views updated May 18 2018


(b. Amasia, Asia Minor, 64/63 b.c.; d. Amasia, ca. a.d. 25)

history, geography.

Strabo was the son of wealthy parents. He was Greek by language and education; in his youth he studied under the rhetorician Aristodemus at Nysa in Caria, and he may also have known the Stoic polymath Posidonius. In about 44 b.c. he went to Rome to study with the geographer Tyrannion and the philosopher Xenarchus. He became a convert to Stoicism, probably through the offices of the philosopher Athenodorus Cananites, the friend and teacher of the emperor Augustus, although he continued to distrust popular religion (however useful it might be) and to believe in Providence as a first cause. He was again in Rome in 35 b.c. and in 31 b.c. He visited Crete, journeyed through Corinth in 29 b.c., and spent five years, from 25 to 20 b.c., in Alexandria, where he may have studied in the great library. In 25 or 24 b.c., he made a journey from Alexandria up the Nile to Aswan and the Ethiopian frontier in the company of the Roman governor, Marcus Alius Gallus.1

An admirer of the Roman empire, Strabo may have been politically motivated in the writing of his works, although they also contain a great deal of knowledge presented for its own sake. Of these works, only one, the Geographica, is extant. It is known that Strabo composed a number of historical works, including a Hypomnemata historica in which he recounted incidents in the lives of famous men. He intended a fuller work, incorporating some of the same material, to be a continuation of the work of Polybius, whose history concluded with the years 146/145 b.c. Strabo’s work appeared in either forty-three or forty-seven books, and brought Polybius up to date at least as far as the troubles following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C.; it may even have extended to about 27-25 B.C.2.

Strabo apparently published some of his surviving Geographica about 7 B.C.; a partially revised version of this appeared in about A.D. 18, and a finished but still incompletely revised work in seventeen books was published later, perhaps after Strabo’s death. The place of its publication must have been far from Rome, since the work was not known there; indeed, it was not generally known until the fifth century. It was addressed to men in elevated stations in life; although Strabo stated that it should be of some general interest, he particularly recommended it to statesmen, rulers, and soldiers, as well as to those who wanted an account of known lands (especially those prominent in the history of civilization).

Although by his own statement Strabo traveled from Armenia to Etruria, and from the Black Sea to Ethiopia–and although he knew many parts of Asia Minor from Pontus to Syria–his Geographica was based less upon his personal observations than on his reading. He knew little of Italy, except for the areas along the Roman roads in the southern and central parts, and he took little advantage of Roman sources, although he knew Caesar; Calpurnius Piso Frugi,3 governor of Libya; Aelius Gallus; and an unnamed, but probably Roman, chorographer. He was apparently unfamiliar with Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa’s chart of the Roman empire and its adjacent countries.

The bulk of Strabo’s material came (although it is not possible to ascertain how directly) from a number of Greek sources that are now lost. Among other writers Strabo drew upon Eratosthenes for mathematical geography and cartography and information about India; upon Eudoxus of Cnidus for astronomy; on Hipparchus, whose astronomical material Strabo used only for mathematical cartography; on Posidonius, especially for information on Spain and Gaul; on Polybius, especially for material concerning Europe; on Artemidorus, for Asia Minor and Egypt; and on Apollodorus of Athens, perhaps for Greece (of which Strabo knew less than he did of Italy). Despite his borrowings from mathematicians and astronomers, and despite his recognition of the importance of the principles of mathematics and physics, 4 Strabo’s scientific skills were limited, and he tended to underestimate science, being more sympathetic to “human” interest.

