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Strabo’s Roman World: Imperial Centers and Cultural Memory

Maxwell R Dietrich

University of Pennsylvania

This paper explores Strabo’s descriptions of Athens and Rome in the context of Strabo’s kolossourgia (Str. Geog. 1.1.23) and demonstrates that Strabo manipulates the cultural memories associated with these places in order to control, and in some ways to limit, their prominence within his broader geographical scheme. Strabo explores the history of places as well as their spatial relations, producing a universalizing vision that concentrates time and space on the Roman present (Clarke 1999). Despite this focus on the Roman present, however, the past still matters to Strabo, and I will demonstrate how Strabo’s descriptions of Rome and Athens as places obfuscate famous historical narratives, decentering these cities from his overall representation of the Mediterranean world. In this way, Strabo runs counter to the prevailing cultural memory of his time.

 The first part of this paper will explore Strabo’s description of Athens, where he relates a number of short historical and mythic narratives to specific places, as well as providing a separate narrative history (Str. 9.1.20). Strabo’s place-histories vary in their level of detail; overall, however, he gives more attention to mythical stories than historical ones, and well-known stories from the classical period, such as the battle of Marathon (Str. 9.1.22), get especially summary treatment. Strabo justifies his exclusion of details by claiming that he wishes to avoid excessive attention to matters that have been much discussed and disagreed upon (Str. 9.1.16-9). Strabo’s references to famous historical events depend on his audience sharing a certain cultural memory, but his downplaying of those same events, or his refusal to say more, recontextualizes them in a history of Athens that deemphasizes the classical. By doing so, he acts contrary to the Augustan vision of Athens as the focal point of Greek culture (Spawforth 2012).

The second part of this paper will explore Strabo’s description of Rome. As in his description of Athens, Strabo emphasizes the mythic past and foundational narratives of the city, but he also draws attention to its imperial present. Strabo’s Rome is a city settled “in a place fitted by necessity rather than by choice” (Str. 5.3.2), and only recent intervention by Pompey, Caesar, and Augustus has made the city beautiful (5.3.8); accordingly, his description of the city is dominated by the recent monuments of the Campus Martius. Strabo leaves a gap between the mythic past and imperial present, effectively shortening Rome’s history down to a recent period of geographical relevance. Even the Campus Martius monuments have an anonymous quality (Str. 5.3.8); they suggest a city unfinished, or at least lacking in the deep historical context that marks many places in Strabo’s Geography. Based on these passages, I argue that Strabo is not committed to the centrality of Rome and Athens as physical sites of memory, despite his investment in the Roman imperial context. Instead, he has a vision of the Roman imperial world in which places are connected to political and cultural centers, but not subordinated.

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Greek Historiography

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