Eratosthenes' Geography

Eratosthenes' Geography

Eratosthenes' Geography

Eratosthenes' Geography


This is the first modern edition and first English translation of one of the earliest and most important works in the history of geography, the third-century Geographika of Eratosthenes. In this work, which for the first time described the geography of the entire inhabited world as it was then known, Eratosthenes of Kyrene (ca. 285-205 BC) invented the discipline of geography as we understand it. A polymath who served as librarian at Alexandria and tutor to the future King Ptolemy IV, Eratosthenes created the terminology of geography, probably including the word geographia itself. Building on his previous work, in which he determined the size and shape of the earth, Eratosthenes in the Geographika created a grid of parallels and meridians that linked together every place in the world: for the first time one could figure out the relationship and distance between remote localities, such as northwest Africa and the Caspian Sea. The Geographika also identified some four hundred places, more than ever before, from Thoule (probably Iceland) to Taprobane (Sri Lanka), and from well down the coast of Africa to Central Asia.

This is the first collation of the more than 150 fragments of the Geographika in more than a century. Each fragment is accompanied by an English translation, a summary, and commentary. Duane W. Roller provides a rich background, including a history of the text and its reception, a biography of Eratosthenes, and a comprehensive account of ancient Greek geographical thought and of Eratosthenes' pioneering contribution to it. This edition also includes maps that show all of the known places named in the Geographika, appendixes, a bibliography, and indexes.


Interest in the size, shape, and inhabitants of the surface of the earth goes back to prehistoric times, as early humans moved beyond the limits of their own environment and encountered a world that was different from their own. The earliest literature is replete with travelers. Enkidu traveled to Uruk to meet Gilgamesh, Cain went from Eden to Nod, and Odysseus came to the Land of the Lotos Eaters. A primitive sense of geographical curiosity was an inevitable by-product of these wanderings. Enkidu met peoples whose lifestyles were different from his own, and Odysseus unfortunately learned both about the perils of sea travel and the dietary habits of the Lotos Eaters. The world was a complex place, and one's own clan was an insignificant part of its diversity.

Yet simple knowledge or even deep interest in the surface of the earth—whether its physical or anthropological qualities—did not automatically mean the development of geography. Scientific explanations for the character of the earth did not occur until the beginnings of Greek intellectualism in the sixth century BC; the Ionian monists Thales and Anaximandros were the first to theorize, however rudimentarily, about why the earth was the way it was. Yet only with Plato and Aristotle was there significant movement toward a discipline of geography, to be further stimulated by the extensive travels of Alexander the Great. But it was not until the efforts of the polymath Eratosthenes of Kyrene (ca. 285–205 BC), Librarian at Alexandria and tutor to the future King Ptolemaios IV, that geography took its place among the legitimate scholarly endeavors: indeed, it was Eratosthenes who created its terminology, including the very word geographia itself.

At some time during the 40 years after 245 BC, Eratosthenes wrote his three-book Geographika, the first scholarly treatise on the topic. Building on the thoughts of the previous three centuries, as well as the vast amount of data about places and peoples that had accumulated over the years, he laid out his conception of the nature of the surface of the earth (he had already determined its size in a previous treatise), with special attention to the oikoumene, or inhabited portions, and the . . .

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