eius / quod hic primus statuas duas una / Antonini Aug(usti) domini n(ostri) aliam Iul(iae) / Augustae dominae nostr(ae) s(ua) p(ecunia) p(osuerit) / una cum Claudio Pontiano filio / suo eq(uite) Rom(ano) et hoc amplius eidem / corpori donaverit HS X mil(ia) n(ummum) / ut ex usuris eorum quodannis / natali suo XVII K(alendas) Febr(uarias) / sportulae viritim dividantur / praesertim cum navigatio sca/pharum diligentia eius adquisita / et confirmata sit ex decreto / ordinis corporis piscatorum / et urinatorum totius alv(ei) Tiber(is) / quibus ex s(enatus) c(onsulto) coire licet s(ua) p(ecunia) p(osuerunt) // Dedic(ata) XVI K(alendas) Sept(embres) Nummio Albino et Fulvio Aemiliano co(n)s(ulibus) / praesentibus / Iuventio Corneliano et / Iulio Felicissimo / patronis / quinquennalib(us) / Claudio Quintiano et / Plutio Aquilino / curatorib(us) / Aelio Augustale et / Antonio Vitale et / Claudio Crispo. EDCS-18100688 CIL 06, 01872
  • Rome: Fishers and divers… piscat(ori) urinat(ori) q(uin)q(uennali) III et q(uin)q(uennali) p(er)p(etuo) / patrono dignissimo. CIL 06, 29700 EDCS-ID: EDCS-17201682
  • Rome: The guild [in singular form!] of fishers and divers […]corpus piscator]um urinatorum[…]. CIL 06, 29702 EDCS-17201684
  • Rome: The guild [in singular form!] of fishers and divers paid with its own money[…]corpus piscatorum et urinatorum sua pecunia posuit[…] CIL 06, 40638 EDCS-00900360
Source: Epigraph datenbank
Source: Epigraph datenbank

Tiberio Claudio Esquilina Severo, decuriali lictori patrono,
corporis piscatorum et urinatorum quinquennali III eiusdem corporis,
ob merita eius,
quod hic primus statuas duas una Antonini Augusti domini nostri aliam Iuliae Augustae dominae nostrae
sua pecunia posuerit una cum Claudio Pontiano filio suo equite Romano et hoc amplius eidem corpori donaverit
HS X milia nummum ut ex usuris eorum quodannis natali suo XVII Kalendas Februarias sportulae viritim dividantur praesertim
cum navigatio scapharum diligentia eius adquisita et confirmata sit

ex decreto ordinis corporis piscatorum et urinatorum totius alvei Tiberis
quibus ex senatus consulto coire licet
sua pecunia posuerunt
Dedicata XVI Kalendas Septembres Nummio Albino et Fulvio Aemiliano consulibus praesentibus Iuventio Corneliano et Iulio Felicissimo patronis quinquennalibus Claudio Quintiano et Plutio Aquilino curatoribus Aelio Augustale et Antonio Vitale et Claudio Crispo

It is claimed that Flavius Vegetius (4) mentions military divers of Rome. I have not been able to locate that actual mention (using search term urinator). [There is however a book from 1532 containing his text and some medieval diving pictures (and dive barriers maybe and an unusable diving dress)].


  1. Alexandra Witze. Seawater is the secret to long-lasting Roman concrete. Nature news. 2017. url:
  2. Adolf Streng. Latin-Finnish dictionary.
  3. Manfred Clauss, Wolfgang A. Slaby, Anne Kolb, Barbara Woitas. Epigraph Datenbank Clauss / Slaby EDCS. url:
  4. Flavius Vegetius Renatus et alii scriptores antiqui, De Rei Militari, url:
  5. Galili, E. and Rosen, B. (2008), Ancient Remotely‐Operated Instruments Recovered Under Water off the Israeli Coast. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 37: 283-294. doi:10.1111/j.1095-9270.2008.00187.x url:

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Roman conquest of Hispania, the siege of Numantia, 134—133 BCE.

