Introduction

Strabo c. 63 b.c.-c. 21 a.d.

Greek historian and geographer.

Strabo is the author of the seventeen-book Geography, the only study of its kind from antiquity that survives. The Geography, conceived as a philosophical and political work as well as a physical description of the world then known, was meant to educate and inform intelligent citizens and high-ranking officials and rulers of Rome. Strabo wrote the Geography as a complement to his now-lost Historical Sketches and used the same criteria in selecting what to write about; in keeping with Strabo’s aim of recording what is “noble and great, ... what is of social importance, or memorable, or entertaining,” the work displays an encyclopedic wealth of knowledge and intriguing observations concerning both past and present, presented in what critics have deemed an excellent style. Though its cartography is outdated today, the Geography remains an important source of information about the development of ancient geography. Its many digressions constitute an invaluable, engaging repository of a large amount of historical, ethnographical, and geological information.

Biographical Information

Most of what is known of Strabo’s life originates with or can be extrapolated from the Geography. He was born to a wealthy, prominent family in Amasia, Pontos, near the Black Sea, circa 63 b.c. In Caria he studied under Aristodemus; in Rome, under the geographer and grammarian Tyrannion. First an Aristotelian, Strabo later became a subscriber to the practices and beliefs of the Stoics. He traveled extensively to many countries, including Ethiopia and Armenia, as well as Egypt in 25/4 b.c. with his patron, the Roman governor of Egypt, Aelius Gallus. Strabo returned to Amasia for perhaps as long as twenty-seven years. There he wrote his Historical Sketches. Some critics have argued that Strabo did not write his final work, the Geography, in Amasia because there appear to be gaps in his knowledge that would not have been present if he had resided there at the time. The bulk of the Geography appears to have been written circa 7 b.c., with final touches made circa 2 b.c. Strabo made minor additions up until his death circa 21 a.d.

Major Works

Nearly the entire forty-three-book Historical Sketches is lost—a work which started at the point that Polybius’s history stopped, 146 b.c. The Geography, however, is almost wholly extant—an extremely unusual situation for books of antiquity—except for the greater part of book seven. The first two books of the Geography concern the tradition of geography and offer extensive, detailed criticism of Strabo’s predecessors. In them Strabo sets forth his philosophy of geography, a view that challenges in its scope much of the work that preceded him, and, indeed, is more broad than many modern studies. Books three through ten cover Europe and the mythology of Greece; eleven through sixteen deal with Asia; and seventeen considers Egypt, Ethiopia, and northern Africa.

Critical Reception

The Geography seems to have had remarkably little influence in Strabo’s time. It took five centuries, when Stephanus of Byzantium would take note, until scholars began to give him due credit and the work became a standard. Milton V. Anastos writes of Strabo’s importance to Columbus, who used his writings to back up the arguments he presented to his critics. Scholars debate the extent of Strabo’s travels. He sometimes makes erroneous statements that seem odd if he had personally witnessed what he was describing. He makes no secret that much of what he writes is based on others’ experiences; indeed, he credits dozens of other authors and often quotes their work. However, because Strabo is not always explicit concerning whether or not he actually visited a place himself, scholars argue over the source of some of his accounts. Advancing the case that Strabo did or did not visit Greece, for example, is a point of contention for scholars. Charles Heald Weller surveyed the situation in 1906, pointing out that sometimes Strabo’s interest was “to determine whether this or that town was under the sway of Nestor or Menelaus or Achilles, rather than to portray the condition of the country in his own day.” This runs counter to the view of scholars who believe that when Strabo gives short shrift to a description of a locale, it is likely he did not visit it. But, Weller goes on: “In a thoroughly scientific manner he verifies and supplements the statements of his authorities. But when to an author’s general literary dependence are added quotations from others concerning matters which an eyewitness must know personally, or when an author makes palpable blunders regarding things that a visitor must have seen, belief in his autopsy becomes doubtful. If such quotations and strange statements are frequent, doubt approaches certainty.” Another often-disputed area is the date of composition of the Geography. Some believe it is the work of an aged man, finished near his death. Others hotly dispute this, emphasizing that with its vitality the work can be only that of a man in his prime, and noting that descriptions reliably dated to later years are simply minor revisions. Strabo’s manuscripts, with their many variants, have been the source of much scholarly research. Acclaimed Strabo scholar Walter Leaf writes: “There is no sort of textual corruption which cannot be abundantly illustrated from the MSS. of Strabo; but they stand alone in one characteristic—the multitude of lacunae.”