A growing body of interdisciplinary work at the intersection of geography and the humanities explores narrative and ideological dimensions of geographical information and advances the reading of space and place in literary texts (Dear, Daniels, Cosgrove). Foundational to this project has been Harley and Woodward’s History of Cartography I (1987) with its emphasis on uncovering the ideological contexts of geographical information by reading ‘between the lines of the map’ (Harley 1989, 3). Jacob has charted the geographical discourse of maps as ‘embedding values, ideology, and subliminal meanings into what seems to be an objective statement on the real world’ (xv).
Building on these nuanced approaches to objective-sounding geographical information, and on recent work on the Greek and Roman intellectual and cultural contexts of Strabo’s life and work (Prontera; Maddoli; Clarke; Dueck; Dueck, Lindsay, Pothecary), this paper analyzes the language that Strabo uses to describe the cognitive, communicative and spatial actions undertaken to write the world -- to do geography. Ancient views of space have been characterized as ‘hodological’ – itinerary-based, and contrasted with a cartographic, map-based sense of space (Janni). While this contrast is generally valid, Strabo’s vocabulary for doing geography reveals a more cartographic sense of space than has been hitherto acknowledged. For example, Strabo provides an account of the places he has traveled to, but rather than narrate his itinerary he maps the territory he has mastered in parallels (southward from the Euxine to Syene) and meridians (westward from Armenia to the Tyrrhenian regions, 2.5.11).
Episkopein (‘to inspect’) emerges as a key term for Strabo’s project: he associates it consistently with the proper practice of geographical inquiry, especially in the first two books of his Geography, in which he establishes his relation to his major predecessors for geographical accounts of the inhabited world. Elsewhere used of a god (Sophocles Ant. 1135) or of a ruler overseeing a city (Plato Rep. 506b), the verb episkopein connotes inspection and examination from a vantage point of power. Strabo himself uses the term for wielding power over territory: 3.4.20 (Roman officials in Iberia); 15.1.50 (officials in India who inspect canals; cf. 17.1.48 on examination of the Nilometer); 16.1.11 (Alexander intervening in the operation of canals). Strabo’s first sentence reads: ‘I believe that geographical expertise which I am preparing to inspect (episkopein) is the business of the philosopher, as much as anything else is’ (1.1.1). ‘Let us inspect’ says Strabo, the utility of geography and the status of Homer as the first geographer (1.1.2; cf. 1.2.25, 1.3.23 and 2.1.41, 8.3.23). Strabo’s aim is to train his reader in this kind of informed, powerful gaze: 1.1.13 (as knowledge of climate ‘zones’ matters to an architect or city founder, so much the more for a man who is ‘inspecting’ the whole inhabited world); 2.5.1 (one uneducated in geography sees the sun rise and set but does not ‘examine’ why); 2.5.34 (the geographer ‘examines’ the inhabited world rather than uninhabited realms).
The programmatic force of the term episkopein may be compounded by associations elsewhere between the name Strabo (related to words for squinting) and the idea of far-sightedness (Pliny Nat. 7.85, on a Strabo who could see Carthage from Lilybaeum; cf. Strabo 6.2.1). In addition, Strabo invites readers to consider his work as a totality by comparing it to a colossal statue: readers should not seek ‘trivial’ details in a ‘kolossourgia’, a colossal work (1.1.23). This striking comparison evokes the colossus of all-seeing Helios at Rhodes. The island was a center of geographical and astronomical study; geographers described the main East-West parallel and North-South meridian as intersecting at Rhodes (2.1.1 and 2.5.42). Although an earthquake toppled the Colossus in 227 BCE, Rhodes’ centrality in geographical discourse persisted, especially in the works of Hipparchus, Poseidonius and Geminus. It is this tradition of Rhodes-centered scientific observation that Strabo rivals in the scope and mastery of his colossal, far-sighted and ‘episcopalian’ gaze.
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