Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.04.17

Stefan Radt (ed.), Strabons Geographika, Band 8. Buch XIV- XVII: Kommentar.   Göttingen:  Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2009.  Pp. 556.  ISBN 9783525259573.  €198.00.  

Reviewed by Johannes Engels, Universität zu Köln (

This volume comprises a full commentary on Strabo's Geographika, books 14-17. The Greek text had been published already in volume 4 of this major new critical edition of the Geographika (Göttingen 2005, with a German translation). Strabo of Amasia wrote the most detailed preserved ancient description of the oikoumene or civilized world during the reign of Augustus and the early Tiberian era in 17 volumes. Book 14 of this kolossourgia continues the description of Asia Minor and focuses on Ionia, Caria, Lycia, Pamphylia, Cilicia and important islands, such as Samos, Chios, Rhodes and Cyprus. The main part of book 15 describes India and briefly Parthia (Persia). Book 16 is on Assyria, Babylonia, Mesopotamia, Syria, Phoenicia, Palestine and Arabia. Book 17 completes the work with descriptions of Egypt, Ethiopia and the northern coastline of Africa. The whole project of a new critical edition of Strabo's geography in 10 volumes which started with volume 1 in 2002 has now reached an important stage with the last commentary volume. The remaining two volumes, vol. 9 on the medieval Epitome and the Chrestomathia and vol. 10 with indices, are expected soon.

As in the three preceding commentary volumes (5 to 7), once again in this volume readers will find very detailed and reliable philological discussions and excellent comments on all problems of textual criticism, the constitution of the Greek text and the apparatus criticus, the difficulties of finding and defining gaps in the text of our manuscripts, or additions by ancient and medieval scribes and scholars. Throughout this commentary Radt's very readable and precise German translation (see vol. 4, 2005) is helpful in giving clearly his exact understanding of each passage. Books 14-17 offer a wealth of historical, geographical and ethnographical pieces of information which, however, very often raise general historical, geographical and other problems. For Strabo's Geographika aim at summing up in an encyclopedic way the earlier geographical Greek tradition from the time of Homer, whom Strabo estimates as the archegetes of Greek geography. Obviously Radt has no intention to provide an introduction to the historical background of Strabo's work nor to discuss general problems of content thoroughly (see already Radt's remarks in vol. I, 2002, page XXI on the general aims of his commentary). On most passages of Strabo's text in books 14-17 Radt also restrains himself from attempting to give a complete overview of recent scholarly literature on those hundreds of settlements, regions, peoples, rivers, mountains etc. which are mentioned in these books. But one regularly finds at least references to the relevant entries in leading scholarly reference works, such as RE, DNP, or RAC and a few additional hints. Nevertheless, in sum there can be no doubt that this volume - and in general Radt's commentary - will be appreciated by almost every scholar as a basic philological tool for further special research on Strabo, and on a wide range of problems in classics and neighbouring disciplines which study the history and culture of those regions which are covered in books 14-17. I would like to focus now on several selected passages in and problems arising from these four books.

Artemidoros of Ephesos' Geographoumena rank among Strabo's most important sources. Radt convincingly demonstrates that Strabo used Artemidoros as a source not only on Asia Minor in book 14,1 but on the whole coastal area of the south-eastern Mediterranean and even on the Red Sea and the Arabian gulf (books 15-17). Given the importance of this predecessor, Strabo strikingly does not mention Artemidoros in his catalogue of andres endocoi from Ephesos (14,1,25 C. 642,8-11). Radt justly surmises (35) that Strabo may have been so familiar with Artemidoros' work that he sometimes simply forgot to mention him by name. Strabo's brief remarks on the final years of the Attalid kingdom (13,4,2 C. 624-625) and the following insurrection led by the pretender Aristonikos and supported by his followers who were called Heliopolitai (see Radt 49 on 14,1,38 C. 646,23) have been thoroughly discussed in recent scholarship, mainly by ancient historians. These studies often confront Strabo's remarks with epigraphic evidence.2

In general, Strabo often shows a pro-Roman and pro-Augustan bias. However, when the geographer presents his reasons for the intolerable piracy in Cilicia and the eastern Mediterranean (see Radt 112 on 14,5,2 C. 668,22 - 669,19), Strabo primarily blames the increasing weakness of the Seleucid kingdom and the worthlessness (oudeneia) of the late Seleucid kings for this crisis (cf. the same harsh criticism on the late Ptolemies in 17,1,12 C. 797,29). However, he also expresses here at least a moderate criticism of Roman eastern policy towards the Seleucid kingdom and this region, and even accuses the Romans of 'collaboration' with the pirates for years.3 In Strabo's view, Tarsos clearly ranks among the most important cities in Anatolia. The description of this city and the remarks about its famous philosophers are among the most interesting passages of book 14 (14,5,12-15 C. 673,17 - 675,18). Probably Strabo's direct source on Tarsos was one of his contemporaries and an esteemed companion (hetairos, 16,4,21 C. 779,30), the stoic philosopher Athenodoros. Radt's commentary might have stressed more clearly how significantly Strabo's notes on Tarsos and Athenodoros as the pro-Augustan ruler of the city (esp. 14,5,14 C. 674,7 - 675,6 with Radt 122-124), differ from the usual dry and scholarly 'hypomnematic' style of the Geographika by using several techniques of rhetorical and stylistic embellishment.4

