Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.01.25

Giusto Traina (ed.), Studi sull'XI libro dei Geographika di Strabone. Con la collaborazione di Alessio Antonio De Siena e Bernadette Tisé. Studi di Filologia e Letteratura 6.   Galatina (Lecce):  Congedo Editore, 2001.  Pp. 197.  ISBN 88-80863-95-9.  EUR 18.08.  

Contributors: Claudia A. Ciancaglini, Alessio Antonio De Siena, Roberto Nicolai, Bernadette Tisé, Giusto Traina, Cosimo Damiano De Luca

Reviewed by Johannes Engels, Universität zu Köln (
Word count: 1806 words

During the last century most scholars used Strabo's Geographika as a treasure-trove to access the opinions of earlier Greek geographers and writers. A low assessment prevailed of the literary qualities of this Augustan historian and geographer. However, several recent monographs and collections of articles on Strabo's Historika Hypomnemata, a work composed as a continuation of Polybios's Histories, and his Geographika have argued for a reappraisal of Strabo's literary talent.1 His views of the Mediterranean world and Asia Minor in the Augustan era, for example, appear to be far more complex than some scholars had believed.2 The author Strabo considered himself a member of the Eastern elite within the empire of Augustus. He felt a kinship and loyalty not only to the Pontic kingdom, his native land, but also to the flourishing world of the Greek cities of Asia Minor, and overall to the Augustan empire with its new constitutional order, the Principate. Strabo maintained the view that a monarchical rule of the Roman empire was the only alternative. In Strabo's view, the vast empire with its large population groups and ethnic mix dominated by the Romans could be united and ruled only through a monarchical constitution.

It is common knowledge that Strabo's geographical treatise focuses on the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor. This region has been thoroughly studied by R. Syme in his posthumous monograph on Strabo and in a very useful collection of studies entitled Strabone e l'Asia Minore.3 Some of these studies partly overlap with papers in Traina's collection on Book 11 of Strabo's Geography. Strabo claims that his description aims to supersede earlier attempts by Eratosthenes, Polybios, and Poseidonios to describe the whole civilized world. At least in Book 11, however, Strabo only rarely succeeds in fulfilling this claim. The regions described in this book were more heavily influenced by the indigenous traditions of Asian nomads and Iranians than by the Greek and Roman world. On the northern and eastern edges of the Augustan empire, Rome's proud claim to rule the whole world clearly clashed with basic geographical and political facts. Roman generals and geographers only began to delineate the great expanse of the Asian continent.

At present, F. Lasserre's edition, which is used by the contributors to Traina's collection, offers the most reliable text of Book 11 of the Geographika.4 While three maps helpfully illustrate the individual papers, they often simplify important topographical features of the regions they show. Thus, readers are advised to consult the more detailed set of maps in the Tübinger Atlas des Vorderen Orients (TAVO) and the new and excellent Barrington Atlas.5 Although various useful commentaries on other books of the Geographika have been published in past years,6 a modern scholarly commentary on Book 11 remains a desideratum. A thorough treatment, for example, of the complex philological, historical, and geographical problems does not exist. Given the present state of scholarship, Traina's collection of articles is a welcome preliminary study to any future commentary. While every paper in this collection contributes to recent studies on Strabo, there are significant differences in the degree to which individual papers help to elucidate central themes of Book 11.

The collection begins with a very detailed article by Claudia A. Ciancaglini entitled "Sciti, iranici, nomadi: problemi di etnonomia in Strabone" (pp. 11-83). Her remarks are of particular value to scholars researching problems in the fields of linguistics and Indo-European languages. Her extensive discussion begins with a short passage in Strabo (11,8,2 C. 511) in which the geographer reports on the fall of the Graeco-Bactrian kingdom (about 129-128 B.C.). It was destroyed by invasions of nomads, especially by the Yüeh-chih. Strabo's short remarks, however, are a key source in providing information about the names and origins of these nomad tribes of Central Asia, as well as their ethnic structure and their linguistic interconnections. Strabo, who probably relies on Apollodoros of Artemita as his source,7 gives the names of four different tribes. Ciancaglini's well-balanced analysis of the Chinese sources reporting about these nomads (pp. 17-22) is a solid contribution to our present knowledge. To evaluate the reliability of these Chinese sources, Classical scholars are advised to ask their fellow linguists and Sinologists for expert advice. According to Ciancaglini, Strabo most likely contracted two separate waves of invasion of nomad tribes into one. The Σαράκαυκαι and the Πασιανοί were the first to attack the Greek kingdom, followed by the Ἄσιοι and the Τόχαροι (or the Τάχαροι according to the manuscript tradition). Strabo was completely accurate when he noted a close linguistic connection between the Bactrian and the Sogdian languages. This observation has been substantiated further by the recent publication of some important inscriptions (pp. 40-41).