The first two books of the Geographica contain a somewhat rambling but still useful survey of earlier geographic theories and serve as an introduction to the rest of the work, wherein Strabo attempted to set out an account of the physical features, products, and national character of each country. His presentation is at once mathematical, chorographical, topographical, physical, political, and histroical. He was, of course, dealing with the known world; much of northern Europe and of Africa south of the Mediterranean coastal regions and Egypt was still unexplored, while Asia was still unexplored, while Asia was known only as far as India and Ceylon. He therefore ignored the great unknown stretches of eastern and northern Asia, and treated Africa as an area smaller than Europe, lying wholly north of the equator; outside Egypt, he noted, it was largely desert.5

Within these limitations, and given his reliance on reports of varying degrees of accuracy, Strabo produced an excellent account of parts of western Europe, Asia Minor, and Egypt. He was also good on Gaul, although he relied too little on recent Roman records (including the narratives of Caesar) and made the Pyrenees run from north to south, while the coast (largely because Strabo distrusted the explorer Pytheas, discoverer of Britain) runs northeast from the Pyrenees to the Rhine. His account of the British Isles is understandably weak, as is his treatment of the Baltic region and Scandinavia. His account of Greece is also disappointing.

Strabo followed Eratosthenes in showing the known world as a single ocean-girt landmass (oikoumene, that is, inhabited) composed of Europe, Asia, Africa, and their associated islands. The oikoumene occupies less than one-half of one quadrilateral on a sphere (about 25,200 geographical miles in circumference, according to Eratosthenes’ good calculation) that remains motionless within a revolving spherical universe. Strabo represented the oikoumene as being entirely north of the equator of the sphere, occupying one-quarter of the whole; but he surmises that there may be other inhabited land continents, as yet unknown6.

Strabo stated that the Oikoumene should be drawn on one-quarter of a globe not less than ten feet in diameter in order to render it in sufficient detail. He further discussed projecting the oikoumene on a plane surface, noting that it made little difference whether the meridians remained parallel to each other, since it was scarcely worthwhile to make them converge even slightly toward the pole. He relied upon established astronomical observations and conclusions to fix the equator, the ecliptic, and the tropics, and was aware that longitudes could be determined accurately only through comparing observations made during a suitable eclipse. He accepted the system of dividing the equator into 360 degrees and of establishing, by astronomical observations, parallels of north latitude, including a main one that intersects, at Rhodes, a main meridian line of longitude.7 He also adopted the notion of five zones or “belts” in latitude: north frigid (uninhabitable), north temperature (inhabited), torrid (partly uninhabited–Strabo rejected the idea that the unknown southern part of this zone might be habitable), south temperate (habitable), and south frigid (uninhabited).8

Strabo represented the oikoumene itself as mantle-shaped, tapering toward the east and west. He showed it as extending in length for about 7,000 miles along a parallel drawn from Spain, through Rhodes, and to the Ganges, and in breadth for about 3,000 miles along the main meridian drawn through Rhodes (these distances were an unwise reduction of those set out by Eratosthenes). The encircling ocean intrudes into the landmass in a number of gulfs, especially the Caspian Sea (this error was not originally Strabo’s), the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Gulf (the Red Sea), and, largest of all, the “Inside Sea,” or “Our Sea” the Mediterranean.9 It is interesting in this context to note that Strabo considered a long, varied coastline, together with a temperate climate, to be one of the factors important to the rise of civilization; for this reason the Mediterranean lands, especially Greece, developed a culture superior to lands at the outer edges of the oikoumene, where the coastline, although extensive, lacks variety of contour.

Strabo devoted much discussion to the forces that had formed the oikoumene. A number of the conclusions that he recorded had probably derived from Posidonius; he was also interested in Aristotle’s theories about earthquakes and volcanic activity, and in Strato’s notion that the Mediterranean had once been a lake that, overfilled by rivers, broke through the Straits of Gibraltar. Strabo suggested that some islands were torn from the mainland by earthquakes, while others (including Sicily) were thrown up by volcanic action. He gave examples of both local and widespread land subsidence and alluded to the uprising of seabeds with consequent flooding; he further described the silting of rivers that form alluvial plains and deltas. His acceptance of the long-held notion that inland regions containing salt marshes, salt beds, sand, and seashells and other marine débris had arisen from the bottom of the sea led him to conclude that Egypt–and the greater part of the Oikoumene–had once been submerged10.

