Monday, December 10, 2012


Daniela Dueck, Geography in Classical Antiquity. Key themes in ancient history. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. xvi, 142. ISBN 9780521120258. $29.99 (pb). Contributors: With a chapter by Kai Brodersen.

Reviewed by Richard J. A. Talbert, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (

Version at BMCR home site


As every newcomer to Greek and Latin texts from Homer onwards soon realizes, geography mattered in classical antiquity. At the micro level, around 240 CE a speaker can remind the Roman governor of Thrace, in a manner that would have delighted Menander Rhetor: "The village [Scaptopara] of the soldier we are assisting is situated in the loveliest part of our realm, the polis of the Pautalians. It is rich in mountains and plains; in addition it has hot-water springs, ideal not only for relaxation, but also for health and physical recovery. Nearby, too, a market is organized …."1 At the macro level, in the Augustan period the seventeen books of Strabo's colossal Geography name between them upwards of 6,000 settlements, peoples and features stretching from Ireland to Palibothra on the Ganges river. Current knowledge is too meager to enable us to mark more than about half this staggering total on maps. Even so, meaningful placement of that half – accommodating the use of larger scales in southern Spain, Italy, Greece, western Asia Minor, and the Nile Valley – calls for as many as two dozen maps in an oversize-format book.2 More broadly, our command of geography and associated sciences, as well as of tools to record the wealth of fresh findings, has undergone such dramatic change during the past quarter-century that geography in classical antiquity has been rethought too. Indeed because of the intensity of the ongoing research, and the sheer breadth of its perspectives, for a long while now no scholar has dared to offer a book-length overview. It is a demanding challenge to digest and synthesize the multiple developments, controversies, and discoveries, especially when all is still far from said and done.

Daniela Dueck merits our gratitude, therefore, for rising to the task and – with the collaboration of Kai Brodersen on the topic of cartography (chapter 4) – for crafting such a valuable, wide-ranging overview. In about 100 pages her four chapters (1-3 and 5) first introduce Greek and Roman geography as a whole, and then analyze its descriptive and mathematical expositions, as well as applications in practice both with and without reference to texts. Throughout, her treatment is clear, concise, informative, and well balanced. Given the general character and modest size of volumes in the Cambridge Key themes in ancient history series, I think that for presenting the surviving texts and related materials Dueck has been shrewd to reject chronological order as her organizing principle – the traditional choice – and instead to consider them in three groups (see below) according to their broadly different approaches (p. 3). She is also right to underline at the start that the bounds of geography as a discipline always remained loose, that no distinct format or style came to be prescribed for contributions made to it, and that the attention which geography commanded in schools was minimal at best. Even so, despite an uneven pace and with far from precise tools and techniques for accurate recording of distance or time, substantial advances in geographical understanding were made. As Dueck's introductory chapter explains, repeated impetus came from expansion of Greek and Roman settlement throughout the Mediterranean, as well as far to the East with Alexander's conquests and to the North with Rome's persistent efforts to expand its empire. Impetus of other kinds came from philosophical and scientific quests to comprehend the Earth itself and its place in a vaster universe, and to probe not only its physical landscape and climatic phenomena but also its infinite variety of peoples and the relation of each to their environment. Eventually, conquest of the world – or its northern habitable zone at least (oikoumene or orbis terrarum) – became the proud claim of Rome's rulers.

The three sections of chapter 2 'Descriptive geography' address respectively epic, myth and poetry (poetry persisting throughout antiquity as a popular medium for presenting geography); the historiographic and encyclopedic tradition from Herodotus onwards, with special attention to Strabo and Pliny; and 'travelogues and curiosities' encompassing texts as varied as Pausanias and Solinus on the one hand, and periploi, itineraria and paradoxographers on the other. Likewise in three sections, chapter 3 'Mathematical geography' considers respectively efforts to grasp the shape and size of the world, and to identify its main parts (continents especially) as well as how and where these were divided; theories of latitudinal zones created by different climates, and the supposed impact of climate upon the physiognomy and culture of peoples; lastly the method – developed successively by Dicaearchus, Eratosthenes, Hipparchus and Ptolemy in particular – to fix locations according to a system of co-ordinates still in use today. Dueck's short concluding chapter 5 'Geography in practice' is mainly a survey of the means by which classical antiquity's many travelers may have used periploi and itineraria, with their needs in turn stimulating the appetite for geographical information; the chapter ends by raising questions about the sources, character and scope of 'popular' geographical knowledge among the great mass of the population whose education and firsthand experience of travel were both very limited. In the three sections of the preceding chapter 4 'Cartography', Brodersen begins with an appropriate reminder that there is little contemporary evidence for Greco-Roman maps and that the temptation to reconstruct lost ones by heavy reliance upon modern materials and preconceptions is to be resisted. He then reviews texts and material objects that variously record landscapes or cityscapes, or at least act to bring their visualization to mind (such as the souvenir bowls of Hadrian's Wall). Finally he gives all too brief consideration to 'Maps in the service of state', with special reference to the maps of Aristagoras of Miletus and (with skepticism) of Agrippa.

Inevitably there are grounds for miscellaneous cavils, though in raising some I do not mean to lower my highly favorable evaluation of the book as a whole. The chance might have been taken to inform readers of Dicaearchus's actual term – diaphragma – for the line with which he divided the oikoumene (p. 95). More seriously, Dueck's representation of Ptolemy as an author "so imbued with Roman political orientation" (p. 18) would have puzzled him. Rather, his self-image was that of a philosopher and teacher, whose attention to geography stemmed from engagement with the entire cosmos and pursued a very consciously global, as well as non-political, approach. Two other works for which certain information given may mislead are the Antonine Itinerary, which is likened to (p. 61) a "detailed gazetteer" (within the category itinerarium adnotatum, according to Dueck) covering the entire Roman empire, and the Marble Plan of Rome (so-called Forma Urbis Romae) which is stated (by Brodersen, pp. 102–103) to lack a uniform scale and orientation.

The Bibliography could be faulted for including a few too many items far from current and of only marginal value to a broad readership today. Among more recent publications of notable worth that go unnoticed, by contrast, are two reference tools: David Buisseret et al. (eds.), The Oxford Companion to World Exploration (2 vols., 2007), and Paul T. Keyser and Georgia Irby-Massie (eds.), The Encyclopedia of Ancient Natural Scientists: The Greek Tradition and its Many Heirs (Routledge, 2008). Absent is Tracey Rihll's wide-ranging survey Greek Science (Oxford, 1999). The volume Rethinking the Mediterranean edited by William Harris (Oxford, 2005) merits notice, as does for the Bordeaux Itinerary the undeservedly little-known study by Mauro Calzolari in Atti dell' Accademia delle Scienze di Ferrara 74 Supplemento, 1997. Accessible English translations overlooked are those of Ctesias, Persika by James Robson (Routledge, 2010) and Indika by Andrew Nichols (Bristol Classical Press, 2011), of Pseudo-Scylax, Periplous by Graham Shipley (Bristol Phoenix Press, 2011), and of Arrian's Periplous of the Black Sea by Aidan Liddle (Bristol Classical Press, 2003). An appendix that assembled all the translations cited throughout the book would certainly have been a welcome accompaniment to the invaluable chronological table on pp. x-xiv. The uneven ending of this table does, however, foreshadow the book's token interest in Late Antiquity and the formative further developments in geographical thinking that occurred then. Of several obvious omissions from the table – Ammianus Marcellinus, Eusebius's Onomasticon, Expositio Totius Mundi et Gentium, Hierocles, Notitia Dignitatum, Orosius – only Ammianus receives even cursory mention subsequently in the text.

So where do Dueck and Brodersen leave us? Much better informed, but in a couple of important respects needlessly discouraged, I believe, and that is matter for regret. Although Brodersen is no longer as negative on the subject as in his 1995 book Terra Cognita: Studien zur römischen Raumerfassung, there is good cause to claim that he still rates the variety, sophistication and usage of maps in classical antiquity too low. In his present chapter, as in 1995, he unreasonably gives more attention to Agrippa's lost work – without citing Pascal Arnaud's exhaustive analysis of it, which is now fundamental3 – than to the Peutinger Map (Tabula Peutingeriana), most of which survives in a medieval copy. It is a product that must originate wholly or largely from antiquity,4 and it visibly reflects a mature cartographic tradition rather than springing from nowhere, as even a glance at its remarkable 22 ft length will confirm (see the supplementary materials for Rome's World: The Peutinger Map Reconsidered). Meantime, Brodersen says nothing here of the school wall-map at Augustodunum praised in a Tetrarchic panegyric, let alone of the Demensuratio Provinciarum, 5 or of his own arguments (convincing ones made elsewhere and noted by Dueck, p. 66) that Solinus demonstrates map consciousness. Not mentioned either is the likelihood that Ptolemy derived many of the co-ordinates in his Geography by calculating them from maps.

Dueck's pessimism about the prospects for gaining a fuller grasp of 'popular geographical knowledge' is likewise unwarranted. To be sure, as with cartography, it would be unrealistic to set our expectations too high. However, a rich range of ongoing work that investigates geographical content in diverse testimony previously ignored for the purpose – administrative and legal texts, for example, Roman military diplomas and many other inscriptions, sundials, tesserae – is creatively recovering perspectives and deepening our insight in instructive ways. This research demands a fresh approach in turn to a major puzzle that Dueck leaves hanging: if even educated people were not taught geography in school, when and by what means did they (not to mention others) develop geographical awareness and knowledge? To avid readers, after all, even if they did not travel but perhaps dreamed of doing so, geography could offer thrilling prospects of excitement. Recognition of such longing to satisfy fertile imaginations seems to elude Dueck. An overview of geography in classical antiquity falls short, surely, if it does not embrace the ultimate armchair geographical experience offered by Lucian's delicious True Histories. To lighten the mood after finishing Dueck's first-rate book and this review, therefore, escape at once to Lucian's never-never lands for sheer pleasure.


1.   CIL III.12336 lines 122-36 re-edited by K. Hallof, most conveniently accessible in S. Connolly, Lives Behind the Laws: The World of the Codex Hermogenianus (Bloomington, IN, 2010), Appendix 1 (my translation).
2.   This data courtesy of Duane Roller. The Ancient World Mapping Center is preparing maps for his forthcoming Cambridge University Press translation of Strabo.
3.   "Texte et carte de Marcus Agrippa: historiographie et donnĂ©es textuelles," Geographia Antiqua 16-17 (2007-2008) 73-126.
4.   Ideally, the citation of Albu 2005 on the dating of the Peutinger Map (p. 105 n. 30) should be followed by notice of B. Salway, "The nature and genesis of the Peutinger map," Imago Mundi 57 (2005) 119-35; the journal purposely presented the two articles as a pair offering different views. See further my "Maps," in D. Clayman (ed.), Oxford Bibliographies Online: Classics (2012).
5.   See Riese's Prolegomena, Geographi Latini Minores p. XVII.

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