gigatos | June 12, 2022
Strabo (Latin Strabo) was a Greek geographer and historian who was born in Amasea in Pontus (now Amasya in Turkey) around 60 BC and died around 20 AD.
Strabo has left us very little information about his life. He came from an illustrious family of Amasaea, a family which had an important role in the political life of the kingdom. Strabon followed during his youth many teachings and Xenarchs are the teachers that he quotes, all Greeks, grammarians or philosophers. Although none of them was a Stoic, Strabo was influenced by this thought, as he himself mentions in Book II of his Geography. He moved to Rome probably just before the death of Caesar, which makes him an additional source for the study of Roman history under Augustus. In addition to his numerous stays in Rome, he made other trips, notably to the rest of Italy, to Gaul, but also to Africa (Ethiopia, Egypt in particular). His trip to Egypt and more precisely on the Nile was made in company of Aelius Gallus, Roman prefect who was one of his great friends. His numerous trips allowed him to accumulate enough documentation to write Geography, a work in 17 books, organized by region. Based on a scientific and ethnographic approach, this work appears as a notable work for its time because of its scope. It is also known that Strabo wrote, before the Geography, historical commentaries in 43 books. Of this work written between 37 BC and the beginning of the Geography, only a few fragments remain. Finally, Strabo does not hide his admiration for Rome. One can consider that “Strabon thus accepts to put the Greek erudition at the service of the Roman conquest”. The details of his life after 20 B.C. are obscure, but he seems particularly familiar with Judea, suggesting that he may have spent time at the court of Herod I the Great. It is possible that he spent his last years around Naples or in his hometown of Amasea at the court of Pythodoris of Trales, the putative granddaughter of Mark Antony. He would have corrected his Geography until around 23 AD, approaching the age of 90.
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Of Strabo”s historical work, only a few fragments remain, and historians do not agree on the composition of this work:
Sixteen of the preserved fragments describe events that took place between 107 and 37 BC. Strabon would have composed a universal history since 146 BC, when Polybius stopped his own work Histories. Strabon himself confirmed that his work begins at the end of Polybius” work and that the work consisted of four introductory books, the content of which – unspecified – was perhaps a summary of earlier events.
He seems to have stopped his work in 37 B.C., that is to say eight years before the return of Octavian to Rome and the end of the civil wars (time of the fall of the Roman Republic). In his work, he probably used not only Polybius but also other sources such as Timagenes, Asinius Pollion or Posidonius.
Strabo”s Geography is divided as follows:
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Strabo believed that the fortune of Greece was partly due to its maritime location, and sketched a correlation between the advancement of a people in civilization and its contact with the sea.At the same time, insisting on the fact that geography alone cannot explain the greatness of a people, he asserted that Greek civilization rested on the interest of its citizens in the arts and politics.
If his work sometimes takes up previous texts of several centuries, his knowledge of the Roman law of the various cities also makes him an essential source to describe the beginnings of the Romanization in Gaul and in the Iberian Peninsula. He shows, in books III and IV in particular, the development of a new culture in these regions, following the partial acculturation of the populations. He also describes some elements of landscape and common life, including the shape of houses, which for example in Gaul belgica (Gallia belgica) were according to him “isolated buildings and round shape, formed of ais and wicker racks, and topped by a roof very high and probably finished in point. Strabo formally situates the Sekanese to the east of the Saône. He devotes a few lines (Geography, 4,2,3) to the events in Gaul during the revolt of the Gauls and confirms the importance of the numbers that were gathered by Vercingetorix. He underlines the topographical identity of the two sites of Gergovie, where Caesar suffered a defeat, and Alesia: Gergovie “on a high mountain”, Alesia “also on a high eminence, but surrounded by mountains and two rivers”.
Strabon”s work remained in the shadows under the Roman Empire, to which Strabon was nevertheless somewhat attached.
It is only from the 5th century that it begins to be quoted, and that Strabo becomes the archetype of the geographer.
