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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a section of
The Geography


published in Vol. II
of the Loeb Classical Library edition,

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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(Vol. II) Strabo

p253 Book IV Chapter 5

1 (199) Britain is triangular in shape; and its longest side138 stretches parallel to Celtica, neither exceeding nor falling short of the length of Celtica; for each of the two lengths is about four thousand three hundred — or four hundred — stadia: the Celtic length that extends from the outlets of the Rhenus as far as those northern ends of the Pyrenees that are near Aquitania, as also the length that extends from Cantium (which is directly opposite the outlets of the Rhenus), the most easterly point of Britain, as far as that westerly end of the island which lies opposite the Aquitanian Pyrenees. This, of course, is the shortest distance from the Pyrenees to the Rhenus, since, as I have already said,139 the greatest distance is as much as five thousand stadia; yet it is reasonable to suppose that there is a convergence from the parallel position which the river and the mountains occupy with reference to each other,140 since at the ends where they approach the ocean there is a curve in both of them.

2 There are only four passages which are habitually used in crossing from the mainland to the island, those which begin at the mouths of the rivers — the Rhenus, the Sequana, the Liger, and the Garumna. However, the people who put to sea from the regions that are near the Rhenus make the voyage, not from the mouths themselves, but from the coast of those Morini who have a common boundary with the Menapii. (On their coast, also, is Itium, which the Deified Caesar used as a naval station when he set sail for the island.141 He put to sea by p255night and landed on the following day about the fourth hour,142 thus having completed three hundred and twenty stadia143 in his voyage across; and he found the grain still in the fields.) Most of the island is flat and overgrown with forests, although many of its districts are hilly. It bears grain, cattle, gold, silver, and iron. These things, accordingly, are exported from the island, as also hides, and slaves, and dogs that are by nature suited to the purposes of the chase; 200the Celti, however, use both these and the native dogs for the purposes of war too. The men of Britain are taller than the Celti, and not so yellow-haired, although their bodies are of looser build. The following is an indication of their size: I myself, in Rome, saw mere lads towering as much as half a foot above the tallest people in the city, although they were bandy-legged and presented no fair lines anywhere else in their figure. Their habits are in part like those of the Celti, but in part more simple and barbaric144 — so much so that, on account of their inexperience, some of them, although well supplied with milk, make no cheese; and they have no experience in gardening or other agricultural pursuits. And they have powerful chieftains in their country.145 For the purposes of war they use chariots for the most part, just as some of the Celti do. The forests are their cities; for they fence in a p257spacious circular enclosure with trees which they have felled,146 and in that enclosure make huts for themselves and also pen up their cattle — not, however, with the purpose of staying a long time.147 Their weather is more rainy than snowy; and on the days of clear sky fog prevails so long a time that throughout a whole day the sun is to be seen for only three or four hours round about midday. And this is the case also among the Morini and the Menapii and all the neighbours of the latter.

3 The Deified Caesar crossed over to the island twice, although he came back in haste, without accomplishing anything great or proceeding far into the island, not only on account of the quarrels that took place in the land of the Celti, among the barbarians and his own soldiers as well,148 but also on account of the fact that many of his ships had been lost at the time of the full moon, since the ebb-tides and the flood-tides got their increase at that time.149 However, he won two or three victories over the Britons, albeit he carried along only two legions of his army; and he brought back hostages, slaves, and quantities of the rest of the booty. At present, however, some of the chieftains there, after procuring the friendship of Caesar Augustus by sending embassies and by paying court to him,150 have not only dedicated offerings in the Capitol, but have also managed to make the whole of the island virtually Roman p259property. Further, they submit so easily to heavy duties, both on the exports from there to Celtica and on the imports from Celtica (these latter are ivorya chains and necklaces, and amber-gems151 and glass vessels and other petty wares of that sort), that there is no need of garrisoning the island; for one legion, at the least, and some cavalry would be required in order to carry off tribute from them, and the expense of the army would offset the tribute-money;152 201in fact, the duties must necessarily be lessened if tribute is imposed, and, at the same time, dangers be encountered, if force is applied.

4 Besides some small islands round about Britain, there is also a large island, Ierne,153 which stretches parallel to Britain on the north, its breadth being greater than its length.154 Concerning this island I have nothing certain to tell, except that its inhabitants are more savage155 than the Britons, since they are man-eaters as well as heavy eaters,156 and since, further, they count it an honourable thing, when their fathers die, to devour them, and openly to have intercourse, not only with the other women, but also with their mothers and sisters; but I am saying this only with the understanding that I have no trustworthy p261witnesses for it; and yet, as for the matter of man-eating, that is said to be a custom of the Scythians also, and, in cases of necessity forced by sieges, the Celti,157 the Iberians,158 and several other peoples are said to have practised it.159

5 Concerning Thule160 our historical information is still more uncertain, on account of its outside position;161 for Thule, of all the countries that are named, is set farthest north. But that the things which Pytheas has told about Thule, as well as the other places in that part of the world, have indeed been fabricated by him, we have clear evidence from the districts that are known to us,162 for in most cases he has falsified them, as I have already said before,163 and hence he is obviously more false concerning the districts which have been placed outside the inhabited world. And yet, if judged by the science of the celestial phenomena164 and by mathematical theory, he might possibly seem to have made adequate use of the facts as regards the people who live close to the frozen zone,165 when he says that, of the animals and domesticated fruits, there is an utter dearth of some and a scarcity of the others, and that the people live on millet and other herbs, and on fruits and roots; and where there are grain and honey, the people get their p263beverage, also,166 from them.167 As for the grain, he says, — since they have no pure sunshine — they pound it out in large storehouses, after first gathering in the ears thither;168 for the threshing floors become useless because of this lack of sunshine and because of the rains.

