Effects of Geography on History and Culture

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Effects of Geography on History and Culture



Balance of Power. Throughout Roman history geographical knowledge was of critical importance to maintaining the precarious balance of power. In his Res gestae Augustus makes the claim that he brought the inhabited world under Roman rule. It is no coincidence that his assertion was easily visualized on the map that was on display in Rome. The map, which was accompanied by a written commentary, Descriptio orbis, was the work of Marcus Agrippa, the general that masterminded many of the emperor’s most important military triumph, such as the Battle of Actium in 31 b.c.e., where Antony and Cleopatra met their demise. Agrippa’s ability to make political deals in such distant places as the Crimea was directly related to geographical reconnaissance in those regions, and the knowledge of what could and could not be accomplished by the military. Marcus Agrippa’s prominence under Augustus’s regime demonstrates how Rome maintained political power through geographical knowledge.

Political Diplomacy. Augustus translated Marcus Agrippa’s knowledge into political diplomacy. Many regions of the inhabited world, such as Dacia, were not only independent culturally, having their own customs and even coinage throughout their contact with Rome, but they were also powerful. There were known territories in Africa, Asia, and Europe that never came under

Roman rule. Nevertheless, Rome had to maintain diplomatic relationships with them. The Nabataeans of Arabia are one example of the diplomatic approach. An independent king ruled the Nabataeans until Trajan made Arabia a province in 106 c.e. Rome’s policy was at times simply to control her borders and frontiers. Such a policy meant leaving other cultures in place. Of Armenia, for example, Augustus claims that “When Artaxes was king of Greater Armenia, although I could have made it a province, I preferred to adhere to the example of our ancestors by handing the kingdom over to Tigranes, the son of the king Artavasdes, but also the grandson of the king Tigranes, through Tiberius Nero, who at that time was my stepson.”

Reciprocal Influence. Certainly Augustus through his policy wanted to make other cultures lovers of Roman culture. If this could be accomplished, the result would still be the spread of Romanitas by force where necessary, and peacefully where possible. Acculturation was not only from Rome outward; Rome adopted many of the customs of other peoples. During the Punic Wars, Rome imported the fertility goddess Cybele from Asia Minor, hoping that she would bring victory. Late in the Empire, Constantine would transform the cult of Christianity into the imperial religion. These instances demonstrated that Rome could be influenced as much as it penetrated other cultures. Once subdued, all of the provinces were vital to the life of Rome, providing not only manpower and natural resources, but also rulers, such as the emperor Hadrian.

Administrative Assets. From Republican times Rome’s knowledge of world geography was put to administrative use. The resources of the inhabited world both provided Roman subjects with the necessities of life, such as food, clothing, and shelter, and furnished the aristocracy with its wealth. In the Republican period territories such as Spain, because of its distance and the difficulty of its topography (and, if the historian Livy is to be believed, add to this the unreliable character of the Spanish people), were hard to manage. During the late Republic and Empire territories such as Spain provided Rome with grain and corn. The African provinces offered Rome a continuous supply of grains and cereals. Olives were grown in Tunisia.

Various Resources. Necessities and luxury items alike were also brought to Romans throughout the inhabited world. Consistent with political geography, writers such as Pliny and Caesar were interested in the resources that various provinces would bring to Rome. Pliny cites lead, iron, copper, silver, and gold as some of the resources that Spain provided. Caesar finds tin in Britain’s interior and iron along its coast, and like Gaul, it was rich in timber. Africa also exported marble.

India. Between the third century b.c.e. and the fifth century c.e., India became less and less of a mythical location, and by the first century b.c.e. it provided the Romans access to Chinese silk. In addition to Chinese silk, India imported precious stones such as ivory, perfumes, and spices, although the trade with India reveals that Rome left many trading activities to independent—and international—traders. The trade from Roman Egypt to and from India was dominated by luxury items from India and southeastern Africa, such as precious stones (ivory, marble, onyx, diamonds, pearls), fragrances, and spices (myrrh, frankincense, pepper), and fabrics (fine cotton and silk). In addition to trade to the western coast of India, traders seem to have made incursions into the eastern coast of India. Artifacts have been found in the modern southeastern city of Pondicherry. Traders also knew of the fertile Ganges River Valley.

Dacia. Because of their vast resources, many provinces became civic centers, with great influxes of population from throughout the Roman world. Dacia is one such example. Miners traveled to the Danube, which was also a fertile agricultural region, to mine gold, silver, and iron. Rome could not control Dacia beyond 270 c.e. under the rule of Aurelian.

Sole Parent of All Races. The mandate of Roman culture was to rule. As Pliny boasts, all climates and cultures would inevitably yield to Rome because the gods have blessed the city. Its geographical position in the inhabited world was evidence of its cultural place: “To put it succinctly, Italy was to become the sole parent of all races throughout the world.” The view that Pliny articulates is demonstrated both in ethnography, where non-Romans are described as savage and uncivilized, and in policy. While resources were brought into the empire from throughout the inhabited world, environmental legislation protected the mineral wealth of Rome itself. Pliny reports that a decree of the senate forbade mining in Rome.

Geography Is Fate. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus put it, geography is fate. Geography determined Rome’s political and social mission. Control of political geography and knowledge of topography, climates, and customs of peoples throughout the inhabited world reinforced the Empire’s power. Romans saw their mandate as that of bringing about the unity of the known world, and they were to accomplish this unity through the influence of customs and language where possible and by sheer military force where necessary.


Not only did the provinces enrich Rome with their natural resources: the peoples throughout the Empire also actually influenced Roman culture. In addition to providing military manpower, the provinces also increased the noble class at Rome. Spain gave Rome emperors and philosophers. Many of these territories slowly went from being military outposts to frontiers where inhabitants had rights of Roman citizenship. Under the emperor Claudius (Tiberius Claudius) in 48 c.e. Transalpine Gaul, which became a full colony under Augustus, was given the right to send its noble citizens to Rome to serve in the Senate, Claudius’s speech for the occasion, which the historian Tacitus reports in Annales, is a remarkable example of the appreciation for what the provinces could offer Roman culture, Claudius celebrates the expansion of the Empire and the peace that the knowledge of diverse peoples had historically brought to Rome:

The day of stable peace at home and victory abroad came when the districts beyond the Po were admitted to citizenship, and, availing ourselves of the fact that our legions were settled throughout the globe, we added to them the stoutest of the provincials, and succoured a weary empire. … What else proved fatal to Lacedaemon and Athens, in spite of their power in arms, but their policy of holding the conquered aloof as alien-born? But the sagacity of our own founder Romulus was such that several times he fought and naturalized a people in the course of the same day! Strangers have been kings over us: the conferment of magistracies on the sons of freedmen is not the novelty which it is commonly and mistakenly thought, but a frequent practice of the old commonwealth.

Source: Tacitus, The Annals, translated by John Jackson (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991).


Augustus, Caesaris Avgvsti res gestae et fragmenta, edited by Robert S. Rogers, Kenneth Scott, and Margaret M. Ward (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990).

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

The Periplus Marts Erythraei, translated by Lionel Casson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).

Pliny, Natural History: A Selection, translated by John F. Healy (London: Penguin, 1991).

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