Ethnographers and Geographers

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Ethnographers and Geographers



Select Audience. In the centuries following Homer, most geographers were educated and wealthy men with leisure time to devote to writing and research. They composed descriptions of inhabited lands and drew maps for a tiny and highly specialized audience (educated and wealthy like themselves), and their works were not in wide circulation. The knowledge of the ancient geographer was limited: he relied mainly on earlier authors and the accounts of colonists, traders, and

early explorers. There were many traveler’s tales that circulated in antiquity; most geographers merely selected those they thought credible (and a few they found merely plausible) for insertion into their own work. The position of most of the places which the geographers wrote about and indicated on maps would have been unknown to the average Greek of the period. Because advances made by early explorers and geographers were confined to a small number of people, the typical Greek farmer or tradesman probably clung to Homer’s idea of the earth as a flat disk on which an island-like landmass was surrounded by the vast and terrifying river, Ocean.

Ethnography. Closely connected to the study of geography was ethnography (the study of the customs and way of life of foreign peoples). The Greeks had a natural curiosity about distant lands and peoples (both real and imaginary), and mythical and fantastic ethnographical material was often woven into geographical studies. The Greeks perceived themselves and the Mediterranean basin to be at the center of the earth (in fact the sanctuary of Delphi was known as the Omphalos, or navel, of the inhabited world), and Greek ethnography often explores the grotesque and bizarre aspects of peoples far removed from the “center.” That geographers inserted bizarre ethnographical elements into their work was not due to ignorance or naivete: the type of writing demanded such insertions for reasons of pleasure and novelty.

Hecataeus of Miletus. The earliest geographical writings are attributed to Hecataeus of Miletus, who wrote a work in the late sixth century b.c.e. called the Periodos Ges (The Circuit of the Earth), divided into two parts: Europe and Asia. This work, which unfortunately exists only in fragments quoted by later writers, assembled information about the ends of the earth known at that time (from the author’s travels, the reports of others, and pure fantasy) and had a map attached as well. The author described a clockwise coastal voyage around both the Mediterranean Sea and Black Sea, starting at the Pillars of Hercules and finishing on the Atlantic coast of Morocco (he included Scythia, Persia, India, Egypt, and Nubia), giving interesting facts about each place. Because Hecataeus’s work, like all ancient geography, was in fact a blend of geography and ethnography, he also listed the names of the different peoples around the Mediterranean basin and provided a description of their customs, which was a mixture of fact and fantasy.

Early Explorers. Geographers like Hecataeus obtained their information not only from their own travels but also from the tales of early explorers and traders. Explorations were probably launched in the Greek world not for the sake of finding new lands or adding to existing geographical knowledge, but to open up new trade routes or for purposes of colonization. A few accounts of these journeys (preserved by later authors) survive.

Euthymenes. The earliest of these stories seems to have been around 600 b.c.e., when, at the behest of an Egyptian king, an expedition of Phoenicians (led by a man called Euthymenes) managed to sail around Africa, a journey that took two years. An account of this expedition is preserved by the historian Herodotus and is full of “things which others can believe if they want to but I cannot, namely that in sailing around Africa they had the sun on their right side.” This item, which Herodotus singles out for disbelief, is actually the most convincing item in the whole account, and indicates that the Phoenicians’ ship must have pushed beyond the Tropic of Capricorn.

Himilco. Another early explorer named Himilco (from Carthage in North Africa) made a northern expedition out of the Pillars around 525 b.c.e., probably again for purposes of colonization or trade. His description of what the ship encountered is preserved by a later writer: “No breeze pushes the craft onward, and a torpid flow of heavy water dulls the ship’s progress. [Himilco] adds this as well, that there is a mass of seaweed among the waves and like a hedge it impedes the prow. . . . Wild sea-creatures stand in the way on all sides, and sea-monsters swim among the sluggish and lazily crawling ships ... a dark fog enshrouds the air as if in a kind of cloak. . . .” Himilco’s description of the fantastic sailing conditions may be, some scholars feel, an early encounter with the Sargasso Sea (which is full of seaweed and subject to dense fog). Yet, there are mythic elements in his account as well, in the form of the grotesque monsters that live in the seas north of the Pillars, which again confirmed ancient conviction that danger lay past this point.

Scylax of Caryanda. Scylax of Caryanda was sent around 510 b.c.e. by the Persian king Darius I into the Indus Valley and as far as the Arabian Gulf (a journey that took thirty months). Scylax had many wonders to report on his return about the natives he had seen: men with parasol-shaped feet, one-eyed men, and men whose ears were so huge they could shelter their owners from the sun. These outlandish characteristics conformed to the expectations of Greek audiences, who had firm ideas about the strange inhabitants of distant worlds.