Strabo’s whole work is not orderly, perhaps because he was not able to give it a final form. He was fond of historical and mythological digressions, and on some subjects argumentative and obsessive. The Geographica is nonetheless highly valuable in its exposition of the development of geography. It marked the first attempt to assemble all available geographical knowledge into a single treatise. A philosophy of geography, it is utterly unlike the mathematical geography of Ptolemy, the geographical parts of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, or, indeed, any other surviving work of ancient geography.


1. On his birthplace, see Strabo, Geography, 12.3.39, and Stephen of Byzantium, under ’Aμάσєια; on his ancestry, Strabo, 10.4.10, 11.2.18, 12.3.33, 12.3.53; on his education and philosophy, 14.1.48, 14.5.4, 12.6.2, 12.3.16, 13.1.54, 16.2.24, 7.3.4, 1.2.34, 2.3.8, 16.4.21, 1.2.8, 17.1.36, 4.1.14–also Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae, 14.75.657, and Stephen of Byzantium, loc cit.: on his admiration of Rome, 6.4.2, 1.1.16, 3.2.5; on his travels, 2.5.11; to Rome, 6.2.6, 8.6.23, 5.3.8–compare Dio Cassius, L.10; to Corinth 10.4.10 and 10.2.3; in Egypt, 2.3.5, 2.5.12, 11.11.5, 17.1.24, 17.1.50, 15.1.45; to Italy, 2.5.11 and 5.2.6.

2. 1.1.22–23, 2.1.9, 11.9.3; Plutarch, “Lucullus,” 28; “Sulla,” 26; Suda Lexiucon “Aоύкоυλλоς”; Flavius Josephus, Antiques, 13.286–287, 319, 347.14.35, 68, 104, 111, 114, 118, 138–139, 15.9–10; and Contra Apionem, 2.84.

3. Calpurnius Piso: Strabo, 2.5.33.

4. Strabo, 1.1.16–18, 1.1.22–2., 2.5.1.

5. See especially 2.5.26–33; 17.3.1.

6. 1.1.8; compare 1.4.6, 2.3.6, 2.5.5–7, 2.5.34.

7. 2.5.10, 1.4.1 ff., 1.1.12, 2.1.1, 2.1.10, 2.1.12–13, 2.5.4, 2.5.34–42.

8. 2.3.1–2, 2.5.3, 2.5.5. A zone in latitude must not be confused with a кλίμα “clima” in latitude, which was the “inclination” of a place’s horizon to the earth’s axis.

9. 2.5.6–9, 2.5.14, 2.5.18.

10. 1.3.4–5, 1.3.8, 1.3.10, 5.4.8, 2.5.18.


I. Original Works. Strabo’s history, now lost, consisted of historical sketches (or memoirs), ‘Yπομνήαтα ‘Iσтоριкά, of which he cites his “Deeds of Alexander” as an example, and a continuation of Polybius, probably entitled ‘Iσтоρίαι or ‘Iσтоρία, in 43 or 47 bks., of which bk. 2 was identical with bk. 6 of the sketches. The geography, which is extant, was entitled Гєωγραφιкά (“Geography” or “Matters Geographical"), and is in 17 bks.

The Geography was tittle read until the late fifth century, and even then copies were rare. We do have in three portions (Codex Vat. gr. 2306. Codex Crypt. Zα xliii, and Codex Vat. 2061A) a palimpsest written at that time and still showing legible remains of the original text of Strabo; we also have quotations by Stephen of Byzantium from another early source. All extant later MSS of Strabo’s text and direct medieval quotations are derived from a lost archetype of about the mid-ninth century. For the first nine bks. Codex Parisinus gr. 1397 (late tenth century) is the best MS but lacks bks. 10–17, for which the best MSS are Codex Vat. gr. 1329 (lacking bks. 10, 11, and beginning of 12; late thirteenth or early fourteenth century) and Codex Marc. gr. 640 (A.D. 1321).