Alessio Antonio De Siena, "Medea e Medos, eponimi della Media" (pp. 85-94), uses as his starting-point a short passage (11,13,10 C. 526) in which Strabo as a learned author discusses current etymologies of the geographical name "Media" to introduce his general description of this land. De Siena concludes that in Archaic and Classical sources a derivation from Medea as the eponymous person prevails, whereas in Hellenistic times an alternative was favoured by many authorities who derived the name Media from Medos. In this learned discussion, Strabo most probably drew upon Medeios of Larissa, a minor historian from the time of Alexander the Great (11,14,12 C. 530 = Medeios FGrHist 129 F 1, but cf. also Hekataios FGrHist 4 F 132 and Herodotos 7,62,1 on the etymology of Media).

Cosimo Damiano De Luca, "I papiri di Strabone e gli 'unplaced fragments' di POxy 3447" (pp. 155-160), gives an overview of the comparatively small number of published papyri on which passages from Strabo's Geographika are preserved: PL/III 294A, PKöln 8, POxy 4459 and POxy 3447. He notes that not all 'unplaced fragments' of POxy 3447 reveal passages taken from book 9 of the Geographika. The small number of papyri testifies to the restricted circulation of manuscripts of Strabo's Geographika from the 1st to 3rd centuries A.D. Not a single passage derived from Book 11 has survived or been handed down to us on papyrus. It is not clear, then, how far De Luca's paper contributes to our understanding of this particular book in the Geographika. In my view, the same critical observation also applies to some sections of the studies of Ciancaglina and De Siena, though they both address important philological problems. Concerning those themes central to Book 11, the three remaining papers in Traina's volume are of greater interest.

Roberto Nicolai, "Strabone e la campagna partica di Antonio. Critica delle fonti e critica del testo" (pp. 95-126), discusses Strabo's notes on Marc Antony's campaign against the Armenians and Parthians in the 30s B.C. According to Lasserre and other scholars, Strabo's main source for these notes would have been his own detailed description of these campaigns in his universal history, entitled Historika Hypomnemata. Nicolai, however, maintains that Strabo relied not only on Eratosthenes' geographical treatise, but also on several almost contemporary historical sources, such as Q. Dellius' monograph on these wars. Moreover, Strabo probably had direct access to these sources and did not merely know about them through Poseidonios as an intermediate source. Nicolai also compiles a useful list of those passages in Book 11 where Strabo, quoting earlier sources, provides the names of these authors (p. 112-126). Finally, he also supplies several important suggestions as to the constitution of the Greek text. For instance, in 11,13,4 C. 524, Nicolai proposes to keep the wording of the manuscripts Ἀριανῶν and to reject currently proposed emendations, such as Ἀρμενίων (Nöldeke) or Ἀλβανῶν (Lasserre). On the phrase οἱ περί τινα and the following names of persons, I refer readers also to R. Gorman's recent detailed study.8 In Strabo's lifetime, the expansion of the Roman and Parthian empires had brought about considerable growth in historical and geographical knowledge which, unfortunately, has left only a few traces in the description given in Strabo's Book 11. These rare passages often deal with the lives and memorable deeds either of members of the Eastern ruling dynasties or of leading Romans. One may interpret this as an indication of Strabo's biographical interest in the lives of οἱ ἐν ταῖς ὑπεροχαῖς (1,1,23 C 13). Despite all the shortcomings of Book 11, however, one need not perhaps subscribe to Syme's severe criticism of Book 11 as an "untidy piece of composition".9 In my view, Nicolai should have discussed 11,9,3 C. 515 = FGrHist 91 F 1 in greater detail since this passage is central when discussing the question of how Strabo's earlier historical work is intricately connected with his geographical treatise.10

Bernadette Tisé, "Strabone, l'ecumene romana e la monarchia macedone" (pp. 127-140), justly emphasizes that Strabo regarded the Augustan empire as the culmination of the historical process involving the rise and fall of earlier empires, which had been guided by πρόνοια. Strabo only very rarely criticizes individual Romans for certain actions or for abusing their position as members of the elite of the ruling power.11 In Strabo's view, Alexander's empire was the most important, if not the only, legitimate precursor of the Augustan empire. All in all, an extremely positive image of Alexander prevails in the Geographika.12 Tisé, however, also discusses some passages illustrating the ruler's crudelitas. On this topic and other dark sides of Alexander's personality, one can perhaps find the most significant passages in other Books of Strabo.

