Reports of the Ancient Greeks and Romans
Classical historians and writers believed that the race was diminishing in stature. This is an independent verification of Scripture, because the Greeks and Romans would not have read the Hebrew Scriptures. Their belief that giants had preceded them was part of their own history and cultural heritage. They uncovered giant human skeletons so often that they developed a couple of theories to explain them. These were: 1) that when the world was young it was able to produce larger people, and 2) there was war between the giants and the gods—and the gods wiped out the giants.
Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79—he was killed during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79) wrote a thirty-seven-volume treatment of Natural History, completed in A.D. 77, in which he quoted many ancient sources that have since been lost. He wrote: “It is a matter of observation that the stature of the entire human race is becoming smaller.” He observed that giant skeletons had been dug up and also mentioned that the Greek poet Homer (ca. 800 B.C.) “nearly 1000 years ago never ceased to lament that mortals were of smaller stature than in the old days.”
Diodorus Siculus was a Greek historian who lived in Sicily during the first century before Christ. He traveled to Egypt and studied Egyptian history. In Bibliotheca (“Library”), he writes that “[t]he Egyptian myths say that in the time of Isis [a goddess] there were beings of enormous size whom the Greeks call Giants, but in Egypt they were called [name missing]. Their colossal forms are depicted on temple walls being defeated by the allies of Osiris. Some say the giants were born of the earth when the origin of life, still rising up from the earth, was still recent. . . . They started a war against the gods . . . and were completely exterminated.”[i]
Some giant remains were found in mounds and coffins, obvious artifacts of human burial. In Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Philostratus (A.D. 170-245) quotes Apollonius as saying, “I agree that giants once existed” because “gigantic bodies are revealed all over the earth when mounds are broken open,” but “it is mad to believe they fought the gods.”[ii]
One famous example of finding large bones in a coffin is described by Herodotus (484?-420? B.C.), one of the most reliable ancient historians. In The Histories, Herodotus describes an incident in which a blacksmith told of discovering a ten-foot-long coffin while digging a well in his back yard. “I couldn’t believe that men were bigger than they are today, so I opened it—and there was the skeleton as big as the coffin! I measured it and then shoveled the earth back.” The blacksmith told his tale to a retired soldier named Lichas. Lichas concluded that the giant bones must have been the body of Orestes, son of Agamemnon, king of Mycenae. According to Herodotus, Lichas rented the smith’s yard, dug up the grave, collected the bones, and took them to Sparta.[iii]
Pausanias (A.D. 143-176) was a writer of travel guides. His ten-volume work, Periegesis Hellados (roughly, Description of Greece), in which he described the important Greek cities of his time, has proven an invaluable help to modern archeologists. Sir James Frazer said of Pausanias, “without him the ruins of Greece would for the most part be a labyrinth without a clue, a riddle without an answer.” Pausanias wrote, “[o]ff the city of Miletus is the island of Lade, with some baby islands broken off from it. They call one of the islets Asterios, and they say Asterios is buried on it. Asterios is the son of Anax, the son of the Earth [a giant]. That corpse is not an inch less than fifteen feet tall. Another thing that surprised me was this: a mound broke open in a storm near a small city in upper Lydia called the Doors of Temenos, and some bones appeared. You would think they were human by their formation, but you would never have thought it from the huge size. At once the story got about that this was the body of Geryon. . . . When I opposed them and said that Geryon was in Cadiz, . . . then the Lydian religious officials revealed the true story. It was the body of Hyllos the son of Earth, and the river Hyllos was named after him.”[iv]
Later in the same work, Pausanias describes a site near the Alpheios River. “[T]he Arcadians say the legendary battle of gods and giants took place here . . . Giants were mortal and not a divine race. . . The story of giants having serpents instead of feet is ridiculous. . . . The Romans diverted . . . the Syrian river Orontes. . . . When the old riverbed drained they found a coffin more than 10 cubits [15 feet] long and the corpse was the size of the coffin, and human in every detail.”[v]
The Greeks interpreted the giant bones as being the remains of the heroes of their own myths. Philostratus, in a book entitled On Heroes, wrote that when a Phoenician merchant doubts that ancient heroes “were 15 feet tall,” the grape-farmer of the Gallipoli Peninsula replies, “My grandfather said that the grave of Ajax was destroyed by the sea [near Rhoeteum] and a skeleton came to light about 16 feet tall. He said that the Emperor Hadrian laid it out for burial, embraced and kissed some of the bones, and built a tomb for it in Troy.”[vi]
Plutarch (A.D. 46-119), in Theseus, writes that the distant era of heroes “produced a race of humans who for sheer strength . . . were indefatigable and far surpassed our human scale. . . . Some of these creatures were destroyed by Hercules.”[vii]
Giant bones were displayed in various places in the ancient world. Pausanias tells us, in Description of Greece, that, “[a]t the sanctuary of Asklepios . . . the bones they worship at the training ground are enormous but human.”[viii]
Clement, an early Christian bishop of Rome, tells us in his book Recognitions (ca. A.D. 96) that, “[t]he giants [were] men of immense bodies, whose bones of enormous size are still shown in certain places for confirmation of their existence.”[ix]
The emperor Augustus established a paleontological museum at his villa on Capri. At Sallust’s Gardens in Rome, he exhibited the bodies of male and female giants, which were named Pusio and Secundilla, and were each over ten feet tall.[x]
Augustine (A.D. 354-430) writes, in the City of God, that, “[s]ome people refuse to believe that [in previous ages] men’s bodies were of much larger size than they are now . . . In those days the earth used to produce larger bodies. . . . As for the size of the bodies, skeptics are generally persuaded by the evidence in graves uncovered by the ravages of time, the violence of streams, or various other occurrences. For incredibly large bones of the dead have been found in them or dislodged from them.” He also mentions that Homer and the Roman poet Virgil also believed that men were larger in former times.[xi]
Italian author Giambattista Vico, who wrote in the early eighteenth century, was well acquainted with the classical writings on giants. He wrote that:
After the flood, these giants were scattered throughout the earth. We have seen that such giants are found in Greek mythology; and Latin historians unwittingly confirm their existence in ancient Italy. For they write that the most ancient peoples of Italy, known as the Aborigines, called themselves ‘autochthonous,’ which is synonymous with ‘sons of Earth’, which to the Greeks and Romans meant nobles. Appropriately, the Greeks called the sons of Earth ‘giants,’ just as their myths called the Earth the mother of giants.
