BMCR 2001.07.02

Ptolemy’s Geography, an Annotated Translation of the Theoretical Chapters

, , , Ptolemy's Geography : an annotated translation of the theoretical chapters. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. xii, 192 pages : illustrations, maps ; 26 cm. ISBN 0691010420. $39.50.

[Disclaimer: Alexander Jones was my dissertation supervisor, but I like to think this has not affected my objectivity.]

Ptolemy’s Geography is a long and detailed guide to drawing a map of the entire world as Ptolemy knew it, more or less at the height of the Roman Empire. Ptolemy begins with a theoretical introduction to the subjects of geography and of mapmaking and then proceeds to a long, long list of all the places that should be in the map, along with their latitudes and longitudes. Understandably, this list makes for uninteresting reading, in contrast to the theoretical parts of the work, which are of primary importance to scholars of ancient science and geography. Berggren and Jones (hereafter B & J) accordingly concentrate on the theoretical chapters in their translation and commentary, but they do also provide us with a small sampling of the coordinate list itself (II.7-10, the provinces of Roman Gaul), along with a map generated from this list.

Anyone with an interest in ancient science generally will find this a most welcome addition to their library. Geographers will find here an accessible translation of one of the most important pre-modern texts in their field. Those interested in travel in the ancient world will also find some material of interest here, as Ptolemy gets much of his information from travelers’ and traders’ reports. And, of course, anyone with an interest in maps will find in this an example of how maps were conceived and constructed in antiquity, not to mention the beautiful colour plates.

On the Book Itself

This is a book to judge by its cover. Not only does it have an enticingly beautiful dust jacket, with a full-color reproduction of (unfortunately only most of) the map of the world from the 1482 Ulm edition of the Geography, but the back of the dust jacket gives the book strong commendation as well. There are quotes from Noel Swerdlow and Liba Taub, both notable historians of science, respectively calling this book “the best [translation of Ptolemy’s Geography ] in any language,” and “a work that will be the standard for many years to come…a pleasure to read.”

All this is by way of saying that this book has a cover to live up to. Happily, it succeeds. Indeed, in one respect it even goes beyond its cover. Where the dust jacket claims that this book is merely “an annotated translation of the theoretical chapters,” it is in fact more than that. Beyond the translation itself (which I will come to in a bit), with its copious notes, there is a most useful introductory section by B & J, very nearly as long as the translation itself. Here the basic principles of ancient geography and mapmaking are carefully and clearly explained to the reader. No knowledge of ancient geography, or even ancient science, is presumed by the authors, and they do an admirable job of introducing the neophyte reader to this hitherto obscure corner of ancient knowledge. The only exceptions I could find to this generally careful and helpful approach are: (a) the distinction between equinoctial hours and seasonal hours is not as clearly explained as it might be, and (b) the footnote explaining who “the Aithiopians” were gets appended to the second instance of that word (p. 67) rather than the first (p. 64). But these admittedly minor slips stand out only because of the care taken for clarity in the rest of the explanatory material.

B and J’s introduction begins with a section called ‘What Ptolemy Expected his Reader to Know’. Here we find the general principles of ancient cartography introduced to the modern reader, along with its technical terminology, place names, units of measurement, ways of speaking about distances and direction, and more. For those unfamiliar with the principles of ancient geography, I can think of no better short introduction.

This is followed by an excellent discussion of the place of the Geography in Ptolemy’s oeuvre. From here we move on to a look at the types of sources Ptolemy used, along with their strengths and limitations. These sources range from other ancient maps and geographical works, to a handful of astronomical observations, traveler’s handbooks of various sorts, and traveler’s reports. There is a good discussion of Ptolemy’s most prominent source, Marinos of Tyre. Ptolemy’s relationship to his predecessors in the field of astronomy (especially Hipparchus) has been the subject of some debate in history of science circles, and so his use of (and debt to) Marinos in the Geography will be of some interest.

The discussion of sources takes an interesting historiographic perspective. Rather than evaluating Ptolemy’s data in terms of its accuracy, B & J look at it in terms of why he was using particular bits of data, why he saw some kinds of reports as more credible than others, and how these reports were convincing to an ancient geographer. That is, the sources tend to be looked at, not in terms of how factual they actually are from the modern point of view, but in terms of how factually reliable they were to a Ptolemy or a Marinos, and why.

