These three books constitute both landmarks and cautionary warnings in a long process that none of them addresses directly. Take Barry Cunliffe's reconstruction of the exploratory voyage by Pytheas of Massalia (Marseille) in the late fourth century BC: this not only exposes the striking lack of direct knowledge then prevalent among Mediterranean peoples about virtually anywhere outside their own charmed climatic circle, but suggests the powerful emotional liminality that is always around to reinforce ignorance. Pytheas' sober and specific report on Cornish tin mines, the amber trade and (probably) Iceland and the Arctic Circle got him branded as a liar by writers such as the geographer Strabo, who preferred the authority of myth, and was equally ready to dismiss Megasthenes' first-hand descriptions of India on the same basis. Ptolemy of Alexandria (c.90-168 AD), the theoretical chapters of whose Geography we now have in a superlative new translation, was the first systematic cartographer to introduce the mapping of geographical points by precise co-ordination of parallel and meridian; but he also rejected both Eratosthenes' near-accurate calculation of the Earth's circumference and, worse, Aristarchus' theory of a heliocentric universe in favour of the old (and psychologically more satisfying) geocentric worldview supported by Aristotle. Since his own achievement ensured his subsequent enshrinement as an unquestioned authority, these two cardinal errors were guaranteed an extraordinarily long shelf-life. Finally, the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, which triumphantly incorporates all the latest developments of computerised geographic information systems (GIS), still has to struggle with human error and prejudice when reluctantly confronted with political rather than physical data, and (perhaps because of this) takes its lead, fashionably, from Fernand Braudel in privileging the latter whenever possible.
LRB 21 February 2002 | PDF Download