BMCR 2021.07.09

New directions in the study of ancient geography

, New directions in the study of ancient geography. Publications of the Association of Ancient Historians series. University Park: Penn State University Press, 2020. Pp. xi, 208. ISBN 9781734003116 $99.95.

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

The five essays contained within New Directions in the Study of Ancient Geography cover a broad span of material, with no two chapters addressing the same period, author, or literary genre. This breadth is a strength: as the editor states, the collection is intended to “demonstrate the great diversity of the discipline” (p. 4). This aim is certainly achieved. Yet, aside from sharing the titular theme of “new directions” and an emphasis on ancient geography, there is little continuity across the volume.

The volume’s introduction—as brief as it is (totalling three and a half pages)—provides a clear and concise framework for thinking about “ancient geography”. This conceptualization is grounded in the tenet that geography is part of the human condition and that it can be divided into two distinct “paths”: one recording geographical information (evident within the earliest of Greco-Roman literature: e.g., Homer, Hesiod); and another theorizing about geographical information both in general “intellectual” thought (e.g., Pre-Socratics, Plato) and within dedicated treatises (e.g., Eratosthenes, Strabo). Although the volume devotes more discussion to the latter path, presenting itself as part of a continuous tradition of reception dating back to the Renaissance, when the study of such texts flourished, the first pathway is by no means ignored.

The first chapter, “The Kozy Kosmos of Early Cosmology” by Keyser, is the lengthiest individual contribution. Keyser’s thesis is both interesting and novel: the establishment of a radical, pre-Aristotelian model of the cosmos, termed the “kozy kosmos”. This said, it is unfortunate that the model’s application is often hidden behind summative descriptions of primary evidence. It could be argued that the summaries are necessary, since the establishment of Keyser’s model requires a comparative analysis of intercultural material from—Egypt, Israel, Mesopotamia, India, China, and the Americas, —and perhaps the readership is expected to be familiar only with Greco-Roman material (but why, then, does the volume’s title utilize the broader framework of “ancient”?). There are clearly instances, however, where the comparative evidence could have been more selective: case in point, the Mayan “cradle cosmology” (p. 15-16). This section’s evidence is minimal (especially in comparison to that of the other civilisations) and it appears—to this reviewer—to have been included only for the sake of being comprehensive rather than for illustrating some unique element of the model. The reader’s feeling of fatigue is not helped by the large number of subheadings and distinct sections into which this chapter is divided—for example, pages 43-44 include no fewer than five distinct subheadings. This aside, the analysis of the kozy kosmos model is enlightening and does, as Keyser suggests (e.g., pp. 19-20), bring a new perspective to the highly fragmentary cosmological musings of early pre-Socratic thinkers and poets. For example, the perspectives of the Milesian philosophers receive noteworthy clarification via the kozy kosmos model by associating the four elements with the creation process within the primordial chaos (pp. 30-32). It is when this kind of analytical discussion comes to the fore that Keyser’s “new direction” is clear.

Chapter two, “Timosthenes of Rhodes” by Roller, provides a translation of and commentary for the treatise On Harbours. This is perhaps one of the more valuable individual contributions of the volume since, as Roller notes, there have only been two previous editions of the fragments of On Harbours— Wagner (1884) and FGrHist (2013: BNJ 354)—with this being the first in English. As with any good commentary, Roller begins with an overview of Timosthenes’ life and works and the context of this highly fragmentary treatise. While there are no ground-breaking revelations in this introductory section (which follows established scholarly consensus),[1] the accessible overview will be of great use to students unfamiliar with such material. Roller’s translations are also highly accessible: written in easy-to-read prose with clear indicators of authorial asides and inter- and intra-textual references. The accompanying commentary expounds upon Timosthenes’ use within the sources and identifies how the fragments relate to one another.— This discussion follows Roller’s novel renumbering of the fragments to structure them according to the treatise’s “geographical orientation”. There is, however, a complete lack of discussion regarding textual variants and only very minor references to specific vocabulary (and when this does occur, the Greek words are always transliterated). This is  not surprising, since the Greek text has not been included, a fact that  appears to reflect a deliberate choice (perhaps for accessibility?). It is somewhat unfortunate that those with an interest in textual criticism are still without an English contribution but, as Roller includes both the Wagner and the BNJ numbering, cross-referencing with these alternate sources is remarkably straightforward.

Chapter three, “The politics of cartography” by Irby, presents cartography as a literary genre (rather than as an exclusively pictorial exercise) and considers how it is utilized by both poets and scientists for political ends. The Iliadic shield of Achilles is the first example that Irby explores, and it forms a most natural starting point for the discussion. It is equally unsurprising that Irby’s paper culminates in a discussion of geopolitical themes in Vergilian epic, in particular the map upon Aeneas’ shield. While it appears that the author’s primary focus is Vergilian epic (this discussion, pp. 91-101, is as lengthy as all the prior case studies combined),  the earlier discussions remain significant. The analysis of Euripides Ion (pp. 86-88) is particularly noteworthy, clearly illustrating the “propaganda value” of maps within the play. This section builds upon recent analyses of the Ion as political and/or propagandist writing,[2] and yet Irby’s contribution regarding the geopolitical nature of Ion’s role in the play (i.e., as the founder of all of Greece) and the expression of this via (textual) maps is particularly novel. Yet, the chapter’s analysis often wanders outside the boundaries of “politics” and “cartography” (as initially established by Irby). For example, the Milesians’ (pp. 82-85) use of cartography is presented as political only in the most general sense (i.e., men are political creatures by nature and the polis is an innately political institution). Furthermore, Irby explicitly acknowledges that the ecphrasis of Jason’s cloak in Apollonios of Rhodes’ Argonautica (pp. 88-91) is not a map even in a broad sense of the term (arguing instead for its inclusion via thematic links). Thus, one wonders if the focus on map making might have been reframed via a more general focus upon the geopolitical nature of texts. While attempts to create links with the concept of “maps” or map-making often form the weaker parts of Irby’s analysis, such a reframing would logically reflect the metaphorical expression of cartography that Irby initially argues for and utilizes from the outset.

Chapter four and Irby’s second contribution to the volume, “Tracing the Orbis terrarium from Tingentera”, explores first century geographer Pomponius Mela’s Latin treatise, the Chorography. The Chorography is a notable geographical work given that it is the earliest extant example of its kind in Latin. Any detailed treatment of this work in English is a welcome addition to contemporary scholarship: it was not until 1998 that the work first received an English translation and detailed analyses since then (in English) have been few and far between.[3] With this in mind, Irby’s chapter presents itself as a remarkably accessible discussion for students of ancient geography who may be unfamiliar with this text (this is, perhaps, a point of continuity with chapter 2). Irby attends, for example, to the context in which Mela wrote, the influences upon his writing, etc. Furthermore, Irby’s analysis of the description of Hispania in comparison to that represented in Caesar’s Gallic Wars (pp.130-134), which is built upon an acknowledgment of Mela’s cultural Romanitas, is a novel idea: this is a valuable “new direction” in contemporary explorations of the Chorography. It is interesting, however, that Irby does not frame this new idea  through comparison to the earlier work of Roger Batty, who had first noted (as Irby does here) that Mela’s hometown of Tingentera occupies a unique central position within the work.[4] To be clear, Irby’s nuanced presentation of Mela as a Roman author and stylist departs significantly from Batty’s overstated position that Mela had little interest in the Greco-Roman world;[5] however, drawing out this contrast would have assisted in furthering the volume’s sense of continuity regarding its  overall theme of “new directions”.

The fifth and final chapter, “Mutuo metu aut montibus” by Jones-Lewis, explores the ethno-geographic theory of environmental determinism (i.e., “the notion that the physical environment directs and drives the way in which inhabitants of that region grow and develop”, p. 136) in relation both to the Germania of Tacitus and to earlier Roman geographical writings within the literary milieu of this work. As a “modern” geographical concept, environmental determinism flourished in the early 20th century but quickly came to share a complicated ideological relationship with notions of imperialism, racism, and colonisation.[6] Thus, while often problematic in contemporary settings and applications, Jones-Lewis here presents a solid argument for considering this concept within the wider classical tradition and, in particular, the way Romans thought about their imperial expansion(s). Yet, these arguments and their  application to Tacitus and his Germania are not this chapter’s “new direction”: Benjamin Isaac’s much earlier monograph on racism in classical antiquity had already thoroughly explored this thesis.[7] What sets this chapter apart is the tracing of these themes through Tacitus’ sources and predecessors , analysis of Tacitus’  acceptance and rejection of environmental determinism —in regard to  the use/influence of Caesar’s Gallic War, in particular [8]—and analysis of the way(s) this phenomenon may have been understood by Tacitus’ audience. Thus, Caesar forms something of a leitmotif within Jones-Lewis’ mapping of Tacitus’ environmental determinism and the reading of an expansionist agenda in the Germania fits well with his much earlier presentation of the Germans and their combative relationship with Rome.