The Editor's Notes:

138 Strabo should have made this the shortest side, as Caesar had already done (De Bello Gallico 5.13).

139 1.4.2 and 2.5.28.

140 2.5.28 and 4.1.1.

141 Cp. 4.3.3.

142 Cp. the time given in 4.3.4. Caesar made his first voyage to Britain (op. cit. 4.23) between "about the third watch" (midnight) and "the fourth hour of the day" (10 A.M.); the second (op. cit. 5.8), between "about sunset" and "about noon," being greatly delayed by unfavourable wind and tide.

143 That is, forty miles. Caesar (op. cit. 5.2) says "about thirty miles." Cp. 4.3.4.

144 Cp. Caesar op. cit. 5.14 and Diodorus 5.21.

145 Diodorus (5.21) says "they have many kings and chieftains, it is said, who are, for the most part, peaceably disposed towards one another."

146 Cp. Caesar op. cit. 5.21.

147 It was a question of (1) pasturage and (2) defence against the enemy.

148 Caesar (op. cit. 5.22) says "on account of sudden commotions in Gaul," referring to his second return to the continent.

149 This loss took place before Caesar's first return, "on the day when the moon is wont to make the maximum tides in the ocean" (op. cit. 4.28‑29). For Strabo's discussion of these tides, see 3.5.8.

150 Augustus had intended to subjugate Britain, but went no farther than Gaul (Dio Cassius 53.22). Augustusº mentions (Monumentum Ancyranum) two British chieftains who came to him as suppliants, "Dumnobellaunus"º and "Tim—" (or "Tinc—").

151 "Linguria" (Strabo's word) means gems of red amber, like the red amber ("lingurium" 4.6.2) on the coast of Liguria, from which country it gets its name (Ridgeway, Origin of Currency, p110).

152 2.5.8.

153 See 1.4.3.

154 That is, speaking in terms of a rectangle, the geographical breadth is longer than the geographical length; for geographical breadth is measured north and south, and geographical length, east and west (see 2.1.32). And Strabo's assertion about Ireland is correct.

155 See 2.5.8.

156 Some of the editors read "herb-eaters" instead of "heavy eaters" — perhaps rightly.

157 e.g. when besieged by the Cimbri and Teutones (Caesar, op. cit. 7.77).

158 e.g. when besieged at Numantia by Scipio (Valerius Maximus 7.6).

159 e.g. the city of Potidaea in Greece (Thucydides, 2.70).

160 See 1.4.2 ff.

161 Strabo has insisted (2.5.8) that the northern limit of the inhabited world should be placed in Ierne (Ireland), and that therefore Thule falls outside.

162 Strabo means "from what he has told us about the districts that are known to us" (cp. 1.4.3).

163 1.4.3.

164 See 1.1.15, and footnote 24.

165 Strabo speaks of "the people who live close to the frozen zone" only for argument's sake; he himself regards such people, as well as those farther north, as non-existent so far as geography is concerned (2.5.43).

166 That is, as well as nourishment.

167 Obviously a kind of beer, such as "the wheat-beer prepared with honey" and "drunk by the poorer classes" in Gaul (Athenaeus 4.36). Diodorus Siculus (5.26) refers to this "beverage" of the Gauls, made of "barley" and "mead," "what is called beer."

168 Diodorus Siculus (5.21), who, like Strabo, quotes Pytheas through Poseidonius, makes a similar reference to the Britons, saying that the Britons "cut off the ears of grain and store them in houses that are roofed over, and pluck the ears from day to day." The threshing floors with which Strabo and Diodorus were familiar were in the open air, e.g. in Greece and Italy.

Thayer's Note:

a If we take Strabo's text literally (ἐλεφάντινα ψάλια καὶ περιαυχένια) there are only two solutions to this one, and one is more interesting than the other:

  1. The Gauls were middlemen in a commerce of ivory from Africa, which is possible if:

    • They had their own merchant vessels on the Mediterranean — of which I can remember no record; or

    • They were reselling ivory imported into Gaul by the Romans — if so, why did the Romans not engage in this lucrative trade on their own account? and I would expect Strabo to have phrased his account differently.

  2. The Gauls were trading in mammoth bone. Again, two main possibilities suggest themselves:

    • The mammoth is said to have become extinct at the end of the last Ice Age, around 12,000 years ago — but maybe not, and the Gauls were still hunting some few mammoths in historical times.

    • The Gauls were trading in very old mammoth bones. On the surface of it, an unlikely theory, but there are in fact huge deposits of them in northern France, where Neolithic people are supposed to have chased their quarry over cliffs; convenient for "mining".

If, on the other hand, Strabo is not to be taken literally, and the bones were those of other large animals, surely the Britons had their own?

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Page updated: 21 Oct 13