Climate and Topography

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Climate and Topography



Persistent Misconceptions. The area around the Mediterranean Sea was already well explored by Homer’s time. Nevertheless, misconceptions about the region continued throughout antiquity. Hipparchus, for example, believed that it flowed directly into the Red Sea. Eratosthenes held the notion that the Mediterranean Sea covered one-half of the inhabitable world, of which the Pillars of Heracles (Gibraltar) were the westernmost point. Strabo, writing in the first century c.e., divides the earth’s waters into two major bodies (which include the various lakes and seas throughout the world): the Interior Ocean (Mediterranean) and the Exterior Ocean (flowing from the Caspian Sea into the proverbial Northern Ocean).

Climatology. Despite these ongoing misconceptions, knowledge of the Mediterranean basin was fairly detailed by the first century c.e. Strabo knows the rivers of Spain and cites the Guadalquiver and the Ebro flowing into the Mediterranean. Strabo also speaks in great detail regarding the diverse climate of the Mediterranean basin. The middle to southern regions of Italy are generally mild, although winters can be cold, while central Spain is hot and dry. Greece also tends to have a dry climate with seasonal rainfall occurring mainly in the winter. The topography of the region is as diverse as its climate. There are mountainous regions in Greece, such as Parnassus and Olympus, and an active volcano in Thera (Santorini). In Spain and Italy mountain ranges such as the Pyrenees and the Alps form natural borders, but they also create difficulties in climate and modes of production. In addition to the climate and topography of the mountain regions, Italy sees a variety of climates, and there are fertile valleys that allow for the cultivation of a number of different crops, including a variety of fruits, and olives.

Italia. For the inhabitants of the city of Rome, increasing knowledge of the geography of the Italian peninsula and of other regions meant increasingly greater political and economic power. The natural boundaries of the Alps, the mountains that separate the Italian peninsula from Switzerland, and the River Po did not become political boundaries until the second century b.c.e. Before that point, the region between present-day Livorno and the Alps was known as Cisalpine Gaul. The presence of Gallic people south of the Alps was an ongoing threat to Rome, as the sack of Rome in 390 b.c.e. demonstrated. Rome engaged in ongoing military efforts against the Gallic people in Italy, and, as the historian Polybius and others report, by 150 b.c.e. the Gallic presence on the peninsula was minimal. The region received Roman citizenship in 89 b.c.e. (It was known in Cicero’s time as a major producer of wool.) From the middle of the second century b.c.e. everything south of the Alps was under the purview of Rome; the region formerly inhabited by the Gauls became a wealthy Roman settlement. The Apennine Mountains also formed natural borders extending along the Italian peninsula. Although they protected inhabitants on either side from invasion, the mountain regions also prevented widespread cultivation of land.

Tiber River. As for the city itself, there were settlements in at least three of Rome’s eight hills by the ninth century b.c.e., although city walls were not erected until 378 b.c.e. (after the Gallic invasion). The Tiber River, which divided the Sabines from their western neighbors, the Etruscans, is another natural border that helped Rome’s emergence as a city in the eighth century b.c.e. The river came to serve, as Pliny reports, as a means of transporting goods into Rome from throughout the inhabited world. With the Mediterranean Sea as its source, the Tiber runs from the Roman port of Ostia (established around the fourth century b.c.e.) into the city, linking the Romans to their Italian neighbors as far north as Umbria. By Pliny’s estimation the Tiber flows for 150 miles (it is actually 252 miles long).

Imperial Reorganization. After Rome subdued its Oscan, Etruscian, Italian, and Gallic neighbors by the first century b.c.e., one of the great tasks of the nascent empire was that of reorganizing the city. Augustus established fourteen districts, while emperors such as Claudius and Trajan built water supplies from the Tiber, and Nero and Hadrian constructed baths. (The first known baths were found at Pompeii and date from the first century b.c.e.) The last additions to the city of Rome in ancient times were the basilica of Maxentius (in 284 b.c.e.) and the Aurelian Wall (completed circa 275 b.c.e.).