* * *
And the Bible mentions entire peoples called the Emim and Zamzummim, names which Hebrew scholars interpret as meaning giants, one of whom was Nimrod. The Bible also describes the giants who lived before the flood as ‘mighty men which were of old, men of renown.’ This reduction of the giants’ stature must have continued until the civilized age of the nations. This is shown by the enormous weapons of the ancient heroes which, according to Suetonius, Augustus assembled in his museum, together with the bones and skulls of ancient giants.[xii]
Clearly, giant bones are well attested in classical antiquity. The ancients’ belief that the earth nourished larger humans and animals when it was young is not far from the truth. The myth that there was a war between the gods and the giants in which the gods destroyed the giants is likely a distorted version of the biblical truth that God was forced to destroy the giant antediluvian race.
The usual explanation for these ancient accounts is that the giant bones were not human but were from extinct Pleistocene mammals like the mammoth and mastodon and perhaps from extinct reptiles.[xiii] The ancients did sometimes confuse the remains of mammoths and other creatures for giant human bones, but not every account of giant human remains can be explained away as a case of misidentification. That would seem especially unlikely in cases where the bones were found in coffins or mounds—unmistakable artifacts of human burial—or were on display in urban areas for long periods, where they could have been examined by physicians and other learned men. Again, there is no reason to believe that the classical Greek and Roman sources—except perhaps for Clement and Augustine—would have wanted to support the biblical teaching of giants.
[i]. Mayor, Adrienne, The First Fossil Hunters, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press) at 263, citing Diodorus of Sicily, Library, 1.26.
[ii]. Mayor, at 270, citing Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, 5.16.
[iii]. Mayor, at 264, 273, citing Herodotus, The Histories, 1.67-68, Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 7.73-75.
[iv]. Mayor, at 267, citing Pausanias, Guide to Greece, 1.35.5-6.
[v]. Mayor, at 268, citing Pausanius, Guide to Greece, 8.29.1-4.
[vi]. Mayor, at 270, citing Philostratus, On Heroes, 7.9.
[vii]. Mayor, at 276, citing Plutarch, Theseus, 6.
[viii]. Mayor, at 267, citing Pausanius, Guide to Greece, 3.22.9.
[ix]. Mayor, at 263, citing, Clement of Rome, Recognitions, 1.29.
[x]. Mayor, at 143, 144, 273.
[xi]. Mayor, at 261, citing Augustine, City of God, 15.9. The entire passage from City of God, book 15, chapter nine:
“Wherefore no one who considerately weighs facts will doubt that Cain might have built a city, and that a large one, when it is observed how prolonged were the lives of men, unless perhaps some skeptic take exception to this very length of years which our authors ascribe to the antediluvians and deny that this is credible. And so, too, they do not believe that the size of men’s bodies was larger then than now, though the most esteemed of their own poets, Virgil, asserts the same, when he speaks of that huge stone which had been fixed as a landmark, and which a strong man of those ancient times snatched up as he fought, and ran, and hurled, and cast it,- ‘Scarce twelve strong men of later mould That weight could on their necks uphold.’ thus declaring his opinion that the earth then produced mightier men. And if in the more recent times, how much more in the ages before the world-renowned deluge? But the large size of the primitive human body is often proved to the incredulous by the exposure of sepulchers, either through the wear of time or the violence of torrents or some accident, and in which bones of incredible size have been found or have rolled out. I myself, along with some others, saw on the shore at Utica a man’s molar tooth of such a size, that if it were cut down into teeth such as we have, a hundred, I fancy, could have been made out of it. But that, I believe, belonged to some giant. For though the bodies of ordinary men were then larger than ours, the giants surpassed all in stature. And neither in our own age nor any other have there been altogether wanting instances of gigantic stature, though they may be few. The younger Pliny, a most learned man, maintains that the older the world becomes, the smaller will be the bodies of men. And he mentions that Homer in his poems often lamented the same decline; and this he does not laugh at as a poetical figment, but in his character of a recorder of natural wonders accepts it as historically true. But, as I said, the bones which are from time to time discovered prove the size of the bodies of the ancients, and will do so to future ages, for they are slow to decay. But the length of an antediluvian's life cannot now be proved by any such monumental evidence. But we are not on this account to withhold our faith from the sacred history, whose statements of past fact we are the more inexcusable in discrediting, as we see the accuracy of its prediction of what was future. And even that same Pliny tells us that there is still a nation in which men live 200 years. If, then, in places unknown to us, men are believed to have a length of days which is quite beyond our own experience, why should we not believe the same of times distant from our own? Or are we to believe that in other places there is what is not here, while we do not believe that in other times there has been anything but what is now?”
[xii]. Giambattista Vico, New Science, translated by David Marsh (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), pp. 140-142.
[xiii]. See, e.g., Mayor, at 77-83, 255-259; Adams, Frank Dawson, The Birth and Development of the Geological Sciences (Baltimore, MD: Williams & Wilkins, 1938), pp. 14, 255, 256.