Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.09.24

Nicola Biffi, Il medio oriente di Strabone. Libro XVI della Geografia. Introduzione, traduzione e commento. Quaderni di Invigilata Lucernis, 19.   Bari:  Edipuglia, 2002.  Pp. 347.  ISBN 88-7228-356-6.  EUR 18.00.  

Reviewed by Johannes Engels, Institut für Altertumskunde - Alte Geschichte, Universität zu Köln (
Word count: 2259 words

Over the last few years, Nicola Biffi has published several important contributions to the study of Strabo's geographical treatise, including commentaries on books 5-6 and on book 17 of the Geographika.1 The book under review is the first comprehensive commentary on book 16 and also includes an Italian translation. At the moment, for the Greek text of book 16 the 19th-century critical editions provided by G. Kramer and A. Meineke are still indispensable; only the first volume of the new Groningen edition has been published, which covers the Greek text and a German translation of books 1-4.2 Biffi gives a list of the passages where his text differs from Meineke's edition (p. 31-32), and he defends his decisions later on in his commentary. In some instances I should prefer to agree with Biffi, while concerning other passages the opinions held by earlier scholars still seem preferable.3 There can be no doubt that Biffi's commentary will become a basic tool for future research in Strabo's geographical work. First, it will take some time until the commentary on book 16 in the series of the Groningen edition will be published. Moreover, and this is the more important point, Biffi's commentary is of an extensive scope, covering geographical and topographical problems (such as questions as to where to locate exactly a place named or described by Strabo, problems of identification of ancient place-names with modern settlements, rivers, mountains etc.) historical and philological matters, and many other topics, whereas Radt and his colleagues have openly declared their intention to keep their commentary as short as possible and to focus on philological issues.4

Biffi provides a concise introduction to book 16 of the Geographika (p. 7-29). At the centre of his work we find the Greek text of book 16 with a facing Italian translation (p. 33-127). Extensive commentaries follow (p. 129-319). Biffi has dispensed with giving an apparatus criticus below his Greek text and with immediately identifying in his Greek text and in the Italian translation the numerous quotations from earlier poets, historians, geographers and other authors which Strabo likes to include. Instead, he refers his readers to these passages in his commentary. Even glancing over the pages of Strabo's work, one is struck by the dense net of quotations and references to earlier works. I presume that most of Biffi's readers will be able to check his elegant Italian translation with the Greek original. If not, some of them perhaps would not suspect that Strabo's Hellenistic prose is not always easy to translate, for the geographer deliberately omitted most rhetorical devices which were common in his time to embellish a prose text. In translating Strabo some difficulties are due to later interpolations in the original version. Other problems, on the contrary, stem from omissions of parts of the text. Besides, we find passages with rare expressions which leave any translator or commentator in difficulty. To give just one example, in 16,1,19 C. 745 Strabo names the Adiabeni σακκόποδες5 meaning literally sack-feet (in Italian Saccopodi, in German Sackfüßige) whatever that may refer to. One also finds strange customs and hunting practices in book 16, such as Strabo's description of how to hold a bow and to draw the string when hunting elephants in Africa in a team6 or his remark on the common people of a certain region who usually sleep on the roots of trees.7

Strabo himself calls his Geographika a work of enormous and almost encyclopedic size. When writing a commentary on such a work, any commentator should first strive to give his readers every necessary aid to understanding the text itself. Biffi succeeds in doing so not only in his commentary but also with his translation. Second, ancient parallel sources and testimonia should be given as completely as possible. This task is fulfilled by Biffi too. In his discussion of controversial scholarly interpretations and in his references to secondary literature Biffi restrains himself in order to keep his book of manageable size. He usually lists quite recent literature, and his readers get an idea of where to find further information on particular problems.8

In his introduction (p. 7-29) Biffi starts by giving an outline of the vast parts of the oikoumene covered by Strabo in book 16 compared with the subject matter of other books. Book 16 treats of Mesopotamia and Syria, the coastal areas of Phoinicia and Palaestine, the western coast of the Persian Gulf, the Arabian peninsula, and the coastline of ancient Egypt and Ethiopia adjacent to the Red Sea. In the Augustan era when Strabo wrote his geography, the Parthian empire was Rome's only contemporary rival. Given the importance of the parts of the oikoumene bordering the territories controlled by this rival, one might have expected a very extensive and detailed treatment. But in book 16 detailed descriptions of certain places or regions are more the exception than the rule. Obviously Strabo was less interested in the Near East, Arabia and Mesopotamia than, for instance, in Italy, Greece or especially in Asia Minor. Strabo deliberately describes the western coast of the Red Sea and the coastline of north-east Africa along with the Arabian peninsula, and he covers all of these areas in book 16 of the Geographika in the context of his description of the Near East and Mesopotamia, but not together with the rest of Egypt and Africa in book 17. This decision clearly reflects the views Strabo's main Hellenistic sources held on these parts of the oikoumene as well as his own opinion.

