Polybius devoted one book of his history to a separate treatise
on the geography of the continents. Strabo, 9.1.1.
IN their Greek histories Eudoxus gave a good, but Ephorus
the best, account of the foundations, blood connexions,
migrations, and founders of states; but I shall now give
some information on the position of countries and their distances, which are the subjects most properly belonging to the
science of Geography. . . .
Fishing Near Scylla
It is not Homer's manner to indulge in mere mythological
stories founded on no substratum of truth. For
there is no surer way of giving an air of verisimilitude to fiction than to mix with it some particles of truth. And
this is the case with the tale of the wanderings of Odysseus. . . .
For instance, Aeolus, who taught the way of getting through
the straits, where there are currents setting both ways, and the
passage is rendered difficult by the indraught of the sea, came
to be called and regarded as the dispenser and king of the winds;
just as Danaus, again, who discovered the storages of water in
Argos, and Atreus, who discovered the fact of the sun's revolution
being in the opposite direction to that of the heaven, were
called seers and priest-kings. So the priests of the Egyptians,
the Chaldeans, and the Magi, being superior to the rest of the
world in wisdom, obtained rule and honour in former generations. And on this principle, too, each one of the gods is
honoured as the inventor of something useful to man. I do
not allow therefore that Aeolus is wholly mythical, nor the
wanderings of Odysseus generally. Some mythical elements
have been undoubtedly added, as they have in the War or
Ilium; but the general account of Sicily given by the poet
agrees with that of other historians who have given topographical details of Italy and Sicily. I cannot agree therefore
with the remark of Eratosthenes that "we shall discover
where Odysseus wandered, when we find the cobbler who
sewed up the leather bag of the winds." See for instance how
Homer's description of Scylla agrees with what really happens
at the Scyllaean rock, and the taking of the sword fish:1
“"And there she fishes, roaming round the rock,
For dog-fish and for dolphins, or what else
Of huger she may take that swims the sea."
For the fact is that tunnies swimming in great shoals along the
Italian coast, if they are drifted from their course and are prevented from reaching Sicily, fall a prey to the larger fish, such
as dolphins, dog-fish, or other marine monsters; and from
hunting these the sword-fish (called also xiphiae, or sometimes
sea-dogs) are fattened. The same thing happens at a rise of
the Nile, and other rivers, as in the case of a fire or a burning
forest; the animals crowd together, and, in their effort to escape
the fire or the water, fall a prey to stronger animals.
Fishing for Swordfish
Fishing for sword-fish at the Scyllaean rock is carried on
in this way. A number of men lie in wait, two
each in small two-oared boats, and one man is
set to look out for them all. In the boat one
man rows, while the other stands on the prow holding a spear.
When the look-out man signals the appearance of a sword-fish
(for the animal swims with one-third of its body above water),
the boat rows up to it, and the man with the spear strikes it at
close quarters, and then pulls the spear-shaft away leaving the
harpoon in the fish's body; for it is barbed and loosely fastened
to the shaft on purpose, and has a long rope attached to it.
They then slacken the rope for the wounded fish, until it is
wearied out with its convulsive struggles and attempts to
escape, and then they haul it on to land, or, if its size is not too
great, into the boat. And if the spear-shaft falls into the sea it
is not lost; for being made of two pieces, one oak and the
other pine, the oak end as the heavier dips under water, the
other end rises above it and is easily got hold of. But sometimes it happens that the man rowing is wounded, right through
the boat, by the immense size of the animal's sword; for it
charges like a boar, and hunting the one is very like hunting
This would lead us to conjecture that the wandering
described by Homer was near Sicily, because he has assigned
to Scylla the kind of fishing which is indigenous to the
Scyllaean rock; and because what he says of Charybdis
correctly describes what does happen in the Straits. But the
“"Thrice sends she up the darksome tide,"
in stead of twice "a day," is an error to be
ascribed to the copyist or the geographer.
Island of Meninx, off the lesser Syrtis. See 1. 39.
also Meninx answers to his description of the Lotophagi.
Or if there are some points which do not answer, we
must lay the blame on ignorance or poetic licence, which uses
real history, picturesque detail, and mythological allusion. The
object of history is truth, as when in the catalogue of ships the
poet describes the features of the several localities, calling one
city "rocky," another "frontier-placed," another "with wealth
of doves," or "hard by the sea." But the object of picturesque
detail is vividness, as when he introduces men fighting; and
that of mythological allusion is to give pleasure or rouse wonder.
