E. H. Bunbury (essay date 1883)
SOURCE: “Strabo” in A History of Ancient Geography among the Greeks and Romans from the Earliest Ages till the Fall of the Roman Empire, J. Murray, 1883, pp. 209-75.
[In the following excerpt, Bunbury surveys and critiques Strabo’s description of Europe, revealing errors and noteworthy oversights as well as pointing out sections which are accurate, detailed, and engaging.]
… 1. In his third book Strabo commences the particular description of the different countries of Europe, beginning with Spain, to which the whole of this third book is devoted. His description of the Iberian peninsula is marked at once by the chief merits as well as the chief defects that characterize his work in general. We have already seen how imperfect was his idea of its geographical form and position, and how distorted his conception of its appearance on a map. But he was well acquainted with its leading geographical features: the great rivers that traversed it from east to west, the Bætis (Guadalquivir), the Anas (Guadiana), the Tagus, the Durius (Douro), and the Minius (Minho): as well as the Iberus or Ebro, which however he considered as having its course parallel with the chain of the Pyrenees, and consequently flowing from N. to S. On the other side of the valley of the Ebro, and parallel with the Pyrenees, was a chain of mountains to which he gives the name of Idubeda, and which he describes as containing the sources of the Tagus and Durius. From the middle of this range branches off another called Orospeda which trends to the westward, and ultimately takes a turn to the south. Beginning at first with hills of moderate elevation, it gradually rises in height till it joins the range that separates the valley of the Bætis from the coast near Malaca (the Sierra Nevada), which he regarded as the main continuation of this central chain, while other parallel ridges on the north side of the Bætis contained the mines for which Spain was so famous. The Anas and the Bætis had their sources near one another in the range of Orospeda: they are correctly described as flowing at first to the west and then turning off more towards the south. Imperfect as is this outline of the physical geography of Spain, it shows a general acquaintance with the leading features of the country, and a correct appreciation of the manner in which those features determine the character and conformation of its different regions.
2. The whole of the northern part of the peninsula, adjoining the Ocean, he correctly describes as occupied by a tract of mountainous country, extending from the headland of Nerium (Cape Finisterre) to the extremity of the Pyreness: and the nations inhabiting this quarter, the Callaïci, Astures and Cantabri, which had but lately been brought under the dominion of Rome, were still lawless and predatory tribes, living in a semi-barbarous condition. The account given of their habits of life and customs, which must have been taken by Strabo from previous writers, may probably refer to a period somewhat earlier than that at which he wrote, but it is at all events curious and interesting. Some of their peculiarities were indeed, as he himself remarks, common also to the Gauls as well as to the Thracians and Scythians,1 and were probably inherent in their mode of life and the stage of semi-civilization in which they found themselves, rather than belonging to them as a race. The Lusitanians on the west, from the promontory of the Artabri to the mouth of the Tagus, partook to a great extent of the same characteristics, even the inhabitants of the plains and fertile districts having gradually been compelled by the continued incursions of their ruder neighbours to adopt their warlike and desultory habits: but the inhabitants of the Hither province, as it had long been called,2 occupying the eastern portion of the peninsula, were in a much more civilized state, and even the Celtiberian tribes of the interior, which had cost the Romans such repeated and long continued efforts to subdue them, were gradually settling down under the influence of Roman civilization and of the numerous Roman colonies that had been established among them. The province of Bætica on the other hand, which was occupied principally by the Turdetani in the valley of the Bætis, and the Bastelani between them and the sea coast, was not only completely tranquil and civilized, but had become Romanized to such an extent as to have almost entirely laid aside the use of the native language, and adopted Latin in its stead.3
This result was mainly owing to the great natural fertility of the country. Strabo can indeed hardly find words to express his admiration of the richness of Turdetania, the modern Andalusia, which had from the earliest times been proverbial for its wealth, under the name of Tartessus,4 and had continued to enjoy the same pre-eminence under the Phœnicians, Carthaginians, and Romans. It not only produced corn, wine, and oil in great abundance, but wool of first-rate excellence,5 honey, wax, pitch, kermes, and vermilion (cinnabar); while the sea-coast furnished salt-fish in quantities equal to that of the Euxine. The mouths of the rivers and the estuaries formed by the action of the tides gave peculiar advantage for the export of these various commodities: hence an active and constant trade was carried on, and the ships of Turdetania that sailed from thence to Dicæarchia and Ostia—the two ports of Rome—were the largest of all that were seen in those great centres of commerce.6
