The Philosopher and the Father of Geography — Exploring the world maps of Anaximander and Hecataeus of Miletus

This article is the third in a series, parts 1 and 2 set some context, but you do not need to have read them first to follow this one.

Hecataeus the Milesian speaks thus: I write these things as they seem true to me; for the stories told by the Greeks are various and, in my opinion, absurd[1]

The above quote is one of the few fragments we have of the work of Hecataeus[2] of Miletus, a Greek historian and geographer of the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, known as “The Father of Geography”. A native of Miletus, Hecataeus would produce the next significant step in the development of knowledge of the world in antiquity[3] building, on the work of Anaximander[4] another native of the city.

The theatre of Miletus

The city of Miletus[5] on the western coast of Anatolia, then known as Ionia[6], was the centre of the flash of brilliance which erupted in the Greek world during the 6th century BCE. Throughout the 6th century BCE, the city of Miletus would rise to become the richest and greatest of the Greek cities, this rise would see an explosion of intellectual activity ranging from philosophy, to science, maths, and geography. Unfortunately, the destruction of the city during the Ionian revolt[7] against the Achaemenid Persian Empire[8] in the early 5th century BCE would bring an abrupt end to Miletus’ rise to prominence. However, its destruction would open the way for Athens to take up the mantle as the Greek centre for intrigue and examination of the world.

Greek colonisiation of Asia Minor

The two figures that will be examined in this article were at the centre of this spark of brilliance. First, Anaximander a pre-Socratic philosopher of what is known as the Milesian school[9]. His contributions to advancing human knowledge were vast, not least his examination of the geography of the earth. Half a century later, Hecataeus would take up this mantle, building upon the knowledge of the world which Anaximander left.

These two figures were named by Strabo[10] as the first geographers since Homer[11] and represent the next milestone on the path of knowledge of the world through antiquity. But first it is important to understand the context of the world in which they lived.

The world of the 6th century BCE was one still experiencing the great flux which greeted the beginning of Classical Antiquity. Assyria[12], once dominant, fell at the hands of an alliance of states led by Babylon, which then rose to take Assyria’s place. The Neo-Babylonian Empire[13] would dominate the core territories of western civilisation, the lands from the Mediterranean to Persia would be under the thumb of the empire for almost a century. The Kings of Babylon would rule their lands with an iron first, much like their Assyrian predecessors, deporting the people of Israel and sacking cities at will. But like Assyria before it, Babylon would fall. The rising power of Persia[14] would crush Babylon in 539 BCE swallowing the Median and Babylonian empires whole[15]. By the time Cyrus[16] the Great, king of Persia, fell in battle on the Steppes of central Asia in 530 BCE, the borders of Persia would spread from the Aegean to the Indus Valley, and was poised to add Egypt to its vast domain.

Expansion of the Persian Empire

The consolidation of so much land brought new horizons to the people of antiquity pushing its borders to new limits and uniting people from Greece to India. These links allowed information, knowledge and wisdom to move more freely than ever before.

Croesus on an Attic red figure amphora ca500–490 BCE

On the borders of this new realm, the Greek cities were developing their own civilisation. Cyrus’ conquest of the Lydia of King Croesus[17] brought the Greek cities of the west coast of Anatolia[18] under the rule of the Persian Kings[19]. The greatest of these cities was Miletus, at this time perhaps the most populous of all the Greek cities. The city was rapidly becoming the centre of Greek knowledge and learning. Despite the successive conflicts which the rise and fall of the continental empires created, the connections, contacts and new people these empires brought to the city can only have fuelled this melting pot of ideas.

Unfortunately, the rise of the city as an intellectual hub was cut short when in 499 BCE the tyrant of the city, Aristagoras, became the leader of the revolt of Ionian cities against Persian rule[20]. Despite the promise of some initial success the revolt was crushed and Darius[21], the Great King of Persia, punished Miletus, killing its men, selling its women and children into slavery, making the young men into eunuchs and expelling them to ensure no citizen of Miletus could be born again. A year later the Athenian playwright Phrynicus[22] put on a tragic play called the capture of Miletus. The people of Athens fined him for reminding them of the loss of the city. Fortunately, before this tragic event played out, our subjects had produced their vital work.

Anaximander holding a sundial. From a 3rd century mosaic in Trier

The first of our subjects, Anaximander, lived from 610 BCE to 546 BCE. Although little of his life and work are left to us, he is the first philosopher known to have written down his studies and fragments from later testimonies of his works are available. Anaximander would live through and be directly involved in many of the important events effecting the city of Miletus during his lifetime. He was certainly the second leader of the Milesian school of philosophers after its founder, and Anaximander’s potential mentor, Thales[23], the father of philosophy. The Roman rhetorician Aelian[24] depicted him as the leader of the Milesian colony of Apollonia on the Black Sea coast, suggesting that he may have been sent to the colony by Miletus as a legislator or maybe even to write the colony’s constitution. After the conquest of the city by the Persians, Anaximander would live the final years of his life under Persian rule and so, potentially, was able to exploit the connections the empire would bring to further his knowledge.

