Strabo


Strabo
/stray"boh/, n.
63? B.C.-A.D. 21?, Greek geographer and historian.

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born с 64 BC, Amaseia, Pontus, Asia Minor
died after AD 21

Greek geographer and historian.

Born to a well-connected family, he studied under Aristodemus before moving to Rome (44 BC) to study with the Aristotelian school, then became a Stoic. Of his 47-volume Historical Sketches, covering the years 145–31 BC (published с 20 BC), only a few quotations remain. His Geographical Sketches (after с AD 14) is the only extant work on the range of peoples and countries known to Greeks and Romans during the reign of Caesar Augustus.

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▪ Greek geographer and historian

born 64/63 BC, Amaseia, Pontus
died AD 23, ?

      Greek geographer and historian whose geography is the only extant work covering the whole range of peoples and countries known to both Greeks and Romans during the reign of Augustus (27 BC–AD 14). Its numerous quotations from technical literature, moreover, provide a remarkable account of the state of Greek geographical science, as well as of the history of the countries it surveys.

      Strabo belonged on his mother's side to a famous family, whose members had held important offices under Mithradates V (around 150–120 BC), as well as under Mithradates the Great, the opponent of Rome (132–63 BC). His first teacher was the master of rhetoric Aristodemus, a former tutor of the sons of Pompey (106–48 BC) in Nysa (now Sultanhisar in Turkey) on the Maeander. He moved to Rome in 44 BC to study with Tyrannion, the former tutor of Cicero, and with Xenarchus, both of whom were members of the Aristotelian school of philosophy. Under the influence of Athenodorus (Athenodorus Cananites), former tutor of Octavius, who probably introduced him into the future emperor's circle, he turned toward Stoical philosophy, the precepts of which included the view that one unique principle ceaselessly pervading the whole universe causes all phenomena.

      It was in Rome, where he stayed at least until 31 BC, that he wrote his first major works, his 47-book Historical Sketches, published around 20 BC, of which but a few quotations survive. A vast and eclectic compilation, it was meant as a continuation of Polybius' Histories. The Historical Sketches covered the history of the known world from 145 BC—that is, from the conquest of Greece by the Romans—to the Battle of Actium (31 BC), or to the beginnings of the principate of the Roman emperor Augustus (27 BC).

      In 29 BC, Strabo visited the island of Gyaros (today known as Yiáros, or Nisós) in the Aegean Sea, on his way to Corinth, Greece, where Augustus was staying. In 25 or 24, together with Aelius Gallus, prefect of Egypt, who had been sent on a military mission to Arabia, he sailed up the Nile as far as Philae. There are then no further references to him until AD 17, when he attended the triumph of the Roman general Germanicus Caesar (15 BC to AD 19) in Rome. He died after having devoted his last years to compiling his second important work, his Geographical Sketches. Judging by the date when he wrote his personal notes, he must have worked on the book after his stay in Egypt and then have put it aside from 2(?) BC to AD 14, when he started the final edition, which he brought to an end in AD 23.

      The first two books, in effect, provide a definition of the aims and methods of geography by criticizing earlier works and authors. Strabo found fault with the map designing of the Greek scholar Eratosthenes (Eratosthenes of Cyrene), who lived from c. 276 to c. 194 BC; Eratosthenes had combined astronomical data with coast and road measurements, but Strabo found his work lacking in precision. Although Strabo closely followed the treatise against Eratosthenes of the Greek astronomer Hipparchus, who had lived in the 2nd century BC, he blamed Hipparchus for neglecting the description of the Earth. On the other hand, he appreciated Polybius, who, in addition to his historical works, had written two books on European geography that Strabo admired for their descriptions of places and peoples. Although he praised Posidonius (Poseidonius), the Greek historian and philosopher who lived from about 135 to 51 BC, for his knowledge of physical geography and ethnography, he rejected Posidonius' theory of climatic zones and particularly his hypothesis that the equatorial zone was habitable. This critical study led him logically to decide in favour of a descriptive type of geography, based on a map with an orthogonal (perpendicular) projection. The problem of projecting the sphere on a flat surface is not dealt with at any length, for his work, as he said, was not designed for mathematicians but for statesmen who must know countries, natural resources, and customs.