The city of Numantia is under siege but divers can smuggle food into the city. Scipio decides to build a barrier from logs with attached spear heads and knives. The river is said to be flowing fast. How did the divers manage it? Did they dive with the flow or against it along the shores where the current was slower? Did they dive during the night and did they use snorkels (not much cargo can be carried when diving on breath hold)? Aristoteles (Aristotle) wrote about snorkels (or devices similar to the elephants snout) centuries earlier.

Appian, Bellum Hispanicum XV:91 (1): Thus Scipio was the first general, as I think, to throw a wall around a city which did not shun a battle in the open field. However, the river Durius, which took its course through the fortifications, was very useful to the Numantines for bringing provisions and sending men back and forth, some diving and others concealing themselves in small boats, some making their way with sail-boats when a strong wind was blowing, or with oars aided by the current. As he was not able to span it on account of its breadth and swiftness, Scipio built two towers in place of a bridge. To each of these towers he moored large timbers with ropes and set them floating across the river. The timbers were stuck full of knives and spear-heads, which were kept constantly in motion by the force of the stream dashing against them, so that the enemy were prevented from passing covertly, either by swimming, or diving, or sailing in boats. Thus was accomplished what Scipio especially desired, namely, that nobody could have any dealings with them, nobody could come in, and they could have no knowledge of what was going on outside. Thus they would be in want of provisions and apparatus of every kind.


  1. Appian. Bellum Hispanicum, ch. XV:91. url:

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Divers of Pompeius (Pompey) remove a barrier from the mouth of the harbour of Oricum. Around 49 BCE.

Cassius Dio’s History of Rome, Volume II, Book 42, Chapter 12 (1): Caesar’s troops are chasing Pompeius (Pompey) fleet on its way to Egypt. During the trip Pompeius attacks Oricum and uses divers to remove barriers (sunken ships) from the mouth of the harbour. [-12-] Gnaeus Pompey first sailed about with the Egyptian fleet and overran Epirus, so-called, almost capturing Oricum. The commander of the place, Marcus Acilius,[73] had blocked up the entrance to the harbor by boats crammed with stones and about the mouth of it had raised towers on both sides, on the land, and on ships of burden. Pompey, however, had submarine divers scatter the stones that were in the vessels and when the latter had been lightened he dragged them out of the way, freed the passage, and next, after putting heavy-armed troops ashore on each half of the breakwater, he sailed in. He burned all the boats and most of the city […]


  1. Cassius Dio Cocceianus. History of Rome, Volume II, Book 42, Chapter 12. url:

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Caesar’s troops defeat Antonius’s troops at Mutina: Wetnotes (and other things). 43 BCE.

Dio’s History of Rome, Volume III, Book 46, Chapter 35: Decimus is surrounded by troops of Antonius (Antony). Allies send Decimus a message that help is underway. The message is delivered on a lead scroll carried to him by divers by night. Uninterrupted communication ensues.

Later he was entirely shut in by a wall; and Caesar, fearing he might be captured by storm or capitulate through lack of provisions, compelled Hirtius to join a relief party. […] by reason of the river, however, near Mutina and the guard beside it they found themselves unable to proceed farther. They wished, notwithstanding, even so to make known their presence to Decimus, that he might not in undue season make terms, and at first they tried sending signals from the tallest trees. But since he did not understand, they scratched a few words on a thin sheet of lead, and rolling it up like a piece of paper gave it to a diver to carry across under water by night. Thus Decimus learned at the same time of their presence and their promise of assistance, and sent them a reply in the same fashion, after which they continued uninterruptedly to communicate all their plans to each other.

Dio’s History of Rome, Volume V, Book 75, Chapter 12: Many, therefore, were the exploits and sufferings of the Byzantines, since for the entire space of three years they were besieged by the armaments of practically the whole world. A few of their experiences will be mentioned that seem almost marvelous. They captured, by making an opportune attack, some boats that sailed by and captured also some of the triremes that were in their opponents’ roadstead. This they did by having divers cut their anchors under water, after which they drove nails into the ship’s bottom and with cords attached thereto and running from friendly territory they would draw the vessel towards them. Hence one might see the ships approaching shore by themselves, with no oarsman nor wind to urge them forward.


