In Our Time: Strabo’s Geographica

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.

How the Wild West Was Won with Ray Mears

How the Wild West Was Won with Ray Mears was a three part series that looked at how the geography of North America affected the westward movement of the USA. Mears was concentrating on the 19th Century, which is when most of the westward expansion took place. Each episode looked at a different aspect of the landscape. We started with mountains, both the eastern Appalachians and the two great western ranges (the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada). All of these provided resources for the USA during the 19th Century – including wood from the Appalachians, fur from the Rockies and gold from the Sierra Nevada. But in the west this terrain was also a death trap – to get to the west as a settler you could only cross the mountains when the weather was good enough for the passes to be open. One of the places he visited was where the Donner Party were forced to spend the winter when they were caught by bad weather in the mountains on the way to California.

The second episode was about the Great Plains – which used to be the home of the buffalo before the settlers came and killed them all. That episode looked both at how difficult it was for the people who settled in the plains, and at how difficult it was to cross as you made your way west in your wagon. This is also the landscape of the cowboy – driving vast herds of cattle for days across the plains to be sold. And the third episode was about the deserts in the south west of the USA. Even today 2000 people a year die trying to cross the Sonoran desert in Arizona (mostly trying to cross from Mexico into the USA), these are not forgiving regions. Some of the things Mears talked about in this programme were the difficulties the army faced trying to set up outposts in the south west USA, and also the lawless towns that grew up during the gold rush.

As well as talking about the difficulties and opportunities that the new settlers faced on the westward journey Mears also spent quite a lot of each episode talking to the Native American people whose ancestors had lived in those landscapes for generations before the Europeans turned up. He talked to them about the various traditions and skills they had which were suited to whichever environment they lived in. And he also made sure to cover the various atrocities committed during the westward push of the USA including the displacement by force of the native peoples.

It was an interesting series which focused on the two things that always strike me when watching programmes about the history of the USA – how much bigger the landscape is than what we have in Britain and how recent all the history is!

Other TV watched over the last two weeks:

Episodes 1 and 2 of The First Georgians: The German Kings Who Made Britain – Lucy Worsley talking about the Georgian Kings.

Episodes 2 and 3 of Secrets of Bones – series about bones, their biology & evolution.

Episodes 1 and 2 of Tigers About the House – series following 2 Sumatran tiger cubs being brought up at a zoo keeper’s house in Australia for the first few months of their lives.

Voyager: To the Final Frontier – one off programme about the Voyager missions, the space probes that were launched in the 1970s and flew past the outer planets of the solar system before heading out into deep space. Interesting both for the data they sent back of the planets, and also just for the fact that 1970s tech was capable of building and launching them.