Ancient geography and exploration has become a topic of great interest in recent years, with numerous publications, including new editions of geographical texts such as those of Pseudo-Skylax and Eratosthenes, and a new translation and commentary of Strabo forthcoming. Today it remains phenomenal to the modern mind that sailors in the pre-industrial age were able to go such long distances: the voyages of Renaissance explorers, the Vikings across the North Atlantic, and the Polynesians across the Pacific remain among the major accomplishments of the human experience, all performed with no ability to calculate longitude. Although Greeks and Romans tended to be limited to coastal sailing, they still performed some astonishing feats, especially after their voyages went beyond the Mediterranean. This began in the late sixth century BC, and sailors came to experience the tides and endless swell of the Atlantic, as well as the fact that coasts could no longer be found in every direction.
By Roman times Greek explorers and traders had penetrated the Arctic, visited the Atlantic islands, sailed along much of the African and European coasts, and established maritime trade routes to India and Southeast Asia. In fact, by the Augustan period it was believed—erroneously—that almost all the inhabited earth had been circumnavigated, and that the remaining unexplored coasts were limited. But since it was known that the earth was a sphere and that the inhabited portion—the oikoumene —was only a tiny part of it, questions were being raised as to whether there were other continents and what would happen if one sailed west from the Pillars of Herakles.
Jean-Marie Kowalski, a professor at the École navale, has produced a fascinating book that explores many of these issues, specifically examining the Greeks’ ability at navigation and how it implemented their explorations. Although the sub-title implies a work about the Greco-Roman experience, the discussion effectively ends with Strabo, with hardly any examination of the (admittedly limited) Roman contribution to the topic. The first section of the work (pp. 13-54) is primarily concerned with source material. The author is right to emphasize Strabo, since a vast amount of what is known about ancient geography and exploration comes from this fascinating and under-utilized author, whose lengthy Geographika is the only work of its genre in Greek literature. Kowalski also examines the periplous, another genre that is significant for his topic. This is the coastal sailing itinerary, a tool used by seamen from ancient to modern times. Only a handful survive from antiquity, but they remain important pieces of evidence: since sailing was almost always coastal, the periploi are useful for understanding the relationship of the sailor to the coast, and in addition provide a large amount of geographical data.
Much of the information about ancient seamanship was based on oral traditions, beginning with Homer, who thus is the ultimate source for the topic. Despite the fact that the Odyssey is a mixture of fantasy and actual sailors’ tales, it is a valuable repository of information from the world that Homer knew (the eastern Mediterranean and parts of the North African and southern Italian and Sicilian coasts). This leads to the interesting question (pp. 41-9) whether the sea can be considered a geographical place analogous to points on the land, for the sea is a locale of human activity and is itself the means of access to far-flung areas (Greeks rarely went more than about 30 km. inland after they established distant towns that were hundreds of kilometers from home).
The major portion of this book (pp. 55-126) is devoted to the maritime experience and how it affected the understanding of the earth. Much of the material covered here is relatively familiar, but there are a number of interesting points. There is a good discussion of the dangers of sea travel (pp. 74-8), beginning with Homer’s Skylla, and including an examination (with a map) of particular places in the Mediterranean that were especially dangerous to seamen because of adverse winds or topographical features. And there was always the matter of piracy, which lasted well into the Roman period: Odysseus’ treatment of the Kikonians ( Odyssey 9.39-61) is one of the earliest examples in Greek literature of this phenomenon.
There is a fine presentation (pp. 78-86) of the role that the sea plays in defining cultural areas and cultural boundaries, as well as in separating the continents, (demonstrated by the Pillars of Herakles and the Hellespont). Large seas would be divided into numerous small seas. Kowalski has found well over a dozen divisions of the Mediterranean (p. 85), such as the Sardinian or Karpathian, and thus each region would have its own sea, providing a localized personal identity with a vast sea. This would allow the major seas—the largest things on the earth—to be regionalized and broken down into a number of cultural spheres (often without precise geographical limits). Thus those living along a particular coast would be able to enhance their sense of identity.
