BMCR 2000.06.18

Geographica Historica. Ausonius Études 2

, , Geographica Historica. Ausonius Études 2. Bordeaux and Nice: Ausonius, 1998. 278. FF 298.

1 Responses

Before discussing the merits of the individual essays in this volume, this review begins with some of the broader questions raised by the entire volume. The study of ancient geography has always been relegated to a minor role among the various subdisciplines that collectively constitute Classical Studies. Although there is a minor industry of informal topographic studies, identifying Roman limites, Herodotean routes and ancient battle-fields, the vast majority of classicists could spend a life-time without paying much attention to the subject. This volume, laudably, does not attempt to rectify this marginalization in one go. Rather, as Arnaud notes in the Introduction (p. 23), the papers in this volume only attempt to demonstrate in concrete form the problems encountered by historians dealing with geography and the possibilities opened up by critical reading informed by an historical perspective. If the reader suspects that this promises both too much and too little, the reader is right.

In the first place, the volume lacks balance. The Hellenistic and Roman periods dominate completely. When, for example, Arnaud bemoans the inadequacy of current topographical lexica, he fails to mention the work of Siegfried Lauffer or Dietrich Müller. Why this is so isn’t clear, but the omission is discouraging. Of the fourteen contributions, not one is dedicated to the period before the fourth century BC. The Catalogue of Ships, the subject of a monumental recent study by Edzart Visser, is nowhere mentioned, while the broader subject of Mycenaean geography is completely absent. There is little consideration given to a whole raft of questions raised by colonization and the “orientalizing” period. Snippets of Homer and Thucydides pop up, as in Janni’s paper on cartography and sailing, and in Prontera’s short survey of Sicily in Greek geography, but there is no systematic study of any aspect of early Greek geography. Nor is the later empire in evidence. Among ancient geographical authors treated, Ptolemy looms large, the subject of three separate papers, yet there is no paper dealing with Pausanias. Habicht’s Sather lectures and Arafat’s excellent monograph on Pausanias are not even listed in the bibliography. Pliny gets two papers, but there is nothing on Hecataeus, Pomponius Mela or Stephanus of Byzantium. The volume is not a history of ancient geography, to be sure, but even as a set of discrete studies it displays remarkable biases and a notable lack of breadth.

Aside from the narrow focus of the volume, the central question of what exactly is historical geography remains not only unanswered but even unposed. Only one contribution in the entire volume, by Gaborit and Leriche, offers a hint of a definition of historical geography, a curious fact in light of the volume’s title. Given the lively work done by such scholars as Susan Alcock, John Bintliff, John Cherry, Jack Davis, to name only a handful, it does seem odd that none of the papers should address directly the question of geography and archaeology. Needless to say, none of the anglophone scholars mentioned above appear in any footnotes or bibliography. This is mainly, then, a collection of essays about selected ancient geographers, with a nod towards roads and excavation as well.

Despite these drawbacks, there are positive aspects of the volume. Pascal Arnaud’s Introduction, for example, makes a number of useful observations. Arnaud claims that geographic sources are often taken out of their cultural and historical context and are treated simplistically. Insisting on the heterogeneity of geographic writing in antiquity, Arnaud provides an excellent overview of the many genres that informed geographic writing, from didactic poetry to lexicography. He also emphasizes the literary production of geography, noting that particular instances were as much influenced by rhetorical concerns as empirical data and were modified as a result of compilation and transmission. All this may strike the reader as a healthy attack on the naïve excesses of nineteenth century positivism, yet there is a curious ambiguity in Arnaud’s writing. Rather than pressing these ideas further and offering, as it were, an archaeology of geography, Arnaud then turns his attention to such tried and true empirical concerns as Quellenforschung, toponomy and metrology. Arnaud even raises the prospect of being criticized for neo-positivism (p. 21), but acknowledging the charge is no rebuttal. Getting the details right is no substitute for providing an interpretive framework.

Raymond Chevallier’s contribution is a fourteen page essay covering the geography, topography, archaeology and history of Gaul. Any of these topics could produce a slew of monographs and it is hard to see what is to be gained by the inclusion of a survey that mentions, but cannot treat in depth, geographic writers, itineraries, archives, cartography, early travelers, ethnohistory, aerial photography, hydrography and many other areas of study. One questions the importance of being told that early illustrations conserve “l’allure de monuments disparus, comme le phare de Boulogne, détruit entre 1640 et 1644” (p. 28). The paper amply displays the range of sources and approaches that can be loosely connected under the heading of geography, but the general problems enunciated at the end of the paper do not, in fact, emerge from this survey so much as cling to it.

