Tuesday, November 24, 2015


Alexander V. Podossinov (ed.), Periphery of the Classical World in Ancient Geography and Cartography. Colloquia antiqua, 12. Leuven; Prais; Walpole, MA: Peeters, 2014. Pp. xi, 164 p. (pb). ISBN 9789042929234. €68.00.

Reviewed by James Romm, Bard College (romm@bard.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is given below.]

This short volume in the Colloquia Antiqua series brings together a team of European (mostly Russian) scholars to address questions of how the ancient world conceived the world's most distant spaces. The topic admits of many different approaches, and indeed the approaches represented here are so various, and the papers of such uneven length and quality, that the volume ends up lacking coherence. Some papers — the best ones, in my view — are broadly conceptual; others are narrowly linguistic or historical; and two do not really address in any way the volume's stated topic. The editor ought to have exercised greater selectivity, or given better guidance, when soliciting contributions.

Insight into Greek and Roman ideas about the oikoumene comes from a wide array of sources, including verbal descriptions such as those of Herodotus and Strabo, voyage narratives both fictional and (purportedly) real, scientific and philosophic debates, and rare pictorial evidence such as the tabula Peutingeriana, a copy of a late Roman map, now made newly accessible by Richard Talbert in an interactive website (Peutinger map).These sources are nicely compiled and discussed by Pascal Arnaud in this volume's longest and most far-reaching chapter, "Mapping the Edges of the Earth: Approaches and Cartographical Problems." Arnaud here deals with the traditions behind the ancient world-maps from a new perspective, claiming that "they cannot…be considered as a mere echo of scientific knowledge or as practical utilities." Modern mapmakers try to draw the world as it really is, but "in earlier times this was not necessarily so"; a variety of non-geographic considerations, including the size and shape of the surfaces on which they drew, influenced the images they produced. Arnaud presents no grand thesis of ancient cartography but calls much received wisdom into question, including the idea, linked here to William Stahl, that "a particular map could be related to a particular culture." Instead, Arnaud asserts, the differing shapes given to the oikoumene must "relate to the customs and conventions overlaying ancient mapmaking, especially the fact that there was no necessary link between shape and proportions on the one hand and the idea of the world on the other."

Arnaud's inquiry partly concerns the longevity of the circular world map throughout antiquity, despite the recognition, already in the time of Herodotus, that such perfect symmetry, "rounder than as if drawn by a compass" (Histories 4.36), did not correlate with empirical observations. The same issue takes central place in the contribution by Francesco Prontera, "Centre et périphérie dans les mappemondes grecques." Prontera, one of the foremost cartographic historians of recent decades, sensibly asks why the Greek discovery of the earth's sphericity did not cause a widespread rejection of the circular world-map that had preceded it. Prontera is very interested in the Greek use of celestial reference points — the circle of the horizon, above all, and the lines of longitude defined by the sun's position at solstices and equinoxes — to define the shape of the world map, as well as the so called wind roses that emerged with Aristotle and the Hellenistic geographers. Yet, despite the rectangular or trapezoidal world-maps that solar phenomena dictated, the old circular format endured. "Le schema radial des anciennes mappemondes … étaient en réalité trop enracinés dans la mentalité antique." As geographic knowledge expanded, new features of the earth, such as the "Caucasus" (Hindu Kush) mountain chain in India, got warped and distorted so as to fit the circular scheme. The shape and extension of Africa, as Pietro Janni demonstrates in another article ("Figuren eines Erdteils: Das Africa der Alten"), were particularly subject to such distortions.

Apart from these three general and conceptual discussions, the volume focuses on particular points of cartographic or geographic history. Dmitri Shcheglov for example tries to demonstrate that Ptolemy, in attaching Africa to Asia by way of a southern terra incognita, relied on a Greek source that also influenced Pomponius Mela. His argument relies heavily on the idea that a passage of Plutarch (Theseus 1) derives from the same unknown source, but his effort to correlate the cartographic features mentioned by Plutarch with those found in Mela's Chorography seems to me strained and unconvincing. The editor Podossinov strives in one of his two contributions to the volume, "The Indians in Northern Europe? The Ancient Roman Notion of the Configuration of Eurasia," to explain the mysterious landing of "Indians" on the Baltic coast in 62 B.C., an episode recorded by both Mela and Pliny the Elder. While raising the interesting possibility that these were in fact Greenland Eskimo, or even North American 'Indians,' Podossinov instead leans toward a Slavonic tribe, elsewhere called Vindi or Venedi, whose name might have become Indi by textual corruption. While admitting that any solution to this mystery must remain speculative, Podossinov nonetheless gives interesting insight into the geographical ideas that made an India-Germany sea voyage seem plausible to the Romans.

Podossinov's other essay in this volume concentrates heavily on linguistic analysis of foreign toponyms, as does a paper on Ptolemy's "Goidelic Hydronyms" ( = Gaelic river names) by Grigory Bondarenko; these have a far narrower purview than the essays discussed thus far. An examination of Alexander the Great's city foundations on the Iranian plateau, by Marek Jan Olbrycht, seems to belong to another volume entirely, as does Lubov Gratsianskaya's examination of Strabo's description of the northern Black Sea coast — hardly a part of "the periphery of the classical world" in Strabo's time, or even in that of Herodotus.

To sum up, this volume is a very mixed bag, but has some valuable insights to offer students of geographic history. Since it combines articles in French and German with others in often obscure English (one at least was translated, clumsily, out of Russian), it will be of interest mainly to professional scholars or graduate students doing advanced research.

Table of Contents

Series Editor's Introduction—Gocha R. Tsetskhladze
Preface—Alexander V. Podossinov
1. Introduction: The Periphery of the Classical World as Seen from the Centre. Mastering the Oikoumene— Alexander V. Podossinov 1
2. Sail-free via Malea (üpèr Maléan): The Wind from Kaikos in the Cultural and Military Context of the Eastern Mediterranean of the Second Half of the 2nd Millennium BC—Nikolai N. Kazansky. 7
3. Centre et périphérie dans les mappemondes grecques—Francesco Prontera. 13
4. Mapping the Edges of the Earth: Approaches and Cartographical Problems—Pascal Arnaud. 31
5. The Oxus and the Caspian Sea in the Ancient Geography of the Classical World—Igor V. Pyankov 59
6. Figuren eines Erdteils: Das Afrika der Alten—Pietro Janni 67
7. Pomponius Mela's Chorography and Hellenistic Scientific Geography—Dmitry A. Shcheglov. 77
8. Die Alexandergründungen in den Nordiranischen Ländern im Lichte der geographischen Tradition der Antike Marek Jan Olbrycht 95
9. The Northern Black Sea Region in the Geography of Strabo—Lubov I. Gratsianskaya 123
10. The Indians in Northern Europe? On the Ancient Roman Notion of the Configuration of Eurasia—Alexander V. Podossinov 133
11. Goidelic Hydronyms in Ptolemy's Geography: Myth behind the Name—Grigory V. Bondarenko 147
List of Contributors 155
Index 157

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