Significant details in the text of book 16 lead Biffi to the plausible conclusion that in all probability Strabo did not know any of the towns or regions he describes in this book from autopsy (Biffi p. 14-15). If so, in compiling book 16 the geographer had to rely upon earlier written sources or oral information provided by his contemporaries (e.g. friends of his years of study such as Athenodorus of Tarsus on Petra, Aelius Gallus himself or another participant in his expedition to Arabia) to a much higher degree than when he wrote other books of the Geographika (cf. books 5-6, 8-10, 11 or 10-12). Among Strabo's most important written sources for compiling book 16 one can enumerate Ktesias, some of the historians of Alexander's campaigns (Aristobulus, Nearchus, Polycleitus), and as his four main sources Eratosthenes, Artemidorus, Agatharchides and Posidonius (see Biffi p. 14-22). Concerning these sources the most remarkable thing may be the complete absence of two of the leading contemporary authorities on the regions that Strabo describes in book 16, king Juba II of Mauretania and Isidore of Charax (see below). The fact that Strabo's descriptions almost completely depend on written sources leads to some unexpected and somewhat illogical changes in the order of the regions treated. Some of them might be explained by an unexpected change of Strabo's main source (see Biffi's commentaries on chapter 16,4). Strabo appears to prefer the perspective of a periplous-author when he puts his focus on the coast-line and the harbour-towns of the eastern Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, while showing less interest in many regions of the interior.

From Strabo's methodological remarks in books 1-2 and from his descriptions of other parts of the oikoumene in books 3-17 one can learn that he held clear opinions on the main themes and the central focus of cultural geography as opposed to physical or mathematical geography. Criticising earlier geographical authorities, such as Eratosthenes, Polybius and Posidonius, Strabo developed his own views, and in writing book 16 he stuck to his overall concept. Hence, issues of physical geography only rarely are of interest to him. He is mainly concerned with the oikoumene as it was shaped by the common civilizing efforts of generations of people who inhabited certain regions. Therefore, in Strabo's opinion desert zones without important urban settlements and agriculture are backward regions, and a nomadic way of life is always a sign of a low level of civilization. These prejudices affect his descriptions of many regions and tribes in book 16.

As in other books of his geographical treatise in book 16 we find many historical notes on places, people or events related to the early empires of the Near East (the Assyrians, the Medes and Babylonians, the Persians) and -- of course -- to the empire of Alexander and his successors. For instance, some of the most detailed descriptions concern the capitals of these empires (see Strabo's notes on Babylon, Seleuceia, Apameia, Antiocheia, Ctesiphon, or Petra). As with the Greek cities in Asia Minor in books 12-14 Strabo again mentions illustrious men coming from distinguished towns of Syria, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia and Palaestine. He regards these men as his intellectual and social peers. Some of them he even calls his friends or acquaintances, like Boethus of Sidon 16,2,24 C. 757. Chapter 16,2 on Syria's frontiers, regions and ethnic groups ends with an excursus which perhaps can be called the most famous passage in book 16. Strabo writes on Moses as an ancient lawgiver, philosopher and the founder of the Jewish religion, and on later events and developments in Judaea and Palaestine from the exodus to his own days (see 16,2,35-40 and Biffi's commentaries p. 227ff). Most scholars -- including Biffi -- agree upon Posidonius as Strabo's main source for this excursus. Economic issues, such as the level of agriculture and typical products of a certain region, are often raised by Strabo in book 16. He likes to mention animals and plants which are characteristic of an area (see Biffi p. 22-27). Perhaps mainly with respect for his audience we also find several instances of mirabilia (cf. 16,2,17 C. 755 on a dragon and Biffi's commentary p. 200).

