TITLE: World according to Herodotus
DATE: ca. 450 B.C.
DESCRIPTION: These slides show modern reconstructions of the oikumene
[inhabited world] of the renown Greek historian Herodotus (active 440-425
B.C.) . Through his writings of travels, Herodotus did much to enlarge contemporary
knowledge of Asia.
Herodotus wrote his Histories in the mid-400's B.C. His book was
intended first and foremost as the story of the Greeks' long struggle with
the Persian Empire, but Herodotus also included everything he has been able
to find out about the geography, history, and peoples of the world. His
work, with the map that can be reconstructed from his descriptions, provides
our most detailed picture of the world known to the Greeks of the 5 th century
Herodotus was not only a great writer, but he was also an adventurous traveler.
His researches for his book took him from his home in Halicarnassus in Asia
Minor- the peninsula of western Asia between the Black Sea (Herodotus' Pontus
Euxinus ) and the Mediterranean - through must of the known world. His
geographical descriptions are based on the observations that he made on
this journey, combined with what he learned from the people he met. Herodotus
saw his surroundings far more realistically than did most of his contemporaries;
sometimes he even goes to the extent of doubting the truth of a story he
reports second-hand. We shall have to believe that he was familiar with
theories about the sphericity of the earth, but even though he was often
critical of other geographers, he nevertheless seems to have accepted the
old belief of the world as a disc. From this information, he built up a
picture of the world that is very near the truth. The area he knew was small,
but his knowledge of it was amazingly complete.
Scattered throughout his text is so much information about countries and
rivers and seas and their relative size and position that many have tried
to draw maps of Herodotus' world from it. Herodotus writes:
And I laugh when I see that, though many before this have drawn maps of
the Earth, yet no one has set the matter forth in an intelligent way; seeing
that they draw Oceanus flowing around the Earth, which is circular exactly
as if drawn with compasses, and they make Asia equal in size to Europe .
. . I wonder then at those who have parted off and divided the world into
Libya, Asia and Europe, since the difference between these is not small;
for in length Europe extends along by both, while in breadth it is clear
to me that it is beyond comparison larger; for Libya furnishes proofs about
itself that it is surrounded by sea, except so much of it as borders upon
Asia [Then follows the narrative of the Phoenician voyage around Libya,
and further on the story of the voyage made by Scylax] . . . Thus Asia also,
excepting the parts of it which are towards the rising sun, has been found
to be similar to Libya [i.e. surrounded by sea]. As to Europe, however,
it is clearly not known by any, either as regards the parts which are towards
the rising sun or those towards the north, whether it be surrounded by sea
. . .
Herodotus scoffed at the popular belief that Europe, Asia, and Africa (which
he called Libya ) were all the same size, and made up a circular
world. He cannot guess why three different names, Europa, Libya, Asia,
have been given to the earth, which is one unit; why they are, according
to him, named after women [Europa ] was famous in mythology; Asia is said
to have been one of the Oceanides; Libya, however, does not seem
to occur as the name of a woman; Martin Waldseemüller, or his associate
Martin Ringmann, was evidently recalling this passage of Herodotus when
he suggested America as the name of the New World in his seminal map of
1507, (Slide #312); nor who fixed
the boundary of Asia and Libya at the Nile and the boundary of Asia and
Europe at the Colchian Phasis [or at the Don and the Straits of Kertsch].
His view of the earth was closer to our own, although, because his knowledge
was limited, he described Europe as being as long as both Asia and Africa
put together. Of the areas to the north and east he knew little, mentioning
neither Britain nor Scandinavia, and confessing ignorance of eastern Asia.
He does not know whether Europe is surrounded by water to the west and north,
nor the location of the Cassiterides Islands, from which tin is obtained.
In the geography of India, Herodotus made a surprising mistake. Although
he knew that a Greek mariner called Scylax (dates unknown) had sailed down
the Indus River and around Arabia into the Red Sea, Herodotus maintained
that the Indus River flowed southeast.
The Persians inhabit Asia extending to the Southern Sea, which is called
the Erythræan [i.e. the 'red' sea. - the Indian Ocean was called
the "red' sea during the entire classical era; it was only during the
Middle Ages that the denomination was referred to the Red Sea proper] .