But a narrative wholly fictitious creates no illusion and is not
Homeric. For all look upon his poetry as a philosophical
work; and Eratosthenes is wrong in bidding us not judge his
poems with a view to having any serious meaning, or to seek
for history in them.
It is better, again, to take the line3
“"Thence for nine days the foul winds drave us on,"
to mean that he made but a short distance—for foul winds do
not favour a straight course—than to imagine him to have got
into the open ocean as running before favouring winds. The
distance from Malea to the Pillars is twenty-two thousand five
hundred stades. If we suppose this to have been accomplished
at an even speed in the nine days, he would make two
thousand five hundred stades a day. Now, who has ever
asserted that any one made the voyage from Lycia or Rhodes
to Alexandria in four days, a distance of four thousand
To those who ask how it was that Odysseus, though he
came to Sicily three times, never once went through the straits,
I answer that all subsequent sailors avoided that passage
also. . . .
Implausibility of Pytheas's Geography
In treating of the geography of Europe I shall say
nothing of the ancient geographers, but shall confine my
attention to their modern critics, Dicaearchus, Eratosthenes,
who is the most recent writer on geography, and Pytheas, who
has misled many readers by professing to have traversed on
foot the whole of Britain, the coastline of which island, he
says, is more than forty thousand stades. And again by his
stories of Thule and the countries in its neighbourhood, "in
which," he says, "there is neither unmixed land or sea or air,
but a kind of compound of all three (like the jelly-fish or Pulmo
Marinus), in which earth and sea and everything else are held
in suspense, and which forms a kind of connecting link to the
whole, through which one can neither walk nor sail." This
substance, which he says is like the Pulmo Marinus, he saw
with his own eyes, the rest he learnt by report.
is Pytheas's story, and he adds that, on his return thence,
he traversed the whole of the coast of Europe
from Gades to the Tanais. But we cannot
believe that a private person, who was also a poor man, should
have made such immense journeys by land and sea. Even
Eratosthenes doubted this part of his story, though he believed
what he said about Britain, and Gades, and Iberia. I would
much rather believe the Messenian (Euhemerus) than him.
The latter is content with saying that he sailed to one country
which he calls Panchaia;4
while the former asserts that he has
actually seen the whole northern coast of Europe up to the
very verge of the world, which one would hardly believe of
Hermes himself if he said it. Eratosthenes calls Euhemerus
yet believes Pytheas, though Dicaearchus himself
. . . Eratosthenes and Dicaearchus give mere
popular guesses as to distances.
Distances In the Mediterranean
For instance, Dicaearchus says that the distance from
the Peloponnese to the Pillars is ten thousand stades
and still further to the head of the Adriatic; and from
the Peloponnesus to the Sicilian straits three thousand;
and therefore the remainder, from the Straits to the Pillars,
is seven thousand stades. I say nothing about the three
thousand stades, whether they are right or wrong; but
the seven thousand cannot be made out, whether you measure
along the coast or straight across the sea. The coast route is
a kind of obtuse angle, contained by two lines resting on the
straits and the pillars respectively; so that we have a triangle,
of which the apex is Narbo, and the base the straight line
representing the course by the open sea; of the two sides of
the triangle which contain the obtuse angle, that which extends
from the straits to Narbo is more than eleven thousand two
hundred stades, the other from Narbo to the Pillars is a little
under eight thousand. The longest distance from Europe to
Libya across the Tuscan sea is allowed to be not more than
three thousand stades, that by the Sardinian sea is somewhat less; but let us call it three thousand stades. Now
suppose a perpendicular let down through the gulf of Narbo
to the base of the triangle, that is to the straight seacourse, measuring two thousand stades; it requires only a
schoolboy's geometry to prove that the coasting voyage is
longer than the direct sea voyage by nearly five hundred
And when the three thousand stades from the
Peloponnese to the straits are added, the whole number of
the stades even of the straight sea course will be more than
double Dicaearchus's reckoning. And if we measure to the
head of the Adriatic we must add still more by his own
admission; that is to say, from the Peloponnese to Leucas is
seven hundred stades, from Leucas to Corcyra seven hundred,
from Corcyra to Ceraunia seven hundred, and from Ceraunia
along the Illyrian coast six thousand one hundred and fifty. Strabo quotes this reckoning of the distance from the Peloponnese to the
head of the Adriatic to prove that Polybius, on his own showing, is wrong in
admitting that this distance (8250 stades) is greater than that from the Peloponnese to the Pillars, which Dicaearchus said was 10,000 stades, and which
Polybius showed to be 18,765 stades by the shortest route.
In talking such nonsense he might well be regarded as
having gone beyond even Antiphanes of Berga, and, in fact,
to have left no folly for his successors to commit. . . .
Gaul and Spain
From Ithaca to Corcyra is more than nine hundred
stades; from Epidamnus to Thessalonica more than two
thousand. From Marseilles to the Pillars is more than nine
thousand; from the Pyrenees, rather less than eight thousand.
. . . The Pagus from source to mouth is eight thousand,
not following its windings, but taking a direct line. . . .
Eratosthenes is quite ignorant of the geography of Iberia,
and sometimes makes statements about it entirely contradictory. He says, for instance, that its western coast as
far as Gades is inhabited by Gauls, since the whole western
side of Europe, as far south as Gades, is occupied by that
people: and then, quite forgetting he has said this, when
taking a survey of the whole of Spain, he nowhere mentions
the Gauls. . . . The length of Europe is less than that of
Libya and Asia put together by the distance between the sunrise in summer and at the point of the equinox; for the source of
the Tanais is at the former, and the Pillars are at the western
equinox, and between them lies Europe, while Asia occupies
the northern semicircle between the Tanais and equinoctial
sunrise. . . .
Southern Europe is divided into five peninsulas—Iberia;
Polybius's fivefold division of the European peninsulas, as opposed to the threefold division of Eratosthenes.
Italy; a third ending in the Capes Malea and
Sunium, in which are included Greece and
Illyria, and a part of Thrace; a fourth called
the Thracian Chersonese, bounded by the
strait between Sestos and Abydos; and a fifth
along the Cimmerian Bosphorus and the entrance to the Maeotis. . . .
Portugal and Spain
In the sea off Lusitania acorn-bearing oaks grow, upon
which the tunnies feed and fatten themselves, which may, therefore, well be called sea-hogs, as they feed like hogs on acorns.
These acorns are sometimes carried by the tide as far as
the coast of Latium, unless they may be thought to be the
produce of Sardinia or neighbouring islands. . . .
In Lusitania both animals and man are extraordinarily
productive, owing to the excellent temperature of the air; the
fruits never wither; there is not more than three months in
the year in which roses, white violets (or gilly-flowers), and
asparagus do not grow; while the fish caught in its sea is
far superior to what is found in our waters for quantity, quality,
and beauty. There, too, a Sicilian medimnus of barley is
sold for a drachma, and one of wheat for nine Alexandrine
obols. A metreta of wine costs a drachma, and a good kid
or hare an obol, and a lamb from three to four obols; a fat
pig weighing a hundred minae costs five drachmae, and a
sheep two. A talent of figs is sold for three obols, a calf
for five drachmae, a draught-ox for ten. The flesh of wild
animals is not thought worth fixing a price upon at all, but the
people give it to each other for nothing and as a present.8
. . .
Geography of Celtiberia
The Turduli live on the immediate north Tribes in Boetica
of the Turdetani. . . .
The fertility of their country has had a civilising influence
on the Turditani and on their Celtic kinsfolk, and taught
them the art of social life. . . .
The Pillars are at either side of the straits. . . .
There is a fountain in the Heracleum at Gades, the water
of which is sweet and is reached by steps.
This fountain has a tide which rises and falls
exactly in the reverse order of the sea tide.