More than once Strabo pretended to supersede earlier descriptions of the oikoumene written by Eratosthenes, Posidonius and other geographical authorities by providing more recent, more reliable and more detailed information. Judged by his own high standards, however, in most chapters of book 16 Strabo fails to fulfill his promise. Apart from some stray notes and from his valuable report of the campaign which Aelius Gallus led into Arabia, most datable passages refer to events and situations before Strabo's lifetime, which are of importance primarily to a world of a literary educated readers. Book 16 closes appropriately with a philological discussion of the etymology and the meaning of the Erembians (see 16,4,27 C. 784-785 and Biffi's commentary p. 318). One should like to know more precisely to what extent Strabo's descriptions in book 16 are influenced by the fact that the early and Hellenistic history of these regions had been treated extensively by himself in his Historika Hypomnemata, a universal history in 47 books written in the 20's B.C. Biffi holds that -- as a general methodological rule -- Strabo did not intend to repeat himself on issues already mentioned in his historical work.9

Biffi also provides a list of persons, events and facts mentioned in Book 16 which can be securely dated within Strabo's own lifetime (p. 28). This is a remarkably short list, if one compares it with similar lists compiled on the basis of other books in the Geographika and with Strabo's above mentioned pretensions. The most astonishing -- and perhaps telling -- omission concerns the large-scale mission of C. Caesar in 1 A.D. to the eastern provinces. In the context of this expedition interest in the Near East, Armenia, Syria, Mesopotamia, Parthia and Arabia rose considerably among the members of the élite of the Roman empire, an audience Strabo claims to address in his prooemium (see 1,1,22-23 C. 13-14). In the context of C. Caesar's mission erudite descriptions of these regions were published, such as Juba's II works on Mauretania, Arabia and Assyria (see FGrHist 275) or the Parthian Stations by Isidore of Charax.10 Neither of them is mentioned by Strabo as a source for book 16. I agree with Biffi's convincing explanation of this fact (p. 28-29). Book 16 appears to have been completed some years before the expedition of A.D. 1 and the publication of the two treatises. Following Pais, Biffi thinks that Strabo interrupted work on the Geographika, which was already almost completed about 7 B.C. at the latest. If this hypothesis holds, it has important implications for the ongoing dispute as to when Strabo wrote his Geographika. I think Biffi is right when he presumes that Strabo compiled his geographical work in the early and middle Augustan era and that he added only some short notes in the early reign of Tiberius. In my view Strabo is an Augustan author. S. Pothecary, however, has recently revived the view that the bulk of the Geographika was written at one stretch between 17/18 and 23 A.D., and she thus calls him a Tiberian author.11

Biffi has provided his commentary with a reliable index of ancient place-names and personal names (p. 343-347). There is no general index of other interesting items and terms. He also adds two maps which have been taken from Della Geografia di Strabone libri XVII, volgarizzari da F. Ambrosoli (Milano 1827-1835). Unfortunately, these maps are not very helpful in illustrating the regions covered in book 16. Readers should consult the excellent maps included in the Tübinger Atlas des Vorderen Orients and in the Barrington Atlas.12 The printing of Biffi's commentary has been done diligently. I found only some minor misprints, for instance with German book-titles. Apart from its scholarly merits the low price of this volume makes it all the easier for me to recommend strongly not only reading Biffi's commentary but also buying it.


