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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.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
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(Vol. I) Strabo

 p. xiii  Introduction

What is known about Strabo must be gleaned from his own statements scattered up and down the pages of his Geography; this is true not merely of his lineage, for we also learn much by inference concerning his career and writings. Dorylaus, surnamed Tacticus or the General, is the first of the maternal ancestors of Strabo to be mentioned by him, in connexion with his account of Cnossus (10.4.10). This Dorylaus was one of the officers and friends of Mithridates Euergetes, who sent him on frequent journeys to Thrace and Greece to enlist mercenary troops for the royal army. At that time the Romans had not yet occupied Crete, and Dorylaus happened to put in at Cnossus at the outbreak of a war between Cnossus and Gortyna. His prestige as a general caused him to be placed in command of the Cnossian army; his operations resulted in a sweeping victory for Cnossus, and great honours were heaped upon him in consequence. At that juncture Euergetes was assassinated at Sinope, and as Dorylaus had nothing to hope for from the widowed queen and young children of the dead king, he cast in his lot permanently with the Cnossians. He married at  p. xiv Cnossus, where were born his one daughter and two sons, Lagetas and Stratarchas. Their very names indicate the martial proclivities of the family. Stratarchas was already an aged man when Strabo saw him. Mithridates, surnamed Eupator and the Great, succeeded to the throne of Euergetes at the early age of eleven years. He had been brought up with another Dorylaus, who was the nephew of Dorylaus the general. When Mithridates had become king, he showed his affection for his playmate Dorylaus, by showering honours upon him, and by making him priest of Ma at Comana Pontica — a dignity which caused Dorylaus to rank immediately after the king. But not content with that, Mithridates was desirous of conferring benefactions upon the other members of his friend's family. Dorylaus, the general, was dead, but Lagetas and Stratarchas, his sons, now grown to manhood, were summoned to the court of Mithridates. "The daughter of Lagetas was the mother of my mother," says Strabo. As long as fortune smiled on Dorylaus, Lagetas and Stratarchas continued to fare well; but ambition led Dorylaus to become a traitor to his royal master; he was convicted of plotting to surrender the kingdom to the Romans, who, it seems, had agreed to make him king in return for his treasonable service. The details of the sequel are not known; for all that Strabo thinks it worth while to say is that the two men went down into obscurity and discredit along with Dorylaus (10.4.10). These ancestors of Strabo  p. xv were Greeks, but Asiatic blood also flowed in his veins. When Mithridates annexed Colchis, he realized the importance of appointing as governors of the province only his most faithful officials and friends. One of these officers was Moaphernes, the uncle of Strabo's mother on her father's side (11.2.18). Moaphernes did not attain to this exalted station until towards the close of the reign of Mithridates, and he shared in the ruin of his royal master. But other members of the family of Strabo escaped that ruin; for they foresaw the downfall of Mithridates, and sought cover from impending storm. One of them was Strabo's paternal grandfather, Aeniates by name (if the conjecture of Ettore Pais be accepted). Aeniates had private reasons for hating Mithridates, and, besides that, Mithridates had put to death Tibius, the nephew of Aeniates, and Tibius' son Theophilus. Aeniates therefore sought to avenge both them and himself; he treasonably surrendered fifteen fortresses to Lucullus, who made him promises of great advancement in return for this service to the Roman cause. But at this juncture Lucullus was superseded by Pompey, who hated Lucullus and regarded as his own personal enemies all those who had rendered noteworthy services to his predecessor. Pompey's hostility to Aeniates was not confined to the persecution of him in Asia Minor; for, when he had returned to Rome after the termination of the war, he prevented the Senate from conferring the honours promised by  p. xvi Lucullus to certain men in Pontus, on the ground that the spoils and honours should not be awarded by Lucullus, but by himself, the real victor. And so it came about that Strabo's grandfather failed of the reward of his treason (12.3.33). A further proof of the existence of Asiatic blood in the veins of Strabo is the name of his kinsman Tibius; for, says Strabo, the Athenians gave to their slaves the names of the nations from which they came, or else the names that were most current in the countries from which they came; for instance, if the slave were a Paphlagonian, the Athenians would call him Tibius (7.3.12). Thus it appears that Strabo was of mixed lineage, and that he was descended from illustrious Greeks and Asiatics who had served the kings of Pontus as generals, satraps, and priests of Ma. But by language and education he was thoroughly Greek.

