Nauplios—An Ancient Greek Human Trafficker Of Myth

An intriguing character named Nauplios appeared from time to time in the tales of mythology about the gods and early hero-kings of the ancient Greek world. He was reportedly a son of the sea god Poseidon, and therefore—like father, like son—Nauplios, too, had a great affinity for the sea. As demigods go, however, Nauplios appeared to be more human than most, for no visible godly abilities or characteristics ever seemed to manifest in him, except for perhaps an extremely long lifespan. Even when it came to his father’s domain of the sea, Nauplios did not use magic or supernatural vehicles in his travels. Instead, he used a common ship, just like any other human. Nauplios’ lack of godly powers, nevertheless, was made up for by his impressive seamanship and knowledge of navigation. In terms of sea combat, he could usually outmaneuver any ships he came across, and in regards to the geography of the Mediterranean, he seemed to know how to chart his way to any port city that was accessible from the sea. These battle skills and navigational talents would prove useful for Nauplios’ eventual infamous career as a pirate and a human trafficker.

As Nauplios usually appeared as a side character, often hired by one tyrannical king or another to make people disappear to a distant country, the character of Nauplios was never really given a detailed description. On the man’s parentage and piracy (or at least general villainy), the mythographer known as Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st and 2nd century) briefly wrote, “Amymone bore a son, Nauplios, to Poseidon. This Nauplios lived to a great age, sailing the seas, and using beacon fires to draw those who came across him to their death” (Apollodorus, Library, 2.1.5). During his voyages, and between his attacks on fellow seafarers, Nauplios often looked for people that he could capture or buy and later sell. As was hinted at earlier, kings of coastal city-states were a frequent source for Nauplios’ human merchandise, and strangely enough, the people that these kings sold to Nauplios were often their own daughters. This was the case for the tales of King Aleos of Tegea and King Catreus of Crete.

Nauplios was contacted by King Aleos of Tegea after the king was enraged at his daughter, Auge, who had become pregnant after an encounter with the famous hero, Heracles. In one telling of the story recorded by Hecataeus (c. 6th century BCE), Auge and Heracles fell in love and had an affair. Yet, unfortunately for Auge, later writers such as Diodorus Siculus (c. 1st century BCE), Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st and 2nd century CE) and Pausanias (c. 2nd century CE) usually followed a different varint of the tale that claimed Auge’s encounter with Heracles was anything but consensual. Diodorus Siculus wrote that Heracles “had done violence to her” (Library, 4.33), whereas Pausanius claimed Auge was “outraged by Heracles” (Description of Greece, 8.47.4). Apollodorus more bluntly stated that Heracles “debauched” or “raped” the princess (Library, 2.7.4). Whatever the case, once Heracles was done with his unheroic deed, he promptly hit the road to continue on with his adventures, leaving Auge alone to face the wrath of her father, who was furious regardless of how his daughter had become pregnant. The unreasonable king, after discovering his daughter’s pregnancy, apparently considered having the princess executed, but he eventually settled on selling Auge to the trafficker, Nauplios, who happened to be nearby while the drama was ongoing. On this, Apollodorus wrote, “As for Auge, her father handed her over to Nauplios, son of Poseidon, to sell in foreign parts, and Nauplios gave her to Teuthras, king of Teuthrania, who made her his wife” (Apollodorus, Library, 2.7.4).

As for King Catreus of Crete’s similar incident of selling his daughters to Nauplios, his reasoning was vastly different from King Aleos’ own motivations of anger and retribution. Instead, Catreus’ decision was a desperate bid for self-preservation. As it happened, King Catreus was one of the many ancient Greek mythological figures whose story was told in the recurring motif that was framed around a father who was fated to be killed by one of his own children. Like others destined to meet this fate, Catreus was given forewarning of his doom in the form of a prophesy, and this knowledge propelled Catreus to separate himself from his children at all costs. As the stories go, King Catreus had at least four children—three daughters, named Aerope, Clymene and Apemosnyne, as well as a son named Althaimenes. The last two, Apemosnye and Althaimenes, were said to have willingly sailed off to Rhodes in hopes of thwarting the prophesy. The other children, Aerope and Clymene, were evidently clingy and refused to leave Crete of their own volition. It was the continuing presence of these potentially dangerous daughters that eventually caused King Catreus to contact the human trafficker, Nauplios. The ensuing transaction was described by the aforementioned Apollodorus, who wrote, “Catreus gave Aerope and Clymene to Nauplios, to be sold in foreign lands. Pleisthenes [or Atreus] married one of the sisters, Aerope, and fathered two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaos, while Nauplios married Clymene and became the father of Oiax and Palamedes” (Apollodorus, Library, 3.2.2).

As the quote conveyed, Nauplios decided not to sell Clymene, but instead married her and they raised a family. Clymene, however, was not the only woman in Nauplios’ long life. He was also said to have married at least two other women, named Philyra and Hesione. The chronology of these marriages, like the chronology of Nauplios’ life in general, is vague and difficult to place on a timeline. It has also been suggested that instead of there being just one incredibly long-lived demigod named Nauplios, there may have instead been a family of successive seafarers, each named Nauplios, who carried on their family trade of piracy and human trafficking for generations. Whatever the case, if an ancient Greek figure of myth wanted to buy or sell a human being, at the top of their list of contacts would have been a sailor named Nauplios, who was descended from Poseidon. As for how Nauplios may have eventually died, according to the scholar Apollodorus (who preferred the narrative of Nauplios being a single long-lived individual), the incredibly old seafarer ultimately met his death in a shipwreck.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture attribution: (Scene on a fan, dated circa second quarter of the 19th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).



  • Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).

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