10 Sep

Map of the Week: Strabo’s Map of Ireland

By: Samantha Hinton

Strabo of Amasia was an early Greek geographer from Pontus and lived from roughly 65 B.C. to 25 A.D. In his key writing, The Geography, Strabo reviewed the ancient world. He completed this work around 7 B.C. and it contained 17 books that are still in print today.

Unique to this time and to The Geography, Strabo offers some of the only documentation available on the country of Ireland earlier than the fifth century A.D. Ireland can be seen in the top left hand corner of the map above.

In his writing, Strabo adopted a narrow minded and distorted view on Ireland. Strabo emphasizes strict dichotomies between “civilised – uncivilised” and “an in-group and an out-group.” (van der Vliet 2003, p. 263,258).” Strabo says that Ierne is “a wretched place to live” (Jones 2006, p. 271) and that it is “the home of men who are complete savages and lead a miserable existence (Jones 2006, p. 443).” His negative characterizations to describe the uncivilized life of Irish natives emphasizes the distinction of identity. Strabo’s account could have contributed to the unflattering portrait of Ireland that word penetrated future writings.

Despite his account of it in The Geography, Strabo did not visit Ireland or Ierne as he calls it and although detrimental to the reputation of the Irish, Strabo recognized that he lacked first-hand knowledge of Ierne. He admits to an absence of “neither certainty nor trustworthy sources” in his descriptions of Ierne (Freeman 2001, p. 46). Additionally, he believed that the cold and harsh climate would make anyone behave savagely. To Strabo, it was such an awful place “on account of the cold” and the region was simply uninhabitable (Jones 2006, p. 271). Ierne was “the northern limit of our inhabited world (Jones 2006, p. 443).”

Strabo’s’ representation of Ireland also included physical geographical mistakes. Strabo’s rough estimate of Ireland as an island “which stretches parallel to Britain on its north, its breadth being greater than its length,” was acceptably accurate (Jones 2006, p. 259). Strabo failed to place Ireland accurately in relation to Britain. He said it was 4,000 stadia, (roughly 500 miles), a form of measurement used by ancient Greeks, north of the centre of Britain, much farther than it is in real life. Author Phillip Freeman (2001, p. 40) speculates that Strabo’s disbelief in the existence of Thule played a major part in why he placed Ireland too far north. Greek and Roman scholars thought of Thule as the most northern place in the area, perhaps central Norway or Iceland (Tierney 1976, p. 259). The idea of Thule did not correspond to Strabo’s geographical framework and he described Pytheas, a Greek geographer who wrote of Thule, as a man known to often falsify his work (Freeman 2001, p. 39). Strabo’s rejection of Thule led him to shift greater focus on what did exist in the outermost parts of the inhabited world (Freeman 2001, p. 40). In an attempt to emphasize the inhabitability of the “frozen zone,” Strabo situated Ierne too far north. (Freeman 2001, p. 46).

In regard to Strabo’s geographical errors, we can offer leniency. For one, little was known about Ireland. In fact, Strabo was the first writer to comment on the shape of Ireland (Freeman 2001, p. 46). He was also the first author to use the term Ierne before it became the most common name for Ireland among Greek authors (Freeman 2001, p. 40). While he did travel, Strabo was still incredibly dependent on other writers like Eratosthenese, Pytheas, Hipparchus, and Polybius, more than his own first-hand accounts (Freeman 2001, p. 39). Unfortunately, his other sources were unreliable sailors because they would not be visiting the remote and unprofitable places (Freeman 2001, p. 40). Therefore, they would only afford a partial account of Ireland.

Flawed, his map is still an invaluable and early perspective of Ireland. The first draft of history that survived to the modern world when many others did not.

The map displayed here is a republishing in Latin of Strabo’s map, that would have been written in Greek. For more information on Strabo’s representation of Ireland look at the following sources:

  • Jones, Horace Leonard (1923, 2006 Reprint), (Trans. and Ed), Strabo, Geography, II , pp. 234-237, 258–261, 268-271, 280-285, 440-445.
  • Freeman, Philip. (2001), Ireland and the Classical World, (Austin), pp. 38-85.
  • Johnston, R. J. (1986) Philosophy and Human Geography: An Introduction to Contemporary Approaches, 2nd edn, Edward Arnold, Baltimore
  • van der Vliet, Edward. (2003) ‘The Romans and Us: Strabo’s Geography and the Construction of Ethnicity, A Journal of Classical Studies, Vol. 56, pp. 257-272, accessed 4 December 2020