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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a section of
The Geography


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

The text is in the public domain.

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(Vol. I) Strabo

 p399  Book II Chapter 4

1 (104) Polybius, in his account of the geography of Europe, says he passes over the ancient geographers but examines the men who criticise them, namely, Dicaearchus, and Eratosthenes, who has written the most recent treatise on Geography; and Pytheas, by whom many have been misled; for after asserting that he travelled over the whole of Britain that was accessible Pytheas reported that the coast-line of the island was more than forty thousand stadia, and added his story about Thule and about those regions in which there was no longer either land properly so‑called, or sea, or air, but a kind of substance concreted from all these elements, resembling a sea-lungs​131 — a thing in which, he says, the earth, the sea, and all the elements are held in suspension; and this is a sort of bond to hold all together, which you can neither walk nor sail upon. Now, as for this thing that resembles the sea-lungs, he says that he saw it himself, but that all the rest he tells from hearsay. That, then, is the narrative of Pytheas, and to it he adds that on his return from those regions he visited the whole coast-line of Europe from Gades to the Tanaïs.

2 Now Polybius says that, in the first place, it is incredible that a private individual — and a poor  p401 man too — could have travelled such distances by sea and by land; and that, though Eratosthenes was wholly at a loss whether he should believe these stories, nevertheless he has believed Pytheas' account of Britain, and the regions about Gades, and of Iberia; but he says it is far better to believe Euhemerus, the Messenian, than Pytheas. Euhemerus, at all events, asserts that he sailed only to one country, Panchaea, whereas Pytheas asserts that he explored in person the whole northern region of Europe as far as the ends of the world — an assertion which no man would believe, not even if Hermes​132 made it. And as for Eratosthenes — adds Poseidonius — though he calls Euhemerus a Bergaean,​133 he believes Pytheas, and that, too, though not even Dicaearchus believed him. Now that last remark, "though not even Dicaearchus believed him," is ridiculous; as if it were fitting for Eratosthenes to use as a standard the man against whom he himself directs so many criticisms. And I have already stated that Eratosthenes was ignorant concerning the western and northern parts of Europe. But while we must pardon Eratosthenes and Dicaearchus, because they had not seen those regions with their own eyes, yet who could pardon Polybius and Poseidonius? Nay, it is precisely Polybius who characterises as "popular notions" the statements made by Eratosthenes and Dicaearchus in regard to the distances in those regions and many other regions, though he does not keep himself free from the error even where he criticises them. 105At any rate, when Dicaearchus estimates the distance from  p403 the Peloponnesus to the Pillars at ten thousand stadia, and from the Peloponnesus to the recess of the Adriatic Sea at more than this, and when, of the distance to the Pillars, he reckons the part up to the Strait of Sicily at three thousand stadia, so that the remaining distance — the part from the Strait to the Pillars — becomes seven thousand stadia, Polybius says that he will let pass the question whether the estimate of three thousand is correctly taken or not, but, as for the seven thousand stadia, he cannot let the estimate pass from either of two points of view, namely, whether you take the measure of the coast-line or of the line drawn through the middle of the open sea. For, says he, the coast-line is very nearly like an obtuse angle, whose sides run respectively to the Strait and to the Pillars, and with Narbo as vertex; hence a triangle is formed with a base that runs straight through the open sea and with sides that form the said angle, of which sides the one from the Strait to Narbo measures more than eleven thousand two hundred stadia, the other a little less than eight thousand stadia; and, besides, it is agreed that the maximum distance from Europe to Libya across the Tyrrhenian Sea is not more than three thousand stadia, whereas the distance is reduced if measured across the Sardinian Sea. However, let it be granted, says Polybius, that the latter distance is also three thousand stadia, but let it be further assumed as a prior condition that the depth of the gulf opposite Narbo is two thousand stadia, the depth being, as it were, a perpendicular let fall from the vertex upon the base of the obtuse-angled triangle;​134 then, says  p405 Polybius, it is clear from the principles of elementary geometry that the total length of the coast-line from the Strait to the Pillars exceeds the length of the straight line through the open sea by very nearly five hundred​135 stadia. And if to this we added the three thousand stadia from the Peloponnesus to the Strait, the sum total of the stadia, merely those measured on a straight line, will be more than double​136 the estimate given by Dicaearchus. And, according to Dicaearchus, says Polybius, it will be necessary to put the distance from the Peloponnesus to the recess of the Adriatic at more than this sum.137

