Monday, November 7, 2016


Duane W. Roller, Ancient Geography: The Discovery of the World in Classical Greece and Rome. Library of Classical Studies, 9. London: I. B. Tauris, 2015. Pp. viii, 294. ISBN 9781784530761. $99.00.

Reviewed by Renate Burri, University of Berne (

Version at BMCR home site


The subtitle of Duane W. Roller's latest publication Ancient Geography: The Discovery of the World in Classical Greece and Rome prepares the reader for what to expect from this book.1 Roller presents a chronological overview of how people in classical Antiquity conceived of their world on the basis of what they knew about it as well as of what they learned about it through mythology, philosophy, or scientific observation, or through war, trade, or official and individual reconnaissance missions. A spin-off of these activities was the effort and increasing need to record this expanding knowledge in word and image, to arrange it in a suitable system, a process that resulted in the gradual formation of geography as a scientific discipline. Roller, who has recently published translations of Strabo's Geographika and of the fragments of Eratosthenes' work of the same title,2 and was earlier the author of Through the Pillars of Herakles: Greco-Roman Exploration of the Atlantic and of The World of Juba II and Kleopatra Selene: Royal Scholarship on Rome's African Border,3 has a thorough mastery of the wide range of materials for his new book and traces the broadening of the geographical horizon from prehistoric/mythic times to the sixth century CE in an impressive manner. His book makes it clear that our modern notion of geography is completely different from the much less specific understanding of the term in antiquity.

In a brief Introduction (pp. 1–7) Roller points out three characteristic components of ancient geography, which form its basis: first, practical information, i.e. any kind of topographical data reported by people traveling; second, the development of a theoretical structure of the world, culminating in Ptolemy's Geography; and third, the extant sources, with Strabo's Geography as the most important surviving work on the topic. The contents are organized in ten chapters, starting with "The Beginnings" (chapter 1, pp. 8–31, with the six sections "The Argonauts," "The Catalogue of Ships in the Iliad," "The Return of the Heroes From Troy," "The World of Homer," "The Phoenicians," and "Early Theoretical Concepts of the Earth") and closing with "The Later Roman Empire" (chapter 10, pp. 193–205, with the five sections "Rome and China," "Marinos and Ptolemy," "Beyond the Oikoumene," "The End of Ancient Geography," and "Christian Topography"). Two Appendices close the study. Appendix 1 (pp. 206–12), entitled "The Major Sources for Greek and Roman Geography," is a useful alphabetical list of the main travelers and authors who provided geographical information. Each person is followed by his dates and by one or at most two sentences naming his most important contribution(s) to ancient geography.4 Appendix 2 (pp. 213–6), "Some Further Notes on Mapping in Antiquity," brings up maps as a primary geographical tool versus the meager and problematic material evidence for their existence in antiquity, particularly for the Greek period; it underscores our dependence on literary sources and their interpretation in this regard. At the end of the volume the reader finds, first, the Endnotes (pp. 217–51), which usually indicate the relevant passages of the sources used, sometimes refer to secondary literature, (too) rarely include cross references, and occasionally give further information. These are followed by a Bibliography (pp. 252–60), an Index of Passages Cited (pp. 261–72), and a General Index (pp. 273–94). Rather disappointing are the twelve maps in black and white. Most of them feature just a few toponyms and do not exhibit all the place names mentioned in the corresponding chapters or sections, which the reader might like to locate on a map.5 Moreover, I could nowhere in the book find a reference to maps 1 and 2. In addition, the order of these two maps was reversed by mistake, so that their captions are wrong.

Apart from that, the volume is consistent in its contents and appealing in its outward appearance. Its focus is on demonstrating step by step how Greeks and Romans discovered the inhabited world and even areas beyond it, rather than on presenting single geographers and geographical works (as does, for example, the recently published Brill's Companion to Ancient Geography 6). This is both its strength and its peculiarity and explains why Roller devotes to an important author such as Strabo, whose work he describes as "the culmination of ancient geographical scholarship" (p. 167), only a little more than three pages, and to Ptolemy, who is treated together with Marinos, just four pages. Even so, certain developments are described in extremely brief terms. The section "Egypt and Aithiopia," for instance, in chapter 8 (entitled "Geography in the Augustan Period"), comprises a mere eight lines, and that entitled "Plutarch" a mere nine lines. This is all too little to be useful.

Roller emphasizes several times the importance of the sources.7 However, he hardly ever quotes a source in translation, and largely forgoes the citing of original texts. This decision, together with a rather limited and primarily English bibliography,8 makes his handbook appropriate for scholars and students without knowledge of Ancient Greek/Latin and for the interested non-specialist reader.9 As a general survey and an updated introduction to ancient geography this book is informative and enjoyable reading.


1.   I wish to thank Karin Schlapbach, University of Fribourg/CH, for revising my English.
2.   The Geography of Strabo (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), review at BMCR 2015.05.15; Eratosthenes' Geography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), BMCR 2011.01.27.
3.   London: Routledge, 2005; New York: Routledge, 2003, review at BMCR 2004.07.31.
4.   The catalogue lists – unsurprisingly – only male names and, in one single case, an anonymous work, the Periplous of the Erythraian Sea. Nevertheless, on p. 134 Roller mentions a certain Hestiaia of Alexandria, active in the second century BC, who was "the only woman topographer known from antiquity." We know about Hestiaia through Strabo 13.1.36, p. 599 C. (see p. 570s. of Roller's translation of Strabo).
5.   See, e.g., map 3 "The World known to Homer" (p. 20), map 7 "Toponyms associated with the eastern expedition of Alexander the Great" (p. 91), map 8 "The prime parallel and prime meridian of Eratosthenes" (p. 126).
6.   Bianchetti, Serena, Michele R. Cataudella and Hans-Joachim Gehrke (edd.), Brill's Companion to Ancient Geography: The Inhabited World in Greek and Roman Tradition (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2016). For a rather systematically and technically structured introduction to the field of ancient geography see Daniela Dueck, Geography in Classical Antiquity, with a chapter by Kai Brodersen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), or its German translation Geographie in der antiken Welt (Darmstadt: WBG, 2013).
7.   See, e.g., pp. 4, 167, 170, 191. The importance of the sources is, of course, documented in the Endnotes and becomes clear to those who bother looking them up.
8.   In addition to the Bibliography, see Roller's recommendations of specialist literature and translations of Greek/Latin texts on p. 6. Surprisingly, Roller writes here that "Pliny's geographical chapters await their English editor," neglecting to mention the Latin-English edition of Pliny's whole Natural History in ten volumes, edited in the Loeb Classical Library, first printed 1938–1962 and reprinted several times since. Another gap in the bibliography is Stefan Radt's recent edition of Strabo's Geographika in ten volumes, with (German) translation and commentary (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2002–2011).
9.   According to the blurb, the volume addresses scholars and students of the classical world, of geography, and of the history of ideas as well as non-specialized and general readers.

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