  1. Cassius Dio Cocceianus. Rooman historia, Osa III, kirja 46, kappale 35. url:
  2. Cassius Dio Cocceianus. Rooman historia, Osa V, kirja 75, kappale 12. url:

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The fishing trip of Antonius and Cleopatra. 40—41 BCE.

Diving was not only used to make a living or to wage war. At least one practical joke is known to history. The biography of Antonius, chapter 29 (1), written by Plutarchos, tells as follows:

Now, to recount the greater part of his boyish pranks would be great nonsense. One instance will suffice. He was fishing once, and had bad luck, and was vexed at it because Cleopatra was there to see. He therefore ordered his fishermen to dive down and secretly fasten to his hook some fish that had been previously caught, and pulled up two or three of them. But the Egyptian saw through the trick, and pretending to admire her lover’s skill, told her friends about it, and invited them to be spectators of it on the following day. [4] So great numbers of them got into the fishing boats, and when Antony had let down his line, she ordered one of her own attendants to get the start of him by swimming to his hook and fastening on it a salted Pontic herring. Antony thought he had caught something, and pulled it up, whereupon there was great laughter, as was natural, and Cleopatra said: ‘Imperator, hand over thy fishing-rod to the fishermen of Pharos and Canopus; thy sport is the hunting of cities, realms, and continents.’


  1. Plutarchos, edited by Bernadotte Perrin. Antonius. Chapter 29. url:

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Oyster hunting from a depth of 20 fathoms (36m). 1st century BCE.

Isidore of Charax (1) in his description of Parthia says there is a certain island in the Persian Gulf where many pearls are found; and that round about the island there are rafts made of reeds, from which men dive into the sea to a depth of 20 fathoms and bring up double-shelled oysters. They say that when there are frequent thunderstorms and heavy rains, the oyster produces the most young, and they get the most, the best and the largest pearls; and in the winter the shells are accustomed to sink into holes in the bottom, but in the summer they swim about all night with their shells open, but they close in the daytime. And when they cling to stones and rocks in the waves they take root and then, remaining fixed, produce the pearls. These are engendered and nourished by something that adheres to their flesh. It grows in the mouth of the oyster and has claws and brings in food. It is like a small crab and is called “Guardian of the oyster.” Its flesh penetrates through the center of the shell like a root; the pearl being engendered close to it, grows through the solid portion of the shell and keeps growing as long as it continues to adhere to the shell. But when the flesh gets under the excrescence and cuts its way onward, it gently separates the pearl from the shell and then, when the pearl is surrounded by flesh, it is no longer nourished in such manner as to grow further, but the flesh makes it smoother, more transparent and more pure. And when the oyster lives at the bottom, it produces the clearest and largest pearls; but those that float on the surface, because they are affected by the rays of the sun, produce smaller pearls, of poorer color. The pearl divers run into danger when they thrust their hands straight into the open oyster, for it closes up and their fingers are often cut off, and sometimes they perish on the spot; but those who take them by thrusting their hands under from one side, easily pull the shells off from the rocks.


  1. Isidore of Charax, “Parthian stations by Isidore of Charax. An account of the overland trade route between the Levant and India in the first century BC. The Greek text with a translation and commentary by Wilfred H. Schoff.”, (Journey around Parthia; 20. (A fragment quoted from Athenæs, III, 46.) ) Transcribed from the Original London Edition, 1914, url:

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The Natural history by Plinius (23–79 CE)

Plinius the Elder mentions diving several times in his book Historia Naturalis.

