Strabo’s Geography — Mapping the world of the 1st Century CE


By the 1st century BCE, the world of antiquity under the rule of Rome, was perhaps more united than ever and was on a path to experiencing a golden age of knowledge and technology with social development hitting heights it would not see again for a thousand years or more. In this world of increasing interconnectedness, a Greek from Amaseia in Anatolia, named Strabo, would create one of the most influential works on geography of all time. This is the 8th article in a series, you do not have to have read parts 1, 2, 3, 4 , 5, 6, and 7 to follow this article, but they do provide context and come together as a greater whole.

Strabo, 63 or 64 BCE — 24 CE, was born in the city of Amaseia, in what is now Turkey, towards the middle of the 1st century BCE. In the century or so before his birth, the world of antiquity had gone through a profound change. The great Hellenistic kingdoms which rose from the ashes of Alexander’s empire had all but collapsed and almost the entire Mediterranean basin had for the first, and only time, fallen under the domination of one power.

The explosion of the Roman republic from small city state to continent spanning empire was rapid and unpredictable. Over the course of the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE Rome had quietly expanded its power up and down the Italian peninsula. Defeating rival Latins, Etruscans, Samnites and Oscans to take the preeminent position in Italy. However, it was not all plain sailing, Rome suffered more than the occasional set back which may well have stopped another city in its tracks. Notably, at the battle of the Allia in 390 BCE where a marauding Gallic tribe, named the Senones, crushed the Roman legion in battle and proceeded to sack the city itself. Brennus, the Gallic chieftain (possibly their word for king), added insult to the injury when he demanded a substantial tribute from the Romans in return for leaving the city. When the Roman senators complained that the scales weighing the gold for the tribute were rigged against them, the chieftain was said to have drawn his sword and added it to the scales, declaring ‘Vae Victus’ (woe to the vanquished).

Roman expansion in Italy

Despite such disasters, the city proved resilient. Rome also adopted a unique approach to dealing with defeated Italian cities. Instead of subjugating, enslaving, or destroying them, Rome raised them back up and made them her allies. This system meant that rather than suffering overstretch, as many would be empires did, Rome was able to turn her enemies into friends and build up a deep reserve of manpower, creating a snowball effect which would allow the republic to effectively steamroll her enemies.

Pyrrhus of Epirus

The Greeks had their first taste of what was to come, when in the early 3rd century BCE Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, took up the invitation of the Greek city of Taras (modern Taranto) to come to their aid. The Romans had recently expanded their territories into the heel of Italy and were beginning to threaten the Greek colonies which dotted the coastline. Pyrrhus fought a bloody and indecisive war with the Romans, defeating them in several battles narrowly (giving us the term Pyrrhic victory) before withdrawing to let the Romans and Carthaginians contest the rule of Sicily and the western Mediterranean. Over the next century and a half, they would do just that, with Rome emerging the victor in three wars which would see Rome sack and destroy Carthage in 146 BCE. The Roman sack of the Greek city of Corinth in the same year would serve to mark Roman power consolidating on the Greek mainland as well, bringing down the kingdom of Macedon in the process and humbling the rapidly declining Seleucid realm.

By the beginning of the 1st century BCE, Rome dominated, but did not outright control, almost all the lands of what we would call antiquity. With so much power up for grabs and the weakening structures of the Republic, designed for the management of a city state rather than sprawling empire, Roman generals soon turned to fighting each other.

Brief pauses in the ensuing civil wars saw Pompey expand Roman holdings in the eastern Mediterranean and Julius Caesar expand the republic north into Gaul, modern France and Belgium, as well as expeditions over the rhine and to Britain. By the time Octavian, Caesar’s great nephew and chosen heir later to take the name Augustus, rose to power, Rome controlled the entire Mediterranean and was quickly consolidating its new European conquests into provinces. It was a position as master of the world of antiquity which Rome would hold virtually unchallenged for the next four hundred years.

Strabo was born and came of age after most of the conquests had taken place. His own homeland, in what was once the kingdom of Pontus, falling to Rome after a long series of wars with its King Mithridates VI. However, he would be a witness to the civil wars between Pompey and Caesar and the eventual triumph of Augustus over Mark Anthony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium in 31 BCE.

