BMCR 2022.03.49

Illiterate geography in classical Athens and Rome

, Illiterate geography in classical Athens and Rome. Routledge monographs in classical studies. Abingdon: Routledge, 2020. Pp. 278. ISBN 9780367439705. $128.00.


Dueck’s book addresses the extent of geographic knowledge among the non-elite, focusing on aural and visual reception rather than the textual tradition. The chronological span of this work is the 5th century BCE to the 2nd century CE (more precisely, the end of Hadrian’s reign), with specific focus on two distinct periods of geopolitical expansion for Athens and Rome, respectively: 508-338 BCE; and 264 BCE-14 CE. The sources used by Dueck each comprise a chapter of the book and include several types of evidence that fall under three broad categories: oral communications preserved in writing, public, non-textual performances, and visual material. Dueck succeeds in compiling information from these various sources in such a way that does not privilege any one over the other; she is responsible and careful (at times, excessively) in her conclusions regarding the amount of geographic knowledge the audience/viewer actually absorbed through these various sources, cautioning throughout her work that this study reveals only the potential for geographic transmission through aural and visual means, but that individual knowledge is impossible to quantify.

In the introductory chapter, Dueck addresses the overall goals of her book, and outlines the scope, sources, methodology, historical context, and potential pitfalls of this study. In small, digestible sections of this chapter, Dueck covers various concepts, including definitions of literacy itself and how such labels might apply to the ancient world, and the various ways through which the masses could acquire geographic knowledge, either by travel (war, worship, commerce, and tourism) or through casual interactions at home (contact with enslaved persons, imported goods, various casual and formal public communication, etc.). Dueck frames her study with the crucial disclaimer that general knowledge is impossible to quantify, reminds the reader that such an inquiry can only reveal probabilities rather than certainties, and sums it up perfectly thus: “we will never know what people knew” (10).

In Chapter 2 (“Speeches”) and Chapter 3 (“Drama”), Dueck extracts geographic data in the form of place names from the surviving written versions of public speeches and dramatic performances. Only those speeches that are known to have been delivered publicly are considered, comprising select works by the ten Attic orators and Cicero. The amount of geographic information in any given orator’s corpus varies considerably—for example, in the 11 speeches of Isaeus there are only 12 place names, whereas Lycurgus’ sole speech provides no fewer than 34 toponyms. There are some inconsistencies in the presentation of data: for example, while Dueck does include a selection of Demosthenes’ speeches, she never provides the exact number of his speeches that she analyzed—this omission of the number of speeches is also the case with Cicero. Moreover, no explanation is given for Dueck’s decision to omit Attic place names from her analyses of the Attic speeches while, conversely, retaining similarly proximate Italian locations in her analysis of Cicero’s texts. The major takeaway from the data collection in this chapter is that Cicero’s speeches made distant locations more accessible to individuals who never left Rome, while Athenian oratory in the classical period revealed a geographic world that focused primarily on mainland Greece and the Aegean islands. That Athenian speeches would have a core focus on Greece may seem unsurprising in hindsight, but this finding is now unequivocally supported by Dueck’s data collection. Dueck does allow herself some speculation on an audience’s familiarity with various places based on historical and socio-political circumstances and acknowledges the existence of geographical “name-dropping” as a rhetorical tool to emphasize Athens’ and Rome’s geopolitical power.

The dramatic sources in Chapter 3 include the Attic comedies, select Pindaric victory odes, and the plays of Plautus and Seneca. Through the extraction of geographic information in these texts, Dueck demonstrates how these poets preserved a snapshot of contemporary geographic knowledge, and how, through these public performances, they “delivered to their audiences a specific understanding of the size of the world, of routes within it, of places and peoples” (107). Regardless of the raw information contained in these plays, Dueck rightly reminds the reader that no amount of previous geographic knowledge on the part of the audience members can be assumed, nor can we conclude that any amount of absorption of geographic information actually took place during the performances. Dueck contradicts this caution, however, when stating her goal to “analyze geographic detail as it was grasped on the level of the plays themselves” (67); since we cannot ever know what was “grasped”, any attempt to understand what a given audience member thought must be, necessarily, speculative. For example, in her discussion on whether audiences were able to distinguish between real and imaginary/mythical places (such as the River Styx, or even the Underworld itself, 83-84), Dueck writes that “it seems unlikely that anyone thought of these as accessible regions” and that “practical experience allowed [the audience] to distinguish between real and unreal geographies.” Although reasonable, neither of these conclusions can be substantiated.  Moreover, her statement that the “underworld was imaginary and unconnected to real, known places” is difficult to support, since there are examples—such as Herakleia Pontica and Tainaron—where the underworld was associated directly with a known place.