  • Book II chapter XLII paragraph 42 explains the formation and structure of clouds. It also mentions that divers can see the sun at any depth.
  • Book II chapter CVI: Plinius tells at the end of the chapter (row 235) how olive oil that a diver sprinkles out of his mouth will help him see clearly under water: “omne oleo tranquillari (everything calms down with oil), et ob id (and because of that) urinantes ore spargere (divers sprinkle it out of their mouth) quoniam (because) mitiget naturam asperam lucemque deportet (~it makes it easier to see)”
  • Book IX chapter XLVIII:48 paragraph 91: Plinius tells how an octopus (lat. polypus eng. octopus) attacks a sailor in distress and drowns him.
  • Book IX chapter LXX:70 (or here): Plinius tells how a shiver of sharks can pose a threat to a sponge diver: “The number of dog-fish [camcularum =? canicularum] … beset the men… with grave danger…”.
  • A huge animal casts a shadow over the divers (urinantes) like a cloud and and blocks re-entry to the surface, unless it is scared off by a sharp spear. No such animal is know to Plinius and he thus blames the fear of dark. [Caniculus stands for a small dog. Hence, Dog-fish is an OK translation, but what species did he actually mean? Small-spotted catshark is too small to pose a danger; is it some swarming Dog-fish then?]. Plinius tells a long story about divers fighting with the sea beast (but just like Frost says about the writings of Oppian, it remains unclear what mediterranean creature could cause such a trouble. Maybe it is just a marketing trick?):
Divers have fierce fights with the dog-fish ; these attack their loins 
and heels and all the white parts of the body. The 
one safety lies in going for them and frightening 
them by taking the offensive: for a dog-fish is as 
much afraid of a man as a man is of it, and so they 
are on equal terms in deep water. When they come 
to the surface, then the man is in critical danger, as 
the policy of taking the offensive is not available 
while he is trying to get out of the water, and his 
only safety is in his comrades. These haul on the 
rope tied to his shoulders ; this, as he carries on the 
duel, he shakes with his left hand to give a signal 
of danger, while his right hand grasps his dagger 
and is occupied in fighting. Most of the time they 
haul gently, but when he gets near the boat, unless 
with a quick heave they suddenly snatch him out 
of the water, they have to look on while he is made 
away with. And often when divers have already 
begun to be hauled up they are snatched out of 
their comrades' hands, unless they have themselves 
supplemented the aid of those hauling by curling up 
into a ball. Others of the crew of course thrust 
out harpoons, but the vast beast is crafty enough to 
go under the vessel and so carry on the battle in 
safety. Consequently divers devote their whole atten- 
tion to keeping a watch against this disaster ; the most 
reliable token of safety is to have seen some flat-fish, 
which are never found where these noxious creatures 
are on account of which divers call them the holy fish.
  • Book XIX chapter XIX paragraph 19: Plinius writes about a strange new Greek invention. Epicuros has invented a garden only meant for comfort and relaxation. The Roman garden on the other hand provided its owner, even a poor one, with a livelihood. He then makes an ironical comment about how much better it is to dive to the depths of the sea to fetch oysters (ostrearum) [for pearls] at risk of shipweck. Catching birds in far-away countries or hunting beasts at the risk of ones very life similarly receive heavy criticism. Plinius clearly prefers the usefull garden.


  1. Plinius Maior. Historia naturalis. Book II Chapter XLII:42. url:
  2. Plinius Maior. Historia naturalis. Book II Chapter CVI (at the end; row 235). url:
  3. Plinius Maior. Historia naturalis. Book IX Chapter XLVIII:48 Paragraph 91. url:
  4. Plinius Maior. Book IX Chapter LXX:70. url:
  5. Plinius Maior. Historia naturalis. Book XIX Chapter XIX (19) . url:

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100—200 CE Oppian, Halieutica (Ἁλιευτικά, Halieutiká, fishing):

Oppian was a greco-roman poet and contemporary to Marcus Aurelius. He lived in the second sentury CE. Oppians book about fishermen tells about the dangerous profession of a sponge diver. It should be noted that he mentions spitting oil (probably olive oil, based on the works of Aristoteles) out of mouth. Other notable mentions are surface rope, rope signals and a sea beast.