Strabo was born in Amasia in Pontus in 64 or 63 B.C. (the later date being the year of Cicero's consulate). It is plain that his family had managed to amass property, and Strabo must have inherited considerable wealth; for his fortune was sufficient to enable him to devote his life to scholar­ly pursuits and to travel somewhat extensively. His education was elaborate, and Greek in character. When he was still a very young man he studied under Aristodemus in Nysa near Tralles in Caria (14.1.48). His parents may have removed from Amasia to Nysa in consequence of the embarrassing conditions  p. xvii brought about by the victories of Pompey, the enemy of their house; but the boy may have been sent to study in Nysa before the overthrow of Mithridates the Great; and, if so, he was probably sent thither because one of his kinsmen held high office in the neighbouring Tralles. Ettore Pais points out that, when Mithridates the Great ordered the killing of the Roman citizens in Asia, Theophilus, a Captain in service in Tralles, was employed by the Trallians to do the killing. It seems probable that this Theophilus was the kinsman of Strabo, and the same person who was afterwards executed by Mithridates, an execution that caused Strabo's paternal grandfather to betray the king and desert to Lucullus.

In 44 B.C. Strabo went to Rome by way of Corinth. It was at Rome that he met Publius Servilius, surnamed Isauricus, and that general died in 44 B.C. (This was also the year of the death of Caesar.) Strabo was nineteen or twenty years old at the time of his first visit to Rome. In connexion with his account of Amisus (12.3.16) we read that Strabo studied under Tyrannion. That instruction must have been received at Rome; for in 66 B.C., Lucullus had taken Tyrannion as a captive to Rome, where he gave instruction, among others, to the two sons of Cicero. It is Cicero (Ad Att. 2.6.1) who tells us that Tyrannion was also a distinguished geographer, and he may have guided Strabo into the paths of geographical study. It was probably also at Rome that Strabo had the good fortune to attend  p. xviii the lectures of Xenarchus (14.5.4), the Peripatetic philosopher; for he tells us that Xenarchus abandoned Seleucia, his native place, and lived in Alexandria, Athens, and Rome, where he followed the profession of teacher. He also tells us that he "Aristotelized" along with Boëthius (the Stoic philosopher of Sidon), or, in other words, under Xenarchus in Rome (16.2.24). Strabo knew Poseidonius (7. fr. 60, quoted from Athenaeus 14.75 p657), and it has been argued from that statement that Poseidonius, too, was one of Strabo's teachers. But in spite of the fact that his teachers were Peripatetics, there can be no doubt that he was himself an adherent of Stoicism. He confesses himself a Stoic (7.3.4); he speaks of "our Zeno" (1.2.34); again, he says: "For in Poseidonius there is much inquiry into causes and much imitating of Aristotle — precisely what our School avoids, on account of the obscurity of the causes" (2.3.8). Stephanus Byzantius calls him "the Stoic philosopher." Strabo lets his adherence to Stoicism appear on many occasions, and he even contrasts the doctrines of Stoicism with those of the Peripatetic School. What had brought about his conversion cannot be ascertained. It may have been due to Athenodorus; for in his account of Petra he says that it is well-governed, and "my friend Athenodorus, the philosopher, has spoken to me of that fact with admiration" (16.4.21). This philosopher-friend was the Stoic Athenodorus, the teacher and friend of Augustus. Strabo makes his  p. xix position in regard to the popular religion quite clear in several passages; he insists that while such religion is necessary in order to hold the illiterate in check, it is unworthy of the scholar. "For in dealing with a crowd of women, at least, or with any promiscuous mob, a philosopher cannot influence them by reason or exhort them to reverence, piety, and faith; nay, there is need of religion fear also, and this cannot be aroused without myths and marvels. For thunderbolt, aegis, trident, torches, snakes, thyrsus-lances, — arms of the gods — are myths, and so is the entire ancient theology" (1.2.8). In speaking of the supposed religiosity of the Getans (7.3.4) he quotes Menander to the effect that the observances of public worship are ruining the world financially, and he gives a somewhat gleeful picture of the absence of real religion behind those same observances of public worship. Yet Strabo had a religion, and even though he believed that causes are past finding out, he nevertheless believed in Providence as the great First Cause. He sets forth the Stoic doctrine of "conformity to nature" at some length in speaking of Egypt (17.1.36), and he also adverts to it in his account of the river-system of France (4.1.14).