The analyses in Chapters 2 and 3 are each accompanied by a table and map, the latter to illustrate the concept of “speech worlds” and the scope of places mentioned in dramatic performances. However, the maps themselves are overly simplified with only four places indicated on each (i.e. the place names that represent only the northern-, southern-, eastern- and westernmost locations in the entire dataset). This data visualization, therefore, does not convey to the reader how the place names clustered or varied over the entire geographic area. More detailed maps showing distribution would have been more visually impactful and would have better represented Dueck’s quantitative data collection; herein lies one of my two main criticisms of this volume. While Dueck has extracted information from a vast body of textual and visual material, the presentation of the data collection is inconsistent and often difficult to understand. While Dueck’s volume lays the groundwork for further inquiry into illiterate, popular conceptions of geography, without robust, accessible data for future scholars to draw from, her contribution is, unfortunately and unnecessarily, diminished. Two examples suffice to demonstrate my concerns. First, the textual sources are divided up and grouped into seven “world regions” (Mainland Greece; Islands; Italy/Sicily; Europe; Asia Minor; Greater Asia; Africa) that are never sufficiently explained. Does the category “Islands” comprise all the Aegean islands, Crete, Cyprus, Malta, Corsica, and Sardinia? These examples are quite disparate, both geographically and culturally (as is “Europe” from Britain to Bulgaria, and “greater Asia” from the Levant to India). Divisions are necessary for data collection, but more explanation behind the reasoning is needed here, and these simplified categories could have been supplemented with an online data repository complete with geographic coordinates or a more comprehensible and comprehensive data visualization strategy. The second example that illustrates my concerns with the data presentation lies within the tables. Within the geographic divisions, place names are listed by author alone; Dueck omits references to the texts themselves, so the data cannot be verified or built upon.

In the following chapters, Dueck analyzes geographic data found in proverbs and idioms (Chapter 4) and accounts of public spectacle (Chapter 5). The general takeaway from Chapter 4 is that idiomatic expressions focused mostly on people and the places from which they came, and these sayings preserve information primarily about unusual or stereotypical qualities and places. In Chapter 5, Dueck explains how Athens and Rome displayed their own geopolitical identities to popular audiences through public spectacle: the message that Athens sent was local and emphasized collective Hellenic identity by promoting internal activities, while that of Rome was global and enhanced self-identity through external conquest and victory. Most examples in this chapter support the idea that hearing and seeing evidence of geographic places beyond Athens and Rome could have expanded an audience member’s sense of the world.

Finally, Chapter 6, “Visualizing Geography”, focuses on how material culture—specifically artifacts and monuments—may have conveyed geographic information to the masses. This is the only chapter not to rely on written evidence and is the weakest case study in Dueck’s monograph. First, there is a stark contrast between this chapter and others in the lack of an attempt to collect, analyze, and present data. Admittedly, the body of evidence here is much larger, but some cataloguing could nonetheless have taken place so that the evidence was subject to the same analyses that were attempted elsewhere in the book. For example: named personifications, coins, or places found in epigraphic lists (which the author rightfully categorizes as visual communication) are not collated or presented visually (in either maps or tables) as is the case in previous chapters. There are also problems with the organization and scope.[1] My biggest criticism, however, is the fact that in this chapter the author seemingly forgets the focus of the book—namely, illiterate audiences—and shifts to examine what any audience might have absorbed about unwritten geography from visual material. Dueck outlines clearly in Chapter 1 that her study focuses on “the extent of geographic knowledge, if any, among illiterate men, women, and even children” (1) and the way that this knowledge circulated outside of written sources and elite circles. Yet in the section on Roman Nilotic scenes, Dueck’s only example is a mosaic from an elite private villa, even though she admits that there are other, more publicly available examples of mosaics to choose from. She explains her choice by saying that “we are dealing with the general phenomenon of unwritten geography, even within limited circles” (179)—but illiterate geographies and unwritten geographies are different concepts, and the “limited circles” of the Roman elite are nowhere else the focus of this book. This idea of limited audiences also directly contradicts the curious opening passage of this chapter: “Artefacts or monuments are, by definition, available to all observers regardless of their education, social status, political affiliation, gender, age, or ethnic origin” (151). This statement is, of course, not universally applicable to all artifacts and monuments, so if Dueck intended this to be a working definition for the specific artifacts and monuments under scrutiny in this chapter, it is made inaccurate by the Nilotic example (among others). Dueck’s statement on the following page is much better (152): “the fact that an item existed does not mean that it reached the awareness of numerous, or indeed any, observers.” But then, shouldn’t such a study be focusing on those objects that were intended to reach (or had a higher probability of reaching) more illiterate audiences?

The larger, underlying issue in this chapter is that the visual material culture of Athens and Rome comprises an enormous body of evidence, so all the examples receive only cursory treatment. And therein lies a true dilemma: if Dueck had ignored all visual material then surely any review would criticize such a glaring omission. As a result, however, she draws only broad conclusions from the corpus of visual material, namely that specific geographic information would rarely be drawn from artifacts and monuments; instead, the visual material could serve to strengthen the viewer’s Roman or Athenian identity through constant exposure to various images of foreign peoples and symbols associated with geographic places. And, in fact, Dueck does conclude that the visual material culture should be taken in conjunction with all the other evidence to form a more complete picture of how the illiterate ancient inhabitants of Athens and Rome might have understood the geographic scope of their respective worlds—so, perhaps the visual material should have been used to support specific conclusions drawn from other source material, rather than comprising its own thematic, survey chapter. Despite the superficial treatment of the visual material, Dueck does provide the foundation for anyone interested in further analyzing this category of data. 

Ultimately, Dueck’s work conclusively demonstrates that a broad range of geographic information was available to the general populations of both Athens and Rome through aural and visual transmission. The main contributions of this work are the conceptual scope and the groundwork laid through the data collection: through an impressive collection of relevant geographic data from textual sources and surviving material culture, Dueck quantifies the information that could potentially have been absorbed visually and aurally by illiterate audiences and paves the way for future study into the worlds of non-elite cosmopolitan populations in the ancient Mediterranean.


[1] As with the other chapters Athens is presented first, followed by Rome. One section, however, “The visual aspect of epigraphic lists” (182), presents Athens and Rome together without reason or explanation.