Sunday, August 9, 2015


Renate Burri, Die 'Geographie' des Ptolemaios im Spiegel der griechischen Handschriften. Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte, Band 110. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2013. Pp. x, 597. ISBN 9783110280166. €109.95.

Reviewed by Irene Pajón Leyra, CEPAM-UMR 7264, Université Nice Sophia Antipolis, CNRS (

Version at BMCR home site


This book offers the reader an in-depth examination and analysis of the extant manuscripts of Ptolemy's Geography, providing insight into the transmission and reception of this fundamental work. To fulfil that aim the author describes in detail a selection of the manuscripts, elaborating a catalogue through which, among many other things, she reconsiders their relationship within the stemma.

The catalogue is the central and most extensive part of the book. However, it is preceded by a series of chapters where an exploration of the principal problems of Ptolemy and his works, and of the Geography among them, is carried out in depth.

The book opens with a long chapter divided into two sections. The first is dedicated to the collection and critical study of the preserved testimony regarding Ptolemy's life, which constitute our only sources of information about him. The data provided by Ptolemy himself are collected along with the references to him conveyed by other authors, including not only Greek sources (Scholia of the diverse manuscripts, Olympiodorus' commentary on Plato's Phaedo, the corresponding entry of the Suda, etc.), but also Arabic authors. From all this material, an image of Ptolemy emerges, as living in the 2nd century CE and being intellectually active at least until the beginning of Marcus Aurelius' reign (161-180). Ptolemy carried on his scientific activity in Alexandria (rather than Kanobos), the information that links his name with other cities (mainly Pelusion) probably being the product of mistakes and confusions, due to misinterpretations of the name of Κλαύδιος Πτολεμαῖος in the Arabic tradition, or perhaps due to lack of a clear distinction in the sources between the writer Ptolemy and the Egyptian kings of the same name. Afterwards, the author offers a brief summary of Ptolemy's works: his extant treatises are classified thematically, followed by his lost works and those that are incorrectly attributed to him. Finally, a brief examination of their relative chronology is also included.

In the second section, the Geography is considered in detail: its content and structure, its relationship to the Episemon poleon canon and the role played by the maps. After the analysis of the various sections into which the work can be divided (theoretical section, catalogue of places, atlas) and the analysis of the common points between the Canon and the 8th book of Geography, the author offers an insightful evaluation of our ability to know to what extent the maps in the preserved manuscripts can be considered as depending on ancient models. Neither the formal coincidences (e. g. coincidences in the use of colour, similar vignettes or cartographical symbols, presence of majuscules) nor the aspects of content (disagreements in respect to the text shared by a certain group of manuscripts) can be held as clear evidence of a cartographical tradition that started in antiquity. Therefore, only the indications addressed to the cartographer in some parts of the Geography and the famous subscription of Agathodaimon, both unanimously considered as late antique additions to Ptolemy's original, point to the circulation in antiquity of copies of the Geography that included maps.

The earliest known manuscripts of the Geography date to the 13th century, after Maximus Planudes "rediscovered" it and awakened a new interest in it, with the consequent production and circulation of new copies of the text. However, that does not mean that this handbook of mathematical Geography was not known before, as the author points out. Between Ptolemy's and Planudes' lifetime many authors show a clear awareness of the treatise. Again, the information collected in the book on this problem is not limited to Greek and Latin sources, but also includes a long list of testimonies coming from Arabic and Syriac texts. This proves that several cultural centres along the Mediterranean, from the south of modern Turkey to the Iberian Peninsula (Alexandria, Rome, Constantinople, Baghdad, Toledo) maintained an interest in Ptolemy's geographic work, a tradition that in the case of Constantinople was continuous down to the time of the so-called "rediscovery" by Planudes.

Chapter III begins the analysis of the manuscripts of Ptolemy's Geography. Again, it is divided into sections, the first of which consists of a critical review of the work by earlier scholars devoted to determining the stemma of the known codices. The author explains in chronological order the progress made by Nobbe (1843-1845), Müller (1867 and 1883), Cunz (1923), Renou (1925), Fischer (1932) and Schnabel (1938), with particular attention to the last of these, which is regarded as the latest complete survey of the stemma as a whole and of the place of the extant manuscripts within it. After Schnabel, the contributions to the general stemma made by the partial editions by Ronca (1971) and Humbach/Ziegler (1998 and 2002) are considered, as well as the stemmatological criteria followed by the new general edition by Stückelberger.

As Schnabel's study is the last general overview of the whole set of manuscripts of Ptolemy's geographic work, the author takes it as a reference point as well as a starting point, assuming the task of reconsidering it in depth and updating it. The author explores the new perspective we can obtain on the history of the transmission of the text, if the extant manuscripts and their relationships are reviewed through a detailed examination of their codicological and palaeographical features and a systematic presentation of its results.