3 But, my dear Polybius, one might reply, just as the test based upon your own words makes evident the error of these false reckonings, namely, "from the Peloponnesus to Leucas, seven hundred stadia; from Leucas to Corcyra the same; and, again, from Corcyra to the Ceraunian Mountains the same; and the Illyrian coast-line to Iapydia on your right hand side,​138 if you measure from the Ceraunian Mountains, six thousand one hundred and fifty stadia," so also those other reckonings are both false — both that made by Dicaearchus when he makes the distance from Strait of Sicily to the Pillars seven thousand stadia, and that which you think you have demonstrated; for most men agree in saying that the distance measured straight across the Sea is twelve thousand stadia, and this estimate agrees with the  p407 opinion rendered in regard to the length of the inhabited world.​139 106For they say that this length is about seventy thousand stadia, and that the western section thereof, that is, from the Gulf of Issus to the capes of Iberia, which are the most westerly points, is a little less than thirty thousand stadia. They arrive at this result in the following way: From the Gulf of Issus to Rhodes the distance is five thousand stadia; thence to Salmonium, which is the eastern Cape of Crete, one thousand stadia; and the length of Crete itself, from Salmonium to Criumetopon, more than two thousand stadia; thence, from Criumetopon to Pachynum in Sicily, four thousand five hundred stadia; and from Pachynum to the Strait of Sicily, more than one thousand stadia; then, the sea-passage from the Strait of Sicily to the Pillars, twelve thousand stadia; and from the Pillars to the extreme end of the Sacred Cape​140 of Iberia, about three thousand stadia. And Polybius has not taken even his perpendicular properly, if it be true that Narbo is situated approximately on the same parallel as that which runs through Massilia and (as Hipparchus also believes) Massilia on the same as that through Byzantium, and that the line which runs through the open Sea is on the same parallel as that through the Strait and Rhodes, and that the distance from Rhodes to Byzantium has been estimated at about five thousand stadia on the assumption that both places lies on the same meridian; for the perpendicular in question would also be five thousand stadia in length.​141 But when they say that the longest passage  p409 across this sea from Europe to Libya, reckoned from the head of the Galatic Gulf, is approximately five thousand stadia, it seems to me that they make an erroneous statement, or else that in that region Libya projects far to the north and reaches the parallel that runs through the Pillars. And Polybius is again not right when he says that the perpendicular in question ends near Sardinia; for the line of this sea-passage is nowhere near Sardinia, but much farther west, leaving between it and Sardinia not only the Sardinian Sea, but almost the whole of the Ligurian Sea as well. And Polybius has exaggerated the length of the seaboard also, only in a lesser degree.

4 Next in order, Polybius proceeds to correct the errors of Eratosthenes; sometimes rightly, but sometimes he is even more in error than Eratosthenes. For instance, when Eratosthenes estimates the distance from Ithaca to Corcyra at three hundred stadia, Polybius says it is more than nine hundred; when Eratosthenes gives the distance from Epidamnus to Thessalonica as nine hundred stadia, Polybius says more than two thousand; and in these cases Polybius is right. But when Eratosthenes says the distance from Massilia to the Pillars is seven thousand stadia and from the Pyrenees to the Pillars six thousand stadia, Polybius himself makes a greater error in giving the distance from Massilia as more than nine thousand stadia and that from the Pyrenees a little less than eight thousand stadia; for Eratosthenes' estimates are nearer the truth. Indeed, modern authorities agree that if one cut off an allowance for the irregular windings of the roads, 107the whole of Iberia is not more than six thousand stadia in length from the Pyrenees to its western  p411 side. But Polybius reckons the river Tagus alone at eight thousand stadia in length from its source to its mouth — without reckoning in the windings of the river, of course (for this is a thing geography does not do) — but estimating the distance on a straight line. And yet from the Pyrenees the sources of the Tagus are more than one thousand stadia distant. On the other hand, Polybius is right when he asserts that Eratosthenes is ignorant of the geography of Iberia, that is, for the reason that he sometimes makes conflicting statements; at any rate, after he has said that the exterior coast of Iberia as far as Gades is inhabited by Gauls — if they really hold the western regions of Europe as far as Gades — he forgets that statement and nowhere mentions the Gauls in his description of Iberia.