However, this tumult in the world did not hinder his own education, in fact Strabo, as a scion of a well off family of Asiatic Greeks, was able to exploit the connections and opportunities the new world the Roman’s had built offered to people such as himself. As was common at the time for people of Strabo’s class and standing, he travelled extensively for scholarly purposes, going as far as Egypt, Ethiopia and Kush, modern Sudan, in the south and the coast of Tuscany in the west. He appears to have moved to Rome in about 44 BCE, where he stayed to study and write until about 31 BCE after which he appears to have gone through periods of travelling and studying, but little is known about his exact movements until about 17 CE.

However, it is from these travels and periods of study that he compiled the material for the work that he was most famous for, his Geography.

Although Strabo’s work was more than just a map of the world, the image of the world according to his work is a good place to start when analysing the piece.

You will see that a now familiar pattern has developed with the way that ancient geographers conceived the world. Namely, the world is divided into three continents, Libya, Asia, and Europe, which can be traced in a straight line back through Eratosthenes, Herodotus, Hecataeus and Anaximander. Those three continents are then encircled by a great ocean, a concept with an even longer lineage which we can trace back to the Babylonian world map and beyond. What these observations show us is that Strabo’s work was not radical in the sense of proposing new and vastly different theories as to the shape and organisation of the world’s geography. Rather it was a great encyclopaedia of what was known, adding more detail to a conceptual world map which had been in development for roughly five hundred years. Indeed, this consolidation of the conceptualisation of the world hints to us that by Strabo’s time, the world of antiquity was reaching its height and the limit of what was possible to know and understand of the world with the technology then available. For example, without the ability to traverse the great oceans of the world, antique peoples would never be able to determine what lay beyond them and so the idea of one great encircling ocean was not only a reasonable conclusion, it was the only conclusion to draw without delving into the realms of speculation.

However, this is not to take away from the significance and value of Strabo’s Geography. In consolidating geographic knowledge, Strabo completed a process that had been gathering pace ever since the days of Anaximander of Miletus, in effected laying the foundations of the discipline of geography. The evidence of this is most clear in the Geography itself, which reads very much like a textbook and would not be so out of place in the modern classroom.

The work itself is split into seventeen ‘books’, what we might call sections. The first book deals with defining geography. Strabo’s definition is much more extensive than may first be assumed. He goes to great length to argue that geography is a branch of philosophy and to make explicit commentary on his forebears, including Homer, Hecataeus and Anaximander. Perhaps most interesting is that parts of the first book are dedicated to what Strabo refers to as the Ecumene, explaining how geography requires a knowledge of celestial, terrestrial and the marine as well as an understanding of natural history. He also includes an argument for geometric knowledge and lays out the case for the earth being a sphere. Later sections of the first book are then dedicated to critiquing further forebears, notably Eratosthenes, before exploring and making a distinction between physical and political geography. It is in this that we see perhaps one of Strabo’s most significant contributions to the discipline.

The second book is a study on the mathematics of geography. In this book, Strabo lays out his own thinking on the measurement of things like distance, parallels and meridians and includes further critique of the work of Eratosthenes. He goes on to describe and critique the concept of the five zones of the earth, essentially different climatic zones, before reflecting on the distribution of flora and fauna as well as human civilisation. The book then moves to a criticism of previous maps before culminating in a more detailed description of Strabo’s own view of the Ecumene in the language of mathematics, in essence describing our entire plain of existence.

Although not explicitly said in the work, but Strabo does quote and refer to numerous sources, these first two books are in many ways a codification of the knowledge that had been discovered and accumulated over the whole of the period up to that point, which we have explored through the previous articles in this series. Books three through to seventeen then apply this knowledge to describe the world in detail, with each book focusing on a different region, starting with the Iberian Peninsula, and moving through Europe and into Asia. It is these descriptions which allow us to create the above conception of the world according to Strabo.

Over the centuries following the publication of Strabo’s work, the world of antiquity would experience the Pax Romana, the longest period of peace that Europe has ever experienced. Towards the end of this unprecedented age, a man working within the Library of Alexandria, named Claudius Ptolemy, would produce a final comprehensive geography of the world, taking Strabo’s codification of the accumulated knowledge to a final peak before the world of antiquity began to fall apart. Ptolemy will be the subject of the next article.

The Roman Empire at its height in 117 CE



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Lewis D'Ambra

Lewis D'Ambra

I write about history and its echoes and lessons for the present.