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Geography in the Ancient World

Geography enjoyed plenty of explorers in the Ancient world and not just in the Graeco-Roman (i.e., the Classical World). The great epic poet Homer was viewed by the Greeks as the first geographer. Strabo, writing in the first century BCE, places Homer at the start of his list of those who have explored the subject of Geography. Strabo classed it as an area of Philosophy, and one, in his opinion, of great importance. Polybius, the Greek historian writing in the previous century, would have agreed. Polybius believed the historian should view Geography as an essential part of his craft: accuracy in battle narratives, knowledge of the nature of a country and how this shapes its people, and of a country’s natural resources are all important for the understanding and enquiry of the historian.

The historian Herodotus gave his work a broad historical scope beyond Greece, dealing with Persia, Scythia, Egypt, also mentioning India. He described the different practices of different peoples, their appearance, even diets, giving an anthropological flavour (pun intended) to his work. In his third book, he attributed the longevity of the Ethiopians to their consumption of roast meat and drinking of milk. He was not always correct, of course, but his work shows a great curiosity in the world around him and for understanding the world’s great diversity.

Polybius, mentioned above, devoted an entire book of his Histories to geographical description. Sadly, it only survives in fragments. For him, geographical details formed an important part of the explanation of events. Polybius also felt that his own subject, the expansion of Roman influence across the Mediterranean world, demanded a broad geographical scope.

Strabo wrote an extensive work called the Geographica. He claimed to have travelled widely, boasting that he was the most widely travelled of those who had dealt with matters geographical. He was rather critical of Polybius.

This short article can only give a very brief outline and give only a few examples of ancient thinkers and writers who contributed to the development of geography as an important area of explanation and ultimately as a subject in its own right. It is a fascinating area of study, I hope you will enjoy your own exploration sometime.

Suggested Further Reading

Roller, D., Ancient Geography: The Discovery of the World in Classical Greece and Rome (Bloomsbury)

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