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Feminist Geography: The Empowered Women of Strabo

Duane W. Roller

      One of the more unusual aspects of the Geography of Strabo is its attention to women of power.  The work is a major source for women scholars, literary figures and political leaders, some of whom are known nowhere else.  Those cited include royal women, a city founder, a topographer who did field work, and a philosopher.  Many are from Strabo's own era of the latter first century BC and early first century AD, but also include such interesting figures from earlier times as the poet Sappho, whom Strabo called "an extraordinary person" (13.2.3; references to Strabo are from Radt, 2002-2011), Queen Amastris of Herakleia (12.3.10), and Arete of Kyrene, the head of the Kyrenaian school of philosophy in the early fourth century BC (17.3.22).

     Some of these women are quite familiar, but Strabo added new dimensions to knowledge of their careers.  Most notably, he provided the first extant historical account of the death of Cleopatra VII, based on an eye-witness report, and making the compelling suggestion that she died by poison, not by an asp bite (17.1.10).

     Yet a number of these women are hardly, if at all, known outside Strabo's Geography.  His account provides an insight both into the emergence of scholarly, literary, and royal women in the Hellenistic period, who can often be ignored by other sources.   For example, Hestiaia of Alexandria (13.1.36), perhaps of the third century BC, wrote a treatise on the location of Troy (Pomeroy 1990: 61, 72).  Moreover, she had geological training, and studied the effects of affluviation in the Troad.  

      Equally obscure, yet fascinating, and also known only through Strabo, was Queen Aba of Olbe (14.5.10) in southern Anatolia.  She was a dependent of Cleopatra VII and like her was one of the few women to rule alone in classical antiquity, without a male guardian.  The little information about her career provides a unique perspective into the politics of mid-first century BC Anatolia.

     Many other women of importance are scattered through the pages of the Geography: Strabo's detailed account of the royal line of Halikarnassos, with its abundance of women rulers (14.2.16-17), is a case in point.  It remains to ask why Strabo should have such an interest in women of power and ability, when the historical record generally pays them little attention.  Scattered through the Geography (10.4.10, 11.2.18, 12.3.33) are numerous autobiographical details in which Strabo recounts his ancestry back through four generations to the mid-second century BC.  Many of the people he names were distinguished, including the secretary of Mithridates VI, a priest at Pontic Komana, and the governor of Colchis.  But all these famous ancestors were in his mother's line, and, moreover, in the line of his mother's mother.  Strabo does not cite single ancestor from his father's family or from those of his grandfathers.  In addition, his father is never named, probably unique in Greek genealogical writing.  Thus Strabo was dependent on his mother, and his mother's mother, for understanding his distinguished ancestral history.  What this exactly means in terms of internal dynamics within the Strabo family can never be known, but it does show that Strabo was exposed at an early age to a woman's view of history, again something essentially unprecedented.

      Moreover, there was the matter of Pythodoris of Pontos.  Strabo spent his later career--the years that he was writing the Geography--in the service of one of the most famous women of the era, Queen Pythodoris (Sullivan 1990: 323-5).  Probably a granddaughter of Mark Antony, she inherited the Pontic kingdom around 8 BC.  Strabo retired there in the early first century AD, completing the Geography under Pythodoris' patronage.  He wrote eulogistically about her (13.29-31, 37), and both queen and geographer shared a common interest and involvement in the destiny of Pontos.  Thus Strabo spent an essential part of his career in the company of a dynamic woman, and this affected his writing of the Geography.

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Women, Sex, and Power

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