Strabo's substantial description of India, probably the best extant classical account of India, fills the major part of book 15 (see Radt 140-209 on 15,1,1-73).5 In addition to his main literary sources on India and neighbouring coasts, the Indika and Periplous-works by Megasthenes, Nearchos and Onesikritos, in book 15 Strabo also mentions several minor authors of Indika. A substantial part of the fragments of these authors has been preserved by Strabo, and a close study of these texts may be useful for improving our general understanding of early Hellenistic geography and ethnography. For instance, the fragments of Orthagoras and Deimachos which are preserved in Strabo deserved a more thorough treatment in Radt's commentary, especially because F. Jacoby did not find the time to write a commentary on these texts, which he collected in FGrHist IIIC. However, the testimonies and fragments will be presented soon with English translations and commentaries in Brill's New Jacoby. On 15,1,27 C. 698,1 Radt is probably right to note (169) that with the phrase those "who after Alexander's time had come to the Ganges and Palimbothra" Strabo referred to Megasthenes and Deimachos. This reference should be added to the testimonies on Deimachos in FGrHist = BNJ 716.

Strabo has a well-known penchant for taking the predominant forms of settlement in a region as a direct indicator of the level of civilization. He prefers a settled way of life in towns (esp. poleis) to a nomadic existence or settled life in villages and fortresses. Hence Radt (270) justly points out that Strabo's short note on the Parthian capital Ktesiphon in book 166 contains a telling remark (16,1,16 C. 743,29-32): once merely a 'big village' (megale kome), Ktesiphon has in more recent times grown into an urban settlement (polis). When Strabo lists decisive criteria for an urban settlement, he significantly does not start from a Roman perspective with the city's legal status as indicated by a town council, local autonomy, urban magistrates etc., but in a 'Greek' way with the size of the settlement, a considerably great number of inhabitants, a generous equipment with typical urban buildings, and markets offering a wealth of goods. A close study of all passages which mention and describe dynamic settlement structures such as megalai komai, metrokomiai, komopoleis, and temple-states might be helpful to clarify Strabo's conception of urban settlements.

Many scholars of Jewish history and Judaism in the Hellenistic period have analyzed Strabo's detailed remarks in book 16 on Moses, Jewish religion and Late Hellenistic Jewish history. Radt is quite sure (321) that all major elements in this account are directly based on Poseidonios' remarks (probably in his Histories, but perhaps also in the separate treatise On the Ocean). However, we know of a considerable number of other Hellenistic authors on Jewish history and Judaism whose works were also known to Strabo. Hence the possibility cannot be ruled out that Strabo made use of their works in his description of Judaea and on Jewish religion and history, too.7 From a methodological point of view, Radt's commentaries on Strabo's descriptions of Arabia, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf in book 16 are very rewarding. Either directly using Agatharchides of Knidos' On the Red Sea or via Artemidoros as an intermediate source, Strabo here gives an extraordinarily rich geographical and ethnographical account. Apart from Strabo's Geographika, we luckily know of two other close excerpts of this original work which are preserved in Diodoros' Historike bibliotheke (3,12-48) and several centuries later in Photios' Bibliotheke (cod. 250 p. 445b36 - 460a16 Henry). If one carefully compares Strabo's account with these texts, it is possible to correct some difficult passages in Strabo's text or to understand other remarks much better.

Book 17,1,1-54 C. 785,13 - 821,11 comprises Strabo's detailed description of Egypt which is partly based on autopsy, since Strabo had been living in the late 20s B.C. in Alexandria for several years and had visited other famous 'touristic' sights.8 Strabo's description of the city of Alexandria (17,1,6-10 C. 791,14 - 795,27) is the most detailed and the best account of any city in the whole work. As usual, Radt's commentaries are useful for understanding the precise meaning of the Greek text.9 The two last chapters of book 17 (17,3,24-25 = C. 839,10 - 840,29) give a panorama of the political structure of the contemporary Roman Empire. These chapters are of the highest importance to our understanding of Strabo's historical and political views and as evidence in the ongoing discussion of whether we should regard the Geographika primarily as an Augustan (my view) or as a Tiberian work. It would have been worthwhile to comment on these topics in greater detail (see Radt 549-551).