Pietro Janni’s essay on cartography and sailing (l’art nautique) is one of the papers this reviewer most eagerly anticipated. Janni’s 1984 study of maps and the genre of the periplous introduced the notion of spazio odologico, a very useful concept for understanding how people in antiquity thought about geography and travel. In the current essay Janni tackles the specific question of whether or not ancient seafarers used charts. His answer is that they didn’t. He examines the four literary passages that seem to suggest the use of charts: Hdt 3.136, Anth. Pal. 9.559.3-5, Prop. 4.3.40 and Appian, BC 4.13.102. Each he finds ambiguous, causing him to ask whether there is any reason even to suspect that they would have used charts. He finds no evidence in technical writing of the equivalent of a Varro or Columella, and concludes that there was no scientific writing attached to cartography. Similarly, combing novels and poetry for incidents where we might expect naval charts to appear, he finds instead their total absence. In Lucan’s Pharsalia, for example, Pompey asks his pilot explicitly how he knows exactly where he is while at sea in relation to the land. The pilot’s answer is that astronomy allows him to fix his position. No maps are mentioned. Janni is too smart a scholar not to know that the argument from silence is always dangerous, but here the silence is overwhelming. Further, Janni also explains how the prevailing winds of the eastern Mediterranean made it possible for sailors to get by using tail winds for deep sea crossings and shore breezes for coastal cruising. Charts, quite simply, were unnecessary.

Patrick Counillon’s study of the expression limen eremos in Ps.-Skylax’s list of Cypriot cities at first seems to promise a much slighter contribution. The first section offers a series of short segments on topics such as the date of the Periplous, the meaning of eremos and the use of limen eremos as a specific designation, all of which lead to the unremarkable conclusion that limen is a technical term whose range of meaning corresponds to our term “port”. Eremos, on the other hand, tends to convey a broader range of meanings, suggesting either the poor quality of its equipment, a lack of defenses, or simply abandonment. It implies a judgement on the part of the author. This is the key to the rest of the paper. Counillon compares the text of Ps.-Skylax with that of Strabo and the third century A.D. Stadiasmon, and uses Raban’s 1995 survey of eastern Mediterranean ports to suggest that Ps.-Skylax has a very specific historical process in mind when he distinguishes between various types of ports. They are either kleistos, i.e. they can be closed in time of war, as in the case of the Piraeus and Salamis, or they are eremos, natural harbors or commercial ports, but not “ports de guerre.” Then, after examining the omission of certain cities from Ps.-Skylax’ list — Kition, Paphos and Kourion, the pro-Persian and non-Athenian sectors of the island — Counillon proposes that the Cyprus of the Periplous reflects the rhetorical concerns of Isocrates’ Evagoras. As Counillon notes, nautical description can be infused with political, military and ideological concerns.

Agatharchides’ On the Red Sea is discussed in a short essay by Jehan Desanges who examines this second century BC author’s work in relation to accounts of the region found in Artemidorus, Diodorus and Strabo. Desanges reexamines the thesis of J. Pirenne, that a comparison of passages in Diodorus and Photius reveals that Agatharchides (preserved in Photius) relied on contemporary information while Diodorus availed himself fully of the royal archives in Alexandria. Adopting a cautious approach to this exercise of Quellenforschung, Desanges proposes instead that Diodorus may have relied on Agatharchides and that discrepancies between the works are to be explained as rhetorical embellishments rather than evidence of different traditions and sources. Finally, in an attempt to establish a stratigraphy of the text, he examines Agatharchides in relation to the changes in Ptolemaic control of and familiarity with the Red Sea and finds that his work describes the region as it was between 280 and 250 BC, three generations before Agatharchides wrote, a salutary conclusion!

The title of Annie Arnaud-Portelli’s paper, “Babba Iulia Campestris, cité perdue de Maurétanie Tingitane?” is romantically tantalizing. What follows is more prosaic. Explicitly eschewing any archaeological investigation, Arnaud-Portelli instead subjects a variety of geographic sources — Pliny, Pomponius Mela, Ptolemy, the Antonine Itinerary and the anonymous Ravenna Geography — to close scrutiny in an attempt to determine whether non-archaeological sources alone can fix the location of a known but unlocated site. The argument is dense, logical and subtle, and, as an example of method, flawless. But it is a little disconcerting to read on the final page that “la seule véritable identité d’un site, on le sait, est épigraphique.” Though true, when read after a close examination of geographers it almost comes as an admission of failure.

