Strabo Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)
0111200386-Strabo.jpg Strabo (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Greek geographer{$I[g]Greece;Strabo}{$I[g]Roman Republic;Strabo}{$I[g]Asia Minor;Strabo} Strabo wrote a description of the known inhabited world, valuable for its philosophy of geography, its historical digressions, and the current scientific notions it contains. His work stands out for its diverse subjects, encyclopedic scope, and contemporary view of the ancient world at the dawn of the Christian era.

Early Life

Strabo (STRAY-boh) was born at Amasia in Pontus, about 55 miles (90 kilometers) inland from the southeastern shore of the Black Sea. Formerly a royal capital of Pontus, Amasia was located in a deep valley on the Iris River. It was a well-fortified place, with striking mountains towering above the town. Located there were the tombs of the kings of Pontus. Amasia controlled the surrounding river valleys and villages, which doubtless contributed to its wealth. It is inferred that Strabo belonged to a rich family who could afford to give their son a good education. Although his lineage was a mixture of Asiatic and Greek, Strabo’s training and language were purely Greek.

The area had been conquered by the Romans immediately before Strabo’s birth. In the generation before, Mithradates the Great of Pontus had extended the kingdom’s borders through Asia Minor, the islands of the Aegean Sea, and the southern and eastern shores of the Black Sea. He fought the Romans Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Lucius Licinius Murena, and Lucullus before succumbing to Pompey the Great. A most formidable foe of Rome, he died about the time Strabo was born.

Strabo thus grew up appreciating both the power of Rome and the legacy of Pontus. His mother’s ancestors had been on close terms with the royal house, and one of them, the general Dorylaus Tacticus, had been a friend of King Mithradates V Euergetes. Mithradates the Great patronized Strabo’s great-grandfather Lagetas and granduncle Moaphernes, appointing the latter to a governorship. The king also made Dorylaus’s nephew the priest of Ma at Comana, a position that gave him power second only to Mithradates himself.

Strabo’s education in grammar and rhetoric included lessons from Aristodemus, who was also the tutor of Pompey’s sons. When he was nineteen or twenty years old, Strabo went to Rome and was instructed by Tyrannio, a tutor of Cicero’s sons and an expert on geography. It is likely that Strabo got his passion for the subject from this master. Also in Rome, Strabo learned from Xenarchus, who, like Tyrannio, was an Aristotelian. Nevertheless, references throughout the Geōgraphica (c. 7 b.c.e.; Geography, 1917-1933) indicate that Strabo became a follower of the Stoics, perhaps under the influence of Augustus’s teacher and friend Athenodorus. In addition to his early educational trips, Strabo made other visits to Rome, most likely in 35 and 29.

As a youth, Strabo read widely and became especially enamored of Homer, as shown by his later passionate defense of the epics’ historical and geographical accuracy. He also read Herodotus’s Historiai Herodotou (c. 424 b.c.e.; The History, 1709), which he did not value, and the work of Polybius, which he considered useful and accurate. He became familiar with the historical, scientific, and geographical works of Posidonius, Eratosthenes of Cyrene, Hipparchus, Artemidorus, and Ephorus. In addition, Strabo read the works of the historians of Alexander the Great, especially concerning Alexander’s eastern travels.

By adulthood, Strabo had visited a good portion of Asia Minor and made several trips to Rome. He had met influential Romans and Greeks and had been introduced to the best in literature and history—all of which were to influence his later writings.

Life’s Work

Probably between 25 and 19, Strabo resided in Alexandria, Egypt. At the beginning of his sojourn there, he accompanied his friend Aelius Gallus, the Roman prefect of Egypt, on a trip up the Nile River, reaching the border of Ethiopia. His time in Egypt gave him opportunity to observe the country—and perhaps to use the library at Alexandria. Afterward, he returned to Rome for an undetermined amount of time.

Strabo’s travels continued through his life and reached as far west as Etruria and as far east as the border of Armenia, south to the northern edge of Ethiopia, and north to the Black Sea. Around 26, Strabo wrote a historical work, now known as Historical Memoirs, none of which has survived, although Plutarch and Flavius Josephus refer to it. It comprised forty-three books, covering the period from the destruction of Corinth and Carthage in 146 b.c.e. to (perhaps) the Battle of Actium in 31 b.c.e., thus forming a continuation of Polybius’s history.

Strabo’s magnum opus was the Geography, a work in seventeen books describing the inhabited world of the three continents Europe, Asia, and Africa. Its scope included mathematical, physical, political, and historical aspects of geography. His was a general treatise on the subject: the first ancient attempt to synthesize all known geographical knowledge.

The first two books of the Geography deal with the history of the discipline, including attacks on the ideas of Eratosthenes and others, whom Strabo considered to have made mistakes in their published works on geography. He discourses at length on Homer, naming him the first geographer. Strabo was often at pains to “prove Homer right” and saw the ship catalog in the second book of the Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) as preserving historical locales and the voyages of Odysseus and Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece as actual events. Strabo also suggests that as the inhabited world that he knows only makes up one-third of the temperate zone, it is likely that other continents exist.

Apparently not relying on Roman writers, Strabo addresses Spain in book 3, drawing mainly on Greek sources in his description of the natural resources and physical traits of the country. This book also makes mention of the mythical island home of Geryon and the Tin Islands, which Strabo does not recognize as connected with Britain in any way.

Relying heavily on the Comentarii de bello Gallico (52-51 b.c.e.) and the Comentarii de bello cinli (45 b.c.e.; both translated into English as...

(The entire section is 2639 words.)