The useful commentary is illustrated by several maps. In view of modern readers these are modern maps showing the most important places, peoples, rivers etc. mentioned by Strabo. However, these maps are not helpful for getting a correct idea of Strabo's own spatial conception of the regions which are described in books 14-17. To give only one telling example, Strabo mistakenly held that the Caspian Sea was a gulf of the eastern ocean, whereas maps 16 and 17 show the correct geographical situation. Map 15 on Asia Minor is missing in volume 8. See, however, map 14 in volume 7.


1.   In addition to Radt's commentaries to book 14 readers may also consult on the western and southern regions of Anatolia a recent commentary (with an Italian translation) by N. Biffi, L'Anatolia meridionale in Strabone. Libro XIV della Geografia, Introduzione, testo, traduzione e commento, (Quaderni di 'Invigilata Lucernis' 37) Bari 2009. For Biffi addresses general problems and issues which Radt deliberately excludes.
2.   Of German studies, for instance, see G.A. Lehmann, "Römischer Tod" in Kolophon / Klaros. Neue Quellen zum Status der "freien" Polisstaaten an der Westküste Kleinasiens im späten 2. Jh. v. Chr., Göttingen 1998, C. Mileta, "Eumenes III. und die Sklaven: neue Überlegungen zum Charakter des Aristonikosaufstandes," Klio 80, 1998, 47-65 and F. Daubner, Bellum Asiaticum. Der Krieg gegen Aristonikos von Pergamon und die Einrichtung der Provinz Asia, (Quellen und Forschungen zur antiken Welt 41) München 2006 (second edition).
3.   See for a historical interpretation of this remarkable passage A. Primo, "Valutazioni critiche di Strabone e Posidonio sul dominio di Roma," Studi Ellenistici a cura di Biaggio Virgilio XIII, Pisa - Roma 2001, 199 - 232 and J. Engels, "Posidonius of Apamea and Strabo of Amasia on the decline of the Seleucid kingdom," in: K. Erickson et al. (eds.), The Sinking of the Anchor. A Conference on the Late Seleucid Kingdom, (Exeter, July 14-17, 2008) forthcoming Stuttgart 2010.
4.   See also on this passage J. Engels, "Athenodoros, Boethos und Nestor: 'Vorsteher der Regierung' in Tarsos und Freunde führender Römer," in: A. Coskun (ed.), Freundschaft und Gefolgschaft in den auswärtigen Beziehungen der Römer (2. Jahrhundert v.Chr. - 1. Jahrhundert n.Chr.), (Inklusion / Exklusion Bd. 9) Frankfurt am Main 2008, 109-132.
5.   Readers may also consult the Italian translation and commentary by N. Biffi, L'Estremo Oriente di Strabone. Libro XV della Geografia. Introduzione, traduzione e commento, (Quaderni di 'Invigilata Lucernis' 26) Bari 2005, especially on broader geographical, historical and ethnographical issues. With regard to the island of Taprobane (Sri Lanka, 15,1,14-15 C. 690, 31- 691,8 and Radt 153) see also S. Faller, Taprobane im Wandel der Zeit. Das Sri-Lanka-Bild in griechischen und lateinischen Quellen zwischen Alexanderzug und Spätantike, (Geographica Historica 14) Stuttgart 2000.
6.   Book 16 was translated into Italian and provided with a thorough commentary some years ago by N. Biffi, Il Medio Oriente di Strabone. Libro XVI della Geografia. Introduzione e commento, (Quaderni di 'Invigilata Lucernis' 19) Bari 2002. There readers may find useful remarks supplementing Radt's always reliable philological commentaries.
7.   See, for a short list of these authors, J.Engels, "Syrien, Phönikien und Judäa in den Geographika Strabos von Amaseia (Strab. Geog. 16,2,1-46)," in: M. Karrer and M. Meiser (eds.), Die Septuaginta - Texte, Theologie, Einflüsse, Internationale Konferenz, (Kirchliche Hochschule Wuppertal, 23.-27 Juli 2008) forthcoming Tübingen 2010. Radt's opinion, however, was supported in a thorough study by K. Berthelot, "Poseidonios d'Apamée et les Juifs," JSJ 34 (2003), 160-198.
8.   Readers who are interested in archaeology, Egyptology or general geographical topics should consult also J. Yoyotte and P. Charvet, Strabon. Le voyage en Égypte: un regard romain, Paris 1997, M. Knight, A Geographical, Archaeological, and Scientific Commentary on Strabo's Egypt (Geographika, Book 17, sections 1-2) , (Diss. New York University 1998) Ann Arbor 1999, and N. Biffi, L'Africa di Strabone. Libro XVII della Geografia. Introduzione, traduzione e commento, (Quaderni di 'Invigilata Lucernis' 7) Modugno 1999.
9.   Perhaps one may add, for instance on C. 791,22 (Radt 413), with regard to the spectacular findings of recent campaigns of underwater archaeology F. Goddio - M. Clauss (eds.), Ägyptens versunkene Schätze, Ausstellungskatalog Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland Bonn, München u.a. 2007 (with rich illustrations).

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