As for his political opinions, he seems to have followed Polybius in his profound respect for the Romans, with whom, apparently, he is in entire sympathy; he never fails to show great admiration, not only for the political grandeur of the Roman  p. xx Empire, but for its wise administration as well; he is convinced of the necessity of a central monarchial power: "The excellence of the government and of the Roman Emperors has prevented Italy (which has often been torn by civil war from the very time when it became subject to Rome), and even Rome itself, from proceeding further in the ways of error and corruption. But it would be difficult for the Romans to govern so vast an empire in any other way than by entrusting it to one person — as it were, to a father. And certainly at no other period have the Romans and their allies enjoyed such perfect peace and prosperity as that which the Emperor Augustus gave them from the very moment when he was clothed with autocratic power, a peace which Tiberius, his son and successor, continues to give them at the present moment; for he makes Augustus the pattern in his policy and administration; and Germanicus and Drusus, the sons of Tiberius, who are now serving in the government of their father, also make Augustus their pattern" (6.4.2). And he constantly takes the Roman point of view. For instance, in leading up to his account of the destruction of Corinth by Mummius, he tells us that the Corinthians had precipitated manifold outrages on the Romans; he does indeed mention the feeling of pity to which Polybius gave expression in telling of the sack of Corinth, and says that Polybius was horrified at the contempt shown by the Roman soldiery for the sacred offerings and the masterpieces  p. xxi of art; "for Polybius says he personally saw how paintings had been thrown to the ground and saw the soldiers playing dice on them." But Strabo gives us to understand that his own private feeling is that the Corinthians were merely paying for the many insults they had heaped on the Romans (8.6.23). He is equally dispassionate in telling of the Roman conquest of his own native country (12.3.33). He seems to be thoroughly Roman at heart; for the Romans have united their land under one beneficent administration (1.1.16); by the extinction of the pirates the Roman peace has brought prosperity, tranquillity, security of commerce, and safety of travel (3.2.5; 14.3.3; 16.2.20); a country becomes prosperous just as soon as it comes under the Roman sway (3.3.8), which opens up means of intercommunication (2.5.26); friendship and alliance with Rome mean prosperity to the people possessing them (3.1.8; 4.1.5); so does the establishment of a Roman colony in any place (6.3.4).

We have seen that Strabo went to Rome in 44 B.C., and that he was nineteen or twenty years old at that time. He made several other journeys to Rome; we find him there in 35 B.C.; for that is the date of the execution of Selurus (6.2.6), which Strabo witnessed. He was then twenty-nine years old. He was in Rome about 31 B.C.; for he saw the painting of Dionysus by Aristeides (one of those paintings seen by Polybius at the sack of Corinth) in the temple of Ceres in Rome, and he adds: "But  p. xxii recently the temple was destroyed by fire, the painting perished" (8.6.23). It is known from Dio Cassius (50.10) that the temple of Ceres was burned in 31 B.C. He was thirty-two or thirty-three years old at that time. We know of still another journey to Rome: "I landed on the island of Gyaros, where I found a small village inhabited by fishermen; when we sailed from the island, we took on board one of those fishermen who had been sent on a mission to Augustus (who was then at Corinth, on his way [from Egypt] to celebrate his triumph after his victory at Actium). On the voyage we questioned this fisherman, and he told us that he had been sent to ask for a diminution of the tribute" (10.5.3). Here we find Strabo journeying from Asia Minor, by way of the island of Gyaros and Corinth, and the clear inference is that he was on his way to Rome at the time. This was in 29 B.C., and Strabo was thirty-four or thirty-five years old. Augustus had just founded Nicopolis in honour of his victory at Actium (7.7.6), and it is not unlikely that Strabo visited the new city on that voyage. In 25 and 24 B.C. he is in Egypt, and accompanies Aelius Gallus up the Nile, proceeding as far as Syene and the frontiers of Ethiopia (2.5.12). At that time he was thirty-nine years old. He was still in Egypt when Augustus was in Samos in 20 B.C. (14.1.14). He was then forty-four years old. Accordingly he lived for more than five years in Alexandria, and we may infer that it was in the  p. xxiii Alexandrian library that he made from the works of his predecessors those numerous excerpts with which his book is filled. We find him again in Rome about 7 B.C.; for in his description of Rome he mentions buildings that were erected after 20 B.C., the last of them being the portico of Livia, which was dedicated in 7 B.C. (5.3.8). This was perhaps his final visit to Rome, and he was then fifty-six or fifty-seven years old. It seems that he lived to be eighty-four years old, for he chronicles the death of Juba in 21 A.D., but the last twenty-six or twenty-seven years of his life were spent far from Rome, and probably in his native Amasia.​a His residence at this remote place made it impossible for him to follow the course of recent political events and to incorporate them in the revised edition of his book.

