Sunday, July 22, 2012


Graham Shipley (ed.), Pseudo-Skylax's Periplous: the Circumnavigation of the Inhabited World. Text, Translation and Commentary. Exeter: Bristol Phoenix Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 244. ISBN 9781904675839. $30.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Mark Woolmer, Durham University (

Version at BMCR home site

The Periplous of Pseudo-Skylax, a fourth-century BC treatise describing a clockwise circumnavigation of the Mediterranean and Black Sea starting in Iberia and ending in West Africa just beyond the Pillars of Hercules, survives as part of a compilation of minor geographical works assembled by Markianos of Herakleia in the sixth century AD. The text provides information about the distinctive geographical features of various regions (including rivers, mountains, and harbours), and the distances and sailing times between them. Shipley's stylishly produced and generously illustrated volume is the only full edition of the Periplous since 1878 and includes the first complete English translation, a revised version of the Greek text, and an extensive commentary that draws upon recent advances in Greek history and archaeology to provide new insights into the social, cultural, and intellectual milieu in which the work was produced. Shipley's stated aim for the volume is to make Pseudo-Skylax's work more widely available to a range of audiences including specialists in the fields of classics, ancient history, and archaeology, and non-specialists in disciplines such as geography and modern history. Although the aim is unstated, it is clear that the volume also seeks to redeem Pseudo-Skylax's scholarly reputation; and thus a more sympathetic view of his research methodology and his literary merits underpins much of the introductory discussions. The book comprises five principal parts: Introduction, Text, Translation, Commentary, and Select Apparatus Criticus.

The introduction is divided into eleven sections which explore the history of the text, the date of its composition, the identity of its author, the purpose of its composition, its literary features, and its legacy. The opening section examines the nature and scope of the work, whilst drawing attention to the inherent problems of engaging with one of antiquity's most corrupt texts. Shipley identifies three principal types of error which undermine the Periplous's use to historians: those resulting from miscopying, those resulting from attempts by ancient editors to improve the accuracy or clarity of the work, and, finally, those that had been made by the original author. Recognising that scholars will continue to question whether a passage has been accurately transmitted, Shipley takes a minimalist approach to the revision of such 'errors', preferring, as far as possible, to leave the text in its original form.

The following two sections explore the identity of the text's author and the date of its composition. Shipley, following scholars such as Marcotte, Counillon, and Panchenko, rejects Markianos' claim that the author of the Periplous was the famous Skylax of Karyanda recorded by Herodotus (4.44). He does so for two reasons: firstly, because Skylax of Karyanda lived and worked in Asia Minor whilst comments made by Pseudo-Skylax suggest that he had a close connection to Greece, in particular Athens (for example, when he refers to the Saronic Gulf in the Aegean as 'the sea on our side' PS 40); and, secondly, because references within the text indicate that it was composed during the late fifth or early fourth century, thus postdating Skylax of Karyanda by at least fifty years.1 Shipley continues by demonstrating convincingly that the work must have been produced before 338/7BC—in other words, prior to Alexander's accession to the Macedonian throne—as the text appears ignorant of Alexander's eastern conquests. Although suggesting that Pseudo-Skylax lived and worked in Athens, Shipley challenges the suggestion that the author was Athenian, preferring instead to conclude that, whatever his ethnicity, Pseudo-Skylax wrote in or near Athens and was fully integrated into the city's lively intellectual culture.

After providing a concise overview of the assorted units of measurement used by Pseudo-Skylax, Shipley presents the most controversial aspect of his introduction, a discussion of the manuscript's purpose. He begins by challenging the widely held belief that the work was intended either as a guide for seafarers or as a manual for maritime financiers. Shipley objects to these interpretations on four counts: that the inclusion of key navigational information is not systematic; that typically there are vast distances between each point of reference; that a number of important navigational details are omitted; and that most of the information pertaining to a region's geographic and topographic features would have been of little interest to seafarers. Shipley also rejects the suggestion that the work is a compendium of traveller's tales. Although acknowledging that Pseudo-Skylax drew upon oral traditions and folktales, Shipley prefers to see him as a library-based researcher whose work was intended to present a systematic reckoning of the scale of the world accessible to the Greeks. In essence, he argues that the text should be considered a work of philosophical geography. This reclassification is persuasive and helps explain why a number of agendas compete for attention (including a preoccupation with calculating the size of the earth, the cataloguing of the various ethnic territories and towns that make up the known world, and an occasional emphasis on history, geography, ethnography, and military intelligence).

Having reclassified the text as philosophical geography, Shipley examines the Periplous' place within wider intellectual traditions, concluding that Pseudo-Skylax had limited engagement with his literary predecessors or with earlier geographic treatises. In particular, Shipley downplays Pseudo-Skylax's engagement with Hanno, the supposed author of a North African periplous, and Hekataios and Herodotus whose geographic observations often contradict those presented in the Periplous. In fact, Shipley suggests that the only identifiable influence on Pseudo-Skylax is the fifth century geographer Phileas of Athens. This absence of sustained engagement with previous geographical works is used to support Shipley's earlier hypothesis that Pseudo-Skylax liberally incorporated oral traditions and folktales within his work. However, he is careful to demonstrate that these accounts were adapted for a contemporary audience and were thus infused with ideas and knowledge indicative of the literary and philosophical traditions of mid-fourth century Athens. Shipley therefore posits that Pseudo-Skylax must have been aware of the programme of data collection and analysis being undertaken by the Platonic Academy. Although raising the intriguing suggestion that the Periplous could in fact be attributed to either Dikaiarchos or Pytheas, the section closes with the less controversial conclusion that the work is best understood as forming part of the same intellectual tradition.

The following section examines Pseudo-Skylax's literary aspirations. Although the treatise has a formulaic feel, Shipley suggests that the frequent change of style and use of language are indicative of an author who was concerned with maintaining his reader's interest and with demonstrating his own literary skills and sophistication. Particular attention is drawn to Pseudo-Skylax's authorial authority and his reluctance to express an unambiguous point of view. Even Pseudo-Skylax's relatively frequent use of the first person is seen as a literary device designed to engage the reader, and to reinforce the author's academic credibility, rather than any rhetorical claim to authority. This section also questions the existence of a 'periplographic genre.' Building on the recent work of Pelling, Shipley argues that prior to the Hellenistic Period the diffuse character, composition, and rhetorical structure of so-called periplographic works undermines their classification as a distinct literary category.2 Although the idea is controversial, there is much that convinces in Shipley's conclusion that the Periplous should be understood as a philosophical work exploring the structure of the world rather than an attempt to champion coastal expositions as a coherent and clearly defined genre.

The introduction closes with an assessment of the legacy and impact of the Periplous. Although Pseudo-Skylax is rarely cited by ancient commentators, and many confused him with Skylax of Karyanda, Shipley provides a speculative list of geographical writers who may have been influenced by his work. Moreover, even though Pseudo-Skylax's traceable legacy is slight, Shipley is keen to point out that even the important works of Strabo and Pausanias are seldom cited by later scholars; consequently, Pseudo-Skylax's short-term impact might have been far greater than extant citations suggest. Although this argument is convincing, the suggestion that Pseudo-Skylax may have inspired other more notable geographers including Pytheas and Dikaiarchos is, in the reviewer's opinion, an overly optimistic interpretation of the evidence. The final section comprises a brief but valuable overview of previous scholarship.

The introduction is followed by a revised version of the Greek text and an English translation. In order to avoid unwarranted assumptions about the original text, Shipley has consciously chosen to retain many of the inconsistencies of the original manuscript. Consequently, variation between the use of Attic and non-Attic spellings, the presence or absence of elision, the use or omission of the paragogic nu, and inconsistencies in the rendering of numerals have been left as is and not standardised. Where this approach is impractical, Shipley standardises as unobtrusively as possible, in order to maintain the manuscript's original feel. Thus redundant iota subscripts are rarely noted, abbreviations and ligatures that are used inconsistently or in various forms are expanded, and accents and other diacritics are regularised. Although Shipley adopts the section numbers introduced by Müller in 1855, his edition further divides the text into subsections in order to aid orientation.3 The result is that he manages to retain the distinctive patterning of the text whilst making it easier for the reader to navigate.

The introductory discussion, text, and translation account for only half of the volume: the rest is a detailed commentary which incorporates comprehensive philological analysis, extensive textual criticism, a discussion of the difficulties of identifying lacunae in the original manuscript or interpolations made by ancient and medieval scholars, and a wealth of historical, geographical, and ethnographical information. The author's precise translation means that his commentary conveys his exact understanding of each passage clearly and concisely, whilst his extensive engagement with twentieth- and twenty-first-century scholarship provides valuable insights into the academic reception of the Periplous. Shipley frequently directs the reader to his up-to-date (although mostly Anglophone) bibliography, and helpfully identifies titles that offer fuller discussions of key themes and topics; he rightly refrains, however, from attempting to give a complete overview of recent scholarly literature on the various settlements, territories, and peoples recorded by Pseudo-Skylax. The commentary is enhanced by the inclusion of twenty black and white maps. For the benefit of the intended readership, these are all modern maps and, although helpful for identifying important locations, peoples, and geographic and topographic features, they are less useful for gaining an understanding of Pseudo- Skylax's own spatial conception of the regions he describes. The final chapter comprises a concise apparatus criticus that details recently identified erasures and variant readings of particular passages.

In sum, the author succeeds in presenting a fresh and sympathetic assessment of Pseudo-Skylax's contribution to philosophical geography whilst at the same time making this obscure text more widely accessible. This reviewer therefore has no doubt that the volume will become a standard reference tool for those wishing to study the history, geography, and culture of the regions explored in the Periplous.


1.   For modern debates see in particular Marcotte, D. (1986), 'Le périple de Pseudo-Scylax,' Starinar 17:116-117; Counillon, P. (1998) 'Λιμὴν ἔρημος,' in Arnold, P. and Counillon P. (eds) Geographica historica, Bordeaux-Nice, 55-67; Counillon, P. (2007), 'L'ethnographie dans le Périple du Ps.-Skylax entre Tanaïs et Colchide,' In Bresson, A. Ivantchik, A. and Ferrary, J.-L. (eds) Une koinè pontique (Bordeaux), 37-45; Panchenko, D.V. (2005), 'Scylax of Caryanda on the Bosporus and the Strait at the Pillars,' Hyperboreus 11: 173-80.
2.   Pelling, C.B.R. (2007), 'Ion's Epidemiai and Plutarch's Ion,' in Jennlings, V. and Katsaros (eds), The world of Ion of Chios, Leiden, 75-109.
3.   Müller, C.W.L. (1855-61), Geographi Graeci minores. 3 Vols. Paris.

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