Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Strabo's World

The Greek geographer Strabo (63 BC - 24 AD) was born in modern-day Turkey, then the Roman province of Pontus, an area inhabited by migrating Greeks since the 6th century BC (and which would continue to house a large Greek population until the expulsions of the early 1920s).  His most famous work is Geographica, which describes the world's peoples and places.  During his lifetime, Strabo traveled throughout the eastern provinces of Rome from Asia Minor to Egypt as well as to Italy.  The map below is a representation of the world he described.  Strabo also wrote Historica hypomnemata (Historical Sketches), a history of the known world, but unfortunately it is mostly lost except for a small segment preserved on a scrap of papyrus now in the possession of the University of Milan.

Geographica consists of 17 books and based upon internal evidence it is thought that it began to be written no earlier than 20 BC with a first edition published around 7 AD and with further additions being made until 23 AD, placing most of it within the reign of Augustus, the first emperor of Rome (31 BC - 14 AD).

As can be seen, Strabo's world consisted of three linked continents, Europe, Asia and Africa, surrounded by a global ocean.  Africa is truncated, ending at the Sahara Desert while Asia is missing China and Southeast Asia. The farthest reaches of Europe are Iberia (Spain), Celtica (France), Germania and Britannia.

Also note that the Caspian Sea is depicted as open to the northern great ocean instead of being a closed inland sea.  India is shown with roughly the same shape as it actually has although the orientation is southeast instead of east.  The island denoted as Taprobane off India's coast is known today as Sri Lanka.

Strabo's map also gives us a graphic description of how awe-inspiring the campaign of Alexander the Great still looked three centuries later.  In the first century AD, the Roman Empire, as great as it was, only extended in the east to Cappadocia and part of Armenia in Asia Minor and to Syria in the Middle East.  During his eleven year campaign (334-323 BC), Alexander conquered Ariana (Iran) and crossed the five branches of the Indus River to enter India only turning back when his troops refused to follow him any further.east.  Earlier, Alexander had advanced north of Ariana into the lands of the Scythians, crossing the Oxartes, the northernmost river shown on the map.

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