Scholia Reviews ns 19 (2010) 21.

Duane W. Roller, Eratosthenes’ Geography: Fragments Collected and Translated, with Commentary and Additional Material. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010. Pp. xi + 304, incl. 3 line illustrations, 7 maps, and an appendix. ISBN 978-0- 691-14267-8. US $49.50 / UK£34.95.

Courtney Roby
Stanford University, California, U.S.A.

The Geography of Eratosthenes, the interdisciplinary 'Beta' of third-century B.C.E. Alexandria, presents the would-be editor or translator with a significant challenge: the work fell into controversy and disfavor early in its life, and so survives only in fragments, cited primarily by Strabo. The task of winnowing out the material which should be attributed to Eratosthenes was first taken on in 1789, again in 1821, and finally in 1880, and never since. Now, Duane Roller has stepped into this breach, refining the choice of fragments that make up this work and translating them into English for the first time. This translation is presented alongside a commentary enriched by recent research into ancient geography and allied subjects, particularly on the expansion of understanding of the physical world in Eratosthenes’ time and afterwards.

A brief introductory note is followed by a full chapter (pp. 1-37) on the background of Eratosthenes, his works, his contributions to geography, and the reception of his work. This chapter is richly annotated with references to literature both ancient and modern on Eratosthenes and other geographical authors, geographical practices, and the intellectual culture of Alexandria. Roller begins with the origins and evolution of the discipline of geography, tracing the development of proto-geographical disciplines like topography and ethnography through Homer, Herodotus, Anaximander, and the explorers of the Hellenistic era. He then moves on to the difficult task of trying to reconstruct the life of Eratosthenes from the uncertain information available, including remarks from Strabo and the Suda. He constructs this biography with circumspection and care, paying particular attention to Eratosthenes’ intellectual background. Finally, he describes the background of the Geography itself. He surveys the sources used by Eratosthenes, from Homer to the geographical authors who traveled with Alexander, to the explorers of Egypt in the age of Ptolemy II. Roller outlines the probable structure of the three books of the work: Book 1 includes a history of geography and a discussion of the formation of the earth; Book 2 lays out the shape and size of the earth and its division into zones; and Book 3 is a topographical description of the inhabited world, including its division into the portions he called 'sealstones' (sphragides).

Roller then closes this chapter with an account of the reception, ancient and modern, of the Geography. He mentions the critical attitude taken toward Eratosthenes by Hipparchos of Nikaia and Polybius, as well as Strabo's conflicted blend of critical appraisal with extensive citation. Here he also outlines the problems of making an edition of Eratosthenes, whose work survives only in fragments; these in turn are primarily quoted by Strabo, who uses Eratosthenes' work in a non-'linear' fashion (p. 36), and does not indicate the boundaries of quoted material with the greatest of care. Roller then moves on to the modern reception of the work, including the editions previously put forth by Seidel (1789), Bernhardy (1821), and Berger (1880). The present edition is designed to improve on these by including some fragments not found in earlier editions; by more carefully differentiating the fragments of the Geography from those of Eratosthenes' Measurement of the Earth; by including more extensive commentary on each fragment, informed by recent research on the disciplines of geography, topography, and ethnography; and by providing the first English translation of the fragments.

This translation forms the next section of the book (pp. 41-107). While the Greek text is not included in this volume, Roller notes that his edition is based primarily on Berger's, which is quite readily available in a 1964 reprint of the 1880 edition.[[1]] The translation is organized into the conventional three books originally established by Seidel, and then into the thematic sections as set out by Berger, such as 'The Formation of the Earth,' 'The First Sealstone (India),' and 'The Northeastern Part of the Inhabited World.' As noted above, Roller has made additions and subtractions to the particular fragments included under these headings, but his preservation of Berger’s organizational scheme makes cross- referencing between this text and Berger’s Greek relatively easy, as well as providing some much-needed structure to the fragments. His translation is highly readable; indeed, it can be a challenge to stop reading. Roller notes that as the work survives only in paraphrase, it is not really possible to get a sense of Eratosthenes’ style; he has therefore opted for a clear and straightforward translation, which tries as far as possible to clarify Strabo’s own elliptical style. The possible ambiguities of reference and meaning that result from this style are reliably discussed in the commentary.

