It is a commonplace for scholars of encyclopaedic works to bemoan that such texts are often lightly and sporadically mined for nuggets of information to give context to some other body of textual or material evidence. This is certainly the case with Strabo’s Geography, a complex text that is deeply embedded in its historical, geographical and intellectual context. It is this context that Roller aims to illuminate with his much awaited commentary volume, A Historical and Topographical Guide to the Geography of Strabo. The Guide serves as a companion volume to Roller’s own recent translation of Strabo,1 which itself relies on Stephan Radt’s recent text and philological commentary (2002-2011). Together, the three offer a powerful new base for future scholars of Strabo’s work and of ancient geography in general.
As a companion volume to his translation, the Historical and Topographical Guide directs the reader to the detailed introduction of the previous book rather than duplicating it here.2 Instead Roller begins with a brief preface outlining the basic information on Strabo’s life, work, and sources in a few paragraphs as well as giving the important note that the Guide, like his translation, transliterates most toponyms rather than “translating” them into the toponym in common English usage—more on this later. The preface is followed by a list of abbreviations and three maps depicting (1.) the Ancient World as Known to Strabo (constructed by the system of parallels and landmarks established in Strabo’s text); (2.) the Inhabited World (Oikoumene) (a modern topological map of the relevant parts of the African and Eurasian continents); and (3.) the Geographical Extent of the Books of the Geography (a line map of the Mediterranean and Near East showing which books of the Geography correspond to the respective geographical areas). Maps 1 and 2 are reprinted with slight changes in label and key style from Roller’s translation, while Map 3 is a new and useful addition to this volume. These few pages are followed by 998 pages of commentary on the 17 books of Strabo’s geography, organised by book and then according to the standard tripartite notation, 30 pages of bibliography, a 60 page index of passages cited, and a 75 page general index.
Each of Strabo’s books receives a 50-80 page chapter of commentary. Each chapter begins with a paragraph of introduction noting the overall coverage of the book, any major digressions or structural items of interest (such as the summary of Roman history and power at the end of Book 6), and how the description fits geographically with the rest of the Geography, e.g. “Book 9 examines the east central part of the Greek peninsula. It connects to Book 8 just east of the Isthmos, to Book 7 at the mouth of the Peneios River, and to Book 10 in the west” (p.496). Following this, the chapters proceed through a section-by-section commentary on each of Strabo’s books. As expected from a historical and topographical commentary, most of the sections explain historical references in the text, discuss ethnographic and cultural references, give biographical information for historical figures and Strabo’s sources, and provide many geographical and topographical notes, including the meanings of Strabo’s chosen toponyms, alternative and modern names of locations, the modern locations of sites where they are known, and geographical differences between the ancient and modern world—especially regarding coastlines. Where relevant, and especially in Strabo’s methodological books (Books 1 and 2), the commentary expands on Strabo’s narrative technique and occasional peculiarities of narrative structure, explains his geographical methodology and matters of technical geography (to which Strabo frequently alludes or refers, but which are by and large not the focus of his work), and discusses Strabo’s engagement with both his sources and his audience.
All of these subjects are well supported with cross references to relevant passages elsewhere in the Geography, as well as to a wide variety of ancient sources. Fragments of earlier geographical works, such as Eratosthenes and Poseidonius, are noted throughout. Other geographical works, such as Pliny, Pomponius Mela and Claudius Ptolemy, are cited sparingly and only when important to the point under discussion. The same is true of modern scholarship. Roller generally cites only the most important or more recent work on a given subject. Where possible he refers only to a single relevant topographical handbook (such as Cohen’s volumes on Hellenistic settlements),3 where references to more detailed studies and archaeological reports of particular various sites or regions can be found. Although more extensive citation of parallel references in other geographers and of secondary literature would be beneficial, it is difficult to imagine how that could have been achieved consistently without expanding the commentary into multiple volumes.