The latest treatment of the early tradition is by F. Lasserre in Germaine Aujac and F. Lasserre, Strabon, Géographic , I, pt, (Paris, 1969), xlviii ff., which is criticized by D. R. Dicks in Classical Review, n.s. 21 (1971), 188 ff.

The 1st ed., the Aldine (Venice, 1516), is based on the corrupt Codex Parisinus gr. 1393. The eds. by Guilielmus Xylander (Basel, 1549, 1571) were revised with commentary by I. Casaubon (Geneva, 1587), who later (Paris, 1620) issued his own ed. with Latin translation by Xylander and notes by F. Morrellius. The pages of his text are often cited (C and a numeral) in references to Strabo’s text, rather than those of T. J. van Almaloveen’s reissue of Casaubon’s ed. (Amsterdam, 1707). Casaubon’s was the base for further eds.: L. G. de Brérequnigny (Paris, 1763), bks. 1 – 3 only; J. P. Siebenkees, 7 vols. (Leipzig, 1796–1818); T. Falconer, (Oxford, 1807); and the outstanding one of Adamantios Corais (Coraës, Coray), 3 vols, of text and 1 vol. of notes in modern Greek (Paris, 1815–1819). G. Kramer put the text on a better basis in 3 vols. (Berlin, 1844–1852). Also important are the eds. of A. Meineke, 3 vols, (Leipzig, 1852, 1866–1877) and of C. Müller and F. Dübner, 2 vols. (Paris, 1853–1858).

Several important series are in progress. W. Aly, Strahonis Geographica in 17 Büchern, IV, Strabon von Amaseia. Untersuchungen über Text, Aufbau, und Quellen der Geographica (Bonn, 1957), is one of several vols. planned to include text, translation, and commentary; Strabonis Geographica, 1 text of bks. 1 and 2 (Bonn, 1968), was edited after his death by E. Kirsten and F. Lapp. F. Sbordone was responsible for Strabonis Geographica, I bks. 1 and 2 (Rome, 1963). The following have appeared in the Budèacture series, giving introductions, text, French translation, and short notes; Germaine Aujac and F. Lasserre, I, pt, 1, intro. and bk. 1 (Paris, 1969); Germaine Aujac, 1, pt. 2, bk. 2 (Paris, 1969); F. Lasserre, II, bks. 3 and 4 (Paris, 1966); III, bks. 5 and 6 (paris, 1967); VII, bk. 10 (Paris, 1971).

Still appreciated are the French translations by A. Coray and G. La Porte du Theil (bks. 1–15) and A. Letronne (bks. 16 and 17) (Paris, 1805–1819). The German translation of C. G. Groskurd, 4 vols. (Berlin-Stettin, 1831–1834), is monumental. English translations include those of H. C. Hamilton and W. Falconer, 3 vols. (London, 1892–1893), and of H. L. Jones, with text, in the Loeb Classical Library series, 8 vols. (London, 1917–1932).

Much other modern work on Strabo, which has been done and is being done, is recorded yearly in J. Marouzeau. L’année philologique. Fragements of Strabo’s historical work were edited by P. Otto in Leipziger Studien zur Classischen Philologie, 11 (1889); and are also in C. Müller, Fragmenta historicorum Graecorum, III (Paris, 1841), 490 ff., and in F Jacoby, Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker, IIA (Berline, 1926), 430–436, and II C (Berlin, 1926), 291–295.

II. Secondary Literature. For further study of Strabo, see Germaine Aujac, Strabon et la science de son temps (Paris, 1966); H. Berger, Geschichte der wissenschaftlichen Erdkunde der Griechen (Leipzig, 2nd ed., 1903), 327–582; E. H. Bunbury, History of Ancient Geography, II (London, 1879; 2nd ed., New York, 1959), 209–337; A. Calzon, Conception de la géographie d’ apreès Strabon (Fribourg, 1940); M. Dubois, Examen de la Géographie de Strabon (Paris, 1891); W. Heidel, The Frame of Ancient Greek Maps (New York, 1937), passim, but 30–46, 104–122; E. Honigmann, in Paulywissowa, Real-Encyclopädi der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft, IVa, pt. 1 (1931), 76–155; J. O. Thomson, History of Ancient Geography (Cambridge, 1948), 182–186, 286–289, 188–198; H. F. Tozer, A History of Ancient Geography, 2nd ed., by M. Cary (Cambridge, 1935), 238–260.

E. H. Warmington


views updated May 14 2018


Strabo (ca. 64 B.C.-ca. A.D. 23) was a Greek geographer and historian who saw the final collapse of the Roman Republic and the creation by Augustus of the Roman Empire. He wrote large-scale works in his fields.

Strabo was born in the Greek city of Amisea in the district of Pontus, probably in the winter of 64/63 B.C. He came from a wealthy and distinguished family and had an excellent education, first in Asia Minor and later in Rome, which he first visited sometime before the death of Julius Caesar in 44. He returned to Asia Minor but in 29 went back to Rome. There he met several prominent men, including Aelius Gallus, who obtained for him a grant of Roman citizenship. When Gallus went to Egypt as governor in 28 or 27, Strabo accompanied him, toured the province with him, and probably took part in Gallus's unsuccessful expedition into Arabia. Strabo stayed in Egypt for a time after Gallus's recall, but eventually he returned to Rome, where he lived for many years, devoting himself to studying and writing. He may have spent his last years in his native city and died probably in A.D. 23 or 24.

Historical and Geographical Works

Strabo's history, now lost, had the modest title of Historical Notes but was in fact a large-scale history in 43 books. It was essentially a continuation of the great work of the Greek historian Polybios and covered the history of the Greco-Roman world from 144 to 30 B.C.

Strabo's Geography, also a substantial work, was in 17 books. It has survived complete, except for the end of book 7, and was finished sometime between A.D. 17 and 23, though some sections were clearly written much earlier. In the first two books, Strabo examines the theoretical basis of his subject and discusses the views of his predecessors, especially Eratosthenes. The rest of the work contains a detailed descriptive geography of the world as known in his time, starting with Spain and continuing through the other European lands to Greece, Asia Minor, and further Asia (that is, India, Persia, and Syria) and concluding with Egypt and North Africa. In each country he discusses not only the main physical features but also its products and the character and history of its inhabitants. To some extent he depended on his own observations, but for the most part he drew his material from the works of earlier writers. He usually showed good sense in choosing his sources, though sometimes the information he derived was outdated. In general the Geography is a very valuable compilation of facts and gives an interesting picture of the world as it was known to educated men in the Augustan Age. But it was not merely a collection of data; Strabo wrote fine Greek prose and used considerable artistry in the organization of his material, making his opus the best of its kind to be handed down from antiquity.

Further Reading

The only complete modern translation of Strabo, with an introduction on his life and works, is The Geography of Strabo by Horace L. Jones (8 vols., 1917-1933). Numerous extracts in translation are in Eric H. Warmington, Greek Geography (1934). Henry F. Tozer, History of Ancient Geography (1897; 2d ed. 1964), still the standard work on the science of geography in Greco-Roman times, contains a good brief account of Strabo and his geographical work.

For a good account of the growth of geographical knowledge see Max Cary and Eric H. Warmington, The Ancient Explorers (1929). Max Cary, Geographic Background of Greek and Roman History (1949), a survey of Mediterranean geography with special reference to classical times, contains excellent sections on Greece, Asia Minor, and Italy. An interesting discussion of Strabo and other Greek writers in the context of Roman society in the Augustan Age is in Glen W. Bowersock, Augustus and the Greek World (1964). The best account of the Roman world during Strabo's lifetime is in Howard H. Scullard, From the Gracchi to Nero (1959; 2d ed. 1963). □


views updated May 21 2018

Strabo (c.63 bc–c.23 ad), historian and geographer of Greek descent. His only extant work, Geographica, in seventeen volumes, provides a detailed physical and historical geography of the ancient world during the reign of Augustus.