Francesco Prontera’s contribution uses Sicily as a lens through which to examine a range of Greek geographers’ works, attempting to identify the rationale by which geographic information is organized. Beginning with the observation that geographic writing was conditioned by the Greek experience of colonization Prontera draws attention to the maritime orientation of the genre and shows how little the Greeks were interested in the Punic presence on the island. The essay moves towards an examination of Strabo and sees his work representing the confluence of earlier sources in which meteorological writing and non-geographic genres such as mythography were brought together in a confluence that repeatedly transmitted information along predictable lines. The paper cries out for a map of the island, choosing instead to give two maps illustrating the way Sicily was located by both Eratosthenes and Strabo at the axial point in the Mediterranean between east and west, and north and south.

In “Pline et la Carie” Raymond Descat pursues a similar approach to Prontera’s, proposing to examine the way in which Pliny used a variety of sources on Caria. However, instead of surveying the earlier sources systematically, his essay follows the same organizational pattern as Pliny: coast, inland and islands are treated in turn. What emerges is that Pliny’s work is tied to the administrative organization of the region into conventus as they existed in the late 1st century BC. The clue comes in the description of the coast, where the presence of Doris on the Ceramic Gulf causes a brief interruption to the narrative. Doris is not more fully treated because, unlike the parts of Caria on either side, it was not part of the conventus of Kibyra. In the interior, the apparent confusion in the lists of cities (“un beau désordre” in Louis Robert’s dismissive phrase) is explained nicely by Descat’s suggestion that the itineraries are organized with respect to the conventus of Alabanda and the relation of the cities not to a linear itinerary but to the seat of the conventus. A map would have made the argument easier to follow. The essay does not try to downplay the errors or confusion in Pliny but rather to demonstrate that even investigating the logic of those errors is profitable.

Yolande Marion also writes on Pliny, but on problems in his treatment of the eastern coast of the Adriatic. Superficially there are many similarities between this essay and Descat’s, especially since Marion is also interested in the way Pliny juggled information from the periplous genre with official documents such as formulae provinciarum. Her approach, however, is more methodical. She categorizes gobbets of text as “périple”, “liste” or “relation”, the last being a catch-all for historic or geographic information not clearly from the two former categories. As a result, she is able to postulate a base layer, a geographic source like Strabo but earlier, which underlies the entire section. Laid over this are pieces of information taken from a formula relating to Dalmatia, a Flavian formula for Noricum (possibly the same as the Dalmatian), and a periplous, possibly by Varro. More adventurous than this however, is Marion’s attempt to show from the wording of Pliny that a fourth conventus was located on the Dalmatian coast, with its center at Epidamnos. Circumstantial evidence in the form of epigraphic evidence for imperial cult supports her argument, and it will be interesting to see whether further investigation provides more proof for an argument that rests largely on Pliny’s style. In a final section on Pliny’s description of Istria Marion plausibly reconstructs the distribution of local toponyms by reconciling his linear treatment with the actual topography.

Istria also makes an appearance in Vanna Vedaldi Iasbez’ essay, “La Venetia orientale nella geografia tolemaica”, but the reader searches in vain for a clear and direct treatment of the subject. Fully five pages of the essay are devoted to a survey of general problems concerning Ptolemy’s Geography, but there is nothing new here on standard questions such as the date of the maps that accompany Ptolemy’s text. After a cursory treatment of some specific problems of toponomy in Regio X, Vedaldi Iasbez reaches the very general conclusion that Ptolemy, having reexamined the work of his predecessor Marinus of Tyre (whose work is completely lost), aligned himself more with “il campo geografico-astronomico, molto più che quello topografico e toponomastico.” (p. 149)

A far more satisfactory treatment of Ptolemy can be found in Christophe Meuret’s piece on Ptolemy’s estimate of the circumference of the world. This is a wonderful essay. It surveys the earlier estimates, and then carefully demonstrates not only that Ptolemy’s estimate (180,000 stades) was mistaken, but also that it represents Ptolemy’s preference for a solution that was neat and coherent — 180,000 fits nicely within a duodecimal scheme — rather than a solution that was correct but incoherent, in the sense that any figure which could not be divided, manipulated and easily calculated was useless. Meuret shows how Ptolemy applied a mathematical estimate derived from geometry to correct for the distortion in distances observed on land and sea but expressed as direct measurements. Blending pure mathematics and astronomy, Ptolemy was able to convert distances measured in degrees and minutes into absolute figures of stades and miles, once again with the help of the duodecimal system: 5 mn (1/12 of a degree) equals 42 stades (a number easily manipulated since it is a multiple of six), while one degree equals 72 miles (another number happily at home in systems based on multiples of twelve and fractions calculated in twelfths). At every stage, even in deciding what length to assign the stade, Ptolemy preferred mathematical purity and ease of calculation to terrestrial data.

In an overview entitled “Géographie historique de la vallée du Moyen-Euphrate” Justine Gaborit and Pierre Leriche provide an example of a very different type of geographical study. Instead of concentrating on the sources and methods of a single author, they blend ancient sources (almost exclusively literary) and the writings of modern travel writers to create an example of what they call historical geography. This they distinguish from what in English would be considered topography. For them historical geography is a more comprehensive discipline that aims at reconstructing some of the broad processes of change in the historical landscape, for example, increasing urbanization. This is all very laudable but the rest of the article, in fact, consists of little more than a series of notes on topography and toponomy organized by period. It is true that the building of dams on the upper Euphrates has increased the urgency of archaeological work in the region and has generated a good deal of fresh data, but this essay is in no way a synthesis of that data. In discussing the site of Jebel Khalid, for example, the authors note that “la fouille de Djebel Khaled permet ainsi d’étudier le développement d’une ville dans un intervalle chronologique aussi homogène que prestigieux”(p. 194). But the entire discussion of this interesting site consists of a cursory account of its modern discovery, a single paragraph on its location, another on its abandonment and two paragraphs on the impossibility of establishing its Greek name. The article is valuable as a concise guide to the ancient literary sources for the region, but it would be more accurate to describe the essay itself as a prolegomenon to an historical geography.

A more modest exercise is undertaken by Pascal Arnaud in a paper on toponyms carrying the suffix -ianáianis. Such toponyms are normally taken to be the names of cities formed by the addition of a suffix to a person’s name, but others have found in them traces of more humble origins, such as camps, stations and even taverns. Complicating the problem is the ease with which these endings, by a process of lectio facilior, can replace existing place names: Regina becomes Regiana, and so on. Arnaud finds that in the majority of cases these names should be read as neuter plural adjectives qualifying the noun praedia understood. The majority of these toponyms, therefore, do not refer to the large, historically important towns and cities that figure in the works of ancient geographers. Except in the work of Ptolemy these toponyms only occur in the genre of itineraries, works which manage to capture in Arnaud’s phrase, “la micro-toponymie rurale.” (p. 209) Although the author offers his thesis tentatively, the pattern lurking behind the evidence is clear: certain land holdings develop into grand domains, which in turn are sometimes replaced by villages that grow nearby yet retain the name of great estate. Understanding the significance of the toponyms allows us then to employ their distribution in the itineraries as a guide to differing patterns of urbanization.

Jean-Pierre Bost’s contribution is an essay on the network of roads crossing Aquitaine, with particular attention to the Peutinger Table, the Antonine Itinerary, and the Bordeaux Itinerary. While he accepts the usual date for the Peutinger Table (second half, 4th century), his treatment of the itineraries is somewhat confusing. Bost writes continuously of l’ Itineraire (“la Table et l’ Itinéraire ont en commun plurieurs tronc,ons…”) when two separate works of that name have already been introduced. Which itinerary? The Antonine, it so happens. Bost accepts Arnaud’s late 4th century date for the Antonine Itinerary (more usually dated to the Tetrarchs). Bost is much better when concentrating on the information to be gleaned from the texts. The fact, for example, that so many routes known from other sources don’t appear in these itineraries leads him to conclude that they should not be seen as official documents. What they are is somewhat harder to say. In discussing some of the mistakes made by the Antonine Itinerary Bost proceeds as if one has to imagine a traveler at the crossroads sometimes choosing illogically a backroute and then awkwardly integrating it into his description of a major route. Whether this is a more satisfactory method of interpretation than to assume lack of first hand information, scribal errors, and the vagaries of the transmission of texts, is not completely evident.

The final paper of the collection is a discussion by Jean-Luc Fiches of the oppidum of Ambrussum and its development in relation to the Roman road. In particular, Fiches deals with the lower section of the site and its fluctuating fortunes. After a concise summary of the site’s history, Fiche reports in more detail on the results of excavations running from the sixties to the mid-nineties. He notes, inter alia, the presence of a “ferme-relais” close to the principal road occupied in the late 1st century BC and renovated in the late 1st century AD. He also notes the early appearance of houses with interior courtyards based on models of the urban domus, built in the high zone. The lower section of town, threatened by floods from the Vidourle, displayed a more rural character. Fiche attempts to place these developments within the wider scope of changing patterns of urbanization in the region of Nimes, and the tentative suggestion that Ambrussum’s physical appearance reflects the emergence of “le mode d’exploitation dominial” is interesting, but the reader should not expect anything more than a thumbnail sketch here. To follow these points up one must turn to the full excavation reports.