Strabo thought that he had travelled much. He says: "Now I shall tell what part of the land and sea I have myself visited and concerning what part I have trusted to accounts given by others by word of mouth or in writing. I have travelled westward from Armenia as far as the coasts of Tyrrhenia opposite Sardinia, and in the direction of the South I have travelled from the Euxine Sea as far as the frontiers of Ethiopia. And you could not find another person among the writers on Geography who has travelled over much more of the distances just mentioned than I; indeed, those who have travelled more than I in the western regions have not covered as much ground in the east, and those who have travelled  p. xxiv more in the eastern countries are behind me in the western countries; and the same holds true in regard to the regions towards the South and North" (2.5.11). And yet it cannot be said that he was a great traveller; nor can it be said that he travelled for the purpose of scientific research — the real reason for his journeys will presently appear. He saw little even of Italy, where he seems to have followed without much deviation the roads Brindisi-Rome, Rome-Naples-Puteoli, and Rome-Populonia. It does not appear that he lived for any very long stretch of time at Rome; and it cannot be maintained with positiveness that in Greece he saw any place other than Corinth — not even Athens, strange as this may seem. In the South and East his travels were more extensive: in the South he visited the Nile valley as far as the frontiers of Ethiopia; he was at Comana Aurea for some time; he saw the river Pyamus, Hierapolis in Phrygia, Nysa in Caria, and Ephesus; he was acquainted with Pontus; he visited Sinope, Cyzicus, and Nicaea; he travelled over Cilicia and much of Caria, visiting Mylasa, Alabanda, Tralles, and probably also Synnada, Magnesia, Smyrna, the shores of the Euxine, and Beirut in Syria. Though we may not limit the places he saw to the places actually mentioned as having been seen by him, still it is clear that his journeys were not so wide as we should have expected in the case of a man who was travelling in the interest of science.

Ettore Pais seems to make good his contention that  p. xxv the work of Strabo was not written by a man who was travelling on his own account and for scientific reasons, but by one who seized every occasion to study what circumstances and the pleasure of others gave him an opportunity of knowing. He contends, further, that it was for the sake of others that Strabo made his journeys; that he was instructor and politician, travelling perhaps with, and certainly in the interest of, persons of the most exalted rank; that he was the teacher and guide of eminent men. Strabo never fails to mention the famous scholars and teachers who were born in the East — the list is a long one; and we are fain to believe that he occupied a similar social position. He insists that his Geography is political: The greater part of Geography subserves the uses of states and their rulers; Geography as a whole is intimately connected with the functions of persons in positions of political leader­ship (1.1.16); Geography is particularly useful in the conduct of great military undertakings (1.1.17); it serves to regulate the conduct and answer the needs of ruling princes (1.1.18). Presumably it was with just such people that he travelled. But Pais joins issue with Niese and others in their contention that the men with whom and in whose interest he travelled were Romans, and he makes out a good case when he argues that Strabo wrote his Geography in the interest of Pythodoris, Queen of Pontus. Even the great respect shown by Strabo for Augustus, Rome, and Tiberius is to be explained  p. xxvi by the circumstances in which he found himself; for subject-princes had to be obsequious to Rome, and as for Pythodoris, she owed her throne to Augustus fully as much as to Polemon. It was good business, therefore, that necessitated the retouching of the book and the insertion in it of the many compliments to Tiberius — all of which were added after the action of that prince, and for fear of him, rather than out of respect for him.

The question as to when and where Strabo wrote his geographical work has long been a burning ones in circles interested in Strabo criticism. Niese seemed to settle the question, when he maintained that Strabo wrote his Historical Geography at Rome, at the instigation of Roman friends who occupied exalted positions in the political world of Rome; and that he acted as the companion of those friends, accompanying one of them, Aelius Gallus, from Rome to Egypt, and returning with him to Rome; and further that it was at Rome that he wrote his Geography, between the years 18 and 19 A.D. In the main, scholars had accepted the views of Niese, until Pais entered the field with his thesis that Strabo wrote his work, not at the instigation of politicians at Rome, but from the point of view of a Greek from Asia Minor, and in the interest of Greeks of that region; that the material for the Geography was collected at Alexandria and Rome, but that the actual writing of the book and the retouching of it at a later period were done at Amasia, far from Rome —  p. xxvii a fact which accounts for his omissions of events, his errors, his misstatements, his lack of information concerning, and his failure to mention, occurrences that would surely have found a place in his book had it been written in Rome; it accounts, too, for the surprising fact that Strabo's Geography was not known to the Romans — not even to Pliny — although it was well-known in the East, for Josephus quotes from it.

