Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.11.41 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.11.41

Francesco Prontera, Geografia e storia nella Grecia antica. Biblioteca di Geographia antiqua, 4.   Firenze:  Leo S. Olschki Editore, 2011.  Pp. 270.  ISBN 9788822260857.  €28.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Johannes Engels, Universität zu Köln (

[The Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

Francesco Prontera is one of the leading Italian experts on ancient geography. This book offers a collection of 18 of his studies published between 1993 and 2010. Taken together, these studies almost make up a short introduction to ancient Greek geography. Moreover, they are an important contribution to the debate on ancient Greek geography and history as 'twin disciplines'.1 Readers will appreciate that this collection includes quite recent publications (the latest ones date from 2009 and 2010). Prontera also has added to his original bibliographies some additional references. A first group of papers primarily focuses on ancient historiographical or geographical texts, while the rest deals especially with the history of visual representations of the known world or oikoumene or of different parts of it in maps (pinakes). Prontera rightly stresses that one cannot separate the development of ancient Greek maps from the contemporary descriptions of the world in texts. Significantly, geographia and geographein in ancient Greek have a double meaning. All contributions are in Italian. Restrictions of space preclude a thorough discussion of each of these studies in this review. Instead, I shall focus on some papers which appeared to be of special interest to this reviewer, although the other studies may be highly recommended, too.

I would like to start with two studies on Strabo's description of Asia Minor in his Geographika, (Dall'Halys al Tauro. Descrizione e rappresentazione nell'Asia Minore di Strabone, 45-61 (orig. 2000) and L'Asia Minore nella carta di Strabone, 197-223 (orig. 2005-06)). What are the characteristic features of Strabo's picture of Asia Minor's physical geography, its boundaries, and of the frontiers of different regions of this peninsula in the Geographika, books 11-14? Prontera notes that in his opening chapters of these books Strabo omits a precise delineation of the exterior boundaries of Asia Minor (in contrast to his descriptions of, for instance, Iberia or Italia). While the Black Sea and the Mediterranean easily mark the natural boundaries of Asia Minor to the north, west and south, Strabo chose as his eastern frontier an artificial line which he drew from the gulf of Issos in the south to Amisos in the north. He differentiates between regions on each side of the Tauros range and stresses the importance of other mountains and mountainous areas such as the Antitauros, mount Amasos or the Kaukasos. Clearly, Asia Minor's orographic and hydrographic structures are of key importance to Strabo's general view of this peninsula. Five out of 15 regions in Asia Minor which Strabo describes in some 'chorographical' detail do not touch the sea. In Strabo's view, Asia Minor (seen as an akte) comprises two of the four 'cis-Taurian' regions of the whole continent of Asia. Whereas earlier historians and geographers (Herodotos) laid more stress on the rivers (especially the Halys), the King's road and the Persian satrapies which structured Asia Minor, Strabo follows suggestions by Dikaiarchos and Eratosthenes and gives priority to the Tauros range. For Strabo clearly differentiates between ethne living on this side and on the other side of the Tauros. As in other parts of his geography, the exact current political boundaries between Roman provinces or client kingdoms are not always precisely delineated.

In general, ancient Greek maps as well as textual descriptions are characterized by a striking coexistence of outdated views and traditional geographical tenets (often mistaken views) and new fresh details. This holds true also of Strabo's description of Asia Minor in books 1-2 (on general issues) and 11-14 (on different regions). These books are commonly regarded as some of the best parts of the extensive 17-volume work, since Strabo comes from Amaseia in Pontos and knows some of the important cities and regions of Asia minor from autopsy. Strabo enriches in his text the earlier authoritative pinax of Eratosthenes (which primarily fixed important places on the map as precisely as possible) with additional pieces of information about history and cultural geography. Except for the Troas (where problems of philology on Homer dominate Strabo's text), quite recent historical notes on second and first century BC (even on some Augustan and early Tiberian) events are given priority.

