Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.09.41

Richard Talbert, Kai Brodersen, Space in the Roman World. Its Perception and Presentation. Antike Kultur und Geschichte, Bd. 5.   Münster:  LIT Verlag, 2004.  Pp. 160; b/w figs. 19.  ISBN 3-8258-7419-2.  €14.90.  

Contributors: Klaus Geus, Alfred Stückelberger, Benet Salway, David Hunt and Richard Talbert


Reviewed by Peter Fibiger Bang, The Saxo Institute, History Section, University of Copenhagen
Word count: 1701 words

In his Geography Strabo makes the observation (1.1.16) that "for the most part, geography exists for the needs of states." The notion that geographical knowledge is shaped by political power and cultural perceptions, rather than being merely a neutral, scientific, more or less precise representation of the world, has helped change the study of ancient geographical representations significantly within the last few decades. It has been a key concern of this research to go beyond identifying the shortcomings and mistakes of the ancients. Ancient geographical texts and representations are not approached as near, or far from, perfect versions of our own cartography; they are studied as systems of knowledge in their own right, reflecting the world view of the Greeks and Romans. One thinks of Claude Nicolet's L'inventaire du monde: Geographie et politique aux origines de l'Empire Romain (1988) or Chr. Whittaker's Frontiers of the Roman Empire (1994). Both studies attempted to show how Roman geographical knowledge was shaped by the political and administrative interests of the state and how that knowledge, in turn, helped organise space and define the world of the Romans. Politics and the state, however, are not at the centre of interest in this collection of essays. The key concern of Space in the Roman World is more broadly anthropological and cultural, along the lines already explored by one of the editors, Brodersen in his fundamental study of map-making in the ancient world, Terra Cognita. Studien zur römischen Raumerfassung (1995). The focus of the present collection is on geography as a theoretical discipline and as a body of practical itinerary literature and what these types of knowledge tell of cultural perceptions in the Greco-Roman world.

The first part contains two papers examining the scientific geographical tradition as it is embodied in the work of its two leading representatives, Eratosthenes of Cyrene (c. 285-194 BC), the head of the Library in Alexandria, and Claudius Ptolemaeus, the second century AD master mathematician. In his contribution, Klaus Geus discusses the character of the geographical achievements of Eratosthenes. The old Greek was the first to construct a geographical map of the inhabited world, the oikoumene, with a grid pattern based on parallel circles and meridians. But, as Geus observes, it differed from modern geometrical maps in that the grid did not "consist of infinite lines, nor [did] it have an astronomical basis" (p. 19). This made it impossible to aspire to modern levels of precision. But that was, in any case, not what Eratosthenes aimed for, according to Geuss. Rather, the grid served a didactic purpose which enabled Eratosthenes to produce a simple cartographic description of the world that was easy to memorise and reproduce (p. 25).

The next article is written by Alfred Stückelberger. He is currently one of the leaders in the Bern collaborative project to produce a long overdue, new critical edition and German translation of Ptolemy's "Handbook of Geography". In his paper Stückelberger points out how Ptolemy was the first to produce a map where locations "were to be presented in a uniform system of co-ordinates with details of the degrees" (p. 32). The map was to be based on fixed points located by astronomical observations. Ptolemy accomplished this task with remarkable precision for latitudinal positions, but failed to get the longitudinal co-ordinates right. This was not due to any intellectual failing; the problem was lack of available astronomical data, which would not be forthcoming for another millennium and a half. Instead, Ptolemy had to compromise and make do with the much more unreliable and imprecise information he could obtain from travellers' accounts and itineraries. The result was, just as for his predecessor Eratosthenes, to create a much elongated image of the oikoumene. In that sense, both Alexandrian geographers remained trapped within the tradition of knowledge generated by ancient travellers; and it might be worthwhile to ponder why not a more constructive interrelationship ever arose between the sophisticated mathematical and astronomical models developed by the scientists and the practices of travellers in the ancient world. One reason may be that existing knowledge made it possible to master the Mediterranean which, in spite of forays beyond, remained at the centre of the Greco-Roman world and its mental horizons. Another and related issue may be the character of the intellectual tradition, institutions of knowledge and state-sponsorship. It would have been rewarding if the detailed technical analyses of these papers had been complemented by questions of that sort, just as is being done at the moment for Greek science by Geoffrey Lloyd.

This leads to the second part of the book, "Roman Itinerary Literature". The first paper, written by Benet Salway, is a painstaking and detailed discussion of sea and river travel in Greek and Latin itineraries. Among the interesting points to emerge from this study is the conclusion that sea travel was a Greek domain in the sense that, at least to judge from our admittedly fragile transmission, Greek was the language in which most itineraries for sea travel were written; and even when they were composed in Latin, the Greek unit of the stade was generally preferred to the Roman mile as the measure of distance. Latin itineraries were primarily concerned with land-travel, but Salway makes a convincing case that some of the land-routes would have included travel by boat across some stretches. Given the advantages of sea transport (not only speed, as Salway mentions, but also cheapness) compared to land travel in the pre-industrial world, it is surprising that itineraries describing land-routes are much more copiously transmitted. This may be a coincidence of the process of transmission. Another possibility, the one adopted by Salway, is that it is a reflection of the organisation of travel in the ancient world. Sea travel was a more collective enterprise, he explains. Individual travellers would hire space on board a ship and depend on the captain to bring them around. The circulation of sea itineraries would have been restricted to the narrow group of specialists sailing the ships. Land travel was a different matter; it left greater scope for the individual traveller and the itinerary literature would therefore have found a wider readership, Salway suggests.

The next paper takes us from technical literature into the realm of cultural perceptions and religious emotion. David Hunt presents an analysis of the literary account written by a Christian woman, Egeria, relating her visit from the western provinces to Constantinople and the Holy Land in the late 4th century AD. Egeria's narrative provides an interesting parallel to an account written by a Bordeaux pilgrim in the 330s. That account was treated recently by Jas Elsner in JRS (2000). Elsner noted a striking contrast within the travel narrative between a geography shaped by the political organisation of the Roman Empire before reaching Palestine and a new sacred geography inside the Holy Land oblivious to the presence of the empire. Egeria's story of her pilgrimage leaves a different impression, one where empire and religion have merged. Constantinople now forms part of the pilgrimage and has acquired holy places of its own. Throughout the narrative, political and sacred geography continue to co-exist and intertwine. The contrast between these two narratives is an interesting reflection of the developing relationship between state and church in the late antique world, as Hunt observes. But the contrast also serves as a clear illustration of the various possible ideological positions offered by the new religion; it could act in unison with the imperial authorities. But, as Augustine was to insist only a few years later, the purpose of empire and church could never become identical. The goal of the Christian lay outside the temporal order represented by Rome. In that respect, the new religious and ideological order shows some interesting parallels with the classicising movement within Hellenic élite culture of the 2nd and 3rd centuries which we normally term the second sophistic (cf. S. Swain, Hellenism and Empire 1996). There we find Greek authors developing a cultural universe reaching back to the models of the old Greek city-states before the rise of Rome. This cultural strategy provided the Greek speaking élites with a powerful, partly independent, ideological base from which to establish an influential position for themselves within the imperial order.

The last part of Space in the Roman World is dedicated to the so-called Peutinger map. According to established scholarly opinion this diagramatic representation of the Roman world is a mere reflection of the information contained in the written Latin itineraries. Richard Talbert sets out in his contribution to challenge that view and show the map to be much more than the graphic representation of the linear way of conceiving routes found in the written itineraries. The extremely elongated shape of the map was the result of a "considered" choice which served artistic and ideological purposes. The map was not intended for practical use. Instead, it collected a wealth of geographical details which only the already well-informed and well-educated could fully appreciate in a dazzling celebration of the rich variety of the Roman world. This observation brings Talbert to question the current view "that Roman cartography [n]ever attained much development" (p. 131); the rich fabric of the Peutinger map could not have developed "ex nihilo", he insists.

This seems a fitting note on which to conclude the volume. One of the questions to emerge with particular clarity from this collection of essays is the contrast between a highly developed theoretical discipline based on geometrical calculation and astronomical observations and a practical sphere informed by a linear conception of space. Why did not the former manage to penetrate the latter to a much greater extent than actually happened? The book would have benefited from having had a proper scholarly introduction trying to tie the different contributions into a coherent whole. Instead, the reader is offered only the shortest of prefaces. From that we learn that the core of the book comprises some of the lectures given to a panel at the 2001 Roman Archaeology Conference. The papers, in other words, represent an interim report of work in progress from the field of ancient historical geography. But it is an honest interim report with much interesting, thought provoking and often difficult material being presented.

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