BMCR 2015.01.20

Features of Common Sense Geography: Implicit Knowledge Structures in Ancient Geographical Texts. Antike Kultur und Geschichte, Bd 16

, , Features of Common Sense Geography: Implicit Knowledge Structures in Ancient Geographical Texts. Antike Kultur und Geschichte, Bd 16. Berlin; Münster; Wien; Zürich; London​: LIT Verlag, 2014. 376. ISBN 9783643905284. €59.90.


Modern scholars, it seems safe to say, know far more about the geography of the ancient world than any of the ancients themselves, even more than such luminaries as Ptolemy, Strabo, or Pliny, definitely more than someone like Aristophanes’ Strepsiades. Of course, in this context ‘more’ directly implies the precision of modern geographic science, cartography and toponymic orthography.1 ‘More’ necessarily forces modern assumptions and expectations on the Greeks and Romans and is why their ability to manage without the use of maps needs frequent repeating.2 Common Sense Geography, the combined effort of a research group within the TOPOI Excellence Cluster,3 usefully challenges such modern expectations. The diverse group of scholars, including ancient historians, philologists, geographers, archaeologists, linguists, and other experts, show that our understanding of the ancients’ ideas about space, their Raumbilder, depends upon the interaction between their “language, culture, and cognition” (309).

The volume’s fourteen chapters are divided into four subsections. In general, the first (untitled) and fourth (“Conclusions & Perspectives”) define the concept of common sense geography and illuminate the theoretical terminology and methodological models that underpin it, while the second (“Themes & Topics”) and third (“Authors & Texts”) offer various case studies employing the precepts of common sense geography. There are individual chapter bibliographies as well as a cumulative bibliography, an index of ancient sources and a general index. Scattered throughout are useful images, figures, and maps.

Two multi-authored introductory chapters (one by Geus and Thiering; the other by Dan, Geus and Guckelsberger) explain that common sense geography concerns a community’s consensus about the knowledge of their world’s physical environment. Implicit, and therefore hard to describe, it is the shared and intuitive information (as opposed to scientific) that allows “normal” (25) individuals (i.e. not expert geographers) to describe and navigate their world (33). Ubiquitous because of its pragmatism, it is both relevant and accessible to its audience, a fact that limited the widespread development of more scientific representations (25). The editors also categorize common sense geography along a spectrum that includes “intuitive” geography such as that employed by seafarers, “scholarly” geography such as that appearing in Herodotus or Pliny the Elder, and “fully reasoned” geography which, for the ancients at least, reached its apogee with Ptolemy.

Thiering, in the volume’s final chapter, explains common sense geography through the lens of cognitive linguistics and cognitive psychology. In short, he offers various categories of analysis, questions, and terminologies that illuminate the mental models formed by the Greeks and Romans. Unsurprisingly, it is by far the most sophisticated chapter, and although the editors defend its placement at the end of the volume as a sort of “‘aha’ experience” (14), readers uninitiated in gestalt theory or figure/ground asymmetries may find it beneficial to read it both before and after the case studies which frequently illustrate the theory, even if only by implication.

The volume’s second section (“Themes & Topics”) includes five contributions that employ thematic approaches to illustrate the utility and indeed prevalence of common sense geography. Arnaud, for example, neatly describes how ancient mariners navigated without the use of instruments but instead relied upon implicit knowledge structures “to form cognitive maps for orientation” (40). These structures included the ability to estimate distance through duration, course through astronomy and to a certain extent wind direction, and location through a cognitive series that understood a sequence of places lying on the same parallel or route. The mariners’ necessary emphasis on a particularly important port, like Caralis in Sardinia, could leave later geographers assuming that it was both the easternmost and southernmost point of the island (63). Thus, this mariners’ geography, this common sense geography that consisted of limited linear sections designed for the practical necessity of travel, significantly affected the ‘cartographic’ geography that developed later. Poiss next argues that common sense geography can illuminate a mental model based on a bird’s-eye view which, although often dismissed, is readily recognized in poetic similes describing the territorial purview of the gods, in historical descriptions of battles, and in geographic descriptions of cities and towns. Chiai then illustrates how effectively the island and the associated concept of insularity were employed as cognitive categories to define and compartmentalize the Mediterranean and even civic space. Bianchetti shows how political concerns could undermine scientific geography in favor of a common sense geography that in this case viewed Britain as an alter mundus, another world. Finally, Bekker-Nielsen, in a clearly organized and developed chapter, compares what he calls hard and soft spaces in the Roman world. The former are often determined from the ‘top down’ while the latter from the ‘bottom up’. Whether a determinant of citizenship, coastal rights, or political boundaries between or within provinces, he illustrates how the Romans often attempted to impose hard spaces – definite divisions – where soft spaces – determined by human interaction – were more prevalent and powerful. His enlightening discussion ought to be read alongside Nicolet’s still important study concerning the Romans’ need to impose geographic organization(s) in the early imperial period.4

