X. SCIENCE OF THE ROMAN PERIOD
"If the scientific investigation of any subject be the proper avocation of the philosopher," says Strabo, "geography, the science of which we propose to treat, is certainly entitled to a high place; and this is evident from many considerations. They who first undertook to handle the matter were distinguished men. Homer, Anaximander the Milesian, and Hecaeus (his fellow-citizen according to Eratosthenes), Democritus, Eudoxus, Dicaearchus, and Ephorus, with many others, and after these, Eratosthenes, Polybius, and Posidonius, all of them philosophers. Nor is the great learning through which alone this subject can be approached possessed by any but a person acquainted with both human and divine things, and these attainments constitute what is called philosophy. In addition to its vast importance in regard to social life and the art of government, geography unfolds to us a celestial phenomena, acquaints us with the occupants of the land and ocean, and the vegetation, fruits, and peculiarities of the various quarters of the earth, a knowledge of which marks him who cultivates it as a man earnest in the great problem of life and happiness."
Strabo goes on to say that in common with other critics, including Hipparchus, he regards Homer as the first great geographer. He has much to say on the geographical knowledge of the bard, but this need not detain us. We are chiefly concerned with his comment upon his more recent predecessors, beginning with Eratosthenes. The constant reference to this worker shows the important position which he held. Strabo appears neither as detractor nor as partisan, but as one who earnestly desires the truth. Sometimes he seems captious in his criticisms regarding some detail, nor is he always correct in his emendations of the labors of others; but, on the whole, his work is marked by an evident attempt at fairness. In reading his book, however, one is forced to the conclusion that Strabo is an investigator of details, not an original thinker. He seems more concerned with precise measurements than with questionings as to the open problems of his science. Whatever he accepts, then, may be taken as virtually the stock doctrine of the period.
"As the size of the earth," he says, "has been demonstrated by other writers, we shall here take for granted and receive as accurate what they have advanced. We shall also assume that the earth is spheroidal, that its surface is likewise spheroidal and, above all, that bodies have a tendency towards its centre, which latter point is clear to the perception of the most average understanding. However, we may show summarily that the earth is spheroidal, from the consideration that all things, however distant, tend to its centre, and that every body is attracted towards its centre by gravity. This is more distinctly proved from observations of the sea and sky, for here the evidence of the senses and common observation is alone requisite. The convexity of the sea is a further proof of this to those who have sailed, for they cannot perceive lights at a distance when placed at the same level as their eyes, and if raised on high they at once become perceptible to vision though at the same time farther removed. So when the eye is raised it sees what before was utterly imperceptible. Homer speaks of this when he says:
" 'Lifted up on the vast wave he quickly beheld afar.'
Sailors as they approach their destination behold the shore continually raising itself to their view, and objects which had at first seemed low begin to lift themselves. Our gnomons, also, are, among other things, evidence of the revolution of the heavenly bodies, and common-sense at once shows us that if the depth of the earth were infinite such a revolution could not take place."
Elsewhere Strabo criticises Eratosthenes for having entered into a long discussion as to the form of the earth. This matter, Strabo thinks, "should have been disposed of in the compass of a few words." Obviously this doctrine of the globe's sphericity had, in the course of 600 years, become so firmly established among the Greek thinkers as to seem almost axiomatic. We shall see later on how the Western world made a curious recession from this seemingly secure position under stimulus of an Oriental misconception. As to the size of the globe, Strabo is disposed to accept without particular comment the measurements of Eratosthenes. He speaks, however, of "more recent measurements," referring in particular to that adopted by Posidonius, according to which the circumference is only about one hundred and eighty thousand stadia. Posidonius, we may note in passing, was a contemporary and friend of Cicero, and hence lived shortly before the time of Strabo. His measurement of the earth was based on observations of a star which barely rose above the southern horizon at Rhodes as compared with the height of the same star when observed at Alexandria. This measurement of Posidonius, together with the even more famous measurement of Eratosthenes, appears to have been practically the sole guide as to the size of the earth throughout the later periods of antiquity, and, indeed, until the later Middle Ages.