Augustan Greece in Strabo’s Geography: A Short Survey


  • Marjeta Šašel Kos



ancient Greece, historical geography, Strabo


Strabo dedicated books 8 and 9 of his Geography to Greece, which he describes in great detail. While the greater part of his narrative reads like the description of an earlier Greece, he does include some interesting notes on his own period. His descriptions largely refer to passages in Homer, whom he considers the ultimate authority, since the Iliad and Odyssey formed an important part of the then school curriculum. A recurring observation is that a number of Greek settlements, once densely populated, were in his day deserted. There is no doubt that much of Greece was left waste in the Hellenistic period, especially in the period from Polybius (2nd century B.C.) to Strabo (the beginning of the Christian era).
While the information from Strabo’s own time represents a very small portion of the two books, it is often of great historical interest. He mentions, for example, the rule of Gaius Iulius Eurycles in Sparta; Eurycles came into conflict with Rome because he allegedly abused his friendship with Augustus, appropriating the island of Cythera and tyrannically extending his power through Laconia. Certainly one of the most influential personages in the Greece of his day, he had inscriptions set up in his honour throughout Laconia and elsewhere in the Peloponnese. 
Somewhat more attention is devoted by Strabo to Corinth, which he visited personally. According to him, the city’s affluence was due to trade: lying on the Isthmus, it controlled two ports, Cenchreae, from which ships sailed for Asia, and Lechaeum, which was its link to Greece. Strabo describes the dramatic fall of Corinth: in 146 B.C. it was burnt down by the Roman consul, Lucius Mummius, and robbed of practically all its art works, which were then used to adorn the temples in Rome, in other Italian towns and elsewhere in the Mediterranean, since many were sold as war booty. Strabo mentions that Polybius, who was in Corinth at the time, was particularly saddened by the Roman soldiers’ treatment of precious art works; scattering precious paintings on the ground, they played dice on them. Among the paintings he singles out Aristides’ Dionysus, which had given rise to the saying: “Nothing compares to Dionysus.” The painting ended up adorning the wall of the temple of Ceres in Rome, where it was destroyed by fire in Strabo’s lifetime.
Other places discussed in greater detail by Strabo include the Roman colonies of Patrae and Dyme, as well as Thespiae, which was home to a community of Roman citizens. This city, ranking at the time as the most important in Boeotia next to Tanagra, attracted visitors with Praxiteles’ famous statue of Eros, which is an interesting example of early cultural tourism. Other communities of Roman merchants and entrepreneurs in the Peloponnese are attested for Elis, Argos, Mantinea, Messene, and Megalopolis, although the latter is claimed by Strabo to have been completely deserted. Athens and other Greek cities are scarcely discussed. The portrayal of Strabo’s, that is, of Augustan Greece is supplemented with Latin and Greek inscriptions, which shed light on how the Greeks lived under the Roman rule, in coexistence with Roman institutions, Roman colonies, and Italian and Roman communities living in most major Greek towns. Of these inscriptions, only a few representative examples are mentioned.


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