Saturday, October 8, 2011

On first looking into Strabo’s Geography

At a Christmas party a few years ago in one of those large old homes in Cambridge I found myself seated next to a professor of Obscure Learning at Harvard and, as I knew he had an interest in that part of the world, I told him about a story I was working on.
    My story was set in the years immediately following the First War and involved a road that emerged from the mountains in southeastern Turkey, a road of obvious great age but no one knew where it led, and a few foot-loose young fellows with nothing better to do who thought it would be interesting to find out.  Today, of course, a few key strokes on Google Earth and you would know, but in those days there were still blank spaces on the map and finding out that sort of thing was rather more of a production.

The professor listened intently to my presentation and then said that I might want to take a look at Book XI of Strabo.  I cannot tell you how delighted I was in his reply, both for the helpfulness of his suggestion and because I have always yearned to lead the sort of life where people might give me that sort of advice.  People who actually knew what they were talking about, of course.

As an enthusiastic reader of footnotes, I had long known that there was an ancient work called Strabo’s Geography.  I had never seen a copy, but on this advice I went looking for it.  And found it: all eight volumes of the Loeb Harvard Classics, with facing Greek and English text, through our county interlibrary loan.  The librarian was delighted and said I could keep it as long as I wanted, as I was the first person to check it out since it had been acquired almost forty years earlier.   (What can I say?  I do not dwell amongst a bookish people.)
    Strabo summarizes the history, geography and best guesses about the known and almost-known world of an educated, First Century Greek.  Of all the wonders he lays before us, the ones that caught my attention were his references to ancient histories since lost, or in a number of cases to works lost even in his own time and surviving only as fragments or quotations in the works of other authors.  As the Loeb’s 9-point agate text gave me a headache when I read more than a few lines, I studied instead its wonderful 300+ page index, looking for lost authors and miscellaneous wonders and found, in addition to a talley of missing works, a parade of slayings, enslavements, conquests, subjugations, destruction and a good deal of what we now call gratuitous violence,  suggesting the ancient world, for all its sculpture and architecture and lax morals, was not a safe place to live.

But what a wonderful, lost world is laid out in Strabo, as in this little passage regarding the environs of Lake Stephanê: “On its shores lies a strong fortress, Icizari, now deserted; and nearby, a royal palace, now in ruins.”  Strabo wrote that 2000 years ago, and I am sure that even then it must have been utterly romantic.  The sort of place that T. E. Lawrence or Indiana jones or any of their adventurous ilk would want to go, and certainly that I would want to go, even if it’s not there anymore.

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