BMCR 2006.08.53

De rebus nauticis: L’arte della navigazione nel mondo antico

, De rebus nauticis : l'arte della navigazione nel mondo antico. Studia archaeologica ; 132. Rome: L'Erma di Bretschneider, 2004. 233 pages : illustrations (chiefly color) ; 25 cm.. ISBN 8882652785. €70.00.

[My apologies go to all readers of BMCR for the tardiness of this review.]

The main aim of this beautifully produced and lavishly illustrated monograph is to provide a wider audience with a reliable introduction to the techniques of navigation in antiquity. Medas (henceforth M.) is an eminent expert in the field with a track record of important publications.1 This raises high expectations. To anticipate the concluding section of this review, I would like to state that these expectations are unfailingly fulfilled throughout the entire book: M.’s monograph deserves high praise and can be recommended without reserve to anyone interested in ancient seafaring.

De rebus nauticis is made up of five chapters dealing with various aspects of ancient navigation (9-206), followed by a short concluding section (207-208). A rich bibliography (211-223) and a helpful glossary of technical terms (225-229) round off this attractive book. M. succeeds fully at covering the whole range of topics that one might expect, basically looking at and weighing the literary as well as the material sources available to us, but also providing a detailed study of more recent navigational techniques and how they might help us to a better understanding of Greek and Roman seamanship. However, over and above offering an introduction to ancient navigation, M. covers a much larger area. Just to take one example instead of many, he provides an in-depth discussion of images and ideologies connected with the emblematic figure of the navigator/pilot in Greek and Roman literature (24-32). His command of the primary and secondary sources is here, as elsewhere, up-to-date and comprehensive. Nonetheless, he manages to be judiciously selective and lucid in the presentation of his material, much to the benefit of his readers.

Looking through the various sections of the book, one finds that the first chapter (“Definizioni e documentazione”, 9-21) gives definitions of the basic concepts dealt with by M., while providing at the same time an insightful discussion of all the ancient sources that can be used to help us understand Greek and Roman navigation, “the haven-finding art”, as M. suggests it might be called, quoting the famous title of E. G. R. Taylor’s standard work (9). M. stresses rightly that navigation, now and then, is as much an art as it is a science. In order to navigate any seagoing vessel successfully, two things are required: theoretical knowledge at the appropriate level and, much more importantly, practical experience (10). Ancient navigation was essentially empirical, and the most important quality a sailor could develop was the “senso marino”, the ability to perceive and interpret by instinct even the faintest signs and changes of nature on sea: wind, weather, sky, animals, water, and the like (14; cf. also 23). Greek and Roman mariners were not familiar with some of the concepts and technology used by their colleagues in more recent times. Those studying and interpreting the ancient sources should keep this in mind at all times (13). M. makes these fundamental observations right at the beginning of his work, but they will recur like leitmotifs at central points throughout the book.

M. subdivides the evidence for ancient navigational practice into four groups: Direct evidence can be drawn from the literary sources (14-16) and archaeological findings (18-20); indirect evidence is available by way of comparison with traditional methods of navigation which were employed until recently (or still are, even now) by sailors around the Mediterranean and elsewhere in the world (16-18), and further by the results of modern experimental archaeology, especially through the construction of replicas of ancient boats like the Kyrenia II (20-21).

The second chapter (“Esperienza, sapere pratico e senso marinaio”, 23-108) sheds light on the importance of the sailors’ “experience, practical knowledge, and instinct” in seamanship (23-108), taking the reader from antiquity right to the beginning of the twentieth century. The main aim of M. is to establish the essence of what it is (and what the ancient sources tell us it is) to be a mariner. He discusses the terminology of the various deck officers in antiquity and the jobs they assigned to them, particularly that of the κυβερνήτης and πηδαλιοῦχος, both referred to as gubernator in the Roman sources (25). He is careful not to omit the political aspects of the topical helmsman-figure, for example in the philosophical writers of antiquity, in particular Plato and Cicero (in the context of the conventional image of the ship of state).