Strabo’s text abounds in detail, often including the only reference to a given place or people; Roller’s Guide does an excellent job of illuminating the text in a very readable fashion. Roller does not get bogged down in debates about contentious locations. To take a few examples from a small part of Book 16, he notes that the location of Thapsakos (16.1.21, et al.) is unknown (p. 894), notes that attempts to locate the Gordyaian cities (16.1.24) are speculative (p. 895) and gives a general location for Tigranocerta (16.1.23; 11.14.15) (p. 683). In each of these cases, a larger bibliography could have been included and various positions and arguments summarised. Readers desiring such detail will need to refer to the French or Italian multi-volume commentaries.4 At times, Roller chooses to cite more general or accessible works of secondary scholarship rather than the most recent or specific. In two of the listed cases, Roller cites Syme’s posthumous collection, Anatolica: Studies in Strabo (1995), where a reference to a more recent paper summarising the current state of the debate would be preferable.5
One notable feature of Roller’s translation is his desire to adhere closely to Strabo’s style and his spelling of toponyms.6 This allows Roller to preserve orthographic peculiarities and variations within the text, but as Engels noted in his review of the translation, it occasionally hinders the readability of the translation. This manner of translation also has the effect of rendering the text less familiar; a beneficial feature to the extent that it dispels a false sense of familiarity. Nevertheless, the use of transliterated names reduces the odds that readers unfamiliar or inexperienced with Greek will encounter familiar toponyms and thus acts as a barrier to their comprehension of the text. The commentary goes a considerable way to ameliorating that choice. Roller expands on these transliterated names, giving modern locations, correspondances and ancient alternatives, and explains unfamiliar usages that would usually be translated in a more familiar way (such as “Alexandria next to Egypt”, 1.1.12, p. 41, which H.L.Jones’ Loeb translation translates as “Alexandria in Egypt”, eliding an ancient geographical conception of “Egypt” as comprising the Nile valley, narrowly defined). His commentary illuminates the more obscure parts of his translation in an engaging and readable fashion that makes that work more accessible to undergraduates or scholars from other disciplines. I do not imagine that very many instructors will be assigning the entire commentary as a reading, but those who teach courses on classical geography should find that assigning passages from the commentary alongside passages from Roller’s translation will be beneficial to their students’ ability to engage with Strabo’s text.
While the text of Strabo’s Geography has long been accessible in English, students and scholars have been reliant on commentaries in a variety of European languages. This state of affairs is fine for classical scholars, but it hinders the use of Strabo by advanced undergraduates and scholars without a reading knowledge of other European languages. Strabo’s text is lengthy, complex and deserving of more careful contextualization than its frequent decontextualized citations would suggest. Roller’s commentary provides invaluable historical and geographical context for any reader referring to Strabo in brief and greatly expands the utility of his important new translation of the text. The Historical and Topographical Guide to the Geography of Strabo should be a first-stop for anyone consulting Strabo briefly or reading the Geography in depth, although it does not replace the French and Italian commentaries for specialists, or Radt’s German commentary for philological matters. I would expect to see Roller’s two volumes in any university library attentive to classical studies, and on every syllabus dealing with Strabo in depth.
1. Roller, The Geography of Strabo (Cambridge 2014). Reviewed for BMCR by Johannes Engels: BMCR 2015.05.15.
2. The detailed discussion on Strabo and his work appear in Roller’s translation, pp.1-34.
3. Cohen, Getzel M., The Hellenistic Settlements in Syria, the Red Sea Basin, and North Africa (Berkeley, 2006); The Hellenistic Settlements in Europe, the Islands and Asia Minor (Berkeley, 2010); The Hellenistic Settlements in the East from Armenia and Mesopotamia to Bactria and India (Berkeley, 2013).
4. Full publication details of the French, Italian, and German editions can be found on Sarah Pothecary’s site, Strabo the Geographer.
5. For Tigranocerta and Gordyene, now see Michał Marciak, Sophene, Gordyene, and Adiabene: Three Regna Minora of Northern Mesopotamia Between East and West. Impact of Empire 26, Brill Publishers, Leiden; Boston 2018, published since the Commentary.
6. Roller, Geography of Strabo, pp. 30-31.