446-449-451 (1) ( Dive fishing by hand: Moreover, a diver, skilled in the works of the sea, without any snare attacks and captures some fishes with his hands alone, traversing the path of the sea as if it were dry land: to wit, the Sargue which trembles with terror and the craven Sciaena. The Sargues in their fear cower and crowd together in the depths of the sea and they lie in piles athwart one another, while their backs bristle with spines erect, even as farmers fence all round with close-net stakes the hedge that runs about a vineyard: a great trouble for robbers; and none could enter in, since the stakes bar the way. Even so no one would readily touch the Sargues nor lay a hand upon them, for their dark spines bristle about them with close-set jutting points. But the skilful man should dive speedily under the hidden places of the sea and observe the Sargues all round — where lies the head and where the tail — and putting his hand over their heads he should gently stroke their spines above and press and bend them down. The Sargues remain just as they were, clustered together and unmoving, trusting in their sharp defences. Then the man takes two of them, one in either hand, and comes to the surface again, having accomplished a deed of utmost cunning. […]

508 (601-623) (2): Than the task of the Sponge-cutters I declare that there is none worse nor any work more woeful for men.

510 (624-649) (3): And if they see a Beauty-fish, then great courage comes into their hearts; for where these range there never yet hath any dread Sea-monster appeared nor noxious beast nor hurtful thing of the sea but always they delight in clean and harmless paths: wherefore also men have named it the Holy Fish. Rejoicing in it they hasten to their labours. A man is girt with a long rope above his waist and, using both hands, in one he grasps a heavy mass of lead and in his right hand he holds a sharp bill, while in the jaws of his mouth he keeps white oil. Standing upon the prow he scans the waves of the sea, pondering his heavy task and the infinite water. His comrades incite and stir him to his work with encouraging words, even as a man skilled in foot- racing when he stands upon his mark. But when he takes heart of courage, he leaps into the eddying waves and as he springs the force of the heavy grey lead drags him down. Now when he arrives at the bottom, he spits out the oil, and it shines brightly and the gleam mingles with the water, even as a beacon showing its eye in the darkness of the night.

It is noteworthy that it is a lead weight and not a stone; Halieutica contains several description of diving with lead weight and [bronze] knives. Rodriguez-Alvarez too, mentions in his research paper bronze knives dated back to the 6th century BCE — the iron age. He hypothesizes them to be divers tools: the older and “inferior” metal was more resistant to sea water.

512 (650-669) (4): Approaching the rocks he sees the Sponges which grow on the ledges of the bottom, fixed fast to the rocks; and report tells that they have breath in them, even as other things that grow upon the sounding rocks. Straightway rushing upon them with the bill in his stout hand, like a mower, he cuts the body of the Sponges, and he loiters not, but quickly shakes the rope, signalling to his comrades to pull him up swiftly. For hateful blood is sprinkled straightway from the Sponges and rolls about the man, and many a times the grievous fluid, clinging to his nostrils, chokes the man with its noisome breath. Therefore swift as thought he is pulled to the surface; and beholding him escaped from the sea one would rejoice at once and grieve and pity: so much are his weak members relaxed and his limbs unstrung with fear and distressful labour. Often when the sponge-cutter has leapt into the deep waters of the sea and won his loathly and unkindly spoil, he comes up no more, unhappy man, having encountered some huge and hideous beast. Shaking repeatedly the rope he bids his comrades pull him up. And the mighty Sea-monster and the companions of the fisher pull at his body rent in twain, a pitiful sight to see, still yearning for ship and shipmates. And they in sorrow speedily leave those waters and their mournful labour and return to land, weeping over the remains of their unhappy comrade.

Caeretan hydria, a vase for carrying water, 520-510 BCE. Stavros S. Niarchos collection.
A human figure fights a sea monster. Could the thing “on its head” be the other fin? The man is holding a sickle and a weight.
Photo: Lila Marangou, 1995.

What beast of the sea Oppian means remains unclear. The interpretation that Frost makes — that Oppian wanted to further sales with a bit of drama — is credible, although great white sharks and shortfin mako sharks lived in the mediterranean… Archaeological findings (6) prove the existence of sea-beasts and a vase exists (see above) that depics a man fighting with a sea-beast. Rodriguez-Alvarez too, touched this topic in his research (pages 5-6). When we look at the sea-beast on the vase, we must remember that it is possible that the perspective is not quite perfect, and maybe there are two fins indeed, one on each side. The artist was probably not a diver or fisher either, so he painted what was told, not seen.

