Note on the geography of Thucydides

VARIOUS difficulties have been found in the geography of Thucydides: his accounts of places are at variance sometimes (1) with facts, sometimes (2) with the statements of later writers. It may be said of his descriptions generally, as of most early descriptions, that they are graphic rather than accurate. When we try to reproduce them in the mind something is wanting. For example, we do not gather from his narrative where the Euryelus was situated by which the Athenians, and also Gylippus, ascended the heights of Epipolae (6.97; 7.2, 43), or how the Syracusan defences lay after the completion of the third counter-wall (7.7), or, without some consideration, how the dolphins were placed for the protection of the Athenian ships in the great Syracusan harbour (7.38). The topography of battles is often imperfect, and sometimes leads to a difficulty in the explanation of them. The narrative of the battle of Amphipolis leads to the inference (see Arnold's Appendix) that the city was not at the top but on the slope of the hill which Cleon ascended with his army, but this can only be inferred with some uncertainty and is not definitely expressed. Perhaps without maps and plans a better delineation was impossible. The narrative of the second sea-fight in the Crisaean gulf (ii. go f.) is incoherent: for we are not told what happened to that portion of the Peloponnesian fleet which was originally victorious. The manner of the attack which ended in the capture of the first Syracusan counter-wall (6.100) is not fully described and can only be inferred; the 'Argive hoplites' who were killed in the Syracusan out-works after the capture of the stockade must have joined the attacking party from one of the two other divisions of the army. Once more, in the calculation of distances the eye or the information of the writer was frequently at fault. For examples see below.

There has been a good deal of controversy on this subject. Even into geography the spirit of party may find a way. Some commentators have been desirous of maintaining the credit of their author, like Dr. Arnold, who was of opinion that 'when Geographers who are also Scholars visit the places of which Thucydides speaks personally, most of the difficulties in his descriptions will vanish.' That remark of course supposes that Thucydides, rightly understood, is generally or always in the right. We may imagine the writer of it to feel what he does not say: 'The most accurate and trustworthy of historians can hardly be imagined to be ignorant as a schoolboy of geography.' And certainly, in his account of Pylos and Sphacteria, Dr. Arnold is ready, in a figure, to work a miracle in order to save the reputation of Thucydides. Changes in the formation of the coast are the 'Deus ex machina' to which he has recourse.

Yet it may very likely be true that Thucydides is far behind Strabo or Pausanias or Stephanus Byzantinus in geography, though his conception of history may be quite unattainable by them. Still greater would be the disparity of his knowledge when compared with that of a modern traveller, or resident in Greece, who has perhaps surveyed and explored places which the historian himself may not have visited. For the knowledge of geography is always growing with time, while history fades into the distance. The materials of the one are increasing, while those of the other are diminishing. The credibility of an author's geography is not therefore to be judged of by the credibility of his history, because in the one far more than in the other he is dependent on the conditions of his age.

In this short note it is not intended to enter into the discussion of particular passages, but rather to urge two general principles: (i) that geographical accuracy is not to be expected from a writer of the age of Thucydides: (2) that the number of his inaccuracies show them to be attributable rather to his ignorance, than to the ignorance of later writers, or of ourselves.

To attempt to reconcile the geography of Thucydides with facts may be the same error in kind, though not in degree, as to try and adapt the drive of Telemachus between Pylos and Sparta to the present condition of the country, or to seek on the sea-shore of Ithaca for the cave by which Odysseus was deposited. As the more familiar features of a scene are likely to be reproduced in the creations of the poet, so the ancient historian will roughly guess distances. But he may often make mistakes about a region with which he was unacquainted, and he will not always be able to judge what amount of description is required in order to place before his readers a just conception of a place or of a battle. There were no surveys of countries or measurements of distances in the age of Herodotus and Thucydides (except along the course of great roads such as the Persian highways), but only the proverbially uncertain measure of a day's journey or of a day's sail (see Thuc. 2.97, and Arnold's note). There were no correct maps, but only rude delineations such as made Herodotus laugh (4.36). The eye was the judge of the distance across a strait or across the entrance of a harbour. Daily experience tells us how seldom the power of judging distances is found in any one who has not been trained by long habit.