Pausanias, who traveled throughout Greece, Italy, and Palestine, wrote a travel guide to Greece in the second century c.e. In the work, titled Perîgěsis tês Hellados (“Description of Greece”), Pausanias gives an historical and topographical overview of Greece, describing landmarks as a modern tour guide might. In the first of ten books, Pausanias explores Attica. Here he uses mythology to identify a river:

The rivers that flow through Athenian territory are the Ilisus and its tributary the Eridanus, whose name is the same as that of the Celtic River. This Ilisus is the river by which Oreithyia was playing when, according to the story, she was carried off by the North Wind. With Oreithyia he lived in wedlock, and because of ties between him and the Athenians he helped them by destroying most of the foreigners warships. The Athenians hold that the Ilisus is sacred to other deities as well, and on its bank is an altar of the Ilisian Muse.

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

Pausanias, Description of Greece (Attica & Corinth), volume 1, translated by W. H. Jones (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992).

Hispania (Spain). The Pyrenees Mountains form a natural boundary that divides Spain from the rest of Europe. It was in

fact anecdotal before the late twentieth century that Africa began in the Pyrenees. The narrow cross into modern-day Morocco between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean is less than six miles. (The land on either side of the straits was known in ancient times as the Pillars of Hercules.) Five major rivers cross the Spanish peninsula (the Ebro, Guadiana, Tejo, Duero, and Guadalquivir), and because four of the five rivers flow into the Atlantic Ocean (as opposed to flowing into Spain from the Mediterranean Sea, as the Ebro does), Spain was hard for Roman rulers to administer. They had trouble executing their usual practice of establishing new cities along the river (as they did both in Rome itself and also throughout Britain, for example).

Early Inhabitants. When the Romans encountered Spain toward the end of the third century b.c.e., the peninsula was inhabited chiefly by Celts to the north, Iberians to the south (of whom little is known), and a mixture of the two ethnic groups, the Celtiberians, in the center. The Greeks were also present in Spain until the third century b.c.e., when the Carthaginians of North Africa began to make strong incursions.

Two Provinces. The Romans began to enter Spain when the Carthaginian leader Hannibal captured the Spanish city of Saguntum, an ally to Rome, in 219 b.c.e. After the Roman leader Scipio Africanus defeated Hannibal’s brother, Hasdrubal, in Spain in 206 b.c.e., Rome established two provinces, Closer Spain and Farther Spain. The province of Farther Spain, extending southwest on the Spanish peninsula (similar borders to modern-day Andalusia and Portugal), was split in Augustus’s time into Lusitania and Baetica. The peninsula took two centuries to subdue, in part because of the difficulty of the terrain, namely the Pyrenees Mountains and the tempestuous rivers. It is certainly possible that ethnography might have played a role; Strabo often speaks of the customs of the Iberians and Celtiberians as inimical to the Roman way of life. Variant methods of warfare (Strabo reports that the Iberian cavalry was well trained for traversing the mountainous terrain) are one factor that would make Roman encounters with the Iberians daunting.

Stable Revenue. By the first century c.e., Spain was providing the Roman Empire with stable revenue. The province also served an important function in the Roman imagination, since its western coast was conceived of as the outer reaches of the inhabited world (as Strabo’s account maintains). The domination of Spain meant that Roman power had extended as far westward as was imaginable.

Gallia (France). In addition to those Cisalpine Gauls in the valleys of northern Italy, Gallic tribes (Transalpine Gauls) inhabited the land extending from the Alps to the Pyrenees, and northwest toward the Atlantic Ocean (modern-day France). The Gauls also inhabited the northeastern region of Europe up to (and across from) the Rhine River. (This area includes the southern regions of Britain and Germany). These peoples, who are often discussed interchangeably with the Celts, also extended as far eastward as the Danube River (in the northern part of modern-day Austria). During the conflicts with Carthage, Rome’s ally in Transalpine Gaul (namely the Greek city of Massilia, modern-day Marseille) provided access into Spain by land. Some of the Gallic region was already in Roman hands by 121 b.c.e., but Julius Caesar’s campaigns brought the Romans a greater knowledge of Transalpine Gaul.

