The little that is known of Pomponius Mela is gleaned from his only known work, De chorographia, occasionally called De situ orbis. He was a Roman from Tingentera. a place (otherwise unidentified) in southern Spain, near Gibraltar, that was inhabited by Phoenicians brought over from Africa.1 From an apparent reference to the triumph of Emperor Claudius (A.D. 41–54) in Britain in A.D. 43, it has been inferred that the De chorographia was written during that year.2 A conjectured sojourn in Rome virtually completes the biographical data on Pomponius.3
Although the De chorographia is a compendious, and largely derivative, work on geography, it is the first extant geographical work in Latin and the only Roman treatise of the classical period devoted exclusively to that subject.4 Unscientific in approach and devoid of mathematical or quantitative content (distances and measurements are wholly omitted), it offers only a general descriptive survey of the world as it was then known. To this Pomponius added uncritical and fantastic accounts of the customs, habits, and idiosyncrasies of peoples and nations, as well as spectacular phenomena drawn largely from earlier writers, including Herodotus.
In this three-book treatise, Pomponius assumed a spherical earth that lay in the middle of the world and was divided into two hemispheres and five climatic zones. Three continents—Europe, Africa, and Asia5—made up the habitable world, which was completely surrounded by a great ocean that intruded into the continents by pouring its waters into four seas or gulfs: the Caspian, which received its waters along a narrow strait directly from the Scythian, or northern, part of the surrounding ocean;6 the Arabian and Persian gulfs, which drew their waters directly from the Indian, or southern, part of the ocean; and the Mediterranean Sea7 (including the Black Sea), the source of which was the Atlantic, or western, part of the great ocean. Below the equator, south of the Indian Ocean in the south temperate zone, lay another world inhabited by the Antichthones; the region was inaccessible because of the heat of the torrid zone.
In describing the habitable world. Pomponius followed tradition traceable to the fourth century B.C.8 Only the coastal regions were considered, thus ignoring the interiors of countries (Germany, Spain, and Gaul) and omitting many altogether (Dacia, Media, Bactria).9 He began, in book I, with the Straits of Gibraltar, the area he knew best, and moved eastward along the southern coast of the Mediterranean, turning northward along the east coast of that sea until he reached the Tanaïs, or Don, River, which separated Asia from Europe. The European coast of the Mediterranean was described next, in book II, from the Tanaïs west to the Straits of Gibraltar (included in this survey were Scythia, Thrace. Macedonia, Greece, Italy, southern Gaul, and southern Spain); this segment concluded with descriptions of the major and minor Mediterranean islands.
The coastal survey shifted, in book III, to the outer fringes of the three continents bordering on the great ocean. Here Pomponius began with the Atlantic coast of Spain and then moved eastward along the northern coasts of Europe (Gaul, Germany, and Sarmatia) and Asia (Scythia), turning south along the farthest coast of Asia and then westward again along the southern coastlines of India, Arabia (following the Persian and Arabian gulfs), and Africa; after turning northward, he terminated at the Straits of Gibraltar, the starting point.
As a consequence of his major concern with the ocean, Pomponius found occasion to mention the tides. He believed that they rise and fall simultaneously all over the world. As for the cause of this phenomenon:
There is no definite decision whether this is the action of the universe through its own heaving breath, attracting and repelling the waters everywhere (on the assumption of savants that the world is a single animate being); or whether there exist some cavernous depressions for the ebb-tides to sink into, thence to well out and rise anew; or whether the moon is responsible for currents so extensive.10
Despite his general inferiority as a geographer, Pomponius knew more than Strabo about the positions of Britain, Ireland, and the coasts of Gaul and north Germany; he was also the first to mention the Orkney Islands.11 Pomponius exerted a considerable influence on early medieval authors, both on his own account and because Pliny used and cited his work.
1.De chorographia, II. 6. 96.
2. “Closed for ages, Britain is now being opened up by the greatest of emperors, victorious over tribes not only unconquered before his own day, but actually unknown. The evidence of its peculiarities which he arrived at in his campaign, he brings home to render clear by his triumph.” De chorographia, III.5.49.; trans. by J. W. Duff, A Literary History of Rome in the Silver Age, p. 130.
3. F. Gisinger, “Pomponius Mela,” col. 2361.
4. Pliny’s subsequent four books on geography, in which Pomponius is cited a number of times, formed only a part of the thirty-seven books of his Natural History.
5. The Tanaīs (Don) River was held to separate Europe and Asia; the Nile, Asia and Africa; and the Straits of Gibraltar, Europe and Africa.