When it is high tide at sea it is low tide in the fountain, and
high in the fountain when it is low at sea. The explanation
of this is that the wind, which rises from the bowels of the
earth to the surface, is prevented from finding its natural
egress when the earth is covered with water at the rise of the
tide, and being thus turned back into the interior of the earth,
it stops up the underground channels of the fountain and
produces a deficiency of water; but when the earth is again
uncovered, the wind having once more found an easy egress,
sets the veins of the fountain free again, and the water spurts
There are very large silver mines about twenty stades
The process of producing silver in the mines near New Carthage.
from New Carthage, extending to a circuit of
four hundred stades, in which forty thousand
men are continually employed, who produce
for the benefit of the Roman people twenty-five thousand drachmae a day. It would take too long to
describe the whole process of working them, but I may mention that the alluvial soil containing the silver ore is first
broken up, and sifted in sieves held in water; that then the
deposit is again broken, and being again filtered with running
water, is broken a third time. This is done five times; the
fifth deposit is smelted, and, the lead having been run off,
pure silver remains. . . .
The Anas and Boetis both flow from Celtiberia, their streams being about nine hundred
The Guadiana and Guadalquivir.
stades apart. . . .
Among other cities of the Vaccaei and Celtiberians are
Segesama and Intercatia. . . .
One of the Iberian kings had such a magnificent and
richly furnished palace, that he rivalled the
luxury of the Phaeacians, except that the vessels
standing in the interior of the house, though
made of gold and silver, were full of barley-wine. . . .
From the Pyrenees to the river Narbo the country is
River Aude. The Tech and the Ruscino or Tet.
flat; and through it flow the Illeberis and Ruscinus, past some cities of the same name inhabited by Celts. In this plain there are found
what are called underground fish.
A mistake of Timaeus as to the Rhone.
The soil is
light, and produces a quantity of grass called agrostis;
this soil the earth is sandy for a depth of two or three cubits,
through which the overflow of the river percolates; and with
this water, as it makes its way, the fish also get below the soil
to feed, for they are exceedingly fond of the root of the
and have thus made the whole plain full of subterranean fish, which people dig up and
take. . . .
The Rhone has not five, but two mouths. . . .
The Liger discharges itself between the Pictŏnes and Namnitae.
Britain is quite unknown to the southern Gauls.
There was in ancient times an emporium
The Loire between Poitou and Nantes. Coiron.
on this river called Corbilo, but none of its inhabitants, nor those of Massalia or Narbo, could
any information worth mentioning on the subject
of Britain when questioned by him, though
they were the most important cities in that part
of the country; and yet Pytheas has ventured
on all those stories about it. . . .
An animal is produced on the Alps of a peculiar form; its
shape is that of a stag except its neck and coat,
which resemble that of a he-goat. Beneath its
chin it has an excrescence about a span long, hairy at the end,
about as thick as a colt's tail. . . .
Near Aquileia, in the territory of the Noric Taurisci, in my
A gold mine near Aquileia.
own time a gold mine was discovered, so easy to
work, that by scraping away the surface soil for
two feet, gold could be found immediately. The
seam of gold was not more than fifteen feet; some of it was
found unmixed with alloy in nuggets of the size of a bean or
lupine, only an eighth of it disappearing in the furnace; and
some wanted more elaborate smelting, but would still pay
thoroughly well. Accordingly, on the Italians joining the
barbarians in working this mine, in two months the price of
gold went down a third throughout Italy: and when the
Taurisci found out that, they expelled their Italian fellowworkers and kept the monopoly themselves. . . .
If we compare the mountains in Greece—Taygetus,
The four passes of the Alps,—the Cornice, Argentière, Genèvre (Val d'Aosta), Cenis.
Lycaeus, Parnassus, Olympus, Pelion, Ossa, and those in
Thrace—Haemus, Rhodope, Dunax, with the Alps, we
may state the case thus. Each one of the former may be
ascended or skirted by an active traveller in a single day; but
no one could ascend the Alps even in five days, the distance
from the plain being two thousand two hundred
Lago di Garda, Lago di Como.
There are but four passes, one through
Liguria, nearest the Tyrrhenian Sea; the next
through the Taurini, which was the one used
by Hannibal; the third through the Salassi;
and the last by the Rhaeti,10
all of them excessively precipitous.
There are several lakes in the mountains, three
of great size, the Benacus, five hundred by one
hundred and thirty stades, out of which the
Mincius flows; the Larius, four hundred stades long, and
somewhat narrower than the Benacus, discharging the Addua;
and thirdly, the Verbanus, about three hundred
stades by thirty, from which comes a considerable
river—the Ticinus. All these three rivers discharge
themselves into the Padus. . . .