Germania (Germany). Of Germany, Tacitus gives the following description in his Germania:

The various peoples of Germany are separated from the Gauls by the Rhine, from the Raetians and Pannonians by the Danube, and from the Sarmatians and Dacians by mountains—or, where there are no mountains, by mutual fear. The northern parts of the country are girdled by the sea, flowing round broad peninsulas and vast islands. … The Rhine rises in a remote and precipitous height of the Raetian Alps and afterwards turns slightly westward into the North Sea. The Danube issues from a gentle slope of moderate height in the Black Forest, and after passing more peoples than the Rhine in its course discharges itself into the Black Sea through six channels—a seventh mouth being lost in marshlands.

Under the emperor Domitian (around 90 c.e.), the area to the east of the Rhine was divided into two Roman provinces, Germania Superior in the south and Germania Inferior in the north. Before this time it remained chiefly a military outpost with eight Roman legions.

The Belgae. In the territory between modern-day France and Germany were the Belgae, a fierce Gallic people. Caesar reports on them in the first century b.c.e., and Strabo refers to them as the fiercest in Gaul. Caesar gives a general ethnography of the Belgae, some of whom migrated from the Continent to Britain in around 100 b.c.e. He conquered the group that remained in Gaul in 57 b.c.e.

Britannia (Britain). In his Bellum galluum (“The Gallic War”) Julius Caesar argued for the need to invade Britannia. Such an action, he claimed, was of crucial importance to his campaigns against Gaul. He knew that the Britons across the English Channel helped the Gallic tribes and that the Belgae inhabited both Gaul and Britain. Caesar’s reports from his first invasion of Britain in 55 b.c.e. reveal a limited knowledge of the interior. He interviewed traders that traveled into Britain, but “he could not ascertain anything about the size of the island, the character and strength of the tribes which inhabited it, their manner of fighting and customs, or the harbors capable of accommodating a large fleet of big ships.”

Description of Britain. By Caesar’s second invasion of Britain in 54 b.c.e., he is much more comfortable with his surroundings. He describes the parameters of Britain and its surroundings, characterizing the island as triangular (on this point he was mistaken) and giving details about its three points: one facing Gaul with its tip on the coast of Kent (Dover), the second facing west toward Spain, and the third looking toward the north with no land beyond it. Although relatively ignorant about Britain a year earlier, in 54 b.c.e. Caesar is able to go beyond exterior descriptions of the island: “The interior of Britain is inhabited by people who claim, on the strength of oral tradition, to be aboriginal; the coast, by Belgic immigrants who came to plunder and make war—nearly all of them retaining the names of the tribes from which they originated—and latter settled down to till the soil.” The descriptive sections of Bellum gallicum might have been written at the time of the invasion, or perhaps Caesar doctored his memoirs when he published them in 52 b.c.e. Whatever the case, the final

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result is an increasing acquaintance with Britain and its inhabitants.

Claudius. Further incursions into Britain occurred during the Roman Empire. The Gallic people (the Belgae) in the south of Britannia were ruled by the leader Cunobelinus until his death in 41 c.e., when Rome, under Claudius, invaded the island. Claudius defeated the lower region of Britannia, but he did not accomplish complete domination of the island. Thus, Rome was not quite in control of the territory during the first century c.e.

Agricola. Tacitus’s account of the governorship of Agricola (Gnaeus Julius Agricola), which lasted from 78 to 84 c.e., does little to advance knowledge of Britain. In fact, the historian at times shows a striking degree of ignorance. He believes, for example, that Ireland lies between Britain and Spain. Nevertheless, he offers us a view of Britain in the first century. His description is as follows: “Britain, the largest of the islands known to us Romans, is of such a size and so situated as to run parallel to the coast of Germany on the east and to that of Spain on the west, while to the south it actually lies within sight of Gaul. Its northern shores, with no land facing them, are beaten by a wild and open sea.”

Scotland. It does appear from fortifications in northern Britain (modern-day Scotland) that Agricola penetrated into Britain as far north as Scotland, although Tacitus gives few geographical details to confirm this. A consortium of the inhabitants from Upper and Lower Britannia eventually drove Agricola out of the island. With Agricola recalled to Rome, many of the inroads made in the upper region of Britannia were eventually relinquished.