During his varied life, Anaximander establish theories influenced by both Greek mythology and Thales’ ideas, as well as observations made by older eastern civilisations. In particular, he characterised mythology as a way of explaining the functions of the world, rather than real stories of the past. The observations of Anaximander are beyond the scope of this piece, but perhaps his most important contribution to philosophy is the concept of Apeiron[25], meaning roughly infinite or limitless, to describe the universe and its origins as an endless primordial mass. The theories of Anaximander are enough to write an entire book on, but for our purposes, his contributions to cartography are most interesting.

It was claimed by later Greek geographers, that Anaximander was the first to publish a map of the entire world. Although we do not have an original copy of the map itself, it is possible to reconstruct the design. Although maps had existed before, the Babylonian world map[26] being the best example we have, this was the first attempt to represent the entire inhabited land then known to the Greeks.

Anaximander’s map was the inspiration for Hecataeus to draw a more accurate version.

Hecataeus was born in Miletus in 550 BCE. In the years between 550 BCE and 539 BCE, the region and Miletus with it, was conquered by the Persian Empire, and so Hecataeus would grow up under Persian rule. Perhaps taking advantage of the interconnected world that the Persian Empire brought into being, Hecataeus is known to have travelled extensively. Herodotus[27] recalls an account of Hecataeus in Egypt[28] and although we do not know where else he may have gone, the old and rich centres of Persian rule in Mesopotamia and Persia itself must have been a tempting destination for a curious traveller.

The Ionian revolt against Persian rule

After his travels, Hecataeus settled back in his native city and seems to have been appointed to a high position in the city’s government. Using this position, Heactaeus tried to dissuade the tyrant of the city, Aristagoras, from revolting against Persian rule[29]. Unsuccessful in his attempts, Hecataeus was sent as an Ambassador to the Persian Satrap of Lydia after the Ionian Revolt was crushed in 494BC. He may have been selected because of his Persian sympathies in order to try and win favour from the Persian Governor.

Hecataeus is known as the first Greek historian, being one of the first Greeks to attempt a serious prose history employing a critical method to separate myth from historical fact. Again, it is unfortunate that only fragments of his work remain, but we do know of two of his works, known as the “Journey around the world” or “World Survey” and “Historia”. Hecataeus also wrote a work on mythography in which he seems to have applied a sceptical approach to the traditions of families who claimed descent from gods, as the quote at the beginning shows. Besides his written work, and perhaps building on the knowledge of his world survey, Hecataeus is credited with taking the map of Anaximander and improving it, adding extra detail, and creating a more accurate representation of the world.

What is represented on the maps?

A reconstruction of Anaximander’s world map

Starting with Anaximander’s map, we see that much like the Babylonian world map (which I explored in part 2), the world is encircled by a great ocean. However, unlike the Babylonian map, the only land shown is that inhabited by humans and any thought of what may lie beyond the ocean is gone.

For Anaximander, the world is divided into three continents, Europe, Asia and Libya (roughly Africa beyond the Nile river). These continents are divided by seas and rivers, the Mediterranean separates Europe from Libya, the Nile separating Libya from Asia and the Black sea and the Phasis (the modern Tanais) river separating Asia from Europe.

A more subtle connection to the Babylonian world map, which must have had some influence on this map if only very indirectly, is the positioning of the continents. The Babylonian world map places Babylon firmly in the centre of the world. Similarly, Anaximander placed the Aegean, and Miletus at the centre of his map. This could simply be a convenient way to represent the world to a Greek audience but is also a subtle way of promoting the Greek world as the centre of the civilised world. The map unfortunately lacks a lot of the finer detail, this may be due to the fragmentary evidence we have from which to reconstruct it or because the purpose of Anaximander’s map was to show knowledge of the world as a whole, rather than the finer detail.

The Babylonian World map

Fortunately, Hecataeus took Anaximander’s design and added in detail of his own, no doubt some of it gleaned from his extensive travels and writing.

A reconstruction of Hecataeus world map

Hecataeus’ map keeps many of the elements established by Anximander, the world is still encircled by a great ocean and divided into the three continents of Europe, Asia and Libya. As well as this the Aegean and Miletus are still placed in more or less the centre of the world. However, the continents are no longer divided from each other by seas and rivers, but a more accurate and familiar looking rendering of these bodies of water is given. Further we see the introduction of the Caspian Sea, imagined as an inlet to the encircling ocean, and the addition of details like mountain ranges.

Although we must remember that both these maps are reconstructions and so we cannot be sure that they replicate the original works in every detail, what we can see is a clear evolution of the concepts laid down by Anaximander being taking and developed by Hecataeus.

What can we learn from these maps of the advancing knowledge of the world in antiquity?

First of all, we can see an image of the world beginning to emerge, that, although not wholly accurate, is somewhat recognisable, meaning that, even at this relatively early stage, the size, extent and shape of the world was slowly becoming known to the people of antiquity. We can also see the direct influence of the past on these maps, the Babylonian world map having clear influences on the design shape and structure and even some of the finer detail. Showing that ideas and knowledge of the world were being passed around, updated, adapted, and changed in the melting pots of ideas which centres like Miletus had become. Whether this is a direct biproduct of the growth of the Persian empire or due to the advance of ideas of civilisation from the western cores of Egypt and Mesopotamia, we can never really know. I suspect it is a little of the two, especially considering that the Persian conquest probably happened just before or just after Anaximander’s death.