In the 15th century the Italian scholar Guarino of Verona translated the entire work of Strabo, thus contributing to its rediscovery. Classical historians such as Wilamowitz recognized the interest of this work, as well as its literary value, which even allows him to describe a place where he did not go better than Pausanias, who had visited it.
Thanks to his numerous travels, Strabo also contributed to the list of the Seven Wonders of the World. He states in particular:
“Babylon is situated in a plain. Its walls are 365 stadia and 50 cubits high in the interval of the towers, which themselves are 60 cubits high. At the top of this rampart a passage was made wide enough for two quadrigas to pass each other. It is understandable that such a work has been ranked among the Seven Wonders of the World.
– Geography , XVI, 1, 5 (“Assyria, Adiabene and Mesopotamia”).
In the volume VII of his work Geography, Strabo indicates that the chronologist Apollodorus of Athens recalls that thanks to the account of Elien we know the existence of an island-continent located at the west of the Atlantic Ocean, called Meropides by Théopompe. The latter describes Méropide in the volume VIII of his Philippics: “Europe, Asia and Libya were as many islands around which circulated the Ocean; apart from this world existed a single continent of an immense extent, populated of large animals; the men who lived there, the Méropes, had a double stature of ours, and the duration of their life lengthened in the same proportion. One found among them large and numerous cities, particular flowers, and laws quite different from those which govern us “.
In France, Strabo”s work was translated at the request of Napoleon Bonaparte at the beginning of the 19th century when he was consul. Other translations were subsequently made by historians and specialists in ancient languages.
A street in Carthage, located near the Punic ports, bears his name.
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Nature and utility of geography according to Strabo
“Geography is a matter for philosophers”. It is on this quotation that his work begins. He recognizes the double function of geography, a first one purely intellectual, it brings its encyclopedic knowledge on the phenomena of the sky, the earth and the sea. For Strabo, astronomy and geometry are essential to geography in order to locate places with precision. Technology, mathematics and physics are therefore important for the understanding of the world around them. But according to him, geography is not only theoretical, it brings its share of knowledge to the political life and geopolitics of the world. It is therefore essential for a government to direct its political relations in the best possible way.
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His description of Europe and the world
His vision is quite similar to that of Eratosthenes. Strabo”s travels are mainly in the Mediterranean Sea, Asia Minor and the Aegean Islands. But most of his sources come from ancient or recent geographical literature.
Strabo speaks first of the outer ocean, which surrounds the inhabited land, forming an island. It enters the interior through four gulfs: the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea.
Strabo also describes Europe in great detail, from east to west. He follows a regional description of Europe, of which he knows the existence. He keeps directional indications with a west-east and north-south orientation. The journeys constitute for him an important source, allowing him to locate shores, capes, creeks, cause of navigation accidents.
Strabo offers this description of Africa: “On our sea, the coastline is a straight line, almost all the way from Alexandria to the Columns of Heracles, except for the Syrtes. As for the oceanic coastline, from Ethiopia and over a certain length, it can be considered as parallel to the first one; then from these southern regions, it rises up in a sharp promontory which slightly overflows outside the Columns drawing a kind of trapezium”. Libya (name given to Africa by the Greeks) is divided by the Greeks into 3 zones: the Mediterranean coastline considered prosperous, the oceanic coastline, moderately habitable and the central region which is a desert of stones and sands. Libya is the least known of the three continents, the people are very little known to the Greeks since very few military expeditions were organized there. For example, Strabo enumerates with great difficulty the names of some tribes, while locating them approximately.
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– J. B. Harley et David Woodward (eds.), Cartography in prehistoric, ancient, and medieval Europe and the Mediterranean, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1987, 599 p.
– Christian Jacob, Géographie et ethnographie en Grèce ancienne, Paris, A. Colin, 1991, 183 p.
– Paul Pédech, La géographie des grecs, s.l., 1976, 200 p.
– Andrew Erskine (323 – 31 BC, Rennes, Presses Univ. de Rennes, 2004, 726 p.
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Consult the list of editions of this work
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