1.   Cf. N. Biffi, L'Italia di Strabone, Genua 1988, idem, L'Africa di Strabone. Libro XVII della Geografia. Introduzione, tradizione e commento, Modugno -- Bari 1999.
2.   See G. Kramer, Strabonis Geographica,Vol. III, Berlin 1852 and A. Meineke, Strabonis Geographica, Vol. III, Leipzig 1853. Cf. also S. Radt, Strabons Geographika. Mit Übersetzung und Kommentar herausgegeben von Stefan Radt, Band 1, Göttingen 2002. To this day, no edition of book 16 has appeared in the CUF series of Strabo edited by G. Aujac, F. Lasserre and R. Baladié. Thus, the most popular edition of book 16 today is H.L. Jones, The Geography of Strabo, VII. Books XV-XVI, (LCL 241) Cambridge Mass. -- London 1930 (repr. 1983). Apart from this volume there are two German annotated translations, the earlier one by C.G. Groskurd, Strabo. Erdbeschreibung in siebzehn Büchern, Teil 3, Buch XIV-XVII, Berlin -- Stettin 1833 (repr. Hildesheim 1988) and the other one based on Kramer's and Meineke's critical editions and provided by A. Forbiger, Strabos Erdbeschreibung übersetzt und durch Anmerkungen erläutert, Siebentes Bändchen, Buch 16 und 17, Berlin 19083.
3.   For instance, in 16,2,44 C. 764, Corais' and Meineke's suggestion to read Θεσσαλίαν instead of the reading of the manuscripts θάλατταν (preferred by Biffi) is an attractive emendation (see, however, Biffi p. 244-245). A.J. Letronne and C.G. Groskurd suggested that after θάλατταν a verb must have been omitted in the manuscript tradition. They proposed to insert ταπεινωθῆναι, and Groskurd, Strabo, p. 274 and note 2, translated the passage as follows: "denn vom versumpften Boden sei das Meiste durch Ausbrüche des Wassers aufgedeckt, das Meer aber gesunken".
4.   Cf. Radt's prolegomena to vol. I, p. XXI. For a specimen of the new commentary see S. Radt -- J.W. Drijvers, Die Groninger Neuedition von Strabons Geographika, vorgestellt anhand des Abschnittes über Troja, Studia Troica 3, 1993, 201-231.
5.   Cf. Biffi p. 160. Groskurd p. 225 note 2 proposed to emend σακκόποδες to σαυλόποδες, meaning Zartfüssler, because "die allgemeine Lesart Sakkópodes, Sackfüsse, ist entweder falsch oder unerklärbar". Meineke and other editors regarded it as a worthless gloss.
6.   Cf. 16,4,10 C. 772 and Biffi's comm. p. 282.
7.   16,4,19 C. 778: "molti del popolo si fanno un giaciglio con le radici degli alberi e vi dormono su" (Biffi p. 115 translation and p. 303 commentary). Jones (p. 347) translated: "most of the populace sleep on the roots of trees which they have cut out of the ground." Forbiger (p. 69) reminded his readers that G. Kramer had suggested deleting the two words τῶν ῥιζῶν. Thus, the passage would make better sense: "sie schlafen auf Bäumen, die sie (zu Lauben) ausschneiden."
8.   I should like to suggest a few bibliographical additions: on Agatharchides see recently D. Marcotte, Structure et caractère de l'oeuvre historique d'Agatharchide, Historia 50, 2001, 385-435. On Strabo's description of Babylon see now Tom Boiy, Laatachemenidisch en hellenistisch Babylon. Portret van een mesopotamische stad in een cultureel spanningsveld, Diss. KU Leuven 2000; on Mesene, Charakene and other regions of Mesopotamia cf. M. Schuol, Die Charakene. Ein mesopotamisches Königreich in hellenistisch-parthischer Zeit, Stuttgart 2000; for recent literature on Caesarea maritima and the buildings erected by Herod see A. Raban, Caesarea maritima, Leiden 1996 and E. Netzer, Die Paläste der Hasmonäer und Herodes' des Großen, Mainz 1999; on Antiochos of Askalon see also J. Glucker, Antiochos and the Late Academy, Göttingen 1978.
9.   Cf. for instance 16,2,40 C. 762 and commentary p. 237: Strabo has no intention of repeating in his geographical treatise any details on the dynastic quarrel between two brothers of the Hasmonean family, which he already had told in his Historika Hypomnemata (FGrHist 91 F 13-14). See on close similarities of both works Biffi p. 19-20 and 171-172, and J. Engels, Augusteische Oikumenegeographie und Universalhistorie im Werk Strabons von Amaseia, Stuttgart 1999, 90-114.
10.   For the text cf. W.H. Schoff, Parthian Stations by Isidore of Charax. An Account of the Overland Trade Route Between the Levant and India in the First Century B.C., Chicago 1914 (repr. 1989). N. Kramer has recently stressed the political and military character of the information provided in this short work. Isidore's Augustan audience had a special interest in this region, see N. Kramer, Das Itinerar Σταθμοὶ Παρθικοί des Isidor von Charax. Beschreibung eines Handelsweges?, Klio 85, 2003, 120-130.
11.   Cf. Sarah Pothecary, Strabo, the Tiberian Author: Past, Present and Silence in Strabo's Geography, Mnemosyne 55, 2002, 387-438.
12.   See Tübinger Atlas des Vorderen Orients (TAVO), maps B V 16.2 and 17 on Syria and Palaestine, B V 7-8 on the Near East and Mesopotamia, B V 21 on Egypt and B V 22 on North-East-Africa and the Arab peninsula, and several excellent maps in R.J.A. Talbert, Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, Princeton 2000.

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