Ancient Geography: Questions and Issues

views updated

Ancient Geography: Questions and Issues



Flat or Globular?. From the time of the fourth-century philosopher Anaximander, the ancients held to the belief that the earth was a globe. Until the work of Ptolemy in the second century c.e., most writers also believed that the inhabited world was a vast island surrounded by Ocean. The idea was not completely rejected until the time of Ptolemy, who speculated that there must be unknown lands beyond Asia. In the second century b.c.e. Crates of Mallos had already advanced the idea, though with incredible arguments, that the inhabited world of Europe, North Africa, and Asia was not the only inhabitable place on the globe. As Crates’s theory had it, the globe could be divided into four regions, of which only one was known by actual exploration, the one that contained the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Although Crates placed unbelievable, mythical people in the remaining three quadrants (which damages his credibility), theories such as his encouraged speculation about the possibility of unexplored places and mythical peoples. So, in the ancient mind the inhabited world constituted only a portion of the globe. The only hindrances to exploring the unknown regions were climate, distance, and resources.

Maps. Owing to the advent of mathematical geography with the writings of Eratosthenes, the mapping of the inhabited world became more precise during this period. Astrological observations led to the innovation of mapping distances through solar and lunar measurements, and although it would take centuries to perfect the tools of land measurement, maps were more precise, or at least useable, because of the advances of mathematical geography. Better maps meant greater knowledge of the inhabited world, and the result of this knowledge was the increased power of the Roman Empire.

Early Geographic Study. Eratosthenes, the third-century b.c.e. geographer, wrote a seminal thesis on geography in three books, which includes the title Peri těs

anameirěseös těs gěs (“On the Measurements of the Earth”),a work that, although subsequent authors regarded it as pivotal, unfortunately survives through citations of it in other works. Eratosthenes seems to have distinguished between the world of the epic poet Homer, where the fabrication of mythical places limited geographical knowledge, and the periplous, a physical exploration of distant places. For Eratosthenes, geography as a study begins with Scylax, whom Darius I sent to explore the Indus River valley (in modern-day Pakistan) at the close of the sixth century b.c.e. Strabo, writing three centuries later, would reject Eratosthenes’ thesis in this regard, establishing Homer as the founder of geographical inquiry. Whatever the case, Eratosthenes was an innovator in the study of geography. He pioneered the field of mathematical geography through the use of sundials and land measures, and he estimated the circumference of the earth with these tools. More precisely, Eratosthenes measured the summer solstice at two different geographical points (Syene, present-day Aswan in Egypt, and Alexandria). In this way he was able to determine the degree of latitude between these locations and others. His measurements were based on one central parallel from the Pillars of Heracles (Gibraltar) to India.

The Inhabited World. Like many of his predecessors (with the exception of Herodotus in the fifth century b.c.e.), Eratosthenes conceived of the oikoumeně gě, the “inhabited world,” as a large island mass surrounded by water called Ocean. He drafted the earth in this way, and the notion was not corrected until the second century c.e. with the research of the geographer Ptolemy. Strabo ultimately faulted Eratosthenes for incorrect measurements. As one example, Eratosthenes apparently elongated the latitude of the inhabited world and under-estimated its longitude, shrinking Africa and Northern Europe. He based his measurements on the Greek stadion (somewhere between 175 and 200 meters in length); accuracy would depend on the interpretation of a unit of measure.

Ethnography. In addition to his work on the physical proportions and mathematical measurements of lands Eratosthenes also tackles the subject of ethnography in his history of geography. Despite criticizing him for faulty measurements, Strabo does praise Eratosthenes for not indulging in unfounded assertions regarding distant places and people, a vice that he attributes to many other geographers.


Many of the Hellenistic geographers were somehow connected to Stoic philosophy. Eratosthenes was trained by Ariston of Chios, a student of the founder of the philosophical sect of Stoicism, Zeno. Posidonius studied under the noted Stoic philosopher Panaetius, and Strabo, perhaps under Posidonius’s way, converted to the Stoic school of philosophy. The Stoics (named after the Stoa Poikilě, a public hall in Athens where Zeno taught) held the doctrine that the sophos (Greek) or sapiens (Latin), the “wise man,” could be virtuous by living in accordance with phusis (Greek) or natura (Latin), “nature.” Originating in the political unrest in Greece that followed Alexander’s death in 323 b.c.e., the Stoic doctrine in its first manifestations turned its adherents away from social concerns and toward aretě (Greek) or virtus (Latin), “virtue,” which they argued could be found within the individual and is paralleled in the order of the cosmos. Living in accordance with nature promotes an understanding both of one’s own nature, or character, and of nature itself, the physical world that transcends political circumstances. Geography is one of the many academic disciplines that the Stoic ideal of turning inward—and away from politics—encourages.

