Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.11.04

H. Sonnabend (ed.), Mensch und Landschaft in der Antike: Lexikon der historischen Geographie.   Stuttgart:  J.B. Metzler, 1999.  Pp. 660.  ISBN 3-476-01285-9.  DM 98.00.  

Reviewed by René S. Bloch, Princeton University (
Word count: 1943 words

This book is to be welcomed as a very valuable dictionary on historical geography in antiquity, the first of its kind. It admirably fulfills its goal to be a "Sachwörterbuch" both of historico-geographic terms and of sources and methods relevant to this field. The book offers about 220 well-written articles, which range from "agriculture" to "war" and from "biography" to "tourism." Most of the articles are mini-essays over two pages long, and each article is followed by a short bibliography. Some 50 authors contributed to the dictionary, and, due to the naturally uneven quality of the articles, it is -- as so often the case with reviews of dictionaries -- not easy to judge the book as a whole.

Historical geography, the study of the geographies of past times, is obviously an interdisciplinary field covering a multitude of areas: geography and history, but also sociology, economics, politics and more. The chronological span of the dictionary is equally large: it ranges, as the preface optimistically promises, "principally from the 9th century BCE to the 6th century CE." The lemmata are listed in alphabetical order, but there is a helpful categorization of the articles into 19 subfields (x-xii). A large number of articles (37) deal with sources and methods of historical geography. These include entries on "inscriptions," "seals," "geography of religions," "ethnography" and "demography." Equally detailed attention (39 articles) is given to topics pertaining to geography and topography (e.g. "river," "desert"), and to geology and geomorphology (e.g. "earthquake," "volcano"). Other important areas included in the dictionary are politics, society and administration (32 articles, e.g. "democracy," "colonization"), agriculture (16 articles, e.g. "wood," "hunt"), architecture (16 articles, e.g. "building material," "temple"), trade and communication (13 articles, e.g. "navigation," "bridge") and religion (11 articles, e.g. "mythology," "pilgrims"). The editor of the book, Holger Sonnabend, who teaches ancient history at the University of Stuttgart, points out in his (too) short preface that historical geography deals with the interrelations between humans and nature. As much as space influences humans, Sonnabend writes, humans leave their imprint on geography (v). These interrelations between humanity and nature are the main focus of the dictionary. While this is a conventional approach to historical geography, it is new territory in the field of classics (see below).

Since geography is not a static arrangement, but is constructed, it is always inseparable from history. And history is always also geography since it takes place in space. Historical geography is thus a branch of both history and geography, while also claiming more and more to be another discipline, complete in itself. It relies on literary, epigraphic, numismatic and archaeological sources. A consequence of its interdisciplinarity is that the boundaries of historical geography are not very clear, and, due to the eclectic nature of the field, it comes as no surprise that historical geographers have always been in constant search of a definition of their identity.1 The task of definition is not made any easier by the fact that historical geographers often do not limit themselves to reconstructing the geography of an area at one given moment in time. Situated on the academic borderland between geography and history, historical geography not only focuses on the study of space and the study of time, but also tries to reconstruct the phenomena which happen within these categories and, in addition, inquires into the nature of the main instrument of historical change, human beings. This, of course, makes one ask the audacious question whether not all classicists are in one way or another historical geographers ...

The dictionary presents numerous excellent articles on geographical matters stricto sensu: "river," "island," "volcano," "earthquake" and many more. In fact, Mensch und Landschaft is particularly strong in strictly geographical lemmata. But the dictionary also tries to do justice to the premises of historical geography in more phenomenological articles. Thus the entry on e.g. "medicine" (328-330) does not primarily intend to give a survey on the history of medicine in antiquity but focuses on the interrelations between humans and space with regard to medicine: it is thus of interest that during an epidemic in Selinus, the Greek philosopher Empedocles ordered the diversion of a river which he understood as the source of the pathogenic agents of the disease (Diog.Laert. 8.70). The same article makes a point of the fact that all the sanctuaries of Asclepius known to us have in common an affinity to water, which might be explained by the function of water in the healing cult. The article on "war" (272-80) points out the influence of geography on the positioning of armies, the methods of battle and the strategies of how to defend a city. Military aims are mainly connected to geographical issues, and so are, in the end, peace treaties ("peace": 157f.). The article on "trade" (210-12) does not focus, in agreement with the intentions of the dictionary, on economic questions, but rather on the role of the trader as a mediator of important knowledge about foreign countries and societies.

Beginning with Hecataeus of Miletus, the author of a geographic as well as a historical work, geography and history were often intertwined already in antiquity. The entry on "historical geography" by E. Olshausen gives a short survey of the history of historical geography (for a more detailed survey one could consult Olshausen's very valuable introduction to historical geography in antiquity2) and sees its actual founder in Polybius, who explicitly used geography as a means to understand history (cf. Pol. 4.38-46 on the geopolitical features of Byzantium).

Some interrelations between humans and geography have explicitly been noticed by ancient authors, others have not. Thus the negative influence by human beings on nature seems to have escaped observation. As the article on "ecology" (378f.) argues, even the locus classicus on erosions, Plato, Critias 110df., does not mention the actual reason for the erosion of Attica, namely humankind. By contrast, the idea that the geographical environment affects the character of its inhabitants, i.e. that the physical body and character of a people can be explained by the nature of the surrounding region, was eagerly noticed and defined by ancient authors. The article on "anthropogeography" (31f.) deals with this, not without putting an emphasis on the dangers which this approach entailed.