Africa. As Pliny reports, the Carthaginian commander Hanno conducted an exploration (periplous) around the coast of Africa (Ethiopia), and the historian Polybius did not return from his investigation with information on any human inhabitants. Rome’s contact with North Africa begins from the fifth century b.c.e. with attempts to stop Carthage’s advances into Sicily. Carthage had attacked Greek cities in Sicily during the fifth century, and by the third century b.c.e. it had strongholds in Spain. The next step to widespread power would be an attempt to destroy Rome’s hegemony. In order to do so, however, Hannibal would have to cross the Pyrenees Mountains, traverse the Rhône River in Gaul, and, finally, survive the onset of winter in the Alps.

African Expansion. Despite its presence on the continent of Africa from the second century b.c.e., Rome’s incursions into the interior of Africa were limited. Along the western coast of Africa, Mauretania figured in a war with Rome (the conflict with Jugurtha reported by Sallust, 112–106 b.c.e.). Tingi, now the modern city Tangier in Morocco, came under Roman control in the first century b.c.e. Augustus organized the province of Africa Proconsularis, which stretched as far as the eastern border of modern Lybia (Cyrenaica). Claudius established the two provinces of Mauretania, of which Pliny speaks in Natural Histories, calling them Tingi and Lixus (Caesarea). (He also relies on mythology for his data, claiming that the mythological character Antaeus, whom Hercules killed, founded the kingdoms.) Caesarea (possibly the city Cherchel in Libya) was an important African port in the early empire.

Roman Reach. Pomponius Mela, writing in the first century c.e., knew that the eastern coast of Africa

extended further south than the Arabian gulf, but the Romans never seemed to know much about the African interior beyond the Sahara. Pliny, for example, does not believe that any Roman ever penetrated further than the Atlas Mountains (which, from what the maps reveal, they appear to believe were further south than they actually are).

Egypt. Although well known from early antiquity, Egypt never became a Roman province. It fell under the personal management of Roman leaders such as Caesar and Antony in the first century b.c.e. Rome did not control Africa on the eastern coast beyond Egypt, but some cities south of Roman Egypt were outposts for the trade of luxury items among the wealthy classes of the province. The modern cities of Aden in Yemen, Guardafui in Somalia, and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania served as ports for goods to and from India during the early Roman Empire. Strabo knew that beyond Arabia Felix, itself possessing flowing springs of water, the region north of modern-day Yemen across Arabia is desert.

Persia (Iran). The ancients knew of the Caspian Sea (or the Hyrcanian sea, north of modern-day Iran) as early as the fifth century b.c.e., when Herodotus described it as a lake. Ignorance about the region, however, and false speculation prevented Herodotus’s view from advancing until the second century c.e., when Ptolemy returned to plotting the Caspian Sea as a lake. The prevalent (and false) view of the Caspian Sea before the time of Ptolemy was that it was a waterway flowing into the Northern Ocean. The ancients perhaps deduced this from their exposure to the North Sea, since Pythias had sailed to Britain, and Caesar certainly knew of the Rhine River, which flows into the sea. The view that the Caspian Sea flowed into the Northern Ocean was also held by Patrocles, the Greek commander to the region under the Seleucids, who explored the region in 285 b.c.e. The Romans did not travel to Russia, so in the Natural Histories Pliny reports that Patrocles sailed north from the Caspian Sea—into India!

Caspian Sea. After 247 b.c.e., the Caspian Sea region was inhabited by the Parthians. Under Roman rule, Augustus’s conquest of the region was not complete. To the east of the Caspian Sea was a fertile valley known as Bactria, between modern-day Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. By the third century b.c.e. Bactria was ruled by Greek Bactrians of mixed ethnicity; the Chinese took possession of the Bactrian kingdom in 129–128 b.c.e.


Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, translated by S. A. Handford and revised by Jane F. Gardner (London: Penguin, 1982).

Leonard A. Curchin, Roman Spain: Conquest and Assimilation (London: Routledge, 1991).

Peter Salway, The Oxford Illustrated History of Roman Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).

Tacitus, The Agricola and The Germania, translated by H. Mattingly and revised by Handford (London: Penguin, 1970).

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