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From Abakainon to Zygris

The Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World

edited by Richard J.A. Talbert
Princeton University Press, 148 pp., with a companion gazetteer on CD-ROM, $350.00; a print version of the gazetteer is also available, in two volumes, 1,383 pp., $150.00

The ancient primacy of the Greeks and Romans in the educational system of the West was still flourishing, in many elite educational establishments, in the 1950s, and indeed in the 1960s and beyond. It was a special and privileged position, but of a very curious kind. In literature, Greece and Rome provided “the classics,” and in some sense set the standard by which later writers were judged; the brightest boys and, latterly, the brightest girls were expected to study them.

That did not imply, as perhaps might have been expected, a keen interest in the lives of the ancients, their world, its history and environment. What it did mean was scrupulous attention to the grammar of two highly complex languages, and meticulous imitation of the styles in which certain ancient writers wrote. The really serious business of the week, at a traditional school, was the translation of pieces of English poetry into Greek iambic verse, in the manner (we fondly hoped) of Sophocles, or into Latin verse, in the manner of Virgil (hexameters), or of Ovid (elegiac couplets).

The rules governing those meters are so exigent that at first the exercise feels like trying to knit with barbed wire. By contrast with this most arduous activity, such subjects as history or the visual arts were regarded as soft options, not difficult enough, not worthy to be taken with full seriousness. As for geography, the etiquette in the sixth (highest) form at my own school was to reply to our keen young ancient history teacher, when he asked where a place actually was, with some such carefully Philistine formula as “Oh, Sir, it’s about halfway down on the left-hand side.”

The change has been complete. No longer are eighteen-year-olds laboring to turn Shakespeare’s sonnets into the manner of Ovid, or the oratory of Macaulay and Lincoln into the idiom of Demosthenes. There has been a price to pay, and we see it in the uncouthness of much modern academic writing, and in the low standard of most contemporary political rhetoric. No longer have our leaders, or even our critics, been through that exacting stylistic training, which insisted that every word had to be scrupulously weighed and savored. Instead, what is found most interesting about the ancient world tends to be the visual arts and economic and social history. Religion, trade, medicine, town planning, women, slaves: these are the sorts of subjects which nowadays dominate.

It has followed that students and teachers have felt the need for new reference works that are more helpful in these matters than the old stylistic manuals. That need has become especially acute in the case of reliable and accurate maps of the ancient world. In the last hundred years it has been very hard to get hold of any. The labor involved in producing good maps is very great, the expense very great also. Excavation and aerial surveys have enormously increased our knowledge. Some ambitious plans have come to nothing at all, like the Italian Grande Atlante del Mondo Antico, of which in the end nothing was published. Others have been crucially hampered by all sorts of problems. The publication of separate fascicles has tended to be patchy, with different sections appearing in different formats or (often) not at all. Whole enterprises have been damagingly marked by nationalism: by refusals to cooperate with neighboring states, and by quarrels over definitions and frontiers. What has finally been published has usually cost far too much for anyone but an institution or a library to buy.

Such was the somber picture, and such the most likely outcome, when, in 1980, the American Philological Association turned its attention to the subject and pronounced,

We come, finally, to an area of extremely great importance, where the state of our tools is utterly disastrous, cartography. There is hardly anything more important to understanding ancient history than a clear conception of the terrain on which its events took place.

The statement went on to lament the lack of good new maps and the unavailability of the best of the old. It concluded:

A concerted attempt to produce a uniform series of maps which show both the topography—with all the sophistication of modern cartography—and the ancient toponyms—with the accumulated knowledge of classical scholarship—would be immensely valuable.

In 1988 an approach was made to Richard Talbert, of the University of North Carolina, an Ulster man, to head the project of producing an atlas which would satisfy these demands. Fortunately he proved to be a man of great resource and tireless energy; and in 2000 the completed work was published. The work cost some four and a half million dollars (“relatively modest,” says the editor disarmingly); there is a whole page listing the names of donors and supporters. In its published form it takes its name from a leading supporter, the Barrington Foundation. It recruited seventy-three compilers, answering to ten regional editors (rather charmingly called vicars, echoing the title vicarii of administrators in the late Roman Empire), with ninety-five reviewers to revise and criticize their work, and twenty-two cartographers to create the maps from it. The enterprise is international and consists of scholars on both sides of the Atlantic. It is important that the atlas has got away from the rule that the mapping of each region may be undertaken only by the modern national authority there. That rule has been a charter for the obstructive, and it has gravely hampered many recent cartographic ventures.

