ANCIENT GEOGRAPHY: The Discovery of the World in Classical Greece and Rome

By D.W. Roller

IB Tauris (2015) h/b 294pp £62 (ISBN 9781784530761)

If the study of the writers of history is ‘historiography’, this is a ‘geographygraphy’: a study of the ancient writers who invented the discipline. And a very clear and wide-ranging study it is as well, taking the story from Homer to the end of the Roman Empire in the West. By this time, R. shows, Romans were aware, however faintly, of the Azores to the West (and possibly even Río de Janeiro, where Roman amphorae were found but were lost before they could be fully analyzed), Finland and possibly Iceland to the North, China and Java to the East, and the African coast as far south as N. Mozambique.

Only four geographical handbooks survive from antiquity out of a record of about 250 geographers known through quotation or name alone – Strabo (whose work barely survived and was unknown to e.g. Pliny, Plutarch and Ptolemy), Pomponius Mela, Books 2-6 of Pliny’s Natural History (all 1st C AD) and Ptolemy of Alexandria (2nd C AD), whose Geographical Guide located some 8,000 places from the Baltic to central Africa and the Malay peninsula.

But as R. points out, very many writers made useful contributions, e.g. poets such as Pindar, Aeschylus, Virgil and Propertius (whose lovelorn Arethusa consults a map to locate where her soldier is); medical writers interested in health and climate; soldiers like Julius Caesar (Gaul) and Pompey (the near east); and polymaths such as Polybius, best known for his History but who traced Hannibal’s route across the Alps, sailed down the West African coast into the tropics, probably reaching Mt Cameroon, and investigated France, probably as far as the Loire and Nantes. He may have gone in search of the British Isles, in which he shared an interest with Scipio Aemilanus, perhaps having heard of it from Pytheas’ travels in the region (Pytheas first connected tides with the moon). It is one of the few areas of research to which Aristotle did not devote a treatise, though much information is scattered throughout his works, especially his Meteorologica, and he is the first person we know of to use oikoumenê to mean ‘the inhabited world’.

This mapping of the known world followed trade, travel (Hecataeus, Herodotus) and conquest – Greek colonisation, Greek contact with Persians (opening up the East) and Carthaginians (Africa), Alexander the Great (when Greek knowledge of the world expanded in all directions except West), and so on. The idea that the earth was spherical and could be divided into zones (two arctic, two temperate and a ‘burnt’ zone in the middle) developed in the 5th C BC. Ephoros (4th C BC) divided the world into four ethnic groups (Indians, Ethiopians, Celts and Scythians).

But the big player here was Eratosthenes, working in Alexandria, whose 3-book Geography covered a history of the subject, the size and shape of the earth and the topography of the entire oikoumenê. He created the prime north-south meridian and prime east-west parallel, enabling (in theory) relative positions to be accurately located. He can be said to have invented the discipline of geography.

The Romans carried on the good work. Juba II, scholar, explorer and made king of Mauretania (Algeria and Morocco) by the Romans in 25 BC, wrote a Libyca (also discovering the Canary islands) and an Arabia (joining Gaius Caesar’s expedition there), which together linked India to the pillars of Hercules, the so-called ‘southern border’ of the then oikoumenê. Augustus and Tiberius pushed north into Germany. Archelaus, king of Cappadocia, with the same interests as Juba, picked up information from merchants about India, Bactrians and China (the ‘silk people’, Seres). No fewer than 120 ships made the Red Sea/India run in the 20s BC; in 25 BC an Indian embassy visited Augustus in Spain.

In imperial times Roman traders reached south India, and one Alexandros made a journey to Sri Lanka and the South China Sea, perhaps Hanoi and Java. Romans goods have been found in Iceland, Sweden, Norway and Vietnam, though that does prove that Romans traded there. The advent of Christianity, however, imposed a biblical view of the world, and that was essentially the end of classical geography. Its restoration awaited the 15th C renaissance.

R. has produced a fascinating account of an important subject, which has not been given its due for a very long time. Now it has been, in fine detail, crowned with plain but very informative maps regularly plotting the gradual expansion of knowledge. Highly recommended.

Peter Jones

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