Feeling pity for the diver after his dive seems a little bit exaggerated too — these were professional sponge divers after all. The text mentions bleeding which would be indicative of pressure equalization problems. Such barotrauma is credible given the depth of 4 to 40 meters at which sponges grow — especially given repeated diving.

A divers submersion weight (made of stone), skandalopetra, which has a certain resemblance to ancient anchors. Having the same manufacturing process would obviously have been a benefit. Photo: Rodriguez-Alvarez. Used here with permission.


  1. Oppian, fl. 2nd cent; Colluthus, of Lycopolis; Tryphiodorus; Mair, A. W. (Alexander William), “Oppian, Colluthus, Tryphiodorus, with an English translation by A.W. Mair”; online: (->451)
  2. Oppian, fl. 2nd cent; Colluthus, of Lycopolis; Tryphiodorus; Mair, A. W. (Alexander William), “Oppian, Colluthus, Tryphiodorus, with an English translation by A.W. Mair”; online:
  3. Oppian, fl. 2nd cent; Colluthus, of Lycopolis; Tryphiodorus; Mair, A. W. (Alexander William), “Oppian, Colluthus, Tryphiodorus, with an English translation by A.W. Mair”; online:
  4. Oppian, fl. 2nd cent; Colluthus, of Lycopolis; Tryphiodorus; Mair, A. W. (Alexander William), “Oppian, Colluthus, Tryphiodorus, with an English translation by A.W. Mair”; online:
  5. Frost, F. (1968). Scyllias: Diving in Antiquity. Greece and Rome,15(2), 180-185. doi:10.1017/S0017383500017551, url: [requires an account]
  6. Papadopoulos, John & Ruscillo, Deborah. (2002). A Ketos in Early Athens: An Archaeology of Whales and Sea Monsters in the Greek World. American Journal of Archaeology. 106. 187. 10.2307/4126243.

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The banquet of the learned, Athenaeus, 200—300 CE, references to lost litterature

Athenaeus of Naucratis was born in Egypt and lived in Rome during the third century CE. His book Deipnosophistae (1,2), The banquet of the learned, describes a banquet where wine is consumed and discussion topics range from sexuality to culinarism. What makes this literary work important are its countless quotes and references of old long-lost litterature. Deipnosophistae also makes countless mentions of oysters, which all used to be known by one name only (kr. ὄστρειον). A profession (lat. solenista) is also mentioned. These collectors of razor shells (solenoidea…) could have collected the shells during low tide but also by diving. Oysters are mentioned as a delicacy, and they can live quite deep, hence requiring diving. Athenaeus talks less about sponges and only mentions wiping perfume off the face with a sponge and the usage of sponges to soften chairs (and how sponges were considered to have an erotic effect).