The declared aim is to “take in all regions for which penetration by Greeks or Romans can be documented.” That goes far beyond Greece and Rome, far indeed beyond the Roman Empire at its vastest. The geographical scale is such that it touches on the territory of ninety-one modern countries, from Scotland to Mozambique, from Portugal to China, and from Latvia to Sri Lanka. The gazetteer helpfully lists, for each named place, the modern nation-state in which it lies; the editor adds, wryly but also prudently,

Important Note: The sole purpose of this list is identification. It is not to be taken as making any kind of statement about the status of countries mentioned.

There is a quagmire waiting to engulf anyone rash enough to express a view about the borders of Israel, or the status of Macedonia, or the nationality of Kashmir, or any of dozens of questions of conflicting national claims and ethnic pride. The scale of the index can be seen from the fact that it lists some three thousand names of places beginning with the letter A; it ranges from “A(…),” in North Africa, by way of Zulm (Afghanistan) and Zunsweier (Germany), and Zvezdan (Yugoslavia), to the Zygritai and their capital, Zygris, in what is now Tunisia. There are also, of course, indexes of “unlocated toponyms” and of “false toponyms.”

Those categories open up interesting vistas. Clearly there will be no entry for “Atlantis.” It is delightful, though, to find “Thule” listed; Thule turns out to be the Shetland Islands, northwest of Scotland, but the identification is stigmatized with a scholarly question mark as less than certain. What of that other classical Shangri-la, the Garden of the Hesperides? That too is in, and without even a query: it was in what is now Libya, near the real place called Euesperides, “Best Western.” But of course we are not to suppose that the atlas means that in the Garden there were lovely nymphs cultivating the apples of immortal life. Part of the River Styx flows above- ground, and that duly appears on Map 58; but not the infernal part, where Charon, his eyes ablaze, ferries the trembling souls of the dead. And we look in vain for those other rivers of the underworld: Cocytus, the River of Lamentation, and Phlegethon, the River of Fire. They must be sought on maps of a different kind, along with the Elysian Fields. The Phlegraean Fields, on the other hand, are real, and volcanic; they will be found near Naples.

For some of the ninety-one countries, contact with Greeks and Romans was relatively slight. Still, even the bare place names of coastal settlements can be revealing. It is fascinating to observe, for instance, that on the west coast of India there is another, smaller Byzantium: perhaps the settlers were homesick, or perhaps they had a touch of folie de grandeur. There is also a place called Monoglosson Emporion, “Monoglots’ Market,” a reflection (surely) of ethnocentric impatience with foreigners who would not learn Greek. (One is reminded of Kingsley Amis on the French: “Why can’t they talk English, like everyone else?”) And right down in the south of India we know of a temple to Augustus. Was this a result of imperialism? Or was it, perhaps, a bit of judicious flattery of the Big Man back home?

Along the southern shore of the Black Sea in what is now Turkey, we find, touchingly, a tiny place with the name “Athens.” Like the Indian By-zantium, such a name recalls the secondary Birminghams, Bostons, and Toledos of the New World. On the same Turkish coast we can read the intentions of other settlers with vivid clarity. Some settlers piously put their new towns under the patronage of gods: we find Diospolis (“Zeusville”) and Poseidon and Heraclea. Some made hopeful claims for the future: there is Philokaleia, which means “Love of Beauty.” We may think of Concord or Philadelphia. It may be a local feature that caught their fancy: we find Kerasous and Pityous, which mean respectively “Cherry Trees” and “Pine Trees.” Less imaginatively, some settlers called their own new colony simply Naustathmos, which means “Ship Station,” (compare Anchorage in Alaska), and we find also Bathys Limen, which means “Deep Port,” and Psoron Limen, which means, all too poignantly, “Scabby Port.”

Ancient men tried to map their own world. By 500 BCE the Greeks had maps which represented not only the Aegean world but Egypt and Asia, too. These maps tended to be rounded, with the stream of ocean going all around the edge of a land mass divided up into neatly symmetrical continents. In the fifth century BCE Herodotus denied that the encircling ocean existed at all: it was just an invention of poets. But even so, he was not above arguing that the Hyperboreans, a mythical people dwelling at the back of the north wind, did not exist, “for if there are Hyperboreans, then there are Hypernotians in the south, too.” The great geographer and polymath Eratosthenes, who in the third century BCE measured the circumference of the earth with accuracy by trigonometrical reasoning from the length of shadows, tried to get away from symmetry in maps, but it kept coming back: the world, it was felt, ought to be symmetrical, and on medieval maps it generally is, with Jerusalem at the center. Maps of the world as the ancients themselves envisaged it are among the intriguing possibilities that the Barrington Atlas editors did not follow up.

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