Just some critical notes on three details in this chapter: One might be more sceptical of the validity of the concept of mare clausum than M. is (37), but since this has been (and will probably remain) a moot point among scholars, there is no reason to take him to task for presenting his readers with the conventional and still widespread view that in antiquity, except for very special cases, “la navigazione era generalmente sospesa” between 11 November and 9 March.2 Nor do I fully understand M.’s formula for the calculation of the horizon distance (P = distance of visibility) over open water: P = 2.04 ([square root of H] + [square root of h]), in which M. claims 2.04 to be a “coefficiente costante marino di rifrazione” (75), while H is the height of the viewed object and h the height of the viewer. As simply using Pythagoras’ theorem already generates approximate solutions, it would have been helpful for the reader to be told more about the exact nature and background of this “coefficiente costante”, which would appear to me to be influenced by more than just altitude refraction.3 Finally, it is not clear whether the author of the libri navales mentioned by Vegetius and ascribed to some “Varro” by him (69) was the famous Roman polymath Marcus Terentius Varro of Reate (Varro Reatinus) or his younger contemporary, the far less known Publius Terentius Varro of Atax (Varro Atacinus), as is claimed by M. (107 n. 79; 109). As far as I can see, the available evidence tips the scale in favour of the former, under whose name come numerous treatises that, although barely known but for their titles, suggest some maritime interest on his side ( Ephemeris navalis, De ora maritima, Liber de aestuariis, De litoralibus; some of these may just be parts of one bigger work).4 So I would be inclined to disagree with M.’s attribution. But these observations should not for a moment detract from the fact that I found this chapter, like the others, brilliantly written and most inspiring.

The third chapter (“Testi di nautica e peripli”, 109-154), a long section dealing with possible avenues of the dissemination of nautical knowledge in antiquity, either orally or in writing, that is, either through technical handbooks and so-called periploi (sea captains’ guides to ports of call) or through oral instruction from experienced sailors. The writers of such periploi or “circumnavigations”, rather plain prose texts almost totally devoid of rhetorical embellishments, had clearly no literary aspirations, and the information given is structured in a rather monotonous, catalogue-like fashion that still betrays its oral ancestry. Still, for some scholars, including M., it remains unclear whether all the periploi that have come down to us were actually written with the intention of putting them to any practical use or were just “elaborazioni colte condotte a tavolino” (117).

The absence of nautical handbooks other than periploi from the mass of texts that has come down on us from antiquity is indeed notable and asks for an explanation. Scholars have variously ascribed the lack of traces of nautical handbooks to one of two reasons: Either, so the sceptics would say, there has never been such a subgenre of ancient handbook literature in the first place, or, according to a less sceptical view, there had been one, but all texts belonging to it were lost due to chance destruction in the course of textual transmission. Recently, both positions have found prominent champions, namely Pietro Janni on the side of the sceptics, and M. himself as champion of the less sceptical position (in the present book: 14f.; 109; 123). 5 The more optimistic view might be summarized thus: Although most of the sailors’ specialist practical knowledge was transmitted orally, there are some references in ancient literature that may point to the existence of nautical technical texts. However, their use would be confined to specific circumstances, like naval warfare, long merchant voyages and expeditions. The main proponent of this position is currently M. (14f.), but there other scholars have held similar views, notably Moses Finley.6

In the fourth chapter (“Navigazione astronomica e navigazione nautica”, 155-181) M. explores the important role played by astronomy in ancient navigation. It is here in particular that the illustrations that are generously provided by M. throughout the book are most helpful. Apart from dealing with the usual subject matter (e.g. celestial navigation at night using Ursa Major/Minor and the influence of lunisolar precession; solar navigation at daytime), referring to source texts as diverse as the Navigatio Sancti Brendani and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the reader is also presented with theories that go beyond what is securely known: M. claims the possibility of the existence of a (purely hypothetical) solar compass, “la cui realizzazione non avrebbe presentato alcun problema tecnico” (173). There is, naturally, good reason to be sceptical with regard to such theories, yet the discovery of the Antikythera mechanism, although it is not quite clear whether it was designed to be put to some nautical purpose, has taught us to be careful not to underestimate the general technological potential of the ancient world, so one should not dismiss such ideas offhand.7 Likewise, I find M.’s discussion of nautical instruments like the mediaeval kamal, developed by Arab seafarers for the determination of the latitude (177), and such based on similar principles, like the Renaissance balestriglia (179), most inspiring in this context.

The fifth and last chapter of the book (“Vele e manovre”, 183-206) discusses sail handling and nautical manoeuvres (183-206), including a typology of sail names, again very good illustrations of various naval manoeuvres.

The carefully compiled bibliography is helpful, rich, and up-to-date. There are only a few items that might also have been included by M.: the standard monograph by S. McGrail, quoted in note 3 of this review, reviewed by me in BMCR 2004.03.09; P. Janni’s very important article “Nautica”, quoted in note 5 of this review; K. Brodersen, Terra Cognita: Studien zur römischen Raumerfassung, Hildesheim/Zurich/New York 1995 (corrected ed. 2003).

To conclude, this book deserves high praise throughout.8 M.’s descriptions are always clear, even those of a more hypothetical character (as that of the solar compass, 173 and fig. 72). The single steps of nautical manoeuvres are often helpfully illustrated (e.g. 195-197). There are numerous judiciously chosen quotes taken from literary sources which testify to M.’s expert command of all aspects of ancient and modern navigation, often bringing into play modern (or early modern) seamanship as well (e.g. 52f.). He is also well-informed about early modern nautical handbooks and treatises on seafaring, e.g. La nautica, by Bernardino Baldi, Venice 1590 (70). At the same time, M. avoids both the Scylla of being too detailed and technical and the Charybdis of being too telegraphic about basic facts, facts he might know but his readers might not. In sum, De rebus nauticis can be highly recommended to all who would like to learn more about ancient seafaring in general and navigation in particular, and its potential readership is by no means limited to archaeologists (though the book was published in a series called Studia Archaeologica). In fact, the refreshing clarity and lucidity of this nonetheless detailed introductory survey is bound to appeal also to non-specialists who would like to familiarize themselves with ancient seafaring.9


1. Among these an important monograph on Carthaginian seafaring, La marineria cartaginese. Le navi, gli uomini, la navigazione, Sassari 2000, and numerous articles covering many aspects of ancient navigation and seamanship, e.g. “Imbarcazioni e navigazione preistorica nel Mediterraneo”, Bollettino di archeologia subaquea 1 (1993), 103-147.

2. For a contrary view, cf. e.g. H. Warnecke, “Zur Phänomenologie und zum Verlauf antiker Überseewege”, in: E. Olshausen/H. Sonnabend (eds.), Stuttgarter Kolloquium zur historischen Geographie des Altertums 7, 1999: Zu Wasser und zu Land. Verkehrswege in der antiken Welt, Stuttgart 2002, 93-104; 103. Cf. also J. Morton, The Role of the Physical Environment in Ancient Greek Seafaring, Leiden/Boston/Köln 2001, 258-261, a detailed and important study to which M. refers many times. It covers at least partly (and therefore in more detail) the same area as M., but is less readily accessible to the tiro.

3. My thanks go to Joachim Hildebrandt, Max-Planck-Gymnasium (Göttingen), for discussing this mathematical problem with me. An alternative formula for estimating distances (based on simple proportions) can be found in E. S. Maloney, Dutton’s Navigation and Piloting, Annapolis, Maryland 1978, 137 and 832-834. Another one is found in S. McGrail, Boats of the World: From the Stone Age to Medieval Times, Oxford 2001, 99 (table 4.1). See also the review of M.’s book by F. Acerbi, Aestimatio 1 (2004), 126-130; 129.

4. Cf. the brief note in: M. Terenti Varronis Fragmenta omnia quae extant, collegit recensuitque M. Salvadore, Part I: Supplement, Hildesheim et al. 1999, 48.

5. Cf. P. Janni, “Nautica”, in: I. Mastrorosa/A. Zumbo (eds.), Letteratura scientifica e tecnica di Grecia e Roma, Rome 2002, 395-412; 410.

6. Cf. M. I. Finley, The Ancient Economy, London 1973, 145.

7. As in my review of McGrail’s book (see above, note 3), I cannot refrain from advertising once again the magisterial work of D. de Solla Price, Gears from the Greeks: The Antikythera Mechanism. A Calendar Computer from ca. 80 B.C., Philadelphia 1974 ( Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, vol. 64, part 7).

8. There is the occasional misspelling, particularly of Greek words (e.g. on p. 36), but overall there appear to be no serious errors or omissions.

9. A translation into English should be seriously considered in order to widen the circle of its potential users. I am convinced that there will be many.