Another interesting paper discusses the descriptions of mythical journeys of gods or heroes (Sulle rappresentazioni mitiche della geografia greca, 81-94 (orig. 2004)). In epic poetry, we usually do not find any precise notes on distances between landmarks or places of their travels. In the course of time, however, more and more famous mythological places were identified with real and well-known places. Hence, the distances of mythological or epic travels could now be established also. Nonetheless, mythical geography remained an important subject even in Hellenistic times, especially at the edges of the known world, the peirata gaies (see Strabo Geographika 1,1,4 C. 3,3). Prontera also reminds us of the relevant fact that already since Hekataios of Miletos and the early Ionian geographers scholarly criticism of mythical geography (esp. of Homer's geographical views) began, and flourished into the Roman imperial age.

In his study on Geografia e corografia: note sul lessico della cartografia antica, p. 95-104 (orig. 2006), Prontera deals thoroughly with the famous first chapters of Ptolemy's Geographike Hyphegesis. There he differentiates between his own views of geographia as a scholarly discipline and the tradition of cultural geography or chorographia.2 These chapters as well as many other passages in the Geographike Hyphegesis bear witness to Ptolemy's innovative role in defining, refining and firmly establishing technical terms of ancient geography.3 Compared with Eratosthenes' or Ptolemy's geographical terminology, Strabo's usage of key terms such as geographia (geographeo) and chorographia (chorographeo) especially in his methodological books 1-2 (the 'Prolegomena') is far from being completely consistent, because he sometimes simply takes over the terminology of his sources (Eratosthenes, Polybios, Poseidonios etc.).

Markianos of Herakleia was one of those late geographers whose work over the last years has justly attracted more intense scholarly interest (Marciano di Eraclea e la geografia greca, 105-112 (orig. 2007)). Markianos displays typical strong and weak features of late antique and early Byzantine Greek geographers. Markianos made Epitomai of earlier works written by Artemidoros of Ephesos (Geographoumena) and Menippos of Pergamon (Periplous-works). Markianos knew well the peculiar features and qualities of this Periplous-genre and he named as his mostly desired quality akribeia, that is precision in the correct localization of places or landmarks and reliable information about distances between key points of the oikoumene or certain parts of it. Markianos' Epitomai show close similarities to lists of toponyms (and also to Stephanos' influential Ethnika). Prontera discusses in some detail the important prooimion to Markianos' Epitome of Menippos (ch. 2-4 = Müller GGM I, 565-567). Among the Periplous-works, the earliest ancient Greek geographical genre, Markianos differentiates between descriptions of parts of the civilized world around the Mediterranean Sea, of the whole oikoumene, or of regions on the coastline of the exterior Ocean. He especially praises three precursors, Artemidoros of Ephesos for his Geographoumena, Menippos of Pergamon for his Periploi and interestingly in this context also Strabo for his Geographika. While Markianos deleted some parekbaseis that he considered superfluous, he also added new pieces of information to the original works. Prontera rightly notes an 'antiquarian' fondness in the epitomator Markianos which is clear from his liking for re-arranging earlier material, classifying it and supplementing some details. However, Markianos works only on the basis of his thorough knowledge of earlier geographical treatises. He does not undertake new personal journeys of exploration nor new scholarly measurements.

The publication of the so-called 'Artemidoros papyrus' some years ago has provoked one of the most lively debates on any ancient Greek source in the last decades. Of course, this piece of papyrus with a geographical text and the famous map is also of the greatest relevance to the general discussion on the relation of maps and texts in ancient Greek geography. Hence one wonders why Prontera in his paper Carta e testo nella geografia antica, 255- 263, originally published in 2010, quite simply states (256) that there was no example of an ancient geographical text which was illustrated already in antiquity by maps as an appendix (to the papyrus or manuscript) or between the text. In my view, in this paper Prontera should have explained more clearly his position in this discussion about the 'Artemidoros-papyrus'. For if we now most probably do know of an example of an illustrated edition of Artemidoros' work (or an Epitome of it?), we indeed need to think over again our opinion about the relation of texts and illustrations in ancient historical and geographical works.