6. A common confusion in the ancient world, derived perhaps from a vague hint of the Volga River. See E. H. Bunbury, A History of Ancient Geography, II, 363.
7. Pomponius calls it nostrum mare (“our sea;” 1.1.7). “Mediterraneum as an adjective was first used by Solinus in the third century and, as a proper name, by Isidorus in the seventh century.” Harry E. Burton, The Discovery of the Ancient World, p. 78.
8. See Bunbury, op. cit., I, 384–385.
9. Pomponius’ procedure was contrary to the practice of contemporaries, who usually considered the successive countries of a continent.
10. III.1.1–2; trans. by Duff, loc. cit.
11. See Bunbury, op. cit., II, 358–361; and Burton, op. cit., p. 79.
Since the first printed ed. (Milan, 1471), more than 100 eds. of the De chorographia have appeared. Some are cited by F. Gisinger, “Pomponius Mela,” in Pauly-Wissowa, Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertums-wissenchaft, XXI (Stuttgart, 1952), cols. 2409–2410. Until recently the standard critical ed. was Karl Frick, Pomponii Melae, De chorographia libri tres (Leipzig, 1880). A reissue of this ed. (Stuttgart, 1968) contains an extensive bibliography (pp. 109–120) by Wiebke Schaub of the literature on Pomponius’ work since 1880. A new ed. has been published by Gunnar Ranstrand, Pomponii Melae, De Chorographia libri tres una cum indice verborum, Studia Graeca et Latina Gothoburgensia no. 28 (Goteborg, 1971).
Translations include the (apparently) only English version by Arthur Golding, The Worke of Pomponius Mela the Cosmographer Concerning the Situation of the World (London, 1585); a French version by Jean-Jacques-Nicolas Huot in Macrobe [Oeuvres complètes]; Varron [De la langue latine]; Pomponius Méla Oeuvres complètes, avec la traduction en française . . . (Paris, 1845); and two versions included in Schaub’s bibliography, one in Italian by Domenico Pavone (Siena, 1893) and the other in German by Hans Philipp (Leipzig, 1912).
Perhaps the most extensive and detailed study of Mela and the De chorographia is F. Gisinger, “Pomponius Mela,” in Pauly-Wissowa, Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, XXI (Stuttgart, 1952), cols. 2360–2411, which contains biographical data, an intensive analysis of the work, Pomponius’ sources, subsequent influence, and bibliography. A useful analysis and evaluation are given by E. H. Bunbury, A History of Ancient Geography Among the Greeks and Romans From the Earliest Ages Till the Fall of the Roman Empire, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (London, 1883), II, 352–368, with a foldout map of Pomponius’ view of the world inserted at 368. Briefer accounts appear in J. Wight Duff, A Literary History of Rome in the Silver Age From Tiberius to Hadrian (New York, 1927), 125–131; and Harry E. Burton, The Discovery of the Ancient World (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1932), 76–81.
First Century c.e.
Survey of the World. Pomponius Mela, from Tingentera in the south of Spain, near Gibraltar, probably wrote his geographical work De chorographia sometime after 43 C.E. Geographical writers in Latin were a rarity during the Roman period, although authors such as Tacitus and Pliny dabbled in the subject. As is the case both with Strabo’s geography in Greek and with later writers in Latin (such as Pliny the Elder), Mela was uninterested in the details of mathematical geography. He was a compiler of physical geography and ethnographical knowledge of his time. De chorographia is divided into three books. The first book is an overview of the earth’s northern and southern hemispheres, and in it Mela revisits Crates’ notion (advanced in the second century b.c.e.) that the earth is divided into five zones, only two of which are inhabited. (Mela still believed in the existence of Crates’ Antichthones, a mythical people living on an island in the earth’s second inhabitable sphere.) After an overview of the four seas that flow into the Ocean (the Caspian, Persian, Arabian, and Mediterranean Seas), the second book of De chorographia deals with Greece, Italy, southern Gaul, and Spain, and the third book surveys northern Europe (including Germany) and East Asia.
Pomponius Mela’s Description of the World, translated by Frank E. Romer (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998).
Nicholas Purcell, “Pomponius Mela,” in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, edited by Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, third edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 1218.
fl. c. 44
Roman geographer whose system of five temperature zones remains in use today. In a.d. 44 Mela introduced his system in De situ orbis, a geographical work destined to have enormous impact. The book, which divided Earth into north frigid, north temperate, torrid, south temperate, and south frigid zones, later influenced the work of Pliny the Elder (c. 23-79) and others. Unlike many works of antiquity, it has remained influential well into modern times.