5 Again, when Polybius sets forth that the length of Europe is less than the combined length of Libya and Asia, he does not make his comparison correctly. The outlet at the Pillars, he says, is in the equinoctial west, whereas the Tanaïs​142 flows from the summer rising of the sun, and therefore Europe is less in length than the combined length of Libya and Asia by the space between the summer sunrise and the equinoctial sunrise; for Asia has a prior claim to this space of the northern semicircle that lies toward the equinoctial sunrise.​143 Indeed, apart  p413 from the abstruseness which characterises Polybius when he is discussing matters that are easy of explanation, his statement that the Tanaïs flows from the summer rising of the sun is also false; for all who are acquainted with those regions say that the Tanaïs flows from the north into Lake Maeotis, and in such wise that the mouth of the river, the mouth of Lake Maeotis, and the course of the Tanaïs itself, so far as it has been explored, all lie on the same meridian.

6 Unworthy of mention are those writers who have stated that the Tanaïs rises in the regions on the Ister​144 and flows from the west, because they have not reflected that the Tyras,​145 the Borysthenes,​146 and the Hypanis,​147 all large rivers, flow between those two rivers into the Pontus, one of them parallel to the Ister and the others parallel to the Tanaïs. And since neither the sources of the Tyras, nor of the Borysthenes, nor of the Hypanis, have been explored, the regions that are farther north than they would be far less known; and therefore the argument that conducts the Tanaïs through those regions and then makes it turn from them to the Maeotis Lake (for the mouths of the Tanaïs are obviously to be seen in the most northerly parts of the Lake, which are also the most easterly parts) — such an argument, I say, would be false and inconclusive. Equally inconclusive is the argument that the Tanaïs flows through the Caucasus towards the north and then turns and flows into Lake Maeotis; for this statement has also been made. However, no one has stated that the Tanaïs flows from the east; for if it flowed from the east the more accomplished geographers would not  p415 be asserting that it flows in a direction contrary to, and in a sense diametrically opposed to, that of the Nile — 108meaning that the courses of the two rivers are on the same meridian or else on meridians that lie close to each other.148

7 The measurement of the length of the inhabited world is made along a line parallel to the equator, because the inhabited world, in its length, stretches in the same way the equator does; and in the same way, therefore, we must take as the length of each of the continents the space that lies between two meridians. Again, the measure employed for these lengths is that by stadia; and we seek to discover the number of the stadia either by travelling through the continents themselves, or else along the roads or waterways parallel to them. But Polybius abandons this method and introduces something new, namely, a certain segment of the northern semicircle, which lies between the summer sunrise and the equinoctial sunrise. But no one employs rules and measures that are variable for things that are non-variable, nor reckonings that are made relative to one position or another for things that are absolute and unchanging. Now while the term "length" is non-variable and absolute, "equinoctial rising" and "setting" and, in the same way, "summer sunrise" and "winter sunrise," are not absolute, but relative to our individual positions; and if we shift our position to different points, the positions of sunset and sunrise, whether equinoctial or solstitial, are different, but the length of the continent remains the same. Therefore, while it is not out of place to make the Tanaïs and the Nile limits of continents, it is something  p417 new to use the summer, or the equinoctial, sunrise for this purpose.