But in addition to all these varied sources of wealth, Strabo dwells above all upon the extraordinary mineral riches of this favoured tract. In this respect indeed the south of Spain enjoyed a reputation in ancient times similar to that of Mexico or Peru down to our own day. Gold, silver, brass (copper), and iron were found in quantities, as well as of a quality, unsurpassed in any other part of the world. Gold was not only obtained by digging, but by simple washing. The other metals were all derived from mines; and these were worked principally in the mountains near the sources of the Bætis, and extending from thence towards New Carthage: the most valuable of all the silver mines being in the immediate neighbourhood of that city. In the time of Polybius these had given employment to 40,000 workmen, and were said to have yielded 25,000 drachms (about £900) a day; but in Strabo’s time the mines had passed into the hands of private persons, and the produce had apparently fallen off.7
3. It is remarkable, that throughout his description both of the natural productions and physical peculiarities of Spain, and of the manners and customs of its inhabitants, Strabo appears to have relied almost exclusively upon Greek authorities, his statements being derived principally from Polybius, Artemidorus, and Posidonius. He indeed speaks in one passage8 in very disparaging terms of the Roman writers in general, whom he accuses of doing little but copy the Greeks; but it seems impossible that their historians, in relating their long-continued wars with the Spaniards, should not have contributed many facts to the geography of the country. The construction of roads in all directions through Spain, and the itineraries which must certainly have existed in his day of the stations and distances along these, would also have furnished most valuable materials to a geographer that was able to appreciate them. But no attempt is made by Strabo to turn to account these sources of information. The only instance in which he especially refers to the Roman campaigns is that of D. Brutus Callaïcus against the Lusitanians, and the particulars of this he probably learnt from Polybius.9 Even where he adverts to the construction by the Romans of a great highway from the Pyrenees through Tarraco and Saguntum to the frontiers of Bætica, and thence on to Corduba and Gades, he gives no account of the distances; and contents himself with telling us that Julius Cæsar accomplished the journey from Rome to his camp at Obulco on his way to Munda in twenty-seven days.10
In his enumeration of the names of towns and of the native tribes in Spain, Strabo has made a judicious selection, and must have followed good authorities, as almost all the names he mentions are well known from other sources, and must have been places of some importance. At the same time he avoids the error into which Pliny and Ptolemy subsequently fell, of loading their pages with obscure and insignificant names. He indeed adds some judicious remarks11 on the proneness of geographical as well as historical writers to bestow the title of towns and cities on places that were, in fact, mere villages. It was thus that some writers asserted that there were more than a thousand cities in Spain; and even Polybius affirmed that Tiberius Gracchus took or destroyed three hundred cities in Celtiberia alone. This exaggeration, as he points out, was the more inexcusable in the case of Spain, as the inhabitants of the interior for the most part lived wholly in villages, and the barren and rugged character of the country was ill adapted to the formation of towns.12
4. In the last section of the third book Strabo treats of the islands adjacent to Spain, and describes at some length the Balearic Islands, as well as the neighbouring Pityusæ, both of which were in his day well known: the former especially having received two Roman colonies. He then gives a long account of Gadeira (Gades), which was still at this period one of the most important emporia of commerce in the world; and enters into somewhat idle disquisitions as to its relations with the fabulous island of Erytheia, the abode of king Geryones. In conclusion, he mentions the celebrated Cassiterides, which he describes as ten in number, lying close together, but far out to sea to the north of the port of the Artabri, from which they were separated by a wider extent of sea than that between Gaul and Britain.13 The inhabitants are described as wearing long black garments, and walking about with long wands in their hands, looking like the Furies of tragedy. They traded in tin and lead, in exchange for which they received pottery, salt, and bronze vessels. The trade with these islands had for a long time been confined to the Phœnicians from Gades, but had been opened out to the Romans by P. Crassus, who visited them in person, and from that time the intercourse was carried on briskly.14
It is remarkable that he says nothing, either here or elsewhere, of the proximity of the Tin Islands to Britain:15 he seems to have regarded them only with reference to Spain, and in connexion with Gades, from whence the trade with them had originally been carried on.