. . This then [Asia Minor] is one of the peninsulas, and the other beginning
from the land of the Persians stretches along to the Erythræan Sea,
including Persia and next after it Assyria, and Arabic after Assyria; and
this ends, or rather is commonly supposed to end, at the Arabian Gulf [the
Red Sea], into which Darius conducted a canal from the Nile . . . With respect
to the voyage along it [i.e. Herodotus' Arabian Gulf], one who set out from
the inner most point to sail out through it into the open sea, would spend
forty days upon the voyage, using oars; and with respect to breadth, where
the gulf is broadest it is half a day's sail across . . .
And Asia is inhabited as far as the Indian land; but from this onwards towards
the east it becomes desert, nor can anyone say what manner of land it is
. . . Then again Arabia is the furthest of inhabited lands in the direction
of the midday [i.e.south]... As one passes beyond the place of the midday,
the Ethiopian land is that which extends furthest of all inhabited lands
towards the sunset [i.e. south-west] . . .
For the Nile flows from Libya and cuts Libya through the midst, and as I
conjecture, judging of what is not known by that which is evident to the
view, it starts at a distance from its mouth equal to that of the Ister
[here Herodotus means that the source of the Nile is as far west as that
of the Ister-Danube]; for the River Ister begins from the Celti and the
city of Pyrene [the Pyrenees?] and so runs that it divides Europe in the
midst (now the Celti are outside the Pillars of Hercules and border upon
the Cynetes, who dwell furthest towards the sunset of all those who have
their dwelling in Europe and the Ister ends, having its course through the
whole of Europe, by flowing into the Euxine Sea at the place where the Milesians
have their settlement at Istria. Now the Ister, since it flows through land
which is inhabited, is known by the reports of many; but of the sources
of the Nile no one can give an account, for the part of Libya through which
it flows is uninhabited and desert . . .
Herodotus tells of five youths from the country of the Nasamones on the
Gulf of Sidra, who pushed down through the desert to the south-west until
they came to a great river which flowed east. They had seen crocodiles there,
and so Herodotus was convinced that they had reached the Nile, which he
believed to rise in West Africa. It has been suggested that the Nasamones
came upon the Niger near Timbuktu, but n is more probable that they got
no further than to the Fezzan, where dried-up river beds bear witness of
large prehistoric rivers, and where carvings of crocodiles have been found
on rock faces. The dromedary camel was not yet in use in Africa in Herodotus'
days, and it is difficult to believe that the youths could have crossed
the sands of the desert as far as the Niger on horseback.
For all that sea which the Hellenes navigate, and the sea beyond the Pillars,
which is called Atlantis, and the Erythræan Sea are in fact all one,
but the Caspian is separate and lies apart by itself. In length it is a
voyage of fifteen days if one uses oars, and in breadth, where it is broadest,
a voyage of eight days. On the side towards the west of this sea the Caucasus
runs along by it, which is of all mountain ranges both the greatest in extent
and the loftiest . . . while towards the east and the rising sun a limitless
plain succeeds . . .
And taking his seat at the temple he [Darius] gazed upon the Pontus [the
Euxine], which is a sight well worth seeing. Of all seas it is indeed the
most marvelous in its nature. The length of it is seven thousand one hundred
furlongs and the breadth, where it is broadest three thousand three hundred
. . . This Pontus also has a lake which has its outlet into it which lake
is not much less in size than the Pontus itself, and it is called Mæotis
[the Sea of Azov] and 'Mother of the Pontus'.
In two respects, Herodotus' knowledge was considerably in advance of his
time. He realized that the Caspian was an inland sea and not, as many geographers
thought, a gulf connected to the ocean that was supposed to encircle the
earth. Also, he stated that Africa was surrounded by sea, and cited the
Phoenician voyage commissioned by Necho in 600 B.C. as definite proof of
this. Some 500 years after Herodotus wrote, the geographer Claudius Ptolemy,
whose knowledge was more detailed that Herodotus', mistakenly pined southern
Africa to Asia, making the Indian Ocean into an inland sea. Herodotus' knowledge
of the course of the Nile was, however, as hazy as of that of the Indus.
According to him, it rose south of the Atlas Mountains, and flowed across
Africa before turning north to flow through Egypt toward the Mediterranean
LOCATION: (map only exists as reconstruction)
*Bunbury, E., History of Ancient Geography, Chapter V.
*Dilke, O.A.W., Greek and Roman Maps, pp. 23-25, 28, 49, 57-59, 62,133.
*Harley, J.B., The History of Cartography, Volume One, pp. 135-137.
*Heidel, W.A., The Frame of the Ancient Greek Maps, p. 20.
*Landström, B., Bold Voyages and Great Explorers, p. 32.