BMCR 2008.04.32

La invención de una geografía de la Península Ibérica I and II

, , , La invención de una geografía de la Península Ibérica I. La época republicana. (Actas del Coloquio Internacional celebrado en la Casa de Velázquez de Madrid entre el 3 y el 4 de marzo de 2005). Málaga-Madrid: Servicio de Publicaciones del Centro de Ediciones de la Diputación de Málaga (CEDMA)-Casa de Velázquez, 2006. 250 pages. ISBN 9788477857440
, , , La invención de una geografía de la Península Ibérica II. La época imperial. (Actas del Coloquio Internacional celebrado en la Casa de Velázquez de Madrid entre el 3 y el 4 de abril de 2006). Málaga-Madrid: Servicio de Publicaciones del Centro de Ediciones de la Diputación de Málaga (CEDMA)-Casa de Velázquez, 2006. 377 pages. ISBN 9788477851226

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

These two volumes contain the papers delivered in two consecutive conferences held in Madrid in 2005 and 2006 on the topic of the emergence of a geography of the Iberian Peninsula, which became Roman Hispania (modern Spain and Portugal) during the Roman Republic (vol. I) and Empire (vol. II). The papers are mostly in Spanish and French, with three chapters (out of the twenty seven) in Italian and one in English. At the end of each volume the reader can find abstracts and a list of key words for each article in Spanish, French, and sometimes English.

This collection of articles covers a wide range or topics, authors, and approaches, which represent the state of this field of study in European scholarship. It is therefore an important volume for those interested in ancient Roman history and ancient geographical descriptions, as well as those interested in history of the Iberian Peninsula in particular.

The broader organization of the topics is chronological, but papers are grouped thematically within each period. Thus, the first volume contains papers about the Republican period, in turn grouped in three parts. The first part focuses on the earliest forms of representation of these lands of the extreme west in Hellenistic geography and cartography down to Polybius (second century BC). This author marks the transition between the Hellenistic scientific and erudite (but vague) perceptions of this area and the more pragmatic approach of the Roman conquerors. The second part contains discussions about the construction of a more detailed “map” of Iberia as these territories were progressively assimilated to Rome during the last two centuries of the Republic and the complex ways in which military strategies, administrative practices, and geographic knowledge related to each other. Discussions include the role of Agrippa in the invention of the Roman province and the geography involved in the accounts of the Sertorian war. A third part presents papers on a particular case-study: that of the north-east of the Iberian Peninsula, between the Pirenees and the Ebro valley, which became the core of the so-called Celtiberia. The second volume is organized in a similar way, but covering the Imperial Period. A first long section deals with literary sources in general, with papers on Strabo, Pomponius Mela, Pliny the Elder, and Ptolemy. A second section is devoted to epigraphical sources and a third section mirrors the case study of the first volume, this time on the Baetica region of southern Spain.

Each volume is preceded by a preface by the editors and the second volume also has an introductory article by Pascal Arnaud and a brief concluding piece, which contributes to the unity of the volume and highlights the main trends that emerge from the papers.

Since there are more papers in this collection than I can comment on in this review, I will offer some general remarks on what seemed particularly interesting themes and trends emerging from the volumes as well as their general quality, singling out only some contributions that, in my view, deserve special attention.

Most of the sources discussed throughout the volumes are literary. However, this evidence is well complemented by several articles representing other disciplines and methodologies. Thus, Kramer in vol. I discusses the still unedited Artemidoros papyrus, containing part of his description of the Iberian Peninsula and what seems to be a partial map. In vol. II we have two contributions on epigraphy, one on linguistics (García Alonso) discussing toponyms and ethnonyms in Ptolemy and the methodological problems involved in their identification and interpretation, and one on a broad geographical project (Keay and Earl) to assess “interconnectivity” networks in Roman Baetica, in which archaeological and epigraphic evidence are joined in a data-base and technologies such as GPS and SIG are used to study settlement patterns in this territory.

A recurring theme, already mentioned, is the contrast between the theoretical character of geographical investigation at an early stage, in Hellenistic times (e.g., Eratosthenes), and the tendency toward a more practical geography as Roman domination advanced, Polybios marking the transition between these two approaches, while Strabo, also between the two worlds, is treated already as part of the Imperial world in the second volume. It also becomes evident that knowledge of Iberia in Hellenistic times was highly dependant on coastal exploration (the main source of Eratosthenes was the periplous written by Pytheas, a fourth-century BC explorer from Marseilles), with Marseilles and the Columns of Heracles as the main axis of reference. Although the Carthaginians had a better knowledge of these lands, it is not until their wars against Rome and the systematic penetration of Roman armies in the interior that geographers such as Polybios and Strabo would be able to gather more detailed information about the Iberian and Celtic inland regions.1

Also, as Beltrán Lloris points out in the concluding remarks (vol. II, p.359), it seems clear that there is no direct relationship between the Hellenistic geographic and cartographic traditions and the Roman military advance. That is, the methods employed in these different realms of geographic inquiry and description operated on different levels, one more scientific and intellectual, the other practical and administrative. However, as can be seen throughout many of the articles, Imperial authors (Strabo, Mela, Pliny, Ptolemy) also depended heavily on previous Hellenistic traditions for information and this dependence created a tension that made them both conservative and innovative (cf. Arnaud in vol. II).

A refreshing trend in some essays is the commitment to conduct an internal analysis of the geographical works as literary compositions with their own structure and agendas, not as mere vessels of facts and details of historical interest. For instance, Counillon (vol. II) detaches himself from the linear description of Strabo’s account, to discuss the mechanisms of his construction of geographical spaces and the “mental maps” that articulate them. The two articles by Traina and Beltrán Lloris on Pliny the Elder (vol. II) also provide a positive re-evaluation of Pliny’s account and the intricacies of the internal structure of his description. Moret (vol. ἰ, in turn, offers one of the best pieces in the collection, analyzing the formation of Greek toponyms and ethnonyms in the Iberian Peninsula (leaving aside native and Phoenician-Punic names), from Hekataios to Polybios. This long article (over 30 pages) engages with the sources in a more sophisticated way than most of his peers. Moret argues that the account of place-names in Hellenistic-early Roman tradition should be looked at as literary productions of a particular genre. While the authenticity of place names transmitted by ancient sources is often taken at face-value and most modern authors try to reconstruct geographical realities from them, the apparent confusion can be better understood if we look at mythical and literary points of reference that informed geographical perception. He also insists on the differences among the various agents that entered this geographic game: sailors are not the same kind of name-producers as intellectual writers and so on. Moret, finally, draws interesting connections between the two extremes of the Mediterranean, the Pontus area and Iberia, and the role of the Phocaeans and authors such as Charon of Lampsacus (fifth century BC) in the construction of these correspondences. The brief article by Marcotte (vol. I) also presents an original view on how the term Iberia became progressively attached to most of the Peninsula, from Cádiz to the Pyrenees (including the Var region in the southern French coast ), drawing an interesting analogy between the case of Iberia and the application of the name “Italia” to the whole Italic peninsula, from Calabria to the Alps. She argues that the term “Italia” started to be used (already in Herodotos and Thucydides) for the Greek inhabitants of southern Italy, so that in both cases (Iberia and Italia) the origin of the common term was in the Greek settlements along the coast.

Another overarching theme, especially in vol. II, is how the administrative network that Rome imposed on the previous territorial organization affected and informed the writing of geographical descriptions. This aspect is especially relevant in the discussions of Agrippa (Le Roux in vol. I) and Pliny in vol. II (note the highly technical work on the conventus iuridicus in Baetica by Cortijo Cerezo).

Issues of ethnic identity also emerge and are treated seriously at different points. For instance, Parroni (vol. II) shows how Pomponius Mela, a Spaniard by birth, writes from the perspective of a Roman citizen, not based on his local identity or interests.2 Cruz Andreotti (vol. II) discusses how perceptions of local history and identity determine the way in which Strabo integrates some regions into a Roman (i.e., “world”) history of cultures. The Turdetani in southern Iberia, as Andreotti shows, play a pivotal role in the easy integration of a vast territory whose culture, rooted in Phoenician colonization, is more homogeneous, prosperous, and better known that others on the Peninsula.

The discussion of the epigraphic evidence in vol. II is also interesting, especially Gómez-Pantoja’s observations on the kind of information that inscriptions give us about non-official matters, about travelers, immigrants, and the degree to which “regular” folks (not erudite geographers or informed administrators) handled geographical information when they had to travel. For instance, he argues that private and public itineraries or tabellaria, rather than more technical maps, often placed along main routes or at city gates, would have been more common than we imagine.

The rest of the papers are more uneven in terms of offering critical analysis, presenting original information, or nuanced readings of the sources. As a result, many contributions are more descriptive and synthesizing than analytical or original, focusing on the summarizing and recovery of information transmitted by the texts, often taken at face value. This does not make the volume easy reading for the general public either. Most of the articles assume some background on the part of the reader, and general information is often lacking at the opening of essays (dates and place of origin of works or authors, title of the work, main topic or thesis of the chapter). This might be due to the origin of the papers in a conference whose audience were specialists and advanced students. The non-specialist, in any case, will struggle not only with the variety of languages but also with the uneven presentation of information ( OCD and dictionaries in hand are recommended, including a Latin one, as some chapters present numerous quotations without translation). Fortunately, the more accessible and clearly presented articles are often also the best in terms of originality and depth. Like other books of this type, the volumes inevitably stay in a sort limbo: not easy enough for the general public, but not challenging enough for the specialist (with some worthy exceptions, mostly mentioned above).

In favor one must say that the two books hold together very nicely, unlike many other collective volumes of conference papers. If anything, a bit too nicely, as many of the articles revisit the same authors not always in radically different ways. For instance, the first two short contributions of vol. I on Hellenistic sources for the Iberian Peninsula are overshadowed by Moret’s longer article on the topic, and in vol. II there are three articles on Strabo, three on Pliny, and two on Ptolemy. More often than not, however, there is enough to be added by the different authors to justify the overlap (e.g., one of the articles on Ptolemy is on cartography, the other on toponymy and linguistics). In all, the end result provides a rich source of information and a general view of current perspectives on Roman geography of the Iberian Peninsula. The editors’ prefaces to each volume and Beltrán Lloris concluding remarks to the second volume are also well put together and contribute to the unity of the collection.

The volumes include numerous maps and charts. In general it is well edited. An index of place names and passages, however, would have been welcome. The different spelling of authors and place-names can be slightly confusing but is unavoidable in a volume written in four languages (and, admittedly, would have made an index difficult to compile). Each paper has its own bibliography.

Summing up, these volumes will be very useful for scholars or advanced students already familiar with the issues, but not so useful for general readers.

Authors and titles:

Vol. I

Gonzalo Cruz Andreotti, Pierre Moret, and Patrick Le Roux, “Presentación.”

Francesco Prontera, “La Peninsola Iberica nella cartografia ellenistica.”

Didier Marcotte, “De l’Ibérie à la Celtique: géographie et chronographie du monde occidental avant Polybe.”

Pierre Moret, “La formation d’une toponymie et d’une ethnonymie grecques de l’Ibérie: étapes et acteurs.”

Gonzalo Cruz Andreotti, “Polibio y la integración histórico-geográfica de la Península Ibérica.”

Bärbel Kramer, “La Península Ibérica en la “Geografía” de Artemidoro de Efeso.”

Patrick Le Roux, “L’invention de la province romaine d’Espagne citérieure de 197 a. C. à Agrippa.”

François Cadiou, “Renseignement, espionnage et circulation des armées romaines: vers une géographie militaire de la péninsule Ibérique à l’époque de la conquête.”

Manuel Salinas de Frías, “Geografía ficticia y geografía real de la epopeya sertoriana.”

María Pilar Ciprés Torres, “La geografía de la guerra en Celtiberia.”

Christian Rico, “L'”invention” romaine des Pyrénées, ou les étapes de la formation d’une frontière.”

Francisco Beltrán Lloris, “El valle medio del Ebro durante el período republicano: de “limes” a “conuentus”.”

Vol. II

Gonzalo Cruz Andreotti, Pierre Moret, and Patrick Le Roux, “Presentación.”

Pascal Arnaud, “La géographie romaine impériale, entre tradition et innovation.”

Francesco Prontera, “Strabone e la tradizione della geografia ellenistica.”

Patrick Counillon, “La représentation de l’espace et la description géographique dans le livre III de la Géographie de Strabon.”

Piergiorgio Parroni, “La Spagna di Pomponio Mela.”

Giusto Traina, “La géographie entre érudition et politique: Pline l’Ancien et les frontières de la connaissance du monde.”

Francisco Beltrán Lloris, “Locorum nuda nomina? La estructura de la descripción pliniana de Hispania.”

Didier Marcotte, “Ptolémée et la constitution d’une cartographie régionale.”

José Luis García Alonso, “La geografía de Ptolomeo y el corpus toponímico y etnonímico de Hispania.”

Patrick Le Roux, “Géographie peninsulaire et epigraphie romaine.”

Joaquín Gómez-Pantoja, “Una visión “epigráfica” de la geografía de Hispania central.”

Gonzalo Cruz Andreotti, “Acerca de Estrabón y la Turdetania-Bética.”

María Luisa Cortijo Cerezo, “El papel del conventus iuridicus en la descripción geográfica de Plinio el Viejo. El caso bético.”

Simon Keay and Graeme Earl, “Structuring of the provincial landscape: the towns in central and western Baetica in their geographical context.”

Francisco Beltrán Lloris, “A modo de recapitulación / Esquisse d’un bilan.”


1. Note the recent publication of Duane W Roller’s Through the Pillars of Herakles: Greco-Roman Exploration of the Atlantic (New York-London: Routledge, 2006).

2. An English annotated translation is by F. E. Romer, Pomponius Mela’s Description of the World (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1998).