      In books III to VI, Strabo described successively Iberia, Gaul, and Italy, for which his main sources were Polybius and Posidonius, both of whom had visited these countries; in addition, Artemidorus, a Greek geographer born around 140 BC and author of a book describing a voyage around the inhabited Earth, provided him with a description of the coasts and thus of the shape and size of countries. Book VII was based on the same authorities and described the Danube Basin and the European coasts of the Black Sea. Writing about Greece, in books VIII to X, he still relied upon Artemidorus, but the bulk of his information was taken from two commentators of Homer—Apollodorus of Athens (2nd century BC) and Demetrius of Scepsis (born around 205 BC)—for Strabo placed great emphasis on identifying the cities named in the Greek epic the Iliad. Books XI to XIV describe the Asian shores of the Black Sea, the Caucasus, northern Iran, and Asia Minor. Here Strabo made the greatest use of his own observations, though he often quoted historians who dealt with the wars fought in these regions and cited Demetrius on problems of Homeric topography in the region about ancient Troy. India and Persia (Book XV) were described according to information given by the historians of the campaigns of Alexander the Great (356 to 323 BC), whereas his descriptions of Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, and the Red Sea (Book XVI) were based on the accounts of the expeditions sent out by Mark Antony (about 83 to 30 BC) and by the emperor Augustus, as well as on chapters on ethnography in Posidonius and on the book of a Red Sea voyage taken by the Greek historian and geographer Agatharchides (2nd century BC). Strabo's own memories of Egypt, supplemented by the writings of Posidonius and Artemidorus, provided material for the substance of Book XVII, which dealt with the African shores of the Mediterranean Sea and with Mauretania.

      Obviously, personal travel notes formed only a small part of the material used in this considerable work, although Strabo prided himself on having travelled westward from Armenia as far as the regions of Tuscany opposite Sardinia, and southward from the Black Sea as far as the frontiers of Ethiopia. Even on the subject of Italy, where he lived for a long time, Strabo did not himself contribute more than a few scattered impressions. His material, accordingly, mostly dates from the time of the sources he used, although the reader is not made aware of this. The value of firsthand observations, chosen from the sources with care, compensates, however, for his lack of originality and contemporaneousness. Strabo showed himself equally competent in selecting useful information—giving distances from city to city and mentioning the frontiers between countries or provinces as well as the main agricultural and industrial activities, political statutes, ethnographic peculiarities, and religious practices. He also took interest in the histories of cities and states, and—when he knew them—mentioned the circumstances under which they were founded, related myths or legends, wars they had instigated or endured, their expansion or recession, and their celebrities. Geological phenomena were reported when they were in some way unusual or when they furnished an explanation for other phenomena—such as the Atlantic tides in Iberia, the volcanic landscapes to be seen in southern Italy and Sicily, the fountains of naphtha occurring near the Euphrates River, and the rise and fall of the Nile waters. Paradoxically, although the description of Greece fills three whole books, such elements are virtually neglected in them. In this part, indeed, Strabo was more attracted by the problem of identifying the localities mentioned in Homer's (Homer) works than in the geographical realities. These books, however, illustrate another side of his thought, based on the conviction that Homer was perfectly acquainted with the geography of the Mediterranean area and that the correct critical interpretation would reveal his vast learning. This classical thesis is abundantly defended in Strabo's introduction, which attacks the skepticism of Eratosthenes; moreover, it represents, in Strabo's work, the specific contribution to learning of the Greek cultural tradition.

François Lasserre

Additional Reading
The Geography was seldom used in ancient times but was often copied in Byzantium; it first appeared in western Europe as a Latin translation issued in Rome in about 1469 and was then published in the Aldine edition of 1516, based on a faulty manuscript. The first critical edition was that of I. Casaubon (1587, then 1620), which was followed by that of G. Kramer—the first to be based upon an analysis of the manuscripts, 3 vol. (1844–52). Various scientific editions by F. Sbordone, books 1–6 (1963–70); F. Lasserre, G. Aujac, and R. Baladié, books 1–6, 10 (1966–71), with French translation; and W. Aly, books 1–6 (1972), are available. These include information from a newly discovered palimpsest from the library of the Calabrian theologian Cassiodorus (born c. AD 485). Meanwhile, H.L. Jones's edition, The Geography of Strabo, with an English translation, notes, and maps, remains usable (Loeb Library, 8 vol., 1917–32); it also includes a select bibliography. Fragments of the Historical Sketches were last edited and commented upon by F. Jacoby, Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker, vol. 2A (1925). W. Aly, Strabonis Geographica, vol. 4 (1957); and G. Aujac, Strabon et la science de son temps (1966), are excellent standard works.

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Universalium. 2010.

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