Slide #109

Slide #109A

Slide #109B

TITLE: World according to Herodotus
DATE: ca. 450 B.C.
AUTHOR: Herodotus
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 B.C.

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; 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 Sea.

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.


Index of Ancient Maps