Hanno. Another early Carthaginian explorer was a man named Hanno. He was captain of a colonizing expedition that sailed out of the Pillars of Hercules and south along the coast of Africa around 500 b.c.e. Hanno reported strange phenomena along his journey, which surely satisfied ancient tastes for the bizarre and the fantastic. He heard eerie music coming out of the darkness, for instance, and saw rivers of flame and a mountain that caught fire after nightfall. As the journey went on, Hanno reported his crew was becoming frightened. Finally the ship encountered “hairy wild men” that his native guides called “gorillas” (which were not the great apes that are known today, as none existed in the regions Hanno visited; what exactly the crew encountered is debated among scholars). Hanno was unable to capture any of the creatures alive and had to kill them instead; at this point, running low on provisions, he had to turn the ship around and head for home. Hanno had an account of his journey put up on a tablet when he returned to Carthage, and it stands as a vivid confirmation of the frightening world that existed outside the Pillars.


The geographer Anaximander is credited with first making a likeness of the earth in the shape of a globe; the fourth-century philosopher and scientist Aristotle provided two theories on the shape of the earth: spherical, or flat and shaped like a drum. In the early fourth century the philosopher Plato gave wider currency to the idea of the earth as a globe hanging unsupported in the middle of the universe:

I believe it is very large indeed, and we live in a little bit of it between the Pillars of Hercules and the river Phasis, like ants or frogs in a marsh, lodging round the sea, and that many other people live in many other such regions . . . first of all the earth looks from above like those leather balls with twelve patches, many-colored, of which the colors here which painters use are a sort of specimen, but there the whole earth is made up of these, and much brighter and purer than these; one is sea-purple wonderfully beautiful, one is like gold, the white is whiter than chalk or snow, and the earth is made of these and other colors, more in number and more beautiful than any we have seen. For indeed the very hollows full of water and mist present a color of their own as they shine in the variety of others colors, so that the one whole looks like a continuous colored pattern...

Source: The Phaedo in Great Dialogues of Plato Translated by W.H.d. Rouse (New York: Penguin, 1956).

Sataspes and Pytheas. A Persian named Sataspes, ordered to make a journey around Africa by the Persian king Xerxes (circa 450 b.c.e.), reported seeing dwarflike people wearing clothes of palm leaves, who fled from his ship whenever he landed. Sataspes’ ship eventually got stuck trying to make the circumnavigation, and he was forced to return home (where his stories were disbelieved and he was executed). In 310 b.c.e. Pytheas, a captain from Massilia, made an expedition northward (perhaps hunting for a source of tin), circumnavigated Britain, and pushed on up into the North Sea. He glimpsed a landmass six days’ sail

north of Britain, which he could not approach because of the dense fog and thick waters. It could have been Iceland, but perhaps it was part of Norway, which Pytheas mistook for an island. Above it was a water mass he called the Frozen Sea. The northern landmass glimpsed by Pytheas became known as the island of Thule and came to represent the furthest reaches of the earth in ancient thought.

Written Accounts. Stories from explorers such as these were among the sources from which Greek ethnographers drew in their writing. Ethnographers and geographers were especially interested in exotic lands such as India and Africa, which were characterized by strange phenomena and bizarre human races (as in the account of Hanno). Ctesias of Cnidus was one such writer, a doctor at the Persian court in the late fifth and early fourth centuries b.c.e. Merchants passed through his city with fabulous tales of the East, which Ctesias collected into a work called Ta Indika (Writings on India, a work that survives only in a summary by a later author. The Greek title is a form of adjective naming the people and their locale). The purpose of the work was entertainment, not necessarily accurate information, and the stories Ctesias relates seem to be based on Indian fable and folklore. Ctesias describes a land fabulously rich, brimming with gold, silver, amber, and gemstones, and full of purple dyes and perfumes. There were natural wonders too, such as rivers flowing with honey and fine oil that could be skimmed off the surface of certain lakes, exotic races of strange dog-headed men, and fearsome beasts, one of which excretes a poison so fearsome that coming into contact with even the tiniest amount causes one’s brain to instantly dissolve and run out the nostrils. Again, the unbelievable curiosities that form the bulk of Cte-sias’s work were not inserted due to ignorance on the part of the author; the genre of ethnography demanded the unconfirmed report of the improbable and even the impossible. Greek audiences thus expected authors of geography and ethnography to record “memorable” or “amazing” things.

Maps. Ethnographers and geographers did not have accurate maps at their disposal. Although earlier maps certainly existed, Anaximander of Miletus was credited as being the first to draw a map of the inhabited world (around 550 b.c.e.), which was included as an illustration to his Periodos Ges. This map represented the earth as a flat disk. Later, the geographer Hecataeus illustrated his own Periodos Ges with a map, an improved version of Anaximander’s. The historian Herodotus, writing in the fifth century, criticized existing cartography: “I laugh when I see the many men who draw maps of the world and don’t bother to use their heads. They make the earth a perfect circle, better even than one drawn with a compass, with Ocean running around it, and Europe and Asia of equal size.” He also complains that there were many variations of shape and distance on maps depicting the same region.


Lionel Casson, Travel in the Ancient World (Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974).

Charles W. Fornara, The Nature of History in Ancient Greece and Rome (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

James S. Romm, The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).

J. O. Thomson, Everyman’s Classical Atlas (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1961).