From a methodological point of view (explained in the second section of chapter III), the author concentrates on a selection of manuscripts, including not only the earliest testimonies to the text (those dating to the 13th and 14th centuries) but also: a) those manuscripts that have been less frequently described; b) "working manuscripts," that is, pieces in which traces of the activity of readers and scholars are visible; c) manuscripts of difficult access. Such criteria lead to a list of 34 manuscripts described in the catalogue, from the 64 extant examples (all of these 64 preserved items are listed and schematically described in a detailed table, pp. 97-112).

Before the catalogue, the author explains the Katalogmaske, the indexing information she has elaborated and applied to the items under consideration. Included are all the necessary technical data (signature, institution that possesses the piece, siglum according to Schnabel, origin) as well as a long formal description of the pieces (material, format, layout, content, peculiarities, codicological features, presence of watermarks, catchwords,, traces of ruling, decoration, illustrations, etc.). If the piece includes maps, these are also described in detail, although the author explains that the transmission process of the maps, which have their own stemma and whose history does not always run parallel to that of the text, is not dealt with in depth. However, the most useful elements of the description of the manuscripts are the references the author includes in all the cases to some "stemmatological control elements" (Stemmatologische Kontrollen) that allow the position of the various items of the catalogue within the stemma to be defined. These control elements are:

1) The general summary of the chapters in the introduction of the work (Geography 1): the original division into 24 chapters, present in all the manuscripts, sometimes (in those representing the ω-Recension) disagrees with a text divided into 23 chapters. The various formulae for resolving this disagreement aid in recognition of related manuscripts.

2) The presence of a lacuna due to a copyist's error (homoioteleuton) in Geography I 24.17.

3) Presence, place and form of some drawings and diagrams (including that of the so-called "incomprehensible design," illustrated by some images at the end of the volume; see below).

4) Presence and form of some elements (including a note on a version with 27 partial maps, a list of provinces or satrapies of the inhabited world and fragment of the list, the scholia to the armillary sphere, a table of the course of the sun, an epitome of Geography VII 1-4, two scholia on the reduction factor, a catalogue of the length and breadth of the various maps, a poem in hexameters praising the world map, and the subscription of Agathodaimon).

After the explanation of the catalogue indexing information comes the catalogue itself, consisting of exhaustive descriptions of the selected 34 pieces, arranged in alphabetical order according to the place where they are preserved. The author divides the list into two different sections: items 1-26, manuscripts that could be analysed in detail, through exhaustive examination of the originals, and items 27-34: manuscripts which, because of circumstances beyond the author's control, were not available for close analysis during the study and could only be briefly studied from the original. In general, only on very few occasions do the descriptions depend exclusively on microfilms or photographs, without a direct examination of the original pieces. It must be understood, furthermore, that for most of these manuscripts this work contains the first detailed description.

After the catalogue, the book closes with an extremely interesting epilogue, divided again into various sections. In the first, the manuscripts are linked to some very significant scholars who have played a crucial role in the diffusion of the text: Maximus Planudes, Manuel Chrysoloras and Michael Apostoles. Afterwards, a chronological explanation of the production of manuscripts of Ptolemy's Geography is offered, which allows the reader to appreciate the coincidence of the moment of most intense interest in the text with the scholarly activities of Planudes and Chrysoloras, as well as the decline of this interest during the 15th century, probably for two main reasons: the diffusion of the Latin version of the work (firstly, in manuscript form, and later, as a printed edition) and the discovery of the New World, which rendered Ptolemy's geographic vision out-of-date. The main results of the study of the manuscripts are also summarised in the final section of the epilogue, along with the new knowledge we gain about the stemmatological relationships of the pieces.

The systematic presentation of the aspects of the pieces that are taken into consideration (the various elements that conform to the indexing information explained above) allows a selective reading of the catalogue as well as its use as a reference work that can fulfil the needs of scholars approaching the study of the Geography and its transmission from very different points of view. Furthermore, two indexes, of names and of texts, considerably simplify the task of finding the necessary information in the book. A complete set of images is also offered, consisting of diagrams that greatly help in understanding how the projection systems used by Ptolemy work, and of examples of the diverse forms adopted by the "incomprehensible design", illustrating one of the elements considered in the description of the indexing information applied to the manuscripts.

In sum, we are presented with an outstanding piece of research that provides a fresh vision of the transmission process of Ptolemy's Geography, and a very important step forward in our perspective of its stemma. This book will be the point of reference for everyone interested in the history of this essential work of ancient scientific literature.

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