That there is no concluding section to this volume speaks—to this reviewer at least—of the difficulty in tying together its great diversity into something more cohesive than acknowledging the various “new directions”. Each individual chapter demonstrates a degree of novelty in discussing its chosen subject matter; however, the chapters remain, by and large, independent from one another. The consequence of this is that the volume will likely only be consulted for specific contributions rather than being of interest to a readership with a more holistic inclination.

Authors and titles

“Introduction”, Duane W. Roller (pp. 1-4)
Ch 1. “The Kozy Kosmos of Early Cosmology”, Paul T. Keyser (pp 5-55)
Ch 2. “Timosthenes of Rhodes”, Duane W. Roller (pp. 56-79)
Ch. 3 “The Politics of Cartography: Foundlings, Founders, Swashbucklers, and Epic Shields”, Georgia L. Irby (pp. 80-102)
Ch. 4 “Tracing the Orbis Terrarium from Tengentera”, Georgia L. Irby (pp. 103-134)
Ch. 5 “Mutuo metu aut montibus: Mapping Environmental Determinism in the Germania of Tacitus”, Molly Ayn Jones-Lewis (pp. 135-160)


[1] C.f.  F. Prontera (2013) “Timosthenes and Eratosthenes: Sea Routes and Hellenistic Geography”. In K. Buraselis, M. Stefanou, & D. Thompson (eds.), The Ptolemies, the Sea and the Nile: Studies in Waterborne Power (pp. 207-217), Cambridge;  H. A. Gärtner (2007) “Timosthenes of Rhodes”. In H. Cancik & H. Schneider (eds.), Brill’s Encyclopaedia of the Ancient World: New Pauly, Leiden; D. Meyer (1998) “Hellenistische Geographie zwischen Wissenschaft und Literatur: Timosthenes von Rhodos und der griechische Periplus”. In W. Kullmann, J. Althoff & M. Asper (eds.), Gattungen wissenschaftlicher Literatur in der Antike (pp. 193–215), Tübingen. The exception here may be Roller’s suggestion that fragments 36-37 should be excluded from On Harbours and, due to their cultic content, should be associated with the Exegetikon.

[2] Studies not referenced by Irby include, e.g.:  M. Vickers (2014) “Politics and Challenge: The Case of Euripides’ Ion“, The Classical World, 107(3), pp. 299-318; L. Athanassaki (2010) “Art and Politics in Euripides’ Ion: The Gigantomachy as Spectacle and Model of Action”. In A. M. González de Tobia (ed), Mito y performance: De Grecia a la modernidad (pp. 199-242), La Plata.

[3] F. E. Romer (1998) Pomponius Mela’s Description of the World, Ann Arbor. Cf. J. Hind (1999) “Pomponius Mela on Colonies in West and East”. In G. R. Tsetskhladze (ed.), Ancient Greeks West and East (pp. 77–84), Leiden; R. Scott Smith (2016) “Between Narrative and Allusion: Mythography in Pomponius Mela’s Chorography”, Polymnia no. 2, pp. 87-119.

[4] R. Batty (2000) “Mela’s Phoenician Geography”, Journal of Roman Studies, 90, pp. 70-94.

[5] See Batty (2000) 93.

[6] Alongside Jones-Lewis’ own comments on this (e.g., p. 155), see, e.g., B. Isaac (2006) “Proto-racism in Graeco-Roman antiquity”, World Archaeology, 38:1, pp. 32-47; and, from a non-classical perspective, M. Bassin (1992) “Geographical determinism in Fin-de-siècle Marxism: Georgii Plekhanov and the environmental basis of Russian history.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82.1, pp. 3-22.

[7] While Jones-Lewis makes reference to Isaac (2013), see also Isaac’s earlier article (2006) “Proto-racism in Graeco-Roman antiquity”(cited in n. 6); both of which discuss Tacitus’ view of the Germans in the Germania as an expression of environmental determinism.

[8] This reading of Caesar is explicitly noted by Jones-Lewis to be distinct from that of Isaac (see, e.g., p. 140 and n.14).