Stoicism was an important doctrine of the time because, unlike Scepticism or Cynicism, it held that truth could be found in nature, uncorrupted by political circumstances. As a result of this many Stoic philosophers were students of history, astrology, and geography. They believed that these disciplines led to a deeper understanding of nature. In De vita beata, Seneca (Lucius Annaeus Seneca), the Roman Stoic that served in Nero’s court, writes, “let reason search into external things at the instigation of the senses, and, while it derives from them its first knowledge—for it has no other base from which it may operate, or begin its assault upon truth—yet let it fall back upon itself. For God also, the all-embracing world and the ruler of the universe, reaches forth into outward things, yet, withdrawing from all sides, returns into himself.”

Ironically, Stoicism later became a system of involvement with politics, as did the discipline of geography. As the Roman Empire increasingly came to dominate the inhabited world, the order of the cosmos extolled by Stoics became tantamount to the Roman order. In one essay Seneca compared the Roman emperor to the god that is both the world (mundus) and the ruler of it. Like this god, the Roman emperor ruled a world that was a microcosm of the universe. Through the study of history, astrology, and geography (among other disciplines), this universe could be known, and the ruler could himself be wise.

Source: Seneca,On the Happy Life, in Moral Essays, volume 2, translated by John W. Basore (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996).

Accurate Observation. Another geographical writer whose works survive only in fragments is Hipparchus of Nicaea. Hipparchus’s revisions of earlier speculations depended upon the development of more accurate astrological observation, including methods for determining the distance of the sun and the moon (and the variable of motion). Inspired by Eratosthenes’ measurement of distances, Hipparchus conceived a map of the world derived from a complete system of parallels and meridians.

Strabo’s Critique. Despite Hipparchus’s innovations, Strabo was quick to criticize his reliance on formulas rather than actual land-measures and travel. Strabo summarizes the differences between Eratosthenes and Hipparchus in the following way:

“Now my reply to Hipparchus will be that, although Eratosthenes takes his straight lines only roughly, as is proper to do in geography, and roughly, too, his meridians and his lines to the equinoctial east, Hipparchus puts him to a geographical test—just as if every one of these lines had been taken with the aid of instruments. Neither does Hipparchus himself take everything by the aid of instruments, but it is rather by conjecture that he takes the relations of both ‘perpendicular’ and ‘parallels’”

(2.39, translated by Horace Leonard Jones). He becomes the target of another of Strabo’s biases (which were many), namely his bias for factual evidence, but Hipparchus does make important theoretical innovations in the measurement of the inhabited world through astronomy and geometry.

Tropics. Posidonius of Rhodes, an influential political, philosophical, and geographical thinker, developed a method of measuring the inhabited world based on the height of Canopus (a star in the constellation of Argo) from two distinct points. He introduced the idea of the tropics to the study of mathematical geography. Technically speaking, the tropics are the points at which the sun once again faces (or “turns to,” hence “tropic” from the Greek tropos, meaning “turning”) the equator after reaching its greatest distance from it. Posidonius expounded upon the reason for the excessive heat in these regions (namely, their disposition toward the sun). The climate in the tropics, he claimed, would affect the ethnography of the region and its culture. With these ideas Posidonius ushered in the final innovations in geographical studies until the first and second century c.e., when the study of geography fell almost entirely under Roman auspices (even though the authors were often not Roman). The dawn of the Roman Empire would validate the claim of Polybius (made around 150 b.c.e.) that Rome had come to dominate the entire inhabited world.

Geôgraphia. Strabo of Amaseia, the most important single ancient source on geographical matters, wrote his Geôgraphia, a seventeen-book treatise, in the early part of the first century c.e. The Geôgraphia is divided into seventeen books. The first four books are an overview of the study of geography, including a refutation of Eratosthenes on Homer’s role as the founder of the study of geography, a discussion of Eratosthenes’ and Posidonius’s contributions to mathematical geography, and cartography. The remainder of Geôgraphia surveys the inhabited world, beginning with Spain and Sicily in book 3 and ending with North Africa.

Politics of Geography. Strabo shows an interest in the many uses of geography, particularly in its political use. He claims that commanders of armies and rulers “can manage their various affairs in a more satisfactory manner, if they know how large a country is, how it lies, and what are its peculiarities either of sky or soil” (1.1.16, translated by Horace Leonard Jones). He gives the particular example of Rome’s recent victory over the Parthians: “But leaving antiquity, I believe that the modern campaign of the Romans against the Parthians is a sufficient proof of what I say, and likewise that against the Germans and the Celts, for in the latter case the barbarians carried on a guerilla warfare in swamps, in pathless forests, and in deserts; and they made the ignorant Romans believe to be far away what was really near at hand, and kept them in ignorance of the roads and of the facilities for procuring provisions and other necessities” (1.1.17, translated by Horace Leonard Jones). From this one sees that geographical knowledge serves a political function; the holder of such knowledge rules with a view toward safety.