5. The fourth book is devoted to Gaul, Britain and the Alps. His ideas concerning the form and position of Gaul have already been explained, and we have seen how widely they departed from the truth. But erroneous as were his notions in a strictly geographical sense, he was, as in the case of Spain, well acquainted with the general character of the country, the nations that inhabited it, and the main geographical features that determined its conformation. Besides the Alps and Pyrenees he describes the Cemmenus (Cevennes) as a chain of mountains, branching off from the Pyrenees, at right angles, and extending to the centre of Gaul, where it gradually sank into the plain. He mentions also the Jura, under the name of Iourasios, and describes it as separating the Helvetii from the Sequani, who inhabited the region known in modern times as Franche Comté.16 With the Rhone and its tributaries he was well acquainted, and describes very correctly the confluence of the Dubis (Doubs) with the Arar (Saône), and that of the latter river with the Rhone, but he erroneously supposed both the Arar and the Dubis—as well as the Sequana (Seine)—to take their rise in the Alps—showing how vague was his knowledge of the relations of the different mountain-chains in this part of Gaul.17 He was familiar also, as already mentioned, with the great rivers that flowed into the Ocean—the Garonne, Loire, and Seine—all of which he conceived to flow, in a general way, from south to north, parallel with the Rhine and the Pyreness. And he was fully alive to the remarkable advantages derived by Gaul from the facilities of internal communication afforded by these rivers, which approached so near to each other that a very short passage over land was needed from the Saône to the Seine on the one hand, and from the Rhone to the Loire on the other.18 These facilities were in his time turned extensively to account: and a flourishing transit trade was carried on from the ports on the Ocean to those of Narbo and Massilia on the Mediterranean. Burdigala (Bordeaux) at the mouth of the Garonne was already an important emporium of trade. The names of the sea ports at the mouths of the other two great rivers, the Loire and the Seine, Strabo has unfortunately omitted to mention. Corbilo, which had formerly been the chief port on the Loire,19 had in his time ceased to exist.
6. His description of the Roman Province, or Gallia Narbonensis, as it was now beginning to be called, is minute and accurate, and he clearly points out the difference of its climate, which distinguished it from other parts of Gaul, and more nearly approached to that of Italy.20 With the rest of Gaul his acquaintance was comparatively superficial, but he had here an excellent authority before him in Cæsar, of whose Commentaries he made great use, and whom he generally follows in regard to the names and divisions of the Gaulish tribes. A more recent authority was indeed available in his time in the inscription on the altar at Lyons erected in honour of Augustus by the combined nations of Gaul, and which bore the names of sixty tribes or states (civitates).21 But Strabo does not appear to have derived any assistance from the materials furnished by this document. Nor do we find him making any use, for the purposes of his geographical description, of the lines of road which the Romans had already constructed through the country: though he himself tells us that Agrippa had made four such lines of highway, all proceeding from Lugdunum (Lyons) as a centre. The first of these proceeded through the Cevennes to the Santones and Aquitania; the second led to the Rhine; the third to the shores of the Ocean, adjoining the territory of the Bellovaci and Ambiani; and the fourth to the Narbonitis and the neighbourhood of Massilia.22 From thence another line branched off by Tarasco to Nemausus and Narbo, and thence to the passage of the Pyrenees. This last he describes minutely, as well as another branch proceeding from Tarasco through the land of the Vocontii to Ebrodunum (Embrun), and thence over the Mont Genèvre to Ocelum in Italy.23 This was in his day one of the most frequented passes over the Alps. But his accurate details concerning these roads through the Roman province, which had existed long before, render the absence of them in regard to the great central lines the more striking.
