Born: c. 64 BC
Birthplace: Amaseia, Pontus, Greece
Died: c. 23 AD
Cause of death: unspecified
Race or Ethnicity: White
Nationality: Ancient Greece
Executive summary: Greek geographer and historian
Greek geographer and historian, born at Amasia in Pontus, a city which had been much Hellenized, and was the royal residence of the kings of Pontus. We know nothing of his father's family, but several of his mother's relatives held important posts under Mithradates V and VI. Some were of Hellenic, others of Asiatic origin, but Strabo himself was by language and education thoroughly Greek. The date of his birth cannot be exactly determined, but from various indications in his work it seems to have been about 63 BC. He studied at Nysa under the grammarian Aristodemus, under Tyrannio the grammarian at Rome, under the philosopher Xenarchus either at Rome or at Alexandria, and he had studied Aristotle along with Boethus (possibly at Rome under Tyrannio, who had access to the Aristotelian writings in Sulla's library). He states that he saw P. Servilius Isauricus, who died at Rome in advanced years in 44 BC, from which it has been inferred that he visited Rome early in life. He also tells us that he was at Gyaros (one of the Cyclades) when Augustus was at Corinth on his return to Rome from the East in 29 BC, and that he accompanied the prefect of Egypt, Aelius Gallus, on his expedlition to Upper Egypt, which seems to have taken place in 25-24 BC. These are the only dates in his life which can be accurately fixed. The latest event mentioned in his work is the death of Juba, king of Mauretania, which took place in AD 21.
Although he had seen a comparatively small portion of the regions which he describes, he had traveled much. As he states himself: "Westward I have journeyed to the parts of Etruria opposite Sardinia; towards the south from the Euxine to the borders of Ethiopia; and perhaps not one of those who have written geographies has visited more places than I have between those limits." He tells us that he had seen Egypt as far south as Syene and Philae, Comana in Cappadocia, Ephesus, Mylasa, Nysa and Hierapolis in Phrygia, Gyarus and Populonia. Of Greece proper he saw but little; it is by no means certain that he even visited Athens, and though he describes Corinth as an eyewitness, it is clear that he was never at Delphi and was not aware that the ruins of Mycenae still existed. He had seen Cyrene from the sea, probably on his voyage from Puteoli to Alexandria, where he remained a long time, probably amassing materials, and studying astronomy and mathematics. For nowhere could he have had a better means of consulting the works of historians, geographers and astronomers, such as Eratosthenes, Posidonius, Hipparchus and Apollodorus. We cannot tell where his Geography was written, but it was at least finally revised between AD 17 and 23, since we have historical allusions which can be dated to that time. Probably Strabo was then in Rome; the fact that his work passed unnoticed by Roman writers such as the elder Pliny does not prove the contrary.
Works. His earliest writing was an historical work now lost, which he himself describes as his Historical Memoirs. He tells us that the sixth book of the Memoirs was identical with the second of the Continuation of Polybius; probably, therefore, books I-IV formed an introduction to the main work. This accounts for the fact that he speaks of having treated of the exploits of Alexander the Great in his Memoirs, a topic which could not have found a place in a work which began where that of Polybius ended (146 BC). According to Su´das, the continuation of Polybius was in forty-three books. Plutarch, who calls him "the Philosopher", quotes Strabo's Memoirs, and cites him as an historian. Josephus, who constantly calls him "the Cappadocian", often quotes from him, but does not mention the title of the work.
The Geography is the most important work on that science which antiquity has left us. It was, as far as we know, the first attempt to collect all the geographical knowledge at the time attainable, and to compose a general treatise on geography. It is not merely a new edition of Eratosthenes. In general outline it follows necessarily the work of the last-named geographer, who had first laid down a scientific basis for geography. Strabo made considerable alterations, but not always for the better. The three books of the older work formed a strictly technical geographical treatise. Its small size prevented it from containing any such general description of separate countries as Strabo rightly conceived to fall within the scope of the geographer. "Strabo indeed appears to be the first who conceived a complete geographical treatise as comprising the four divisions of mathematical, physical, political and historical geography, and he endeavored, however imperfectly, to keep all these objects in view." The incidental historical notices, which are often of great value and interest, are all his own. These digressions at times interrupt the symmetry of his plan; but Strabo had all the Greek love of legendary lore, and he discusses the journeys of Heracles as earnestly as if they were events within recent history. He regarded Homer as the source of all wisdom and knowledge indeed, his description of Greece is largely drawn from Apollodorus's commentary on the Homeric "Catalogue of Ships" -- and treated Herodotus with undeserved contempt, classing him with Ctesias and other "marvel-mongers." Yet in some respects Herodotus had better information (e.g. in regard to the Caspian) than Strabo himself. Again, Strabo may be censured for discarding the statements of Pytheas respecting the west and north of Europe, accepted as they had been by Eratosthenes. But in this he relied on Polybius, whom he might justly consider as having from his position at Rome far better means of gaining accurate information. It must be admitted that the statements of Pytheas did not accord with the theory of Strabo just in those very points where he was at variance with Eratosthenes. He showed likewise an unwarranted skepticism in reference to the island of Cerne on the west coast of Africa, which without doubt the Carthaginians had long used as an emporium.
Strabo chiefly employed Greek authorities (the Alexandrian geographers Polybius, Posidonius and Theophanes of Mytilene, the companion of Pompey) and made comparatively little use of Roman authorities. Although he refers to Caesar's Commentaries once by name, and evidently made use of them in other passages, he but imperfectly availed himself of that work. He designed his geography as a sequel to his historical writings, and it had as it were grown out of his historical materials, which were chiefly Greek. Moreover Strabo probably amassed his material in the library of Alexandria, so that Greek authorities would naturally furnish the great bulk of his collections. Doubtless, however, he returned to Rome after a long sojourn in Alexandria, a fact which explains the defectiveness of his information about the countries to the east of his native land, and renders it possible for him to have made use of the "chorography" of Agrippa, a map of the Roman Empire and adjacent countries set up by order of Augustus in the Porticus Vipsaniae.
He designed the work for the statesman rather than for the student. He therefore endeavors to give a general sketch of the character, physical peculiarities and natural productions of each country, and consequently gives us much valuable information respecting ethnology, trade and metallurgy. It was almost necessary that he should select what he thought most important for description, and at times omit what we deem of more importance. With respect to physical geography; his work is a great advance on all preceding ones. Judged by modern standards, his description of the direction of rivers and mountain-chains seems defective, but allowance must be made for difficulties in procuring information, and for want of accurate instruments. In respect of mathematical geography, his lack of scientific training was no great hindrance. He had before him the results of Eratosthenes, Hipparchus and Posidonius. The chief conclusions of astronomers concerning the spherical figure and dimensions of the earth, its relation to the heavenly bodies, and the great circles of the globe -- the equator, the ecliptic and the tropics -- were considered as well established. He accepted also the division into five zones; he quotes approvingly the assertion of Hipparchus that it was impossible to make real advances in geography without astronomical observations for determining latitudes and longitudes.
The work consists of seventeen books, of which the seventh is imperfect. The first two are introductory, the next eight deal with Europe (two being devoted to Spain and Gaul, two to Italy and Sicily, one to the north and east of Europe, and three to Greek lands). The eleventh book treats of the main divisions of Asia and the more easterly districts, the next three of Asia Minor. Book XV deals with India and Persia, book XVI with Assyria, Babylonia, Syria and Arabia, and the closing book with Egypt and Africa.
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