Giusto Traina, "Strabone e le città dell'Armenia" (pp. 141-154), discusses problems of urban geography and the geography of other settlements directly related to the essence of Strabo's ideas concerning human or cultural geography.13 Indeed, according to the geographer, the number and the flourishing condition of the urban settlements (namely of the polis-type) immediately indicate the level of civilization and culture of a particular region. In his description of the oikumene, the ideal of living a settled life in a region of thriving cities is juxtaposed with the nomadic or the barbarian way of life characterized by villages, castles, and palaces as predominant forms of settlement. Admittedly, Strabo mentions Artaxata, Arxatea, and Tigranokerta among the cities of Armenia (cf. 11,14,6 C. 529 and 11,14,15 C. 532 with Traina's commentaries pp. 150-154). The general picture, however, that his description of the Armenian settlement structure conveys is misleading. Armenian literary sources, archaeological excavations, and surveys give a more accurate picture of the level of Armenia's urbanization. Contrary to Strabo's descriptions of the two regions (cf. 11,3,1 C. 499) in late Hellenistic and Augustan times -- as far as we know -- there was actually no striking contrast between Iberia, allegedly a region of many urban centers, and Armenia, which is described by Strabo as being almost without important cities.

A selective bibliography (pp. 161-176)14 and indices of ancient sources, personal and geographical names, and important key terms (p. 177-191) are helpful tools to make use of this interesting collection of studies on Strabo's Book 11.


1.   cf. K. Clarke, Between Geography and History. Reconstructing the Hellenistic World, Oxford 1999, J. Engels, Augusteische Oikumenegeographie und Universalhistorie im Werk Strabons von Amaseia, (Geographica Historica, Bd. 12) Stuttgart 1999, D. Dueck, Strabo of Amasia. A Greek Man of Letters in Augustan Rome, London/ New York, 2000.
2.   cf. most recently D. Dueck, H. Lindsay, S. Pothecary (eds.), Strabo's views of his world (in preparation).
3.   cf. R. Syme, Anatolica. Studies in Strabo, Oxford/ New York 1995 and A.M. Biraschi & G. Salmeri (eds.), Strabone e l'Asia Minore, Perugia 2000.
4.   F. Lasserre, Strabon. Géographie. Tome VIII (Livre XI), CUF, Paris 1975. A new critical edition of the Geographika has been announced by St. Radt and his colleagues of the Groningen-team.
5.   cf. W. Orth, Diadochenreiche um 303 v. Chr., Wiesbaden 1992 and J. Wagner, Die Ostgrenze des Römischen Reiches 1.-5. Jh. n. Chr., Wiesbaden 1992, and see also maps 6, 88-90, 92, 96-99 in R.J.A. Talbert (ed.), Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, Princeton 2000.
6.   cf. most recently J. Yoyotte & P. Charvet, Strabon. Le voyage en Égypte. Un regard romain, Paris 1997 and N. Biffi, L'Africa di Strabone. Libro XVII della Geografia. Introduzione, tradizione e commento, Modugno 1999.
7.   cf. on Artemidoros and his Parthian Histories V.P. Nikonorov, Apollodorus of Artemita and the Date of his Parthica Revisited, in: E. Dabrowa (ed.), Ancient Iran and the Mediterranean World, (Electrum, Vol. 2) Krakau 1998, 107-122.
8.   cf. R. Gorman, οἱ περί τινα in Strabo, ZPE 136, 2001, 201-213.
9.   R. Syme, Anatolica. Studies in Strabo, Oxford 1995, 29, but see Nicolai p. 121.
10.   cf. my remarks in Augusteische Oikumenegeographie, 1999, 76-114.
11.   Some passages in the Geographika, however, also reveal critical views held by Strabo. On these passages see recently A. Primo, Valutazioni critiche di Strabone e Posidonio sul dominio di Roma, in: Studi Ellenistici XIII a cura di Biaggio Virgilio, Pisa/ Roma 2001, 199-232.
12.   cf. already J. Engels, Die Geschichte des Alexanderzuges und das Bild Alexanders des Grossen in Strabons Geographika - Zur Interpretation der augusteischen Kulturgeographie Strabons als Quelle seiner historischen Auffassungen, in: W. Will (ed.), Alexander der Grosse. Eine Welteroberung und ihr Hintergrund, Bonn 1998, 131-172.
13.   cf. P. Pédech, La géographie urbaine chez Strabon, Anc Soc 2, 1971, 234-253.
14.   The following titles might be added to the bibliography: D. Braund, Georgia in Antiquity. A History of Colchis and Transcaucasian Iberia 550 B.C. -- A.D. 562, Oxford 1994, O. Lordkipanidze, Das alte Georgien (Kolchis und Iberien) in Strabons Geographie. Neue Scholien, (Schwarzmeerstudien, hrsg. von W. Schuller, Bd. 1) Amsterdam 1996, M.J. Olbrycht, Die Aorser, die Oberen Aorser und die Siraker bei Strabon. Zur Geschichte und Eigenart der Völker im nordostpontischen und nordkaukasischen Raum im 2. und 1. Jh. v. Chr., Klio 83, 2001, 425-450.

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