Some of the errors or misleading expressions in Thucydides which have suggested the above remarks are the following:—

2.86 med. The distance of Rhium in Achaia from Rhium on the opposite coast is said by Thucydides to be less than a mile (7 stadia). According to Col. Leake (Morea, 2.148) 'the distance is little, if at all, short of a mile and a half,' and would have been considerably greater in ancient times if we assume, as in this particular instance there is reason for thinking, that the sea, owing to the deposits of rivers, has retreated about 250 yards on the south, and somewhat less on the north coast.

4.8 med. The southern entrance of the harbour formed by the bay of Navarino is more than three-quarters of a mile in width, and the northern is 132 yards. But according to Thucydides the northern entrance admitted the passage of only two ships, the southern of not more than eight or nine, and the Lacedaemonians had intended to block up both passages by ships placed lengthways1.

Thucydides also underrates considerably the length of the island, which he describes (4.8) as 15 stadia (about 3000 yards), whereas it is really 2 3/4 miles (4800 yards). [Mr. Grundy (see note) points out that the distance from the place where the Athenians must have landed on the bay side of the island to its N. point is about 15 stadia.]

4.57 init. According to Thucydides, Thyrea was situated about 10 stadia from the sea, or about 1 1/8 of a mile. According to Col. Leake (Morea, 2.492) 'it is at least three times that distance.' Other writers suggest other sites. But there are no remains which agree with the distance mentioned in Thucydides (Bursian, Geographie von Griechenland, ii. p. 70).

6.104 med. Gylippus sailing from Tarentum to Sicily was caught by a storm in the Terinaean gulf. But the Terinaean gulf, called also the Sinus Hipponiates, is on the west coast of Italy (Pliny, iii. 72. 5, 10). κατὰ τὸν τεριναῖον κόλπον cannot mean 'opposite the Terinaean gulf.'

8.88 init. Alcibiades is described as sailing straight from Samos to Phaselis and Caunus on his way to Aspendus, and as returning to Samos from Caunus and Phaselis (108 init.). The inverse order in both cases is the true one. Dr. Arnold supposes the words to mean 'straight to Phaselis, having first touched at Caunus'; 'from Caunus, and before that from-Phaselis.' But this explanation is forced in itself, and is rendered impossible by the repetition of the wrong order in the description of the return voyage.

8.101 fin. Similarly, Larissa and Hamaxitus are mentioned in a wrong order (see Strabo, xiii. I. 47, 48, pp. 604, 605).

6.72 init. So Naxos and Catana.

3.29 med. So Icarus and Myconus.

7.19 init. Decelea is said to be distant about 120 stadia (i. e. about fourteen miles) from Athens, and about the same or a little more from Boeotia. In reality it was much nearer Boeotia. It has been suggested that Thucydides is here thinking of the far-off corner of Boeotia at Oropus, from which an important road ran through Decelea (7.28 init.) to Athens. Still this would only show how different his mode of expression is from that of a modern writer.

8.26 med. λέρον τὴν πρὸ μιλήτου νῆσον. But Leros is forty miles from Miletus. All the MSS. except the Vatican read ῎ελεον, a place which is otherwise unknown. λέρον is probably correct, and is confirmed by the close connexion which we find existing between Leros and Miletus in the tribute lists (C. I. A. 37, 226, 251, 262, 264). The expression is natural enough for a writer who had in his mind not maps of the Aegean, but the actual voyage past Leros to Miletus.3.4 fin. ὥρμουν ἐν τῇ μαλέᾳ, πρὸς βορέαν τῆς πόλεως (compare c. 6, περιοπμισάμενοι τὸ πρὸς νότον). But, according to Strabo, Malea was at the southern extremity of the island. It is possible however to take πρὸς βορέαν τῆς πόλεως not with ὥρμουν but with ἀποστέλλουσι πρέσβεις τριήρει, referring to the Mytilenaeans, above.