Four chapters next address issues of common sense geography in specific texts. Geus catalogues the various implicit structures for distance in Herodotus and other Greek sources. In short, he convincingly illustrates that Herodotus and his contemporaries had no standard way to calculate a distance or average. Rather, our sources relied on their own judgment to select a distance from available sources or to construct another based on their own mental model of common sense geography. Dan then argues that in Xenophon’s Anabasis geography served almost as a character, a fierce and unfamiliar enemy that the Greeks needed to conquer. The Greek text betrays different levels of spatial thinking and modeling that can be equated to different ranks in society, from the intuitive geography of the uneducated soldiers through the reasoned geography of the elite and literate officers. As a result both hodological and bird’s-eye views are present, a mishmash of common sense geographies that render the work both “complex and accessible” (183) and consequently more representative of the various ways the Greeks, at least, could perceive an otherwise unknown world. Next, Florentina Badalanova Geller reassesses traditional interpretations of the so-called Babylonian mappamundi currently located in the British Museum and argues that it could have served as a sort of geographic master-model, or at any rate an illustration of such a Vorlage (202), upon which the biblical description of the Garden of Eden was based. It is argued, then, that this tradition, alongside a healthy dose of contemporary cultural imperatives, affected other late antique and medieval illustrations of Mesopotamia. Markham Geller concludes the section on authors and texts with a clever discussion illuminating the origins of Berossos’ Babyloniaka. Employing the concepts of common sense geography, principally the identification of cultural assumptions and cognitive linguistics, Geller shows that Berossos’ text better illustrates Babylonian rather than Greek traditions. He argues therefore that the geography was originally written in Aramaic for an Aramaic speaking audience, and that the author probably never even travelled to Kos, but rather that his works and therefore his influence were transmitted and translated there.

Alongside Thiering’s theoretical essay discussed above, the volume’s final section (“Conclusions & Perspectives”) includes Guckelsberger’s chapter emphasizing that although the technical skill to conduct something approaching scientific geography existed, common sense geography was an efficient and adequate (enough) way to locate specific geographic locations. However useless these locations (points) may be for the rendering of an accurate map, they allowed (usually) for the practical needs of daily life (241). Finally, Ilyushechkina, Görz, and Thiering posit the creation of a semi-automatic computational tool to catalogue and categorize basic expressions of orientation and geography found in the written ancient sources. These computations should help identify universally understood concepts of common sense geography. The decision to focus on an English translation of Dionysius Periegetes proves the potential of the project, even if there is lingering suspicion that something may be lost from the Greek original.5

So much for the sequential, chapter-by-chapter (hodological?), summary of the volume’s contents; now for an admittedly brief bird’s-eye evaluation of its significance to our growing understanding of geography and worldview in the ancient Mediterranean world. First, many of the authors (but see especially Poiss, Dan, and even Badalanova Geller) challenge the dominance of the hodological (linear and uni-dimensional) worldview so prevalent in modern scholarship. While there is no reason to surrender completely this model, these studies, alongside others,6 usefully illustrate that the ancient worldview was much more complicated and varied than is often assumed. Second, a number of the contributions (especially Bianchetti, Bekker-Nielsen, Dan and Geller) show how common sense geography recognizes and emphasizes the interconnection between politics and geographic knowledge. Political concerns as much, and even more than some sort of scientific curiosity, guided both the collection and presentation of such knowledge. Finally, all the contributions (but especially those by Arnaud, Guckelsberger, and Geus) illustrate the simple practicality inherent in common sense geography. Whether it be political considerations that determined spatial awareness, or the mental maps that guided travel, common sense geography reveals a distinct adherence to practicality, even if, as Bekker-Nielsen demonstrates, severe contradictions between expectation and reality could arise.

The editors (and many of the contributors) admit that Common Sense Geography is by no means a final word, but rather is designed to spark further research, and so it should. Collectively, they have illustrated the potential of their interdisciplinary research program to challenge prevailing assumptions and illuminate the ancient worldview. In short, the authors demonstrate that modern expectations of precision and accuracy were both unexpected and unnecessary in antiquity. Recognizing this fact will only improve our view of the ancient worldview. There is, nevertheless, room to expand the scope of the question, or at any rate, the breadth of the source material. Considering the volume’s focus on cognitive linguistics it is perhaps appropriate, if not necessary, that texts and textual analysis dominate the contributions, but other items of evidence, especially in the material record, deserve increased attention. In a brief footnote, for example, the editors state the need for further work on two potentially illustrative categories of evidence, Roman military diplomata and portable sundials.7 As illustrated elsewhere, maps or at least geographic images, however incomplete their survival or fuzzy their reconstructions, may also provide a fruitful area of further study.8 Cicero correctly bemoaned the difficult task of writing geography ( Ad. Att. 2.4; 2.6). Like Atticus we should continue to encourage further research, and thankfully, unlike Atticus, we can expect results. ​


1. See for example Talbert, R., ed., The Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World (Princeton 2000) and Pleiades, the digital gazetteer that offers both precise coordinates and orthographies for ancient places.

2. See Brodersen’s contribution in Dueck, D. Geography in Classical Antiquity (New York 2012), 99-110.

3. Those interested in the present volume’s themes should also see the contributions collected in Geus, K. and Rathmann, M., eds., Vermessung der Oikumene, (Berlin 2013).

4. Nicolet, C., Space, Geography, and Politics in the Early Roman Empire, trans. Hélène Leclerc (Ann Arbor 1991).

5. Readers should now also consult Lightfoot, J. (ed.), Dionysius Periegetes: Description of the Known World: With Introduction, Text, Translation, and Commentary, (Oxford 2014).

6. See, for example, Talbert, R., “Rome’s Provinces as a Framework for World-View,” in Roman Rule and Civic Life: Local and Regional Perspectives, ed. L. de Ligt et al., (Amsterdam 2004), 21-37.

7. Note 1 on page 7. For forthcoming studies on these topics see Talbert, R., Roman Portable Sundials: The Empire in Your Hand (Oxford, forthcoming) and Turner, B., “Limitless Empire: The Public Commemoration of Soldiers’ Origins,” in Roman Frontier Studies: Proceedings of the XXII International Limes Congress in Ruse, Bulgaria, 2012, ed. Lyudmil Vagalinski et al. (forthcoming).

8. Note especially Rochberg, F., “The Expression of Terrestrial and Celestial Order in Ancient Mesopotamia,” in Ancient Perspectives: Maps and Their Place in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome, ed. Richard Talbert (Chicago 2012), 9-46. Her conclusion’s reference to cognitive psychology would not be out of place in the current volume. ​