Islands Off the Italian Coast
There is an excellent wine made at Capua called
Anadendrites, or the "wine of the climbing vine," with which
no other can compare. . . .
The length of the coast from Iapygia to the
straits is three thousand stades by land, and it is washed by
the Sicilian sea. Sailing, however, the distance is less than
five hundred stades. . . .
The largest distance of the Etrurian coast is from Luna to
Ostia, a distance of one thousand three hundred and thirty
. . .
The island Lemnos is called Aethaleia. . . .
The bay between the two promontories of Misenum and
Minerva is called the Crater (the Bowl).
Above this coast lies the whole of Campania,
the most fertile plain in the country. Round
the Bowl live the Opici and the Ausones. . . .
The north road from Iapygia has been
Eastern coast-road from S. to N. of Italy.
marked out with miles, five hundred and sixty
to Sena, and one hundred and seventy thence
to Aquileia. . . .
Then comes Lacinium . . . from the straits to this place
is a distance of one thousand three hundred
stades, and thence to the Iapygian promontory
seven hundred. . . .
Of the three craters one has partly fallen in, the other two
The craters in the volcanic Holy Island one of the Lipari group.
remain perfect. The largest has a circular
orifice with a circumference of five stades, but
it gradually contracts to a diameter of fifty feet;
it runs right down to the sea for a stade, so that
the sea is visible in clear weather. When a south wind is
about to blow, a thick mist envelopes the little island, so that
even Sicily is invisible from it: but if there is going to be a
north wind, bright flames rise from the crater and shoot up
high, and louder rumblings are emitted; but a west wind
causes a medium display of both. The other two craters are
of the same shape, but their eruptions are less violent. From the
difference in the sound of the rumbling, and by observing from
what point the eruptions and flames and smoke begin, the
wind which is to blow on the third day from that time can be
foretold. At least, some men in the Lipari Islands when
weather-bound have foretold what wind was coming and have
not been deceived. Therefore, it appears that Homer did not
speak without meaning, but was stating a truth allegorically
when he called Aeolus12
"steward of the winds." . . .
The Via Egnatia
The road from Apollonia to Macedonia is called the
which has been measured in miles
and marked out with milestones as far as
Cypselus and the River Hebrus, a distance of five hundred
and thirty-five miles. Reckoning eight and one-third stades
to a mile, the number of stades will be four thousand
four hundred and fifty-eight.13
The distance is exactly
the same whether you start from Apollonia or Epidamnus.
The whole road is called the Egnatia, but its first part
has got a name from Candavia, a mountain of Illyria, and
leads through the town of Lycnidus, and through Pylon,
which is the point on the road where Illyria and Macedonia
Thessalonica half-way to the Hebrus form Apollonia.
Thence it leads over Mount Barnūs,
through Heracleia, Lyncestia, and Eordea, to
Edessa and Pella, and finally to Thessalonica;
and the number of miles is altogether two
hundred and sixty-seven. . . . And the whole distance from
the Ionian Gulf at Apollonia to Byzantium is seven thousand
five hundred stades. . . .
The circumference of the Peloponnesus, if
you do not follow the indentations, is four
thousand stades. . . .
The distance from Cape Malea to the Ister
From C. Malea to the Danube.
is ten thousand stades.14
. . .
Eratosthenes a Better Authority than Artemidorus
On matters concerning the country between the
Euphrates and India, Eratosthenes is a better authority than
Artemidorus. . . .
State of Alexandria
A personal visit to Alexandria filled me with disgust
at the state of the city. It is inhabited by three
distinct races,—native Egyptians, an acute and
civilised race; secondly, mercenary soldiers (for
the custom of hiring and supporting men-at-arms is an ancient
one), who have learnt to rule rather than obey owing to the
feeble character of the kings; and a third class, consisting of
native Alexandrians, who have never from the same cause
become properly accustomed to civil life, but who are yet
better than the second class; for though they are now a
mongrel race, yet they were originally Greek, and have retained
some recollection of Greek principles. But this last class has
become almost extinct, thanks to Euergetes Physcon, in whose
reign I visited Alexandria; for that king being troubled with
seditions, frequently exposed the common people to the fury
of the soldiery and caused their destruction. So that in this
state of the city the poet's words only expressed the truth—15
“"To Egypt 'tis a long and toilsome road."