1.61 med. ἀφικόμενοι ἐς βέροιαν κἀκεῖθεν ἐπιστρέψαντες. But Beroea was several days' march out of the road from Pydna to Potidaea; nor could the Athenians possibly have reached Gigonus by slow marches three days after their departure from Beroea (κατ̓ ο᾽λίγον δὲ προϊόντες τριταῖοι ἀφίκοντο ἐς γίγωνον). The generally received correction ἐπὶ στρέψαν for ἐιστρέψαντες cannot be considered certain, and does not remove the difficulty about Beroea.

We may also notice that where Thucydides evidently wants to express geographical ideas with precision, as in2.9 fin., νῆσοι ὅσαι ἐντὸς πελοποννήσου καὶ κρήτης πρὸς ἥλιον ἀνίσχοντα, πᾶσαι αἱ ἄλλαι κυκλάδες πλὴν μήλου καὶ φήρας or in the description of the island of Cythera, 4.53 fin., πᾶσα (i. e. either νῆσος or λακωνικὴ) γὰπ ἀνέχι πρὸς τὸ σικελικὸν καὶ κρητικὸν πέλαγος, he has caused a great deal of trouble to his interpreters2. There is a lesser degree of obscurity in the description of the country about Chimerium (1.46 fin.), especially the words ῥεῖ δὲ καὶ θύαμις ποταμός, ὁρίζων τὴν θεσπρωτίδα καὶ κεστρίνην, ὧν ἐντὸς, ἄκπα ἀνέχει τὸ χειμέροιν, where ὧν refers not to τὴν θεσπρωτίδα καὶ κεστρίνην, but to ποταμῶν, gathered from the previous sentence (scil. the Acheron and the Thyamis).

It is worth while also to compare the description of the kingdom of the Odrysae in 2.97, which, though not obscure, is cumbrous and very unlike the manner of a modern geographer.

Considering the number of these errors and vague expressions, and the probability that Thucydides from his imperfect means of knowledge would have fallen into them, is it worth while, for the sake of vindicating his credit, either to alter the text, or to assume changes in the face of nature unless there is actual proof of them in each particular case? All that we can reasonably expect of him is that he should be a little in advance of his predecessors, not that he should vie with modern accuracy, or equally with a modern historian be alive to the value of topography, or realize the fulness and minuteness of detail which are required in a describer of places or of military movements.

1 [It has been suggested that Thucydides fell into the error by combining the accounts of two informants, one of whom meant by 'the harbour' the lagoon of Osmyn Aga, behind Pylos, and the other the bay of Navarino: and mistook an intended blocking of the N. entrance to the bay of Navarino at both ends (by which a passage from the bay into the lagoon, which may have existed at the time, would also have been closed to the Athenians) for a blocking of the N. and S. entrances. See Mr. G. B. Grundy's admirable monograph on Pylos and Sphacteria. If this be so, the criticism, in the Essay, on Thucydides as a geographer would only be confirmed. It is clear from 4.8 (τὴν δὲ νῆσον ταύτην φοβούμενοι μὴ ἐξ αὐτῆς τὸν πόλεμον σφίσι ποιῶνται, ὁπλίτας διεβίβασαν ἐς αὐτήν, καὶ παρὰ τὴν ἤπειρον ἄλλους ἔταξαν ον̔́τω γὰρ τοῖς ᾿αθηναίοις τήν τε νῆσον πολεμίαν ἔσεσθαι τήν τε ἤπειρον, ἀπόβασιν οὐκ ἔχουσαν τὰ γὰρ αὐτῆς τῆς πύλον ἔξω τοῦ ἐσπλου πρὸς τὸ πελαγος ἀλίμενα ὄντα οὐχ ἔξειν ὄθεν ὁρμώμενοι ὠφελήσουσι τοὺς αὑτῶν) that Thucydides believed the Lacedaemonians to have intended to block both entrances of the bay of Navarino. —And it is after all hard to believe that as a fact they did not intend to keep out the Athenian ships by occupying (if not blocking) the S. entrance.]

2 [In 2.9 the variations in the text give good ground for suspecting a gloss.]

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: