BMCR 2001.05.11

Strabo of Amaseia. A Greek Man of Letters in Augustan Rome

, Strabo of Amasia : a Greek man of letters in Augustan Rome. London/New York: Routlege, 2000. 1 online resource (ix, 227 pages) : illustrations, facsimiles. ISBN 9780203462188. $80.00.

Recent work on Strabo abounds. After the monograph of Johannes Engels, Augusteische Oikumenegeographie und Universalhistorie im Werk Strabons von Amaseia and Katherine Clarke’s Between Geography and History, which to a large extent centres on Strabo, the present book is the third study on Strabo to appear in about one year’s time. Surprisingly, the book (based on a 1996 Jerusalem dissertation) far beyond the focus indicated in its subtitle offers an introduction into a large number of aspects of the Augustan geographer.

D. starts her study with Strabo’s background and antecedents (pp. 1-31), discussing his family, teachers, and travels, which are reconstructed on the basis of a list of places Strabo declares he has seen (pp. 15-30), even if—as Dueck points out at p. 28—Strabo fails to mention some places he certainly must have visited, especially Athens. Together with the communis opinio, D. assumes that Strabo wrote his Geography in Rome under the emperor Tiberius.

In her second chapter on Strabo and the Greek tradition (pp. 31-84), Dueck musters the different antecedents of Strabo, among whom, as she rightly points out, Homer and Polybios stand out. While the large importance of Homer (on whom cf. pp. 31-40) comes as no surprise, D.’s discussion of Polybios stresses just how closely Strabo followed key concepts of Polybios, while always remaining critical in questions of detail (e.g. on climatic zones: p. 50). According to D., however, Strabo stands in sharp contrast to Polybios for his interest geography on its own, beyond the ancillary role that geography had to play for the historian Polybios: “In fact, in the Geography he [sc. Strabo] reversed the interrelation between geography and history by turning history into the servant of geography” (p. 52). Among the older geographical tradition, D. stresses the role that periploi played as source material for Strabo and discusses the meaning the word oikoumene had in this tradition (pp. 43-45): while in Homer, the idea of the whole oikoumene being one island in the Ocean prevailed, to Strabo as to earlier geographers the term applies only to the known world. Thus, not only can there be peoples living outside the oikoumene, but the oikoumene itself can be extended—a merit attributed to Alexander and, most of all, to the Roman empire.

D. proceeds to discuss Strabo’s interest in other sciences and the influence Stoicism has on his work. Even if Strabo’s strict division between Greeks and barbarians does not fit with Stoic ideas, D. stresses the impact of Stoic concepts in the Geography: not only is the idea of an encyclopedic approach itself explained as a Stoic idea but particularly Strabo’s attitude towards the Roman empire, apparently developing towards the Stoic ideal of a world state, to D. indicates Strabo’s Stoic attitude. In her attempt to prove Strabo’s Stoicism, D. even tries to explain his admiration for Alexander the Great on the basis of this Stoic attitude, although it is known that important Stoics were in fact sceptical of Alexander’s role (p. 64f.): Strabo, D. concludes, turned against the excessive admiration of Alexander’s historians, as the Stoics had done, but admired the king himself. One may feel doubts about this explanation, and indeed D. here seems to underscore the fact that there are different philosophical traditions to be found in Strabo’s work, who himself was educated by peripatetic philosophers. D. seeks to explain Strabo’s Stoic tendencies by assuming one unknown Stoic among his teachers (p. 65f.: perhaps Poseidonius) but continues to demonstrate herself how much Strabo picked from different traditions.

In her brief discussion of Strabo’s almost completely lost history, D. returns to Ridgway’s assumption that there existed two different historiographical works of Strabo, one being a universal history (the Ὑπομνήματα), the other his continuation of Polybios ( τὰ μετὰ Πολυβίου). Few would subscribe to this view today, and to the present reviewer D. does not succeed to adduce compelling evidence in her brief discussion (p. 70). She stresses the broad interest of Strabo’s historical work, which according to her sets it within the tradition of Hellenistic universal histories (p. 72). She does not, however, discuss in detail those parts in the Geography that betray more of Strabo’s historical interest, commenting only very briefly on the picture of Alexander the Great given there (p. 74). Her remarks on the Roman sources of Strabo take up the interesting observations D. has recently published elsewhere.1

The second chapter concludes with an analysis of the concepts of barbarism and Hellenism in the Geography. Strabo draws a remarkably sharp distinction between Greeks and barbarians, which is to be blurred only when it comes to an evaluation of the Romans. Here, quite open critique of Roman behavior in the face of Greek communities contrasts with a generally very philoRoman attitude. This in turn springs from a slightly changed concept of barbarism: while the barbarians’ inferior way of life is determined by conditions of their environment—conditions that they cannot escape—, education according to Strabo can bring former barbarians to (almost) the same cultural level as the Greeks. This is, of course, the case of the Romans: and while Strabo does not try to construct a Greek ancestry for Rome, as Dionysius did, he concedes to them a central place in the oikoumene because through learning they have arrived at an almost Greek status (p. 79). However, Strabo perhaps even goes further than D. would have him because it is at least open to question whether the lists of Greek intellectuals that are interspersed in his description of Greece are really meant to illustrate Greek cultural superiority over Romans (p. 79f.). They might just as well reflect the different sources Strabo used, and it is remarkable (as D. herself concedes) that just in the cases of Athens and Alexandria, where Strabo might have stressed Greek cultural achievements more than anywhere else, he misses this opportunity.

Chapters 3 (Strabo and the world of Augustan Rome, pp. 85-106) and 4 (Geography, politics and empire, pp. 107-129) are where the book most closely examines the subject of its subtitle. First, D. presents the evidence for Strabo’s visits to Rome, concluding that three or even four visits can be assumed, and discusses the Roman aristocrats with whom Strabo had (or might have had) close contacts. She examines the evidence for Strabo’s knowledge of Latin, which, according to D., was probably quite poor (89-92). According to D., Strabo probably used source material written in Latin only through translations or quotations in Greek authors; the sole exception assumed by D. was the contemporary writings of Agrippa and Augustus (92-96). The literary relationship between the latter’s Res Gestae and Strabo stands at the centre of the following chapter on “The image of Augustus in Strabo’s work” (96-106). D. can show how closely Strabo follows Augustan key concepts, not only in those parts of his Geography that are reminiscent of the Res Gestae but also by excluding the same topics that the Res Gestae pass over in silence, such as Octavian’s wars in the thirties. It is instructive to see the influence of contemporary politics on Strabo’s work, even if the impact of the Res Gestae on Strabo’s work perhaps was less important than D. implies.

D. continues to define Strabo’s place in the context of Augustan utilization of geography (chapter 4). Returning to the discussion of oikoumene in Strabo, she stressses the affirmative attitude of Strabo towards an empire that expands the boundaries of the civilized world; only where further expansion would simply not be worthwhile, Rome chooses to leave her barbarian neighbours alone. It is only in the discussion of the Parthian empire that one might find traces of a more critical attitude (112-114): Strabo admits that the Parthians are equal to the Romans, an attitude which according to Livy found its followers among anti-Roman Greeks. According to D., however, neither does Strabo here betray of anti-Roman sentiments, nor do we have traces of a change of mind in the course of his work on the Geography. Instead, D. chooses to explain these remarks as the deliberate incorporation of different views of the Parthian empire in the Geography. And yet, Strabo’s evaluation of the Roman empire can be remarkably balanced, as D. continues to show (115-122), generally describing Roman conquest as a process of cultural advancement but at the same time criticizing Roman misbehaviour. In a brief concluding part, D. perhaps excessively stresses the practical use of geographical literature for Roman administration and military and offers a brief summary of Republican monuments which make propagandistic use of ethnic or geographical personifications. Already for Pompey, the celebration of three triumphs served as a means to celebrate victory over three continents and, in consequence, over the whole oikoumene (126). The same phenomenon can be traced in a number of Augustan monuments such as the porticus ad nationes or Agrippa’s “world map”, whose identification as a mere list without a graphical representation, as proposed by K. Brodersen, she accepts.

Chapter 5 on “Greek scholars in Augustan Rome” (130-144) gives an overview of the prosopographical links that can be drawn between Strabo and other contemporary Greeks in Rome. At the end of her discussion of Greek intellectuals mentioned in Strabo (personally known to Strabo or not, resident in Rome or not), D. briefly returns to the relationship between Greek intellectuals and Roman aristocrats, stressing their close interrelationship (Greek being the common language of both parties) but concluding that there was hardly any contact between Greek and Roman writers in Rome (142-144). In a chapter that merely summarizes earlier research, it is infelicitous that the classic study on this subject by G.W. Bowersock2 (quoted in the footnotes) is nowhere mentioned in the text.

Chapter 6 (“The Geography—a ‘colossal work'”, 145-187) can be read as a conclusion to the book. D. in a first section briefly reviews the manuscript tradition, the editions, and the later use of Strabo’s work (145-154) and then turns to the “purpose and vocation” of the book, stressing Strabo’s pragmatic approach in writing a book that was to serve as a manual for everyday use of Roman military and civil officers (161f.). The criteria for Strabo to include certain pieces of information in his book are put together on p. 160, and according to D. they transcend the realm of the useful mostly to include stories that glorify Rome or, rarely, which can serve to amuse the reader. D. concludes that the question of Strabo’s intended readers is independent of the place where he wrote his book; even if he had written the book in his native Amaseia, D. stresses, his readers were mainly Romans.

It is regrettable that only in the following two subsections does D. turn to the question of Strabo’s sources which, as may be clear by now, is so central to many of her arguments. First, she demonstrates that the various parts of his book are remarkably different in approach and focus (165-180). D. concludes that these differences may derive from the sources used, the characteristics of the regions covered, and from questions of usefulness. In a second subsection, “Sources” (180-186), D. basically gives a sketchy list of the most important sources used by Strabo; the present reviewer is sorry to say that this part does not go beyond the most basic observations, abbreviating the results of Quellenforschung to the extreme.3 This is, of course, the more deplorable as these are questions that remain essential to large parts D.’s book: only if one assumes that “the colossal work is organized according to a defined plan” (180) can one continue to analyse that plan. But Strabo’s use of his sources is not indicative of any “defined plan”; as D. admitted earlier, the focus of each book can vary according to the sources on which Strabo relies.

While Strabo characterized his work as “colossal”, D. has chosen to write quite a short book which at the same time addresses a vast number of aspects of Strabo’s geography.4 Obviously, this choice has forced her to treat many points only very briefly, and at times this is detrimental. And one cannot but feel sorry that in preparing her Ph.D. thesis for publication, D. has included references to Engels’ recent monograph only from chapter 5 onwards. While D. places Strabo in the tradition of universal history, Engels from the very title of his history, hypomnémata, concluded that Strabo indeed departs from this tradition, characterizing his own work as a collection or, indeed, an inventory of contemporary knowledge in the “humanities”. While one may have doubts as to whether the book title of Strabo’s history warrants such a conclusion, to the present reviewer the extant geography fits much more into this interpretative scheme than into that offered by D. One may, then, feel sceptical about the picture of Strabo as an author who pursues a philoRoman, indeed philoAugustan scheme in composing a largely unified work, as D. presents it. And yet, her book in spite of the weaknesses mentioned above can serve as a highly useful, concise departing point for readers interested in Strabo and in the intellectual life of Augustan times.


1. Daniela Dueck, “Historical Exempla in Augustan Rome and their Role in a Geographical Context”, in: Carl Deroux (ed.), Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History, X (Collection Latomus 254), Brüssel 2000, pp. 176-196.

2. Glen W. Bowersock, Augustus and the Greek World, Oxford 1965, esp. p. 126-129.

3. As only one example of misleading abbreviation, D. on p. 185 characterizes the sources of book 14 as follows: “Book 14, focusing on the islands adjacent to Ionia and Pamphylia, is another indication of topography apparent in the nature of the sources, for a periplous is very dominant here (chapter 2, p. 42). Aly (1957) 34-68 refers to various topics pertaining to this part of Strabo’s survey”. Yet Strabo himself (14.1.1) announces that in this book he will continue his periegesis of Asia Minor from the Black Sea to the Gulf of Issos by εἰπεῖν περὶ Ἰώνων καὶ Καρῶν καὶ τῆς ἔσω τοῦ Ταύρου παραλίας, ἣν ἔχουσι Λύκιοί τε καὶ Πάμφυλοι καὶ Κίλικες : the Aegaean islands are of no great importance to the book. And the information given in Book 14 by far exceeds the geographical data one might expect if indeed a periplous were dominant. Take, for instance, the characterization of the Lycian league in 14.3.3 and the observations on lack of geographical precision in poetical works in the same chapter: if Strabo chose to discuss these regions in the literary form of a periplous along the coastline, one cannot but notice that he incorporates information from other sources with strong historical interest (Artemidoros, perhaps in his Ionian hypomnemata ?) as well as his own observations.

4. In details, D. does not always prove reliable: it cannot pass unnoticed that of course the statue of Augustus from Prima Porta has no shield but bears its imagery on the cuirass (p. 15 n. 109). D.’s characterization of Hybreas of Mylasa suffers from a misconception of the role played by Labienus in the later forties when he had joined the Parthians (p. 139). In the context of her discussion of Livy 9.18.6, D.’s characterization of Trogus, a Gaul writing in Latin, as a “Greek source” (p. 114) is misleading even if it could be proven that Trogus’ view of the Parthians derives from Timagenes.