BMCR 2001.12.15

Strabone e l’Asia Minore

, , , Strabone e l'Asia Minore. Studi di storia e di storiografia. Perugia: Edizioni scientifiche italiane, 2000. 650 pages : illustrations, map ; 24 cm.. ISBN 884950151X. L 85.000.

This volume presents the proceedings of a conference held in Perugia in May 1997. It is published within two collections of Perugian publications, being the tenth volume in “Incontri Perugini di Storia della storiografia antica e sul mondo antico”, and the fourth in “Studi di storia e di storiografia”. Both collections have already issued volumes on Strabo’s treatment of a specific geographical region: Strabone e l’Italia antica (1988) edited by G. Maddoli and Strabone e la Grecia (1994) edited by A.M. Biraschi.

Strabo’s Geography deals not only with geography in a broad sense, but also with several other disciplines, from botany and zoology to history and philosophy. It exploits many and various sources. There are therefore two principal ways of approaching the work: either to concentrate on a specific aspect and examine its reflection throughout the treatise, or to focus on one geographical region and investigate its multifarious Strabonian description.

The case of Asia Minor has its own peculiarity deriving from several factors associated with the nature of the region and the personal background of the author, for Strabo was born, grew up and acquired his primary education in Asia Minor. The region itself went through numerous historical and ethnic transformations which made the work of an ancient geographer and historian even more complex. Campanile’s comment that the map of Asia Minor is like a re-used palimpsest (p. 490) well reflects this complexity. It is not surprising that Strabo devoted four parts of his seventeen book work to the region (books 11-14).

The present volume has two parts; the first (pp. 15-234) contains discussions of some principal questions of methodology and interest; the second (pp. 235-564) contains studies of specific regions within Asia Minor.

The first paper in Part One, Glen Bowersock’s “Strabo’s Patria” functions as an introductory piece presenting well-known details of Strabo’s biography such as his name, his birth date, other significant years in his life and the place of Asia Minor in his career. Bowersock takes Patria in a wide sense to mean the entire background of the author, both physical and intellectual.

Paolo Desideri takes Strabo’s digression on Aristotle’s library (13.1.54) as a starting point for general conclusions regarding Strabo and Asian culture. He shows that three elements dominate Strabo’s description of Asia Minor: (1) his interest in intellectual life expressed particularly through lists of illustrious men born in Asia; (2) political history with emphasis on Roman involvement in Asia; (3) Strabo’s personal Asiatic experience with a focus on his family. The underlying tendency in these books, according to Desideri, is to show the global significance of contemporary Asia both intellectually and politically, a position once occupied by Greece. Desideri thus offers a key to the evaluation of Strabo’s Asian survey.

One cannot begin to appreciate Strabo’s scholarly orientation without emphasizing the place of Homer in the Geography. The ancient poet not only formed a major source for Strabo, but also inspired him in his approach to the geographical discipline. This is particularly true in regard to regions with specific Homeric relevance. Anna Maria Biraschi’s paper is important in analyzing the ways in which Strabo relies on the poet for the description of regions central to the epics, particularly the Troad. Biraschi shows that Strabo’s use of Homer is part of his campaign to defend the Homeric reputation as an authority, particularly in view of the opposing opinion manifested in Eratosthenes’ arguments. Delfino Ambaglio, in his paper on fragments and traces of Classical and Hellenistic historiography in Strabo, takes the Asian books as case studies for the entire Geography. He enumerates all the historians Strabo cites in these books and analyses his use of historiography for information on various themes: geographical problems, physical geography, fauna and flora, ethnography, and, naturally, history. Four key historical events dominate these books, that is this region: the Trojan war, the campaigns of Alexander the Great, the contest between the Parthians and the Romans and the campaigns of Sulla and Pompey. Thus, the particular case of Asia Minor and Strabo’s own interest in history influence the extensive place of historical themes and sources in books 11-14.

Francesco Prontera investigates Strabo’s presentation of space in Asia in its traditional perspective. Two primary lines served Strabo as references for orientation: the Halys river and the Taurus mountains. Strabo denoted positions as relative to these linear topographies (both a river and a chain of mountains form lines) and in so doing adopted earlier conventions. Rivers as guidelines derive from periploi, and mountain chains from itineraries. Similar descriptive guidelines occur also in the surveys of Iberia and Italy. An expression such as “all Asia” shows a regional awareness and contains the basis for a cartographic conception.

Laura Boffo explores Strabo’s use of words denoting communities and places of habitation which hold some political meaning reflecting on the local form of government. With the help of epigraphic evidence Boffo discusses the differences between polis, kome, komopolis, polichne and katoikia.

Daniele Foraboschi analyses Strabo’s use of terms denoting economic prosperity and distinguishes several constant aspects: high population density, agricultural fertility, sufficient water sources, presence of natural minerals, abundant fishing, convenient ports and lively trade. Foraboschi, who does not limit himself to Asia Minor, points out that these ideas reflect simplistic Stoic economic thinking and concludes that Strabo was no economist. This is hardly surprising in view of the ancient concept of economy which, as has been commonly accepted since “the controversy over the ancient economy”, was entirely different from modern economic thought.

Giovanni Salmeri takes up the particular problem of the lack of ethnic uniformity in Asia, which was then a multilinguistic region. Strabo became confused in the attempt to distinguish borders for instance between the Phrygians and the Mysians and so focused on history and less on ethnicity. He followed Poseidonius in distinguishing three elements denoting ethnicity: language, customs and physical appearance. Salmeri expands on the theme of language as an ethnic definer in Strabo.

Francesco Trotta investigates Strabo’s reference to grades of civility among Asian cities. Several case studies show that the basic Hellenistic criterion for defining a civilized place was the existence or lack of a constitution ( politeia). Accordingly, and as described in the Geography, at one end of the spectrum of civility are nomads who live in remote and barely approachable places, who have no political unity and engage in banditry. Positive criteria for defining civility are sedentary life style, cultivation of land, high population density, eunomia, and peaceful borders, especially with the Romans. In his evaluation of constitutions Strabo first tries to define them as eunomiai and then inspects their details.

Roberto Nicolai examines some textual issues in books 11-14. He surveys lacunae in the manuscript tradition and presents various editors’ solutions; he discusses citations of sources in the text and raises the problem of their origin: the margins of the manuscripts or Strabo’s own contribution; and he lists places in the text where editors decided to omit parts of it. Nicolai concludes that the existing editions are inadequate and that there is a need for a new, more critical text. Perhaps the Groningen team will soon supply this need. A short appendix by Nicolai and Giusto Traina follows this paper and presents some notes on translating Strabo.

The second part of the volume includes regional studies within Asia Minor:

Enrico Bellucci opens this section with a more general study of Strabo’s regional approach in his particular treatment of Asia Minor, showing that there are three main elements in Strabo’s Asian description which influence his emphases in these books. These are (1) indigenous religion presented through references to temples and sacred districts; (2) the Roman presence and the cultural and political changes it brought to the area; (3) linguistic criteria for the definition of nations and regions within Asia Minor. These three elements result in Strabo’s blend of topics which create his own particular geographical description.

Carlo Franco’s paper on the Troad opens the series of studies which focus on particular Asian regions. Since Strabo probably did not know this region personally his description dwells on the past. Naturally, the survey here is strongly influenced by the Homeric epics. Strabo tends to accentuate the Homeric past and neglect the present. Next in importance are references to the Persian dominance in the area and to Alexander. Allusions to Hellenistic art and illustrious natives place the Roman presence in a secondary limited position. In Franco’s eyes this was a deliberate choice that should not, however, be considered as an anti-Roman tendency.

Giuseppe Ragone discusses Strabo’s description of Aeolis, another region in Asia Minor which the author probably did not visit. Strabo refers first to the geographical limits of the region and then to its early history. Ragone presents some textual aspects in this part of the work and refers to Strabo’s sources. The last part of the paper is devoted to a closer study of the description of Canae. Maps and tables follow (pp. 344-356) and present in a clear graphic way some of the issues discussed in the paper.

Nino Luraghi analyses Strabo’s description of Ionia. This region is similar to Magna Graecia in its history and ethnicity for both were settled by Greeks in the course of the archaic wave of colonization beginning in the middle of the eighth century BCE. Strabo accordingly focuses on two central aspects connected to early Greek culture: lists of illustrious Greek natives and poetic citations. His central source for this part of the survey was Artemidorus of Ephesus.

