A HISTORICAL AND TOPOGRAPHICAL GUIDE TO THE GEOGRAPHY OF STRABO

Duane W. Roller

CUP (2018) h/b 1165pp £150 (ISBN 9781316842030)

Strabo’s Geography is one of the most substantial literary and scientific survivals from the ancient world. In 17 books, it is a vast compendium of geographical knowledge from the time of Augustus and Tiberius, when it was composed. It combines the personal observations Strabo gleaned from his own travels with material quoted from a vast range of earlier and contemporary authorities. It covers everything from the mysterious islands of Britain and Ireland (Prettanike and Irene) to Egypt (which Strabo visited) to the cities of Afghanistan and India, for which is an especially important source. It includes material from mythology and history, wildlife (a critique of Herodotus’ gold-digging ants and observations of whales) as well as discussions of the politics of his own time, for example Roman relations with the kingdoms of Asia and the Roman treatment of piracy in the Mediterranean—matters in which he displays a surprising independence of thought. Although the Geography was without honour in its own time—it does not appear to have been properly published after its composition—it came to prominence during the Byzantine period, and was especially influential after the Renaissance in laying the parameters for the modern discipline of geography: the word ‘geography’ itself is first found in Strabo, although he attests an earlier use by his predecessor Eratosthenes. 

This current work is a companion volume to R.’s 2014 translation of Strabo, the first full English rendering of the work since Jones’ Loeb edition of the 1930s. Several reviewers applied Strabo’s description of his own text, a kolossourgia, to R.’s translation, and this applies even more so to this current work. One cannot do justice in this short compass to the extent of R.’s scholarship, but anyone working in the field of ancient geography or the developing field of Strabo studies will find this Guide absolutely invaluable. In commentary format, it adds the necessary context to Strabo’s work, connecting ancient names to modern sites, and adding extensive political, mythological, historical and archaeological background information. It includes full references to up-to-date secondary literature, and forensically covers matters such as Strabo’s use of sources, his personal observations, and textual questions. 

To give just one example of the illumination provided by the commentary, one might turn to 4.5.1-3, which covers Britain. R. makes the striking contention that, although Strabo only cites Caesar’s Gallic Wars, much of Strabo’s material must have been derived from Pytheas, the Greek explorer from Massalia (Marseille) who made a journey to Britain at the end of the 4th century BC. This is a fascinating insight, given that Strabo generally portrayed Pytheas as a mendacious charlatan, and maintained that his journey to Britain was a falsehood. R.’s analysis on this point is based not only on an analysis of their descriptions of physical geography and the island’s size, but also ethnography. R. suggests that Caesar was not the primary source for the discussion of Keltic ethnography, and that he probably relied more for this not only on Pytheas but also the later geographer Posidonius. He may also have gleaned information, R. suggests, directly from the entourage of a British embassy to Augustus which he described by sight in 4.5.3. R. also usefully argues here that this embassy described by Strabo must be entirely different to the visit of the two fugitive British kings, Dumnobellaunus and Tincommius, to Augustus.  

Strabo’s Geography is often described as a ‘treasure house’; R.’s latest work, which is both scholarly, compendious and readable, merits the same description. 

Bijan Omrani

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