Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.11.20

F.E. Romer, Pomponius Mela's Description of the World.   Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 1998.  Pp. 165.  

Reviewed by James Romm, Fordham University
Word count: 949 words

Of the three extant Roman redactors of Greek geographic lore, Pomponius Mela, Pliny the Elder and Solinus, Mela is the most curious and arresting. His De Chorographia, sometimes known by its alternate title De Situ Orbis, surveys in three short books the entire known world, keeping a keen eye out for its more bizarre and inexplicable phenomena and occasionally retailing items otherwise unknown in the periodos tradition. For example almost all ancient geographers, beginning with the sixth-century Ionians, speculate on the source of the Nile, but Mela records perhaps the most creative theory of them all: The river originates in the antichthonic continent lying south of the known world, and travels through conduits beneath Ocean to reach its wellsprings in upper Egypt; this explains its mysterious summer floods, since in the Antichthones the seasons are opposite those of the oikoumené (1.54). We can here detect elements drawn from other Nile theories and from miscellaneous Greek river-lore, but the peculiar synthesis appears to be Mela's own.

F.E. Romer here presents the first English translation of the De Chorographia since that of Arthur Golding in 1585. After so long a wait, it must be said, Mela's Latinless readers deserve better than what this volume gives them. Its faults lie not so much in the generally clear and accurate translation as in the accompanying notes and introduction, which will disappoint or even mislead those unfamiliar with Mela's material. The aforementioned discussion of the Nile is a good case in point. Romer has supplied no notes here, either to point out the seeming originality of Mela's preferred theory, or to show where three other theories have been lifted almost verbatim from Herodotus, or even to clarify why the Nile mystery needed solving to begin with. This last omission is particularly glaring since the problem of a Mediterranean river flooding in summer might not even present itself to a non-specialized reader, i.e. anyone who would consult an English translation of Mela rather than one of two good, recent Latin editions with commentaries (Parroni 1984 and Silberman 1988). In short, the very audience Romer's text seems designed to serve will here find themselves struggling through without guidance.

There are many passages better annotated than this one, of course, giving much useful background on Greek and Roman history, mythology and ancient scientific traditions. But the coverage is oddly inconsistent or imbalanced, with much space given to minutiae or to tangential points in preference to the kind of material central to Mela's genre. In his Reader's Note Romer claims that his notes will provide, among other things, "useful information that suits [Mela's] miscellany," but when, for example, they explore the Indic origin of the English word "suttee" (p. 74 n. 18), one feels that they have become more miscellaneous than useful. Citation of Mela's sources is also uneven; borrowings from Herodotus are sometimes noted and sometimes not, with a few extensive and important paraphrases entirely overlooked (Mela 3.85, e.g.). Because some of these borrowings are identified, the novice reader might well conclude, incorrectly, that passages not otherwise attributed are original to Mela.

In his introduction Romer makes much of the idea that the De Chorographia places its reader in the role of a traveler, and indeed he recommends that we plot our journey in a modern atlas as we peruse the text. To this end, Romer supplies modern equivalents for nearly all of Mela's toponyms, putting them in square brackets directly following each ancient place name. He gives little account of how these correspondences were arrived at, and some, it seems to me, cannot possibly be known with any certainty (indeed Romer himself follows some with question marks). Often, moreover, the mere attempt to situate Mela's waystations on a modern map seems untrue to the spirit of his genre, which delights in the murky vagaries of half-known distant places. Thus when we see the Fortunate Isles blithely identified as the Canary Islands (by way of Pliny, as Romer explains in a footnote, p. 130 n. 72), we might justly feel that a semi-mythic, non-scientific geography has been wrenched into the world of modern-day latitudes and longitudes. In most cases such equivalencies cause less distortion and can indeed be very useful, but one wishes they had been reserved for an appendix so as not to impinge so much on a reading of the text. (Silberman's Budé edition, which includes a set of maps plotting Mela's data on continents shaped to follow his own world picture, seems to me to offer the best possible way of dealing with the gap between ancient and modern geography.)

Romer's interpretation of Mela rests, as his introduction explains, on a new and complex assessment of the text's "literary premises," especially "the effect of melding the acts of writing, reading and traveling" (p. 30). To underscore this melding, Romer highlights linguistic usages like the geographic dative or the impersonal second person (si credas and the like), which to me seem standard for Mela's genre and unable to bear such thematic weight. Geographic treatises and even maps were conceived as 'tour guides' since Hecataeus' time, as the title Periodos Gés implies; Romer has not demonstrated that the De Chorographia takes any new steps in this direction. His purported "discovery of Mela the littérateur" distracts the reader from the simpler, more straightforward pleasure of Mela's text, that of surveying the earth in a glance and zooming in on its most bizarre, paranormal phenomena. The advent of an English translation of Mela now makes that pleasure available to non-classicists for the first time in four centuries, but those seeking a broader understanding of the author and his work are best advised to consult the French or Italian editions.

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