X. SCIENCE OF THE ROMAN PERIOD
As becomes a writer who is primarily geographer and historian rather than astronomer, Strabo shows a much keener interest in the habitable portions of the globe than in the globe as a whole. He assures us that this habitable portion of the earth is a great island, "since wherever men have approached the termination of the land, the sea, which we designate ocean, has been met with, and reason assures us of the similarity of this place which our senses have not been tempted to survey." He points out that whereas sailors have not circumnavigated the globe, that they had not been prevented from doing so by any continent, and it seems to him altogether unlikely that the Atlantic Ocean is divided into two seas by narrow isthmuses so placed as to prevent circumnavigation. "How much more probable that it is confluent and uninterrupted. This theory," he adds, "goes better with the ebb and flow of the ocean. Moreover (and here his reasoning becomes more fanciful), the greater the amount of moisture surrounding the earth, the easier would the heavenly bodies be supplied with vapor from thence." Yet he is disposed to believe, following Plato, that the tradition "concerning the island of Atlantos might be received as something more than idle fiction, it having been related by Solon, on the authority of the Egyptian priests, that this island, almost as large as a continent, was formerly in existence although now it had disappeared."
In a word, then, Strabo entertains no doubt whatever that it would be possible to sail around the globe from Spain to India. Indeed, so matter-of-fact an inference was this that the feat of Columbus would have seemed less surprising in the first century of our era than it did when actually performed in the fifteenth century. The terrors of the great ocean held the mariner back, rather than any doubt as to where he would arrive at the end of the voyage.
Coupled with the idea that the habitable portion of the earth is an island, there was linked a tolerably definite notion as to the shape of this island. This shape Strabo likens to a military cloak. The comparison does not seem peculiarly apt when we are told presently that the length of the habitable earth is more than twice its breadth. This idea, Strabo assures us, accords with the most accurate observations "both ancient and modern." These observations seemed to show that it is not possible to live in the region close to the equator, and that, on the other hand, the cold temperature sharply limits the habitability of the globe towards the north. All the civilization of antiquity clustered about the Mediterranean, or extended off towards the east at about the same latitude. Hence geographers came to think of the habitable globe as having the somewhat lenticular shape which a crude map of these regions suggests. We have already had occasion to see that at an earlier day Anaxagoras was perhaps influenced in his conception of the shape of the earth by this idea, and the constant references of Strabo impress upon us the thought that this long, relatively narrow area of the earth's surface is the only one which can be conceived of as habitable.
Strabo had much to tell us concerning zones, which, following Posidonius, he believes to have been first described by Parmenides. We may note, however, that other traditions assert that both Thales and Pythagoras had divided the earth into zones. The number of zones accepted by Strabo is five, and he criticises Polybius for making the number six. The five zones accepted by Strabo are as follows: the uninhabitable torrid zone lying in the region of the equator; a zone on either side of this extending to the tropic; and then the temperate zones extending in either direction from the tropic to the arctic regions. There seems to have been a good deal of dispute among the scholars of the time as to the exact arrangement of these zones, but the general idea that the north-temperate zone is the part of the earth with which the geographer deals seemed clearly established. That the south-temperate zone would also present a habitable area is an idea that is sometimes suggested, though seldom or never distinctly expressed. It is probable that different opinions were held as to this, and no direct evidence being available, a cautiously scientific geographer like Strabo would naturally avoid the expression of an opinion regarding it. Indeed, his own words leave us somewhat in doubt as to the precise character of his notion regarding the zones. Perhaps we shall do best to quote them: