Hecataeus of Miletus Writes the First Geography Book Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Greek geographer and historian Hecataeus of Miletus developed a comprehensive view of the Mediterranean physical world and wrote the first geography book, which included a map.

Summary of Event

Hecataeus of Miletus wrote the first comprehensive description of the Mediterranean world, the Ges Periodos (fifth century b.c.e.; tour around the world). In this work, which included a map, Hecataeus participated in the intellectual revolution of fifth century b.c.e. Greece, using techniques developed by earlier thinkers in Asia Minor and setting the stage for later Greek historians such as Herodotus and Thucydides. Hecataeus of Miletus

The roots of this intellectual revolution can be found in epic poets such as Homer and Hesiod, who had created elaborate genealogies and mythologies to explain the structure of the world. However, the so-called natural philosophers of sixth century b.c.e. Miletus turned to explanations outside mythology for natural events. In particular, Anaximander of Miletus connected meteorological and geographic phenomena to form a comprehensive system, developing both a cosmological view of the heavens and a map of the Mediterranean world.

Hecataeus applied both mythology and natural philosophy to ethnography, writing works on genealogy and history in addition to his geography. Whether he created three separate works or one is debatable; evidence exists in the modern world only in some three hundred fragments, many of which are merely place-names recorded by the Byzantine commentator Stephanus in the sixth century c.e. Hecataeus’s geography book was probably in two parts, dealing with Europe and Asia (including Africa). Modern suggestions that he did not write the second part have not been accepted.

Hecataeus used data collected during extensive travels as well as observations he made throughout the Mediterranean world. A reconstruction of his book suggests that he began at the Pillars of Heracles in Gibraltar and traveled clockwise around the Mediterranean. Although he focused on Mediterranean coastal sites, he had knowledge of the Black Sea through his contact with colonists sent there by his hometown Miletus. He also had access to Persian court records, Egyptian temple carvings, and Babylonian scientific works. Hecataeus was no armchair speculator but an active participant in the affairs of the day.

Although Hecataeus did not pursue Anaximander’s concern for cosmology, both men tried to understand the Earth systematically, by reducing it to a simplified scheme. Anaximander had drawn a map in the form of a circular representation on a tablet, viewed from an overhead perspective. This corresponded to the circular shape he accorded to the cosmos. Hecataeus also described the world as round and surrounded by ocean; the title of his book translates literally as “the way around land,” and he may have been able to grasp the earth as anchored in water at the center of a wider cosmos.

Hecataeus may have improved on existing maps by measuring the earth using standard distances and geometric figures and by describing places in relation to constellations in the cosmos. According to the historian Herodotus in his Historiai Herodotou (c. 424 b.c.e.; The History, 1709), the tyrant Aristagoras of Miletus used a map, possibly drawn by Hecataeus, in 499 b.c.e. when he asked Athens and Sparta for assistance in a revolt against Persian rule.

Herodotus wrote critically of Hecataeus’s map:

I smile when I see that many have drawn circuits of the earth, and none of them has explained the matter sensibly; they draw Ocean running around the earth, which is drawn as though with a compass, and make Asia equal to Africa.

The Greeks were concerned with order, symmetry, and balance, and such ideas may have led Hecataeus to balance Europe against Asia/Africa in his geography. This suggests that Hecataeus reasoned from certain fundamental ideas in an attempt to bring order to his wide-ranging observations.

Significance

Despite the disdain of Herodotus, who used Hecataeus’s work in order to improve on it, Hecataeus made groundbreaking advancements in spatial and historical understanding. He participated in a tradition that connected philosophy to a systematic understanding of the physical world. By the fourth century b.c.e., Aristotle (384-322 b.c.e.) and others were able to see Earth and its climatic zones in relation to the wider cosmos. The Greek explorer Pytheas of Massalia (c. 350/325-after 300 b.c.e.) probably used maps similar to that of Hecataeus to explore beyond Gibraltar, possibly as far north as Ireland or even Iceland. Geographer and mathematician Eratosthenes of Cyrene (c. 285-c. 205 b.c.e.) drew on Aristotle and possibly Hecataeus by using heavenly bodies to more accurately measure the size of the earth.

Diogenes Laertius, the third century c.e. biographer, says that Hecataeus saw Earth as a spherical heavenly body. However, the spherical idea is a later discovery, and Hecataeus, like Anaximander, probably envisaged the earth as a cylinder at the center of the cosmos. Nevertheless, attempts by Hecataeus to reduce spatial complexities to a simplified graphic picture not only provided a more precise geographic guide to the earth but also advanced people’s ability to conceive of things from a perspective different from that available to their senses. He presaged the maps that would be used by explorer Christopher Columbus and others in the European Age of Exploration two thousand years later. A crater on the Moon has been named after him.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bunbury, E. H. A History of Ancient Geography. Loughton, England: Prometheus Books, 1979. Includes a concise overview of Hecataeus’s place in the history of geography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fornara, Charles William. The Nature of History in Ancient Greece and Rome. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. A discussion of genres of ancient historical writing; covers Hecataeus.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heidel, W. Hecataeus and the Egyptian Priests in Herodotus. Vol. 2. New York: Garland, 1988. Examines Herodotus’s use of Hecataeus when investigating the history of Egypt.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Herodotus. Histories. Translated by Aubrey De Selincourt. New York: Penguin, 1996. Book 2 contains firsthand mentions of Hecataeus.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Momigliano, Arnaldo. The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. A discussion of the influence of ancient historical writers such as Hecataeus on modern historical writing.
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