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Geography, it seems, was one of the “discoveries” of the ancient Greeks. Although the Phoenicians knew the environs of the Mediterranean (and beyond) earlier and better, Ionian Greeks like Hecataeus from Miletus were the first to turn a practical knowledge into a science by systematically studying the oikoumene, the “inhabited world.” Strabo (Strabon in Greek), a geographer from about the time of Augustus, was a product of this tradition. His 17-book Geographica preserved a good deal of the work of earlier geographers, and for this alone we owe him a great debt. But Strabo was more than a compiler, and his study brought together, perhaps for the first time, mathematics, physics, political theory, and history into a single treatise on geography. Strabo is never dull, and the 17 books are a storehouse for fascinating information on myriad subjects. In view of the immensity and the breadth of the Geographica, we can readily concur with Strabo's own assessment, that is was a kolossourgia (Strab. 1.1.23).

What little we know about the life of Strabo can be reconstructed from incidental references in the Geographica. At the time of his birth, in c. 63 B.C., his family lived in Amasia, a Hellenized town in the interior of Pontus, a region along the Black Sea. Strabo writes ((Strab. 14.1.48) that he studied in Caria under Aristodemus (also the teacher of the Roman general Pompey's sons) before taking up residence in Rome. While there, he was under the tutelage of Tyrannion, an expert on geography. One precisely datable event of his life was a journey to Egypt in 25/4 B.C., when he explored the Nile in the company of the Roman prefect Aelius Gallus (Strab. 2.5.12). Overall, Strabo claims to have traveled widely, from Armenia to Etruria and from the Euxine to Ethiopia (Strab. 2.5.11). But lapses in his knowledge-it is obvious, for example, that he saw Cyrene (Strab. 17.3.20) only from a boat-indicate that his journeys were limited in scope and duration.

At some point in his life, Strabo returned to Amasia, where he undertook to write a 43-book history, which was meant to supplement the writing of the Greek historian Polybius. None of Strabo's history, unfortunately, is extant. As a sign of his belief in the synergy between history and geography, Strabo tells us (Strab. 1.1.23) that the Geographica, his final project (written perhaps when he was already in his eighties!), was meant as a sequel to the history. Of the 17 original books, we have all, except for parts of 7. It is not known whether Strabo had his works published in Pontus (under the patronage of Queen Pythodoris) or elsewhere. As they are not cited by Roman writers of succeeding generations, it would appear unlikely that they were published in Rome (see below).

Books 1-2 constitute a long and at times discursive introduction to the Geographica. In many ways, however, this is the most interesting portion of the work, since Strabo sets out to prove that Eratosthenes, who wrote about two centuries before him, was wrong to dismiss the geographical information found in Homer. As far as Strabo was concerned, the wisdom and authority of Homer extended to geographical matters, and his expertise far exceeded that of Eratosthenes or of any other later author. (Cf. (Strab. 1.1.3: “Homer claimed that the populated earth is surrounded by Ocean, and indeed it is.”) A fortunate by-product of this spirited attack on Eratosthenes-whose writings are lost-is the considerable information we can derive from it concerning his theories on mathematical geography.

The remaining 15 books of the Geographica are divided according to the regions covered. Books 3-10 describe Europe; 11-16, Asia (Minor); and 17, Africa. Not surprisingly, the Books dealing with the Greek world (8-10) have Homer as the guide, and this may account for some of the errors (Sounion is said to be as far south as Malea). In this same section we can see Strabo taking a reasonable stand on the matter of geographical determinism. He allows that Greek civilization was partly the result of the maritime nature of mainland Greece, and he formulates an interesting theory whereby he posits a correlation between contact with the sea and the growth of a civilization (Strab. 8.1.3). But, at the same time, he insists that geographical considerations alone cannot account for the greatness of a people, and that Greece became powerful because of a due regard of its citizens for politics and the arts (Strab. 2.5.26). Elsewhere in the Geographica, Strabo seems to reveal a Stoic belief in the workings of a Pronoia (“Providence”), which makes it possible for the geography of a country to contribute to the development of its people.

Strabo's views on Rome are generally positive. He admires the machinery of the Empire and the efficiency of one-man rule, and he shows no emotion in describing the subjugation of his native Pontus (cf. Strab. 12.3.33). The loss of independence, apparently, was seen as a small price for good government (Strab. 6.4.2).

Alongside the major themes of Strabo's Geographica are the countless, fascinating observations about the physical nature of the oikoumene. Just a few examples: the Peloponnesus is shaped like the leaf of a lovely plane tree (Strab. 8.2.1); there is always more snow on the north side of a mountain than on the south (Strab. 16.1.13); at a given time, more of the population of Gades (Cadiz) is at sea than at home (Strab. 3.5.3); the sun almost never shines in Britain (Strab. 4.5.2). There is enough interesting material in Strabo to sustain many hours of reading; moreover, the Greek is elegant and finely crafted.

Strabo's wish was that his Geographica be read by the rulers of the Roman Empire, so that they could understand the geography of those places that mattered most historically (Strab. 1.1.18). But this was not to be, and subsequent Roman writers on geography ignored Strabo (Pliny, for example, says not a word). Only in the late fifth century is he cited regularly (first, by Stephanus of Byzantium). Later, during the Middle Ages, Strabo's stock rose considerably, and he came to be regarded as the Geographer by writers like Eustathius. In more recent times, the eminent classics scholar Wilamowitz has praised Strabo as a sensible writer, who could describe even the places he never visited far better than Pausanias-who had done so. (KlSchr vol. 5, pt. 1 [Berlin 1937] 373).

Text and translation are easily accessible in the 8-volume Loeb edition by H. L. Jones (1917-33). The articles in Daremberg-Saglio (1896), RE (1931), and OCD (2nd ed., 1970) are all worth reading. General studies on ancient geography, like H. F. Tozer, Geography of Ancient Greece (London 1882), J. O. Thomson, History of Ancient Geography (Cambridge 1948), while old are still useful in contextualizing the work of Strabo. G. Aujac, Strabon et la science de son temps (Paris 1968), contains good insights, and P. W. Wallace, Strabo's Description of Boeotia (Heidelberg 1979), brings clarity to the Greek section of the Geographica. For an interesting analysis of Strabo's use of Homer, see E. Gabba in M. Crawford (ed.), Sources for Ancient History (Cambridge 1983).

Blaise Nagy

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