By defining themselves in terms of their relationship to the sea, Greeks developed a nautically based vocabulary that came to be applied even to terrestrial situations (pp. 97-101). Places were oriented toward certain winds—something not particularly relevant on land—or toward certain seas. The nautical word καταντικρύ (“exactly opposite”) was originally used by sailors to relate places on opposite coasts: thus Kantion (Kent) was “exactly opposite” the mouth of the Rhenos (Strabo 4.5.1). Yet it came to be applied to places on land: Kreusis is “exactly opposite” the Megarid (Stephanos of Byzantion, s. v.). The pervasiveness of the maritime experience affected Greeks even when not at sea.
This section concludes with a detailed discussion of the difficulties of orientation while at sea. Certain areas of the Mediterranean and Black Sea are out of sight of land (although the map on p. 100 seems to exaggerate this and does not take into full account differences of weather or the effect of heights on land), and thus there were serious issues of locating oneself even when not far from home, as Odysseus well knew. The ship that carried Paul of Tarsos was out of sight of land for two weeks from Crete to Malta, largely due to weather (Acts 27-8), and somewhat over a century earlier Poseidonios of Apameia had endured a three-month voyage from Gadeira to Italy (Poseidonios T26 Kidd). Thus even the most routine journeys could be fraught with peril. One way to mitigate this problem was good understanding of the winds (pp. 117-23). Wind theory seems to have originated with Aristotle (laid out in Book 2 of his Meteorologika), but sailors had attempted to understand the winds since prehistoric times. By the Hellenistic period as many as a dozen basic winds had been defined, largely the work of Timosthenes of Rhodes in the early third century BC (Strabo 1.2.21). This section of Kowalski’s book concludes with an excellent discussion of the evolution of the concept of maritime space and navigation from the time of Homer (in other words, Odysseus) to the Roman period (as manifested by Strabo). Odysseus seems to have had only limited knowledge of the constellations (only the Pleiades, Boötes, the Bear, and Orion, Odyssey 5.270-81), winds, and currents, whereas by the Roman period there were numerous documented constellations (Aratos’ Phainomena has nearly 50), the 12 winds, and a much more thorough appreciation of the currents.
The third section of Kowalski’s book examines the development of maritime charting (pp. 127-176). In many ways this is the most novel and interesting portion of the work. As is well known, map making among the Greeks originated with Anaximander of Miletos around 500 BC (Diogenes Laertios 2.1-2), although it is probable that sailors may have long used simple (perhaps even mental) mapping concepts. Using the numerous examples of maritime itineraries that are preserved in ancient literature (e.g. the one at Thucydides 2.25-3-5), Kowalski has produced a number of interesting visual representations: how, for example, would one go from Korykos at the northwest end of Crete to Tainaron, the southern point of the Peloponnesos (p. 145)? How would the Kyklades be crossed (p. 141)? Since no world or regional map seems to have survived from classical antiquity (those attached to the manuscripts of the Geography of Ptolemy are no earlier than about AD 1300, and the date of the map on the Artemidoros papyrus is still controversial), modern knowledge of these itineraries relies solely on ancient textual descriptions. These texts are the topic of Kowalski’s final discussion (pp. 158-72). Although the literary documentation is well known, he has provided a number of interesting drawings that illustrate mapping issues that are only described in literature, such as the shape of Italy or the coasts of the Black Sea. In fact, the many fine maps that illustrate navigational issues are an important feature of this book. Another is a full glossary of over a hundred technical terms that relate to geography and navigation: geographical features (e. g. akroterion, ekbole, oikoumene), dimensions (e. g. mekos, stenos), navigational terms (e. g. eulimenos, euormos), and words from geometry (e. g. ambeleia, pleuros). There is also a list of geographical authors and a lengthy bibliography. The index is useful although lacking in sub-headings, which makes longer entries such as “Strabo” or “île” problematic. Nevertheless this is an important book that is of particular value to students of ancient navigation.