Roberta Fabiani discusses Caria, pointing out that Strabo’s Caria does not correspond to the region inhabited by the Carians and is thus an ethnic entity rather than an administrative unit. His criterion in this section is Carian culture and particularly the Carian language

John Thornton’s paper presents Strabo’s description of Lycia, another region for which we have no trace of Strabo’s autopsy. After discussing Strabo’s sources (mainly Artemidorus) Thornton offers an interesting account of the political aspect of Lycia particularly as it appears in the modern tradition of political thought, for instance in the Federalist and in Montesquieu. Although leaving Strabo’s world, this discussion once again emphasizes Strabo’s interest in political constitutions (see Trotta’s paper).

Gaetano Arena’s analysis of the survey of Pamphylia—again not based on autopsy and mainly on Artemidorus—shows that here Strabo was interested mainly in cultural, particularly urban, aspects. These are hydrography, that is the main sources of water of the city; its function as a strategic place; and some demographic details. Arena concludes that the tendency of scholars to consider Strabo’s Geography as an encyclopedic work is too simplistic, since one can clearly see that the author had interests and preferences which made him choose certain topics and stress them over others.

In M. Domitilla Campanile’s discussion of Phrygia, the Strabonian description emerges as particularly complex due to the historical ethnic and linguistic merger which created a sort of double nation. This situation made it difficult to define borders, both geographical and ethnic. Silvia Panichi on Cappadocia points out that this region was not mentioned in the Homeric epics. It was again, culturally composite, and the description presents both Persian and Greek components. Panichi attaches parallel genealogical trees of Strabo’s and Archelaus’s families (p. 541) but does not discuss the significance of this presentation.

Tommaso Gnoli studies the complex description of Pontus and Bithynia and concludes that Strabo had a deep historical sensitivity. He presents three aspects of Strabo’s writing as emerging from particular details in the description: his credibility as a historian; the structure of his geographical survey (for instance using two dichotomies—shore vs. inland, east vs. west); and some socio-economic aspects.

In his concluding remarks Giovanni Salmeri surveys current modern research on Strabo and summarizes the general construction of the present volume. He shows that despite some tendencies to regard Strabo as a mere compiler of sources, most contributors to this volume approached his work as a genuine piece of writing and treated Strabo as an independent author with his own ideas, interests and emphases. This is in fact the orientation of recent Strabonian research (see below).

Two appendices follow this conclusion.

Carlo Maraccini focuses on Strabo’s reference to the Thracians as barbarians in book 7 of the Geography. In that book Barbarism is considered a symbol of purity in opposition to the negative judgment of Barbarians made mainly in books 3 and 4, there based on the Roman model. However, in the passage discussed Strabo follows a Hellenistic topos. This paper does not really conform to the rest of the work in this volume. It is not quite clear why the editors chose to include it; it is however of interest in itself.

Rosaria Petrella’s paper on the other hand, deals with a specific Asian theme: the urban elites in Pamphylia. She examines grades of Romanization, relying on epigraphy and other sources and this results in a rich analysis of the role of Asians in the Roman Empire.

The three year lapse between the conference and the publication of the papers seems to have caused the contributors to miss several relevant publications on Strabo. The following bibliography may be added:

To Bowersock’s discussion of Strabo’s biography: D. Dueck (1999) “The date and method of composition of Strabo’s Geography“, Hermes 127 pp. 467-78; S. Pothecary, (1999) “Strabo the Geographer: his name and its meaning”, Mnemosyne 52 (6) pp. 691-703.

To Desideri’s discussion of Aristotle’s library: H. Lindsay (1997) “Strabo on Apellicon’s library”, RhM 140 pp. 290-8.

Recent studies of Strabo as an author: J. Engels (1999) Augusteische Oikumenegeographie und Universalhistorie im Werk Strabons von Amaseia, Stuttgart; K. Clarke (1999) Between Geography and History, Oxford, particularly chapters 3-6; D. Dueck (2000) Strabo of Amasia, A Greek Man of Letters in Augustan Rome, London.

To sum up, although, as always in such cases, the collection is composed of papers differing in importance and level, and regardless of some minor reservations expressed in the body of this review, the volume as a whole represents a very welcome contribution to the search for Strabo, and together with presenting some important questions, offers some interesting insights.