After the translation of the fragments, Roller provides an extensive section of summaries and commentaries (pp. 111-221). Summaries of each fragment, sometimes quite detailed, precede the corresponding passage of commentary. This feature of the work makes it possible to use the commentary almost like a stand- alone guide to the text of Eratosthenes, particularly given the grouping of the fragments into thematically unified sections. The organizational scheme chosen by Roller certainly makes for easier textual navigation than that of Berger, who follows each thematic group of Greek fragments with lengthy commentary. Within the commentary Roller offers careful notes about the sources used by Eratosthenes and Strabo; he includes up-to-date research about the geographical regions and features mentioned, as well as a complete and readable guide to technical aspects of Eratosthenes’ geography such as the methods he used to determine latitude. Cross- references between fragments are indicated where helpful for specific questions (for tasks such as collecting every reference to a specific place, readers can turn to the gazetteer and general index at the end of the book).

Last but not least, Roller includes a gazetteer, a selection of maps, and three appendices. The gazetteer lists, in alphabetical order, all the place-names mentioned in the book, along with cross-references to the fragment that mentions them and the maps on which they appear. Where possible, he also includes the modern names of these places, which will make this section particularly useful for readers wishing to locate features named by Eratosthenes on modern maps, or to chart them using electronic mapping tools. The maps included in this book deserve special mention for their clarity and utility. Produced by the Ancient World Mapping Center at the University of North Carolina, these maps include 'virtually all of the over 400 toponyms cited by Eratosthenes' (p. xi). The maps themselves are grayscale shaded- relief representations of the full extent of the known world in the second century BCE, as well as five sub-regions of the world. The crisp graphics of these maps make it very easy for the reader to compare the actual topographical phenomena with Eratosthenes' descriptions. Additionally, Roller includes a map showing the shape of the inhabited regions of the world as described by Eratosthenes, based on a similar map from the Grosser Historischer Weltatlas. Finally, there is an index of passages cited (pp. 281-87) and a general index (pp. 289-304); this latter is not of sprawling length, but as Roller notes much of its work is done by the gazetteer, and the length of the index is limited to avoid redundancy.

The first of the three appendices concerns Eratosthenes' work On the Measurement of the Earth, which in previous editions and commentaries was not recognized as a separate work from the Geography. Roller here includes the ancient testimonia supporting the claim that this was a distinct work, references to modern scholarship on the controversy, and the nine fragments of the work, which come from sources ranging from geographical authors like Marinos to Macrobius' commentary on the Somnium Scipionis. The second appendix comprises the ancient testimonia for the life of Eratosthenes, upon which Roller's introductory biography is based. The final appendix is a guide to the difficulties of finding modern equivalents for the Greek measurements of the stadion and schoinos, given the variation in these units throughout Greek literature. The stadion varies from 177.7m to 197.3m, which is no small difference when one considers the large distances Eratosthenes deals with; meanwhile, the schoinos varied from 30 to 120 stadia, which clearly compounds the problem significantly. Roller deals with individual questions of distances in the commentary, but this appendix sheds a helpful light on the extent of the challenge.

Roller has succeeded admirably in producing a work that will make Eratosthenes accessible to a wide variety of readers. He has made vast improvements over the previous editions of the fragments in facilitating the reading of both text and commentary. His explanations of technical subjects such as the calculation of distances and latitudes will be comprehensible to a general audience. At the same time, Roller brings to bear on Eratosthenes’ text a wealth of new research on ancient exploration, travel, and scientific research, so that this book will be equally interesting to specialist researchers. All in all, Roller has given us a learned and readable work that should serve to communicate Eratosthenes’ achievements to the broad audience he deserves.


[[1]] Eratosthenes, Die geographischen Fragmente des Eratosthenes, neu gesammelt, geordnet und besprochen von Hugo Berger (Amsterdam 1964).