Much more can be inferred if we ask ourselves why such maps were produced. Similarly, to the Babylonian world map, propaganda and legitimacy probably played a role in their design. Creating an image of the world with the Greek regions, and Miletus in particular, at the centre can reinforce the claim of Greece being a centre of civilisation and the city of Miletus being the heart of Greek knowledge and learning. However, the lack of mythological details, and the sceptical attitude we know both scholars had towards mythological claims, shows that a claim to a link with a mythological past to control the mythological space to enhance the legitimacy of a ruling regime are not the aim of these maps.

Consciously or not, the maps do indicate an early shift towards maps being of a more practical purpose, designed to show the land as it is rather than how a ruler or regime wish it to be seen. Possibly, and unlike the Babylonian world map, the beginnings of looking toward the future rather than the past with the application of early scientific inquiry into the world are on display. Having said that, the maps still lack the intricate detail needed for them to be true tools and aids to navigation, and so, like the Babylonian world map, they still represent a way of showing the world as a display of knowledge and power.

The maps of Anaximander and Hecataeus represent the next stage of progressing the knowledge of the world through Antiquity as antique civilisation pushed its boundaries, knowledge, and ways of thinking to new limits as it physically expanded under the guise of the Persian Empire. Although we must remember that both these maps are reconstructions and so we cannot be sure that they replicate the original works in every detail, what we can see is a clear evolution of the concepts laid down by Anaximander being taking and developed by Hecataeus. The next article will look at the Greek historian Herodotus and how, taking his inspiration from figures such as Heactaeus, he took this spirit of inquiry to new levels, taking knowledge of the world further still.

A comparison of the world maps of Anaximander (left) and Hecataeus (right)

[1] Shotwell, James T, “The History of History”, Columbia University Pres, New York, USA, 1922

[2] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Hecataeus of Miletus”, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., April 03 2017

[3] Malcolm and Alexander Swanston, “How to draw a map”, Harper Collins Publishers, London, UK, 2019, pg13–16

[4] Mark, Joshua J. “Anaximander.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 02 Sep 2009. Web. 18 Jul 2020.

[5] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Miletus”, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., November 12 2019

[6] Violatti, Cristian. “Ionia.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 27 May 2014. Web. 18 Jul 2020.

[7] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Ionian Revolt”, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., April 13 2017

Translated by Robin Waterfield, Herodotus, “The Histories”, Oxford World Classics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 1998, Book 5

[8] Davidson, Peter. “Achaemenid Empire.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 11 May 2011. Web. 17 Jul 2020.

[9] Violatti, Cristian. “Greek Philosophy.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 11 Jun 2013. Web. 17 Jul 2020.

Translated by Robin Waterfield, “The first philosophers; the presocratics and the sophists”, Oxford World Classics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 2000, pg3–22

[10] Francois Lasserre, “Strabo”, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., February 08 2019

[11] Lloyd, James. “Homer.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 19 Jun 2013. Web. 17 Jul 2020.

[12]Mark, Joshua J. “Neo-Assyrian Empire.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 30 Jun 2014. Web. 18 Jul 2020.

[13] Mark, Joshua J. “Babylon.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 28 Apr 2011. Web. 17 Jul 2020.

[14] Davidson, Peter. “Achaemenid Empire.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 11 May 2011. Web. 18 Jul 2020.

[15] Translated by Robin Waterfield, Herodotus, “The Histories”, Oxford World Classics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 1998, Book 1

[16] Nijssen, Daan. “Cyrus the Great.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 21 Feb 2018. Web. 17 Jul 2020.

[17] Mark, Joshua J. “Croesus.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 02 Sep 2009. Web. 17 Jul 2020.

[18] Mark, Joshua J. “Asia Minor.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 04 May 2018. Web. 17 Jul 2020.

[19] Translated by Robin Waterfield, Herodotus, “The Histories”, Oxford World Classics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 1998, Book 1

[20] Translated by Robin Waterfield, Herodotus, “The Histories”, Oxford World Classics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 1998, Book 5

[21] Cristian, Radu. “Darius I.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 10 Apr 2017. Web. 17 Jul 2020.

[22] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Phrynichus”, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., May 14 2008

[23] Mark, Joshua J. “Thales of Miletus.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 02 Sep 2009. Web. 16 Jul 2020.

[24] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Aelian”, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., April 03 2020

[25] James Evans, “Anaximander”, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., October 29 2019

[26] Museum, Trustees O. T. B. “Babylonian Map of the World.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 26 Apr 2012. Web. 18 Jul 2020.

[27] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Herodotus”, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., October 31 2019

[28] Translated by Robin Waterfield, Herodotus, “The Histories”, Oxford World Classics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 1998, Book 2.143

[29] Translated by Robin Waterfield, Herodotus, “The Histories”, Oxford World Classics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 1998, Book 5.36

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Lewis D'Ambra

Lewis D'Ambra

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