Some articles are very similar in content to the respective entries in Der Neue Pauly; sometimes one even finds a virtual dialogue between the two dictionaries. While the entry on "amphitheater" in Der Neue Pauly argues that theaters were often built at the edge of a city because outrages could then be more easily controlled, the article on "amphitheater" in Sonnabend's dictionary, clearly responding to this explanation, casts doubt on this argument. But more important is that the article in Mensch und Landschaft is structured in a way that responds to the leading matters of historical geography: geographic diffusion, topography and interrelations with the environment. Scholars interested in historico-geographic questions about amphitheaters should first look at the entry in Mensch und Landschaft before consulting a broader dictionary.

This is true for many more entries. But, unfortunately, not all contributors deal equally well with the intentions of the dictionary, and some articles simply do not confront any of the principal questions of historical geography. Some of the entries could just as well come from any general dictionary on antiquity (e.g. "democracy": 98-99), and the decision to include several articles with no reference to the main questions of the dictionary is an editorial mistake. Some entries could have been of high historico-geographic interest but are of little help because of their brevity, such as the entries on "art" and "architecture." Artifacts can be read as an important source for the reconstruction of ancient landscape (299), and one could wish for more information on this aspect.

Geography, history and thus also historical geography do not mirror a static picture, but one that is in constant process of becoming something new. The dictionary takes this into account: the five pages on e.g. "river" are also a short history of the role of waterways in ancient cultures. But on the other hand, the reader is more than once struck by the simplistic nature, and therefore limited usefulness, of quite a few statements with regard to what changed between the times of the Greeks and the Romans: "The Greeks were enthusiastic about nature"(372); "The Romans generally believed that the world was created for the use of the human" (373); "The Romans [...] did not develop an ethnocentric approach in their understanding of foreigners" (155). Fortunately, things are more complicated.

I was positively surprised that a great deal of attention is given to religious topics. Religion is usually not of primary interest to historical geographers. The dictionary has several entries on the geographic connotations of religious phenomena. These include useful and inspiring accounts of "rituals," "cult architecture," "religious propaganda" and "gods." Some of the arguments, though, may sound a bit odd to readers: for example, the early religion of the Romans, about which so little is known, is confidently depicted as an agricultural and aniconic religion with the numen as its main and impersonal power.

The article on "geography of religion" briefly mentions the phenomenon of the Jewish and Christian diasporas, but since diaspora is an excellent example of religious historical geography, it should have received its own entry. Unfortunately, Greco-Roman Judaism is barely an issue in Mensch und Landschaft. The six pages on cult architecture deal with the religious buildings of the Greeks, the Romans, the Celts, the cult of Mithras and the Christians: nothing on the temple in Jerusalem or the architecture of ancient synagogues. The spare comments on ancient Judaism that do occur tend to be problematic: the statement that Jewish proselytism led to the foundation of many new communities all over the classical world (296) is more than questionable.

Holger Sonnabend is known for his stimulating work on ancient geography and ethnography. His 1986 dissertation on Roman ethnography of the Egyptians and Parthians3 has been followed by a series of German works on ancient ethnography of other peoples. While it is true that ancient ethnography is very much a la mode these days, it is also true that this area was very well established already a long time ago by such classicists as Eduard Norden and Karl Trüdinger. Things are somewhat different with the large domain of historical geography, which as a field has a fairly long tradition but seems to have stimulated the interest of many classicists only recently -- despite the fact that the study of the geography of the classical civilizations (and also that of the land of the Bible) played an important role in the development of European historical geography (see especially the work of Philipp Klüwer [1580-1622]).

While the first issue of the Journal of Historical Geography in 1975 solicited "the writings of scholars of any disciplinary provenance who have something to say about matters of geographical interest relating to past time,"4 only very few articles concerned with the ancient world have been published there, and therefore it has become as little a reference for classicists as other journals on historical geography. Classicists working on ancient geography went, it seems, their own way. In 1995 the journal Orbis Terrarum, which deals exclusively with historical geography in the ancient world, was inaugurated. Edited by E. Olshausen, E. Simon and H. Sonnabend, it is complemented by Geographica Historica, the publication-series of the "Stuttgarter Kolloquium zur Historischen Geographie" (which started meeting already in 1980). In spite of its weak points, the new dictionary on historical geography in antiquity can thus be understood as a very successful product of this new and intense occupation with historical geography among classicists.


1.   Cf. Historical Geography: A Methodological Portrayal, ed. D. Brooks Green, Savage 1991; R.A. Butlin, Historical Geography: Through the Gates of Space and Time, London 1993.
2.   E. Olshausen, Einführung in die historische Geographie der alten Welt, Darmstadt 1991.
3.   H. Sonnabend, Fremdenbild und Politik: Vorstellungen der Römer von Ägypten und dem Partherreich in der späten Republik und frühen Kaiserzeit, Frankfurt a.M. 1986.
4.   Journal of Historical Geography 1 (1975), preface.

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