To go somewhat more minutely into this question, it may be stated that Strabo mentions Tiberius more than twenty times, but the events he describes are all connected with the civil wars that occurred after the death of Caesar and with the period in the life of Augustus that falls between the Battle of Actium (in 31 B.C.) and 7 B.C. He rarely mentions events in the life of Augustus between 6 B.C. and 14 A.D., and, as he takes every opportunity to praise Augustus and Tiberius, such omissions could not be accounted for if he wrote his Geography about 18 A.D. The conclusion reached by Pais is that Strabo wrote the book before 5 B.C. and shortly after 9 B.C., or, in other words, about 7 B.C. Such matters as the defeat of Varus and the triumph of Germanicus were not contained in the original publication of the work, and were inserted in the revised edition, which was made about the year 18 A.D. The list of the Roman provinces governed by the Roman Senate, on the last page of the book, was written between 22 B.C. and 11 B.C., and Strabo himself says that it was  p. xxviii antiquated; it was retouched about 7 B.C., not at Rome, but far from Rome. The facts are similar in the mention he makes of the liberality of Tiberius to the cities of Asia Minor that had been destroyed by earthquakes; in the case of the coronation of Zeno as king of Armenia Major (18 A.D.), and in the case of the death of Juba, which occurred not later than 23 A.D., Strabo made no use of the map of Agrippa — an omission with which he has been reproached — for the very good reason that the map of Agrippa had not been completed in 7 B.C.

If Strabo first published his Geography in 7 B.C., it appeared when he was fifty-six or fifty-seven years old, at a time when he was still in full possession of all his physical and mental powers. But if we say, with Niese and his followers, that the work was written between 18 and 19 A.D., we thereby maintain that Strabo began to write his Geography when he had passed the eighth decade of his life. He himself compares his book to a colossal statue, and it is incredible that he could have carried out such a stupendous work after having passed his eightieth year.

Strabo is so well-known as a geographer that it is often forgotten that he was a historian before he was a geographer. Indeed it may be believed that he is a geographer because he had been a historian, and that the material for his Geography was collected along with that for his Historical Sketches, which comprised forty-seven books (see  p. xxix 1.1.22‑23, and 2.1.9, and footnotes). But his Geography alone has come down to us. In this connexion it will be useful to read Strabo's own account of his Historical Sketches and his Geography: "In short, this book of mine should be generally useful — useful alike to the statesman and to the public as large — as was my work on History. In this work, as in that, I mean by 'statesman,' not the man who is wholly uneducated, but the man who has taken the round of courses usual in the case of freemen or of students of philosophy. For the man who has given no thought to virtue and to practical wisdom, and to what has been written about them, would not be able even to form a valid opinion either in censure or in praise; nor yet to pass judgment upon the matters of historical fact that are worthy of being recorded in this treatise. And so, after I had written my Historical Sketches, which have been useful, I suppose, for moral and political philosophy, I determined to write the present treatise also; for this work itself is based on the same plan, and is addressed to the same class of readers, and particularly to men of exalted stations in life. Furthermore, just as in my Historical Sketches only the incidents in the lives of distinguished men are recorded, while deeds that are petty and ignoble are omitted, so in this work also I must leave untouched what is petty and inconspicuous, and devote my attention to what is noble and great, and to what contains the practically useful, or memorable, or  p. xxx entertaining. Now just as in judging of the merits of colossal statues we do not examine each individual part with minute care, but rather consider the general effect and endeavour to see if the statue as a whole is pleasing, so should this book of mine be judged. For it, too, is a colossal work, in that it deals with the facts about large things only, and wholes, except as some petty thing may stir the interest of the studious or the practical man. I have said thus much to show that the present work is a serious one and one worthy of a philosopher" (1.1.22‑23).

The Geography of Strabo is far more than a mere geography. It is an encyclopaedia of information concerning the various countries of the Inhabited World as known at the beginning of the Christian era; it is an historical geography; and, as Dubois and Tozer point out, it is a philosophy of geography.

Thayer's Note:

a That Strabo spent his last years in Amasia is not a unanimously received opinion; William Ridgeway (CR 2:84) gives what seem to me good reasons to believe that at the time of his death he had for some time been living in Rome.

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