8 Since Europe runs out into several promontories, Polybius' account of them is better than that of Eratosthenes, but it is still inadequate. For Eratosthenes spoke of only three promontories:​149 first, the promontory that juts down to the Pillars, on which is Iberia; secondly, that to the Strait of Sicily, on which is Italy; and, thirdly, that which ends at Cape Malea, on which are all the nations that dwell between the Adriatic, the Euxine, and the Tanaïs. But Polybius explains the first two promontories in the same way and then makes a third of the promontory which ends at Cape Malea and Sunium, on which are all Greece, and Illyria, and certain parts of Thrace, and a fourth of the Thracian Chersonese, where the strait between Sestus and Abydus is, inhabited by Thracians; and still a fifth of the promontory in the region of the Cimmerian Bosporus and of the mouth of Lake Maeotis. Now we must grant the first two, because they are encompassed by simple gulfs: one of them, by the gulf that lies between Calpe and the Sacred Cape (the gulf on which Gades is situated) and also by that portion of the sea that lies between the Pillars and Sicily; the other, by the last-mentioned sea and the Adriatic — although, of course, the promontory of Iapygia, since it thrusts itself forward on the side 109and thus makes Italy have two crests, presents a sort of contradiction to my statement; but the remaining three promontories, which still more clearly are complex and composed of many members, require further division. Likewise, also, the division of Europe into six parts  p419 is open to similar objection, since it has been made in accordance with the promontories. However, in my detailed account I shall make the suitable corrections, not only of these mistakes, but also of all the other serious mistakes that Polybius has made, both in the matter of Europe and in his circuit of Libya. Brief, for the present, I shall rest satisfied with what I have here said in criticism of my predecessors — that is, of so many of them as I have thought would, if cited, make enough witnesses to prove that I too am justified in having undertaken to treat this same subject, since it stands in need of so much correction and addition.

The Editor's Notes:

131 An acaleph of the ctenophora.

132 That is, Hermes in his capacity as god of travel.

Thayer's Note: Hermes was also the patron saint of liars and quick talkers.

133 That is, like Antiphanes, the notorious romancer of Berge, in Thrace; see p173, and footnote.

134 That is, the altitude of the triangle drawn from the vertex at Narbo to the base line; thus an allowance of 1,000 stadia is made for the remaining distance to Libya, measured on the produced altitude.

135 By computation the actual result is 436 stadia.

136 By computation the actual result is 21,764 stadia.

137 That is, more than 21,764 stadia; for Dicaearchus had reckoned the recess of the Adriatic to be farther away from the Peloponnesus than the Pillars were.

138 Polybius thus characterises the distance from the Ceraunian Mountains to the head of the Adriatic Gulf — apparently disregarding the Istrian coast, just as does Strabo in 6.3.10. Iapydia was the name both of the country and the chief city of the Iapydes. Strabo thinks Polybius' estimate is too large.

139 1.4.5.

140 Cape St. Vincent.

141 For "parallels comprehended between parallels are equal."

142 The Don.

143 Polybius' abstruse comparison of the length of Europe with that of Libya and Asia combined is not extant, but his general method is clear enough. Draw a line (PP′) parallel to the equator from the Pillars to the eastern coast of India — that is, at about 36½° latitude. On this line as a chord describe a semicircle which will have for diameter a line (OO′) drawn on the equator. From some point (A) west of Asia on the chord (Strabo says in § 7 below that this point is a variable) draw a line to the outlet (T) of the Tanaïs River; produce this line in a north-easterly direction along the course of the river to the source (T′) of it (but the source is unexplored); then produce the river line (TT′) to the circumference at S, which may represent the summer rising. Drop a perpendicular (T′B) upon the chord PP′. Then we have a segment (BT′SP′) of the semicircle, which belongs to Asia (but we are compelled to fix T′ and B inaccurately, inasmuch as the source of the Tanaïs was unexplored). According to Polybius, Europe is less in length than Libya and Asia combined by the line BP′ (which is a variable).

144 The Danube.

145 The Dniester.

146 The Dnieper.

147 The Bog.

148 Compare 11.2.2.

149 See 2.1.40.

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