Strabo was a Greek scholar who lived in Rome (and other parts of the Roman world) from the 1st Century BC to the 1st Century AD. During this time he wrote his Geographica which was a large work describing the “known world” of the Romans. Discussing it on In Our Time were Paul Cartledge (University of Cambridge), Maria Pretzler (Swansea University) and Benet Salway (UCL).
They started the programme with some context for both Strabo and the world he lived in. He was born in what is now Turkey in around 64BC, which at the time was a part of the Greek world. He lived through a time of great expansion of Roman territory, and the change from Republic to Empire. Not long after he was born the Romans expanded eastwards past his homeland, when he was around 30 Egypt became a part of the Roman empire, and Julius Caesar’s first campaigns in Britain were within his lifetime too. So this is a time when the geography of the Roman territory was changing rapidly, and also a time when a lot of Greek intellectuals like Strabo were incorporated into Roman culture. We don’t know much about Strabo himself, Cartledge (I think) noted in passing that we don’t even know his full name. Strabo means something like “squinty eyed” and would once have been a nickname, but got incorporated into Roman names as a cognomen. Strabo first came to Rome when he was around 20 for his education, and also spent time in Alexandria which was one of the other major intellectual centres of the classical world. As well as the Geographica Strabo is known to have written a history – which has not survived. It was also an ambitious work and it updated a previous work to bring it up to the “present day” of Strabo’s time.
The Geographica is about 17 volumes, and as I said in the opening paragraph it covers the “known world”. The Romans were aware that the Earth is a globe, and Pretzler said that they were even fairly close to being right about the size of the world (although I think she implied that the calculations used were wrong but they got to the right answer anyway). So they were aware that there was a lot of world unaccounted for – their known world was about a quarter of the globe. There were different theories at the time about what else was there – one was that there was ocean filling the rest of the space. This lead some Romans to be dubious about the existence of Britain even after Julius Caesar had campaigned there – it wasn’t logical, because it was off the edge of the land. And Strabo wasn’t convinced by reports from an explorer of islands to the west of Britain – what we now know as Ireland and Iceland.
The first couple of volumes are introductory in nature. This is, in fact, where most biographical details about Strabo come from. The text also says that Strabo is very widely travelled and knows much of the world first hand, but Pretzler explained that this was a standard thing for geographers and historians of the time to say. It was intended to give them some authority but wasn’t necessarily true. She said that you can make some reasonable guesses about which bits were first hand and which weren’t – in part because the first hand bits are so much more vivid (and accurate). In these introductory chapters Strabo also explains the many sources he has consulted – I think they said it was a couple of hundred, of course only a few of these are his major sources. He also takes the time to write about Homer’s geographical knowledge in the Iliad and the Odyssey. These volumes of the Geographica also go into the theory of geography of the time, and the mathematical principles behind drawing maps.
The remaining volumes cover the actual geography – not just the physical geography but what we would now call political and social geography: what the countries/provinces are, what the people are like. The text was organised following the then current convention of moving around the coast of the Mediterranean from Spain to the east of the sea, and the back westwards along the north coast of Africa. Obviously to fit in the whole of the known world of the time Strabo also needs to take a couple of detours – one when he fits in Asia Minor up to around Afghanistan, and one to cover India.
The contemporary audience for the work would’ve been fairly wide. Cartledge said that it was written in a style that would be accessible to the general literate & educated population of the time. Strabo himself made the assertion that he intended it to be of particular use to generals and politicians. Remember this was a time of expansion for the Roman Empire, and although we know in hindsight that it had reached its furthest extent during Strabo’s lifetime that wasn’t clear at the time. Strabo was making the point that if you know the geography & the sorts of peoples living in each part of the world then you can better plan your conquests, and your ruling of the territory afterwards.
After Strabo’s death the Geographica isn’t cited much for the next few centuries – in part because the conventions of the time were not to cite recent works. People were keen to root their new works deeply in the classical past, and Strabo was too recent. I think the experts thought he was probably read by these later authors just not referenced. The only mentions of Strabo’s work from that sort of era are by Josephus, the Jewish Roman historian. Strabo’s Geographica was rediscovered in the Renaissance, and had an influence on map making for a couple of centuries after that. One of the experts (possibly Salway?) was saying that even into the 18th Century there would be maps made, for instance of Africa, where the coasts were done with the new modern mapmaking methods, but the inland regions might come straight out of Strabo.