Geographical Thought: Greeks and Romans

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What do you think is the relation between Kalidasa’s Meghdoot and Homer’s Odyssey?
Who was the first to divide the circle into 360 degrees?
What on earth is a gnomon!
And, who propounded that when two parallel lines are crossed diagonally by a straight line, the opposite angles are equal?
If you are fumbling for answers to the questions above, read on. It is important that we have a firm grasp on the origins of any science in order to fully comprehend its contemporary state.
So, let us acquaint ourselves with two of the most fundamental contributions, the Greek and the Roman, to geography as a branch of knowledge.

The Greeks
If you were to sit down to write a novel you would find strains of geographical description creeping into your work. Homer, and many others of that era were no different!
The epics of Homer, especially the Iliad and the Odyssey which contain the episodes of Trojan war (1280-1180BC) provide excellent accounts of historical geography of the then known world. Four winds coming from different directions are brilliantly described in his writings.
However, Homer had his limitations because he was essentially a poet and not a geographer. Formal study of the subject became pronounced with the works of Thales, Anaximander, Hecataeus, Herodotus, Plato, Aristotle, Erastothenes, and Hipparchus.

Wind Characteristics
Bores The North wind, strong and cool accompanied by clear blue skies
Eurus The East wind, warm and gentle
Notus The South wind, heralds an advancing storm, brings rain and can sometimes be violent
Zephyrus The west wind, dreaded, balmy and blows with gale force

Thales of Miletus
Miletus, a town located near the mouth of the river Menderes, on the eastern side of the Aegean Sea, rose to fame in the 6th and 71h century B.C. with Thales, a brilliant Greek thinker.
He was the first Greek genius, philosopher, and traveller concerned with the measurement and location of things on the surface of the earth. He is credited with several basic theorems of geometry.
Thales initially a businessperson, in the course of a trip to Egypt found himself greatly impressed by the geometrical, traditions of the Egyptians. He formulated six brilliant geometric propositions which were indeed path breaking in ascertaining latitude and longitude of places. That

  • the circle is divided into two equal parts by its diameter;
  • the angles at either end of the base of an isosceles triangle are equal;
  • when two parallel lines are crossed diagonally by a straight line the opposite angles are equal;
    the angle in a semicircle is a right angle;
  • the sides of the two similar triangles are proportionate and two triangles are congruent if they have two angles; and,
  • a side respectively equal are some geometric principles put forward by Thales.


In consequent years pondering over the shape of the Earth, Thales visualised earth as a disc floating in water.

Anaximander was a contemporary off Thales, and though his junior by a few years, contributed no less to classical geography. He devised an innovative instrument, the gnomon a sundial to measure time. This is one invention, which even you must be familiar with!
Hop over to your backyard or better still, the terrace, where there is ample sunshine, set a pole vertically above a flat surface and watch the varying position of the sun.
Then to measure time, calculate the length and direction of the shadow cast by the vertical pole. At noon the shadow is the shortest, while at sunset or sunrise it is the longest.
Easy? In fact this may remind you of our own Jantar Mantars, built by Sawai Man Singh of Jaipur. Anaximander prepared a world map, placing Greece at the center surrounded by other Eurasian parts. It was a pioneering work!


Thus Anaximander and Thales are regarded as the founder of the mathematical tradition in the study of geography in ancient Greece.

Miletus was filled with pride again when Hecataeus, born around 475 B.C., a gifted thinker, established a literary tradition, opposed to the mathematical tradition established by Thales and Anaximander.
His book Ges- Periodos (Description of the Earth) is regarded as the first attempt to put together available knowledge about the world systematically. Thus it is with reason that Hecataeus is acclaimed as the “Father of Geography”.
Hecataeus’s work was divided into two parts. The first documented geographical information about Europe, while the second dealt with Libya, which was the known section of land that is located in present day Africa and Asia.
The first volume provided vivid accounts of the Greek shores and the European coast of the Aegean Sea. Later, Hecataeus went on to add the geography of Adriatic, Italy and Spain. In the second volume he described Hellespont, the southern coast of Euxine up to Caucasia, Asia-Minor, Syria, Egypt and Libya.
Hecataeus endorsed the views of his predecessors of earth being a circular plane with Greece at the center. In fact this little world was surrounded by water, with two equally divided landmasses, Europe in the north and Libya in the south, with Greece occupying the center.
You will be surprised to find a description of India in the work of Hecataeus. He not only plotted India but also mentioned the Indus, several cities as well as many tribes, foremost among which were the Gandari people who occupied the country between the upper Indus and the valley of Kabul.

Plato (428-348 B.C.), though more synonymous with philosophy, did make important contributions to the development of geographical concepts.
A great proponent of deductive reasoning, Plato is regarded as the first scholar to propound the idea of the earth being a sphere located at the centre of the universe, and all the other celestial bodies including the sun, revolving around it. A revolutionary revelation for the times!


