Strabo Introduction

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(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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 Though its cartography is outdated today, the Geography remains an important source of information about the development of ancient geography.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...

(The entire section is 897 words.)