The section explaining Ptolemy’s map projections is complemented by B & J’s own computerized reconstructions of world maps in Ptolemy’s two projections, in a separate section at the back of the book (plates and maps). Here we also find beautiful colour plates of Ptolemy’s first projection (from Urb. gr. 82), and his second projection (from Urb. lat. 274 and the aforementioned 1482 Ulm edition). Unfortunately for the reader, in the cases of both B & J’s maps and the medieval plates, the publisher has put the different projections overleaved from each other rather than on facing pages, which makes direct comparison of details of the two projections awkward. Happily the 5 regional maps (western Europe, the western Mediterranean, the eastern Mediterranean, Africa, and south Asia) allow us some easy comparison. Here Ptolemy’s maps, in cylindrical projections, are placed on facing pages with identically scaled modern cylindrical projections of the same areas. This satisfies the reader’s curiosity for seeing how Ptolemy’s conceptions compare to the same regions as we are more used to seeing them.

Calling B & J’s computerized maps ‘reconstructions’ necessitates some comment. Ptolemy’s Geography itself is, as I said above, a handbook for drawing maps of all the parts of the known world. The bulk of the Geography is made up of simply a list of places with their geographical coordinates. The idea is that the map maker will plot these places out on a coordinate grid (drawn according to one or another projection), and then fill in any blanks that are left from their own imagination. It is a kind of ‘connect-the-dots’ approach to mapmaking. This is how B & J have constructed their maps. Map aficionados may find the straightish, simple lines of the computer maps unattractive, perhaps (this reviewer had to resist the urge to ink in sea monsters and such), but they do serve to preserve an accurate picture of the level of detail dictated by Ptolemy himself, and so the level of detail left up to the artist’s imagination. B & J have been thoughtful enough to include in these maps all the place names mentioned in the introductory material and in the translation, so the interested reader gets a helpful visual picture of the places being discussed.

The Text

The translation is a slowish read, as can be expected of any ancient scientific treatise. Ptolemy’s style, long-winded, dry and parenthetical to the point of distraction, makes for a real challenge to any translator. B & J opt for a literal rendering, but one that works the parenthetical remarks and run-on sentences so as to be still very readable and admirably clear. There is a noticeable change of style when the translators switch from their own voices in the introduction, to Ptolemy’s voice in the text of the Geography itself. Their ability to balance literalness and clarity distinguishes their translation to some extent from Aujac’s and von Mzik’s French and German translations (1993 and 1938, respectively). The only other translation into a modern language has been E.L. Stephenson’s very poor 1932 English translation (reprinted by Dover in 1991), which is only useful for its large photographic plates (including the very unusual 1508 Ruysch World Map).

B & J’s translation is also accompanied by textual notes when their reading of the MSS differs from Nobbe’s printed edition of the Greek text. This last point should perhaps be emphasized, since the editions of the Geography pose some unusual problems for the translator. The only complete edition of the text is Nobbe’s 1843-5 edition, which lacks textual apparatus. Other printed editions, by Wilburg and Grashof (1838-1945), Müller (1883-1901), Cuntz (1923), and Renou (1925), are all incomplete. B & J have needed to consult the different editions, as well as consulting photographs of MSS, in order to produce a careful translation that will contribute, one hopes, to a future complete and adequate edition of the Greek text.

The passages B & J have selected to translate are: all of Book I, the introduction to Book II, along with the coordinate list for Gaul (II.1, II.7-10), part of Book VII (end of VII.4, VII.5-7), VIII.1-2, and VIII.5. Some part of me wishes there were also a table of contents for the omitted parts of the Geography here, just so I could see exactly what I am missing.

B & J also include a series of appendices where they discuss details of method and evidence in the Geography. These include: (a) a discussion of particular Roman expeditions into ‘Aithiopie’ (those of Flaccus and Maternus) with regard to Ptolemy’s and Marinos’ handling of their reports, (b) Marinos’ calculation of the Latitude of Cape Prason, (c) Marinos’ and Ptolemy’s locations of places along the main trade route through central Asia, (d) their calculations of the breadth of the Mediterranean, (e) their estimates (based on travelers’ reports) of the distance between southern India and Kattigara (somewhere on the far side of Thailand), and (f) Ptolemy’s other criticisms of Marinos. Finally, there is a handy index of all the place names mentioned in the translation and commentary, with their modern equivalents where possible. All in all, B & J produce a readable and reliable translation of an important but overlooked ancient scientific text. Their commentary is as helpful as it is thorough, and, as I said above, I can think of no better introduction to the principles of ancient geography.