Although you may be familiar with Herodotus (485-425 B.C.) as the father of history but his significantly original contributions towards geography cannot be disregarded.
Herodotus’s view of interdisciplinary study, treating history geographically and geography historically, may be especially understood in the present context, where we seek to understand any phenomenon in the light of totality rather than specificity.
Thus he pioneered a novel, synthetic approach to study the discipline.
Herodotus born at Halicarnassus in the 5th century B.C., lived at Athens, the centre of Hellenic culture. His views about the shape of the earth departed from those of Hecataeus, accepting instead the Homeric view that the earth was a flat disc over which the sun travelled in an arc from east to west.
In fact it was Herodotus who first drew a meridian on the world map. He theorized the flow of the Nile, and was the first geographer to regard the Caspian as an inland sea, opposed to what his contemporaries considered an arm of the Northern Ocean.
Herodotus divided the landmass of the world into three continents, Europe, Asia and Libya (Africa). While he described Europe and Asia in some detail, his knowledge of Asia was confined mainly to the Persian Empire.

Arguing from the particular to the general, inductive reasoning was Aristotle’s gift to theorists. He believed that the best method of building a reliable theory was to begin with the observation of empirical facts.
Aristotle thus successfully laid the foundation of world’s first paradigm to guide research procedures.
Aristotle was perhaps one of the earliest determinists. He proposed varying habitability of the earth with varying latitude and established it as a function of distance from the equator.
Well, that would mean, that living close to the equator with its searing heat would be impossible, and the poles would be inhabitable too as one would hardly want to constantly face the chilling winds and cold weather.

Erastosthenes (276-194 B.C.) is credited to have coined the term geography! How? Well, he added `ge’ meaning earth, to `graphe’ meaning study, and viola we have `geography’.
Erastosthenes was the author of the first formal text on geography, `The Geographica’. Born in a Greek colony Cyrene, Libya, he was educated here and later at Athens.
At Athens the highest academic honour of the times was bestowed on him, when he was invited by the ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy Euergetes to be appointed as a librarian of the museum at Alexandria. Under the guidance of
Erastosthenes, the museum metamorphosed into an eminent center of astronomical research.
Erastosthenes is known to have identified five climatic zones, a torrid zone, two temperate zones, and two frigid zones.
While the area 24° north and south of the equator was designated as the torrid zone, the areas 24° from each pole were the frigid zones. The areas in between were the two temperate zones. Erastosthenes also attempted to determine how far our earth is from the sun and the moon.

Hipparchus succeeded Erastosthenes as the librarian at the museum of Alexandria, around 140 B.C. He was the first to divide the circle into 360 degrees, based on Assyrian arithmetic.
An instrument devised by him, the `astrolabe’, was used for the determination of longitudes and latitudes. It opened up many avenues, making it possible to measure latitude at sea by simply observing the angle of the polar star.
Hipparchus’s another brilliant work was the conversion of a three dimensional sphere into a two-dimensional plane, which facilitated the representation of the earth on paper.
If you have ever read the fine print at the bottom of each page in an Atlas, you would be familiar with projections. Here is where it all began! Hipparchus devised two kinds of projections, orthographic and stereographic, which allowed the curved sphere of the earth to be converted into plane surface on sound mathematical principles.

The Romans
Romans carried forward the Greek tradition of contributions to the development of geography.
The fields of historical and regional geography saw considerable progress, with Strabo and Ptolemy being the leading proponents, and Polybius and Posidonius contributing significantly to the study of physical geography.

Strabo (64 B.C. to 20 A.D.) was born south of Black Sea in a Turkish town of Amesia, capital of the Barbarian kings, and supporting a large Greek population. Strabo’s main contribution was his attempt to bring together all the existing geographical knowledge in the form of a general treatise.
His seventeen- volume work titled ‘Geography’ was an encyclopaedic description of the world known to the Greeks. The first two volumes had in them a review of the work of other geographers since the time of Homer, while eight volumes were devoted to Europe, six to Asia, and one to Africa.
Strabo’s historical work, introduced history of a country alongside its geography, while highlighting the intimate connection and interplay between the two.
He also attempted to trace the influence of the physical features on the character and the history of the inhabitants. Strabo’s book targeted a specific group of readers such as administrative officers, statesmen, and commanders of the Roman Empire.
The purpose was to provide ready-at-hand information about people and places to aid the imperial officers in accomplishing their tasks easily. Strabo’s work thus laid down firm foundation for chronological writing in geography.

Claudius Ptolemy (90-168 A.D.), a native of Egypt, wrote an eight volume work, the ‘Guide to Geography’, which consisted of discussions on map projections (first volume), tables of latitudes and longitudes (six volumes) and maps of different parts of the world (eighth volume).
His best known works include the “Almagast” which dealt with complicated problems of mathematical geography and astronomy long remaining the most standard reference on the movement of celestial bodies.
Ptolemy firmly believed that geography is a science that deals with the art of map-making. He aimed at ‘reforming’ the map of the world on the basis of astronomical principles.
Ptolemy was far ahead of his contemporaries in the mathematical construction of map projection. It was Ptolemy who for the first time plotted the Gangetic Gulf or the Bay of Bengal, as it is presently known. He showed the source of the Ganges and also its main tributary flowing down from the Himalayas.
Although Ptolemy’s calculations of latitudes and longitudes have been found erroneous, as it was based on the estimated lengths of the journeys between the places, however its great scholarly importance cannot be ignored or belittled.


We presume that these brief attempts in enlisting the great Greek and Roman thinkers have only served to whet your appetite. For some more voracious reading, you must step into your nearest library and probe into the lives and times of each player.
Suggest some project work, so that you can share each other’s findings at the end of the day, just like the ancient philosophers. And then you will be a force to reckon with!

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