Strabo wrote his famous geography near the beginning of the Christian era, but he knew nothing of the north of England, Scotland, or Wales. He insisted on placing Ireland to the north, and scoffed at Pytheas' account of Thule.
And yet he boasted a wider range than any other writer on geography, "for that those who had penetrated farther towards the West had not gone so far to the East, and those on the contrary who had seen more of the East had seen less of the West."
Like Herodotus, Strabo had travelled himself from Armenia and western Italy, from the Black Sea to Egypt and up the Nile to Philæ. But his seventeen volumes—vastly important to his contemporaries—read like a romance to us to-day, and a glance at the map laid down according to his descriptions is like a vague and distorted caricature of the real thing. And yet, according to the men of his times, he "surpasses all the geographical writings of antiquity, both in grandeur of plan and in abundance and variety of its materials."
Strabo has summed up for us the knowledge of the ancient world as it was in the days of the Emperor Cæsar Augustus of the great Roman Empire, as it was when in far-off Syria the Christ was born and the greater part of the known earth was under the sway of Rome.
A wall-map had already been designed by order of Augustus to hang in a public place in Rome—the heart of the Empire—so that the young Romans might realise the size of their inheritance, while a list of the chief places on the roads, which, radiating from Rome, formed a network over the Empire, was inscribed on the Golden Milestone in the Forum.
A Portion of an old Roman map of the world, showing the roads through the empire, rivers, mountains, and the surrounding seas.
This is a portion—a few inches—taken from the famous Peutinger Table, a long strip map on parchment, of the fourth century, derived from Augustan maps according to the measurements of Caesar Augustus Agrippa. It will be noticed how the roads, beginning with the Twelve Ways, which start from Rome in the centre, go in straight lines over all obstacles to the towns of the Empire. Distances are marked in stadia (about 1/9 mile).
We may well imagine with what keen interest the schoolmen of Alexandria would watch the extension of the Roman Empire. Here Strabo had studied, here or at Rome he probably wrote his great work toward the close of a long life. He has read his Homer and inclines to take every word he says as true. Herodotus he will have none of.
"Herodotus and other writers trifle very much," he asserts, "when they introduce into their histories the marvellous like an interlude of some melody."
In like manner he disbelieves poor Pytheas and his accounts of the land of Ultima Thule and his marvellous walks through Britain, while he clings to the writings of Eratosthenes.
But in common with them all Strabo believes the world to be one vast island, surrounded on all sides by ocean into which the rivers flow, and the Caspian Sea and Persian Gulf are but inlets. So is also the Mediterranean or "Our Sea," as he prefers to call it. This earth-island reaches north to south, from Ireland, "barely habitable on account of the cold," to the cinnamon country (Somaliland), "the most southerly point of the habitable earth." From west to east it stretches from the Pillars of Hercules right "through the middle of Our Sea" to the shores of Asia Minor, then across Asia by an imaginary chain of mountains to an imaginary spot where the Ganges, lately discovered, emptied its waters into the world-surrounding ocean stream.
The breadth of the habitable earth is three thousand miles, the length about seven thousand—a little world, indeed, with the greater world lying all around it, still undreamt of by the old student of geography and the traveller after truth.
He begins his book with a detailed account of southern Spain. He tells of her two hundred towns. "Those best known are situated on the rivers, estuaries, and seas ; but the two which have acquired the greatest name and importance are Cordova and Cadiz. After these Seville is the most noted. . . . A vast number of people dwell along the Guadalquivir, and you may sail up it almost a hundred and twenty miles from the sea to Cordova and the places a little higher up. The banks and little inlets of this river are cultivated with the greatest diligence. The eye is also delighted with groves and gardens, which in this district are met with in the highest perfection. For fifty miles the river is navigable for ships of considerable size, but for the cities higher up smaller vessels are employed, and thence to Cordova river-boats. These are now constructed of planks joined together, but they were formerly made out of a single trunk. A chain of mountains, rich in metal, runs parallel to the Guadalquivir, approaching the river, sometimes more, sometimes less, toward the north."
He grows enthusiastic over the richness of this part of southern Spain, famous from ancient days under the name of Tartessus for its wealth. "Large quantities of corn and wine are exported, besides much oil, which is of the first quality, also wax, honey, and pitch . . . the country furnishes the timber for their shipbuilding. They have likewise mineral salt and not a few salt streams. A considerable quantity of salted fish is exported, not only from hence, but also from the remainder of the coast beyond the Pillars. Formerly they exported large quantities of garments, but they now send the unmanufactured wool remarkable for its beauty. The stuffs manufactured are of incomparable texture. There is a superabundance of cattle and a great variety of game, while on the other hand there are certain little hares which burrow in the ground (rabbits). These creatures destroy both seeds and trees by gnawing their roots. They are met with throughout almost the whole of Spain. It is said that formerly the inhabitants of Majorca and Minorca sent a deputation to the Romans requesting that a new land might be given them, as they were quite driven out of their country by these animals, being no longer able to stand against their vast multitudes." The seacoast on the Atlantic side abounds in fish, says Strabo. " The congers are quite monstrous, far surpassing in size those of Our Sea. Shoals of rich fat tunny fish are driven hither from the seacoast beyond. They feed on the fruit of stunted oak, which grows at the bottom of the sea and produces very large acorns. So great is the quantity of fruit, that at the season when they are ripe the whole coast on either side of the Pillars is covered with acorns thrown up by the tides. The tunny fish become gradually thinner, owing to the failure of their food as they approach the Pillars from the outer sea."
The World-Island according to Strabo, 18 a.d.
He describes, too, the metals of this wondrous land—gold, silver, copper, and iron; It is astonishing to think that in the days of Strabo the silver mines employed forty thousand workmen, and produced something like £900 a day in our modern money!
But we cannot follow Strabo over the world in all his detail. He tells us of a people living north of the Tagus, who slept on the ground, fed on acorn-bread, and wore black cloaks by day and night. He does not think Britain is worth conquering—Ireland lies to the north, not west, of Britain; it is a barren land full of cannibals and wrapped in eternal snows—the Pyrenees run parallel to the Rhine—the Danube rises near the Alps—even Italy herself runs east and west instead of north and south. His remarks on India are interesting.
"The reader," he says, "must receive the accounts of this country with indulgence. Few persons of our nation have seen it; the greater part of what they relate is from report. Very few of the merchants who now sail from Egypt by the Nile and the Arabian Gulf to India have proceeded as far as the Ganges."
He is determined not to be led astray by the fables of the great size of India. Some had told him it was a third of the whole habitable world, some that it took four months to walk through the plain only. "Ceylon is said to be an island lying out at sea seven days' sail from the most southerly parts of India. Its length is about eight hundred miles. It produces elephants."
Strabo died about the year 21 a.d. , and half a century passed before Pliny wrote An Account of Countries, Nations, Seas, Towns, Havens, Mountains, Rivers, Distances, and Peoples who now Exist or Formerly Existed. Strange to say, he never refers in the most distant way to his famous predecessor Strabo. He has but little to add to the earth-knowledge of Strabo. But he gives us a fuller account of Great Britain, based on the fresh discoveries of Roman generals.