New Horizons. Pomponius Mela wrote a work, De chorographia, in three books, probably sometime after 43 c.e. He does give details that are not discussed in Strabo’s work, such as information on the northeastern coast of Germany beyond the Elbe River. He refers to a large bay north of Germany, beyond which are many islands. The unknown bay would be the Baltic Sea, and the islands to which Mela refers are those of Scandinavia (Codannovia).

Gaius Plinius Secundus. One of the most endlessly engaging sources, not only for matters geographic but also for information on the ancient world in general, is the Naturalis historia of Gaius Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Elder), an encyclopaedic compendium that aimed at nothing less than assembling all human knowledge. The political turbulence under Nero curtailed Pliny’s public career, evidenced in his diminished military activity, and he spent several years in otium (seclusion and absence from politics) from 59 c.e. (the year Nero murdered his mother, Agrippina). Many public figures met their demise during this period, often for writing literature that suggested political dissidence. (The poet Patronius, for example, was forced to commit suicide in 65 c.e. for a satire of Roman life that seems to implicate the Emperor.) In hindsight, Pliny was wise to have chosen an innocuous pursuit during Nero’s years: the study of grammar.

Compilation. Pliny emerged again after Nero’s death and the Civil War of 69 c.e., becoming governor of Gallia Narbonesis in 70, Africa in 72, Hispania Tarraconensis in 73, and Gallia Belgica in 75. After this period he wrote Naturalis historia, which he dedicated to the emperor Titus. The geographical portion of the work spans books 3–6. Surprisingly, despite Pliny’s wide travels, in his geographical writing he is unoriginal, a compiler of previous knowledge and not an innovator.

(Pliny’s approach perhaps reveals an ongoing trait of Latin literature, namely the anxiety of rivaling a Greek domain, and this trait is seen in the field of philosophy through such authors as Lucretius and Cicero.) He cites Marcus Agrippa, for example, in his discussion of Spain, but he does not advance knowledge in this area.

Geographical Advances. Despite Pliny’s amateur approach, however, some geographical advances are evident in his work. Pliny knows the Danube River, which flows through Austria and southern Germany, and he reports more on the Baltic Sea and Scandinavia (areas about which Mela made mention). He mentions a river in Africa that he names Nigris. The river is possibly the Niger, flowing from the Southern Atlantic Ocean into Nigeria, Niger, and Mali. Pliny’s work appears to be the first extant mention of the river or of the region. He speaks about India with a greater degree of clarity than previous writers, and he discusses an overland trade route from India to the Black Sea.

Ptolemy. Another important source for ancient geography is Claudius Ptolemaeus, known to us as Ptolemy. He wrote on astronomical and astrological topics and produced a Geôgraphikê huphêgêsis (“Guide to Geography”) in eight books, in which he attempted to cover the entire world as it was known at that time. Much of this work consists of lists of place-names and topographical descriptions.

Further Regions. Ptolemy’s descriptions can be characterized by increasing knowledge of the further regions, such as Ivernia (Ireland), while he makes many mistakes owing to his flawed measurements. He mistakes the size and shape of Scotland, although he knows several rivers in the area. He speaks about the Suiones (Swedish) on the coast of Germany, and he mentions Scandia (Scandinavia), but he has no real knowledge of the interior of the latter or of Normandy. Toward the east, Ptolemy’s knowledge of the Carpathian Mountains shows a greater acquaintance with the Danube region. Because of false measurements, he widens the Caspian Sea. Ptolemy has more knowledge about Asia as far as China (the land of the Sinae). He describes the Taurus mountain range, which extends from Lycia across to the Euphrates River and includes the Himalayas Mountains bordering India and China. He gives accurate details on the Gulf of Siam (Thailand).

Speculations. Like Herodotus, Ptolemy rejected the idea of a Northern Ocean extending beyond the Caspian, or the notion that this Ocean surrounded the inhabited world of the three continents, an area that extended only from Spain to India. Beyond Africa to the south, for example, is not Ocean but the Island of the Blessed. His speculation that there was unknown land beyond Asia, called Terra Australis, also goes against the ancient idea of Ocean.


Harry E. Burton, The Discovery of the Ancient World (Freeport, N.Y. Books for Libraries Press, 1969).

Lionel Casson, Travel in the Ancient World (London: Allen & Unwin, 1974).

The Geography of Strabo, 8 volumes, translated by Horace Leonard Jones (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1917–1932).

Claude Nicolet, Space, Geography, and Politics in the Early Roman Empire (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991).

About this article

Ancient Geography: Questions and Issues

Updated About content Print Article


Ancient Geography: Questions and Issues