I would agree strongly with Prontera that we should completely drop the anachronistic concept of a continuous and gradual progress of ancient geographical knowledge transmitted either in texts or in maps. For we observe in these texts as well as in the very few examples of maps a typical coexistence of earlier wrong tenets with correct more recent information. Even worse, in some discussions (e.g. on the shape of the Caspian Sea) wrong opinions dominate for an astonishingly long period of time. Prontera also raises the interesting question how great the difference was between ancient expert knowledge on geography and the contemporary conceptions of the general educated public. Prontera suggests that this difference may perhaps have been very significant. But was it even greater than in other more recent periods? In this context it may also be helpful to introduce the notion of 'common sense geography' (or implicit geographical knowledge) into the debate.

At the end of this useful collection one finds a selected index of names and subjects (265-266, certainly much too brief) and another not very helpful index of ancient discussed passages (267, only 11 lines!).

Table of Contents

Sull'esegesi ellenistica della geografia omerica, 3-14 (1993 orig.)
Identità etnica, confini e frontiere nel mondo greco, 15-28 (1999 orig.)
L'Italia nell'ecumene dei Greci, 29-43 (1998 orig.)
Dall' Halys al Tauro. Descrizione e rappresentazione nell'Asia Minore di Strabone, 45-61 (2000 orig.)
Ecateo e la carta di Erodoto, 63-72 (2001 orig.)
La geografia di Polibio: tradizione e innovazione, 73-80 (2003 orig.)
Sulle rappresentazioni mitiche della geografia greca, 81-94 (2004 orig.)
Geografia e corografia: note sul lessico della cartografia antica, p. 95-104 (2006 orig.)
Marciano di Eraclea e la geografia greca, 105-112 (2007 orig.)
Asìa, Hellàs, Sikelìa, Italìa: note sulla geopolitica nel V sec. a.C., 113-128 (2009 orig.)
Geografia nautica e rappresentazione litoranea della Magna Grecia, p. 129-147 (1996 orig.)
Sulle basi empiriche della cartografia greca, 149-165 (1997 orig.)
Centro e periferia nei mappamondi greci, 167-182 (2007-08 orig.)
La penisola iberica nella cartografia ellenistica, 183-196 (2006 orig.)
L'Asia Minore nella carta di Strabone, 197-223 (2005-06 orig.)
Strabone e la tradizione della geografia ellenistica, 225-238 (2007 orig.)
La Sicilia nella cartografia antica, 239-253 (2009 orig.)
Carta e testo nella geografia antica, 255-263 (2010 orig.).


1.   See on these 'twin disciplines' J. Engels, Geography and History, in: J. Marincola (ed.), A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography, Vol. 2, Oxford 2007, 541-552.
2.   On Ptolemy's prooimion as a key text of ancient Greek geography, see the recent edition of A. Stückelberger and G. Graßhoff (eds.), Klaudios Ptolemaios Handbuch der Geographie. Griechisch-Deutsch, Einleitung, Text und Übersetzung, Index, I. Teilband: Einleitung und Buch 1-4, II. Teilband: Buch 5-8 und Indices, Basel 2006, and vol. III: A. Stückelberger and Florian Mittenhuber (eds.), Ergänzungsband mit einer Edition des Kanons berühmter Städte, Basel 2009.
3.   U. Finzenhagen's now outdated study Die geographische Terminologie des Griechischen, Berlin 1939, has not been completely superseded until now; a new thorough study remains a desideratum. See however, on Ptolemy's terminology the useful chapter by J. Hindermann, Geographisches Begriffslexikon, in: Stückelberger and Mittenhuber, Ergänzungsband, 440-451, and on Strabo, see the indices in S. Radt, Strabons Geographika, Band 10: Register, Göttingen 2011.

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