  • Book I, chapter 22: Athenaeus writes about oyster fishing that is mentioned in Ilias book XVI: “However, they did eat not only fish, but oysters; though this sort of food is neither very wholesome nor very nice, but the oysters lie at the bottom of the sea, and one cannot get at them by any other means, except by diving to the bottom.
  • Book III chapter 40: “And the people who collect this sort of oyster [lives from maximum low tide to a depth of -60 meters] are called Solenistæ, as Phænias the Eresian [ 332 eaa.] relates in his book which is entitled, The Killing of Tyrants by way of Punishment “
  • Book III chapter 45 cites books that discuss mother-of-pearl oysters:
    • Theophrastus [371—287] speaks in his treatise on Precious Stones, and says, ‘But among the stones which are much admired is that which is called the pearl [Margaritae, Uniones], being transparent in its character; and they make very expensive necklaces of them. They are found in an oyster which is something like the pinna, only less. And in size the pearl resembles a large fish’s eye.’ “
    • Androsthenes, too, in his Voyage along the Coast of India…” [Androsthenes of Thasos?]… “And they have the purple-fish, and a great multitude of other kinds of oysters. There is also one kind which is peculiar to those seas, which the natives call the berberi, from which the precious stone called the pearl comes. And this pearl is very expensive in Asia, being sold in Persia and the inland countries for its weight in gold. And the appearance of the oyster which contains it is much the same as that of the cteis oyster, only its shell is not indented, but smooth and shaggy. And it has not two ears as the cteis oyster has, but only one. The stone is engendered in the flesh of the oyster, just as the measles are in pork. And it is of a very golden colour, so as mot easily to be distinguished from gold when it is put by the side of it; but some pearls are of a silvery appearance, and some are completely white like the eyes of fish.”
    • Chares of Mitylene [belonging to the court of Alexander the Great], in the seventh book of his Histories of Alexander…”: “There is caught in the Indian sea, and also off the coast of Armenia, and Persia, and Susiana, and Babylonia, a fish very like an oyster; and it is large and oblong, containing within the shell flesh which is plentiful and white, and very fragrant, from which the men pick out white bones which they call the pearl. And they make of them necklaces and chains for the hands and feet, of which the Persians are very fond, as are the Medes and all Asiatics, esteeming them as much more valuable than golden ornaments.”
  • Book V, chapter 13: Plutarchos writes that Matron the parodist gives an accurate description of the Attican banquet and the hospitality of Xenocles. An excerpt in verse: “But me the solid meats did rather please; / Rich oysters guarded in their solid shell, / While to Phœnician-brine I said farewell; / And threw away the urchin’s tasteless meat” and later: ” Then the sea thrushes young and fierce, who dive / Mid the deep rocks and tear their prey alive.”
  • Book VII chapter 17 mentions Aristoteles: “But Aristotle, in his treatise on the Habits of Animals, says — ‘They say that wherever the anthias is found, there there is no beast or fish of prey ever seen; and accordingly the collectors of sponge use him as a guide, and dive boldly wherever he is found, and call him the sacred fish.’ “
  • Book VII, chapter 47 includes the Glaucus myth: But Mnaseas [late 3rd century BCE], in the third book of his history of the Affairs of Europe, calls him the son of Anthedon and Alcyone; and says that he was a sailor and an excellent diver, and that he was surnamed Pontius. Glaucus gained immortality by eating a magical herb. This brings to mind the inconclusive dive of Gilgamesh, where he tried to regain youth by collecting a magical plant from the bottom of the sea. Whatever the origins of the myth may be, it is a myth about a skillful diver! There is more on Glaugus in the Metamorphoses by Ovidius.
  • Book XIV, chapter 39 mentions both oysters as food and Oyster shells as instruments.


  1. Athenaeus (of Naucratis). The Deipnosophists. Or Banquet Of The Learned Of Athenaeus. London. Henry G. Bohn, York Street, Covent Garden. 1854. url:
  2. Athenaeus (of Naucratis). The deipnosophists. url

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Codex Iuris Civilis, 529-534

Corpus Iuris Civilis is a legal corpus in three volumes. It was published in 529—534 CE. on the order of emperor Justitianus. The first volume (Codex Justitianus; 529) comprises old laws still considered to be relevant and thus kept. The second volume (Digesta; 533) is a selection of writings from important jurists now made into law. In it we can find (book 14; 2nd chapter; 4th paragraph) some interesting legal consideration of liability in various situations (1). The consideration is based on the ancient Rhodian sea law.


  1. Codex Iuris Civilis, Digesta, kirja 14. “DOMINI NOSTRI SACRATISSIMI PRINCIPIS IUSTINIANI IURIS ENUCLEATI EX OMNI VETERE IURE COLLECTI DIGESTORUM SEU PANDECTARUM liber quartus decimus”. Luku “14.2.0. De lege Rodia [Rhodia] de iactu“. Kappale 14.2.4 Callistratus libro secundo quaestionum. v.533. url:

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Sites referenced

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(c) Ralf Strandell, 2019

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