Classics and Geography Part 1

The Subject and its Beginnings


“We consider that geographical investigation, as much as any other subject, to be a valid concern for the practical investigation of the philosopher, which we now set before you for examination.”


(Strabo, Geographika, 1.1)


Human beings are naturally curious creatures and one thing they have always been curious about is the world around them. Geographical details even abound in the Homeric poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, particularly in the latter. Geographical features formed part of their conceptualisation of places and their boarders. They displayed knowledge about the natural resources of a place, and some, like Herodotus and Polybius, even claim to have travelled widely and verified details for themselves.


Whilst, therefore, Classics and Geography might not at first seem like natural curricular partners, they can not only be mutually beneficial, but Classics can also enrich our understanding of why Geography matters and how this subject began.


One cannot and should not underestimate the contribution to Geography left to us by not just Classical Antiquity, but the ancient world more generally. Even where they were not correct, their motives that drove them would resonate, I am sure, with today’s keen bee geographers. Moreover, when one considers that they did not possess our speedy means of travel or our tools, their achievement should seem all the more deserving of respect. Yes, there are some errors that will raise sniggers. However, errors can still be made, and assessing their accuracy as should have already become clear is only part of the picture. We also need to look at their methods, efforts, comparisons, and how they went above and beyond the confines of their own city-states.


The sheer scope of factors that they explored in their works should impress. In part I, we shall be looking at Hecateus, Herodotus, and Polybius.


Hecateus of Miletus, based on the works that survive and references from other authors, may fairly classed as standing at the beginning of Greek geographical writing. Miletus was an ancient city on the western coast of Anatolia. Heacteus knew well the power of the Persian empire (under Darius, when he was writing c.500 BC), and, as a prominent citizen of Miletus, he was involved in the peace negotiations following the city’s rebellion against Persia, and against which he had strongly advised. Hecateus seems to have gained much of his geographical knowledge from his own travels. Unfortunately, his work only survives in fragments and many of those are quoted in other authors. He seems to have divided the world into two continents, but we are uncertain where precisely this division lay. The scope of his world certainly included many of the Greek islands, Macedonia, Thrace, going along the coast of the Troad, even including areas of Italy. He was an important source for Herodotus on Egypt, although the later historian claimed travel to that land and enquiry of native Egyptians. He also seems to have some knowledge of areas of North Africa, but not as much a Herodotus. This may seem like a small world, but given that he was writing almost 2,600 years ago, without ariplanes and fast ships, his vision beyond his own immediate city-state confines.


Seventy years later came Herodotus, the man dubbed (and with good reason) by Cicero as ‘the father of history.’ He branded his predecessor ‘a teller of tales.’ As Roller pointed out, this need not be seen as a criticism, but equally we may wonder whether he is playing down the seriousness of Hecateus’ work to emphasize his own.


Between Hecateus and Herodotus Greek geographical horizons and interest in different peoples had expanded against the backdrop of the pre-Socratic thinkers, Greek medical writers, the sophists, all of whom may well have informed Herodotus’ thought through his travels and interactions as he moved from city to city. He was certainly in the right place having grown up amidst such a rich intellectual and cultural melting pot in the Ionian city of Halicarnassus on the cusp between east and west. Herodotus described the furthest bounds of India, Egypt, Ethiopia, Libya, the Persian empire, parts of Italy, and acknowledged the existence of lands further to the north-west such as the ‘Tin Islands’ (Britain, according to one possible identification), but admitted he knew nothing certain about these remote regions as he had not been there himself. With the expansion of Greek concepts of the bounds of the world came also an increased interest n the different practices and ways of lives of the world’s highly diverse peoples. Nor is Herodotus any mere Greek apologist. He reports many practices that would have been shocking to a Greek audience (for example, a tribe that ate ill or old members to avoid the withering of the flesh) with a remarkable lack of even implied judgement. Geography and ethnography came to be an established avenue through which Greek observers viewed and sought to explain the world.


Geography had been born and it was there to stay. Hecateus and Herodotus not only made their mark on Greek conceptualizations of the world, they left their indelible influence on the modern school curriculum.

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