There can be no doubt that his knowledge of the parts of Gaul adjoining the Ocean was very imperfect: the vagueness and generality of his notices of this part of the country contrasts strongly with the detailed accuracy of his description of the regions adjacent to the Mediterranean and the Pyrenees. The only exception is with regard to the Veneti, of whose naval power and the construction of their ships he gives a full account; but this is taken directly from Cæsar.24 Of the other Armorican tribes he mentions only the Osismii, whom he identifies with the Ostimii of Pytheas, and states that they dwelt upon a promontory projecting a considerable distance into the sea, but not to the extent maintained by that writer, and those who followed him. It is evident that Strabo had here no correct information, and had no idea of the real extent and magnitude of the Armorican promontory. He apparently conceived the Veneti, who, as he learned from Cæsar, carried on an extensive trade with Britain, to be situated opposite to that island.25
7. With regard to the division of Gaul he begins by stating in accordance with Cæsar that it was divided into three nations, the Aquitanians, the Celts or Gauls properly so called, and the Belgæ. The Aquitanians were, as he justly observes, a wholly distinct people from the Celts, and more nearly resembled the Iberians. In this ethnographical sense they were bounded by the Garonne to the north: but in the reorganization of Gaul by Augustus, that emperor had extended the limits of Aquitania to the Loire, thus uniting fourteen tribes of Celtic origin with the Aquitanians properly so called. The rest of Gaul was divided into the provinces of Gallia Lugdunensis and Belgica: but Strabo differs from all other writers in extending the latter province along the shores of the Ocean from the mouths of the Rhine to those of the Loire, so as to include the Veneti and Osismii among the Belgic tribes.26 This is probably an error, but Strabo himself remarks that the geographer does not require to take much pains with regard to the merely political and administrative divisions of countries where these do not coincide with natural boundaries.
His account of the manners and customs of the Gauls, as well as of their religous rites and ceremonies, is taken almost entirely from Cæsar, but with the addition of some circumstances of more dubious authenticity, which he derived from Posidonius, Artemidorus, and other Greek authorities. He adds however that the Gauls were rapidly becoming civilized, and imitating the Roman manners, as well as adopting their language. This change had already taken place to a great extent in the Roman province, or Narbonitis, where the native tribes had been stimulated by the example of the Massaliots, and begun even to devote their attention to literature and study: and it was from thence extending itself by degrees into the neighbouring parts of Gaul.27
8. Of Britain he had very little knowledge beyond what he derived from Cæsar. We have already seen that he erroneously conceived the south coast of Britain to extend opposite to that of Gaul, from the mouths of the Rhine to the Pyrenees, and that the interval was throughout much the same, so that the distance was not much greater from the mouths of the Garonne and the Loire than from those of the Seine and Rhine. But the nearest point, he correctly adds, was from the Portus Itius, in the land of the Morini, from whence Cæsar sailed on his expedition to the island: the distance at this point being only 320 stadia. It is strange however that he altogether rejects the statements of Cæsar with regard to the dimensions of the island, and regards the side opposite to Gaul—the length of which he estimates at the utmost at 5000 stadia—as the longest side of Britain, instead of being, as Cæsar had described it, and as it really is, by much the shortest.28 He consequently gave to the island a very inconsiderable extension towards the north, so as to bring its most northerly portions into the same latitude as the mouths of the Borysthenes, and only 8700 stadia, or 14[frac12] degrees of latitude north of the Strait of the Columns.29
No attempt had been made since the time of Cæsar to subjugate Britain, but the native princes had entered into friendly relations with the Roman Emperors, and a considerable commerce was carried on with the island. Among the products exported from thence Strabo enumerates gold and silver as well as iron, but makes no mention of tin: besides these, he says, it furnished corn, cattle, hides and slaves, and dogs for the chase of a very fine breed. The climate was milder than that of Gaul, but very subject to mists, so that even in bright weather the sun was only visible for three or four hours in the day.30
Ierne or Ireland he conceived, as has been already mentioned, and as he himself repeatedly states, to be situated to the north of Britain. Its length was greater than its breadth, but he does not give an estimate of either: nor does he in this place say anything of its distance from Britain. But he elsewhere states that the interval was not known with any certainty.31 He however regarded it as the most northern of all known lands, and as barely habitable on account of the cold.32 Of its inhabitants little was known: they were said to be mere savages, addicted to cannibalism, and holding promiscuous intercourse with their women. But Strabo himself adds that he had no trustworthy authorities for these facts. The other islands around Britain he treats as unworthy of notice, and mentions Thule only to repeat his disbelief of the account of it that had been given by Pytheas.33
9. He next returns to speak of the Alps, his knowledge of which shows, as might be expected, a great advance upon that of Polybius. Indeed the recent subjugation of the Alpine tribes under Augustus, and the frequent communication held by the Romans with their Transalpine provinces, had necessarily led to a much more familiar acquaintance with these mountains. Hence Strabo is not only able to give us many interesting particulars concerning the different nations inhabiting the Alps and a correct description of their localities, but his account of the mountain chain itself shows a clear idea of its general form and configuration, and of the rivers that flowed from it. Thus he describes the Alps as forming a great curve having its concave side turned towards the plains of Italy, its centre in the land of the Salassians, and its two extremities bending round, the one by Mount Ocra, and the head of the Adriatic, the other along the sea coast of Liguria to Genoa, where they join the Apennines.34 In another passage35 he fixes the termination of the Maritime Alps with more precision at Vada Sabbata (Vado), 260 stadia from Genoa, which almost exactly coincides with the view generally adopted by modern geographers. The highest summits of the whole range he supposes to be those in the land of the Medulli (between the Mont Genèvre and the Petit St. Bernard), where the direct ascent of the mountains was said to be not less than 100 stadia and the descent on the other side into Italy the same distance. Here among the hollows of the mountains was a lake, and two sources, from one of which flowed the Druentia (Durance) into Gaul to join the Rhone; from the other the Durias (Dora) to join the Po.36 That river itself had its sources in the same neighbourhood, but at a lower level, and was swelled in its course by the junction of many tributaries.37 In like manner he tells us correctly that the Rhone and the Rhine had their sources near to one another in the Mount Adula;38—the only distinctive appellation of any particular group which he mentions—and that they each formed a large lake in their course lower down.39 He was also aware of the true source of the Danube, which he well describes as lying in a detached ridge of mountains, beyond the Rhine and its lake, adjoining the Suevi and the Hercynian Forest.40
With the eastern extremity of the Alps, where the chain sweeps round the head of the Adriatic he was also well acquainted, and gives a curious account of the commerce that was carried on in his day over the Mount Ocra—which he correctly describes as the lowest part of the Alps—from Aquileia to a place called Nauportus or Pamportus on the Save. It was by this route that Italian goods were conveyed into Pannonia and the other countries on the banks of the Danube.41 The other mountaineers of the Alps also carried on some trade with Italy, bringing down resin, pitch, wax, honey, and cheese. In his time they were become tranquil subjects of Rome, and had laid aside the predatory habits which they had practised for centuries.
10. Augustus, who had completed the subjugation of the mountain tribes, had also, he tells us, bestowed great pains upon the construction of roads through their country: and had rendered these practicable for carriages, wherever the natural difficulties were not too great.42 Still the number of high roads thus opened was but small. Of the two passes leading from the valley of the Salassi to Lugdunum, the one through the Centrones (the Little St. Bernard) which was the longer and more circuitous was available for carriages, the other across the Pennine Alps (the Great St. Bernard) was more direct, but narrow and steep, and not practicable for carriages. The road through the Graian Alps, and the petty kingdom of Cottius (the Mont Genèvre)43 was apparently also open to carriages, and was one of the most frequented passes in the Roman times. No mention is found of any other pass between the Great St. Bernard and that through the Rhætians (the Brenner pass in the Tyrol) which from its comparative facility must have been frequented in all times. But Strabo, with a want of method often found in his work, while censuring Polybius for noticing only four passes across the Alps, has omitted to give us any regular enumeration of those known and frequented in his own day. He describes in strong terms the natural difficulties of these passes, the frightful chasms and giddy precipices along which the narrow roads had to be carried, as well as the avalanches of snow, which were capable of carrying away whole companies of travellers at once. These he ascribes with remarkable precision to the sliding of great masses of snow, congealed by successive frosts, one over the other.44
11. The fifth and sixth books are devoted to the description of Italy and the adjoining islands, with which he was of course well acquainted, and for the topography of which he had abundant materials at his command. We have already seen how erroneous was his conception of the true position and configuration of the peninsula, as it would be represented on a map; but with its general features he was naturally familiar, and his outline of its physical geography is on the whole clear and satisfactory. The leading natural features of Italy are indeed so strongly marked by nature that it would be difficult not to seize them correctly. Such is in the first place the broad valley, or rather plain, of the Po, bounded by the great chain of the Alps on the north and by the inferior, but scarcely less marked, range of the Apennines to the south, and gradually passing into the lagunes and marshes of Venetia and the low country near Ravenna. The Apennines also are well described by Strabo as extending directly across the whole breadth of the land, from the frontiers of Liguria and Tyrrhenia on the one sea to the neighbourhood of Ariminum and Ancona on the other, and then turning inland so as to divide the peninsula into two through its whole length, but keeping nearer to the Adriatic till they turn off again in Lucania, and after passing through Lucania and Bruttium end in the promontory of Leucopetra not far from Rhegium.45 He compares the peninsular portion of Italy—excluding the two projecting spurs or promontories of Iapygia and Bruttium—with that of the Adriatic Sea adjoining it:46 rather a singular comparison and rendered more so by his adding that the length of each is not much less than 6000 stadia (600 G. miles), a great exaggeration, as the distance from Ariminum to the extremity of the Iapygian peninsula (thus including the latter, which Strabo excludes) is little more, as measured on the map, than 360 G. miles.47
This last statement is probably copied from some of his earlier Greek authorities: and indeed throughout this portion of his work we find him fluctuating between two sets of authorities—the earlier Greek writers, to whose statements he clings with a strange tenacity, even in regard to matters on which much better sources of information were open to him, and the more recent statements of Roman writers, based upon more accurate measurements and itineraries. Among the latter especially we find him repeatedly citing an anonymous author whom he calls “the chorographer,” and of whom all that we know is that from his giving the distances in miles it may be fairly inferred that he was a Latin, not a Greek, author.48 Whether this anonymous work was based mainly on the itineraries and consequently confined chiefly to distances, cannot be affirmed with certainty, nor do we know from what sources Strabo derived his knowledge of the topography of those parts of Italy which he had not himself visited, but it is certain that these topographical details are for the most part very correct, and the order in which the numerous towns mentioned are enumerated is generally systematic and well chosen. It is clear indeed, as has been already shown, that maps of Italy were well known, and probably not uncommon, in the time of Strabo, and the clear and methodical character of his description certainly gives the impression of having been written with such a representation before him. At the same time the more lively and graphic manner in which he describes particular localities—as for instance the Port of Luna, Volterra, Populonium, and the greater part of Campania—points clearly to being the result of personal observation. His account of Northern Italy on the other hand, in which he gives many interesting details concerning the marshes and lagunes of Venetia and the coast of the Adriatic from Altinum to Ravenna, and his description of the site of the latter city—a position almost exactly resembling that of Venice at the present day49—must probably have been derived at secondhand from some other writer. He follows the popular Roman notion that the Padus was the largest river in Europe except the Danube:50 but rejects without hesitation its identification with the famous Eridanus, which he treats as a wholly fabulous stream.51
In describing Campania he...
(The entire section is 12398 words.)