"Let the earth be supposed to consist of five zones. (1) The equatorial circle described around it. (2) Another parallel to this, and defining the frigid zone of the northern hemisphere. (3) A circle passing through the poles and cutting the two preceding circles at right- angles. The northern hemisphere contains two quarters of the earth, which are bounded by the equator and circle passing through the poles. Each of these quarters should be supposed to contain a four-sided district, its northern side being of one-half of the parallel next the pole, its southern by the half of the equator, and its remaining sides by two segments of the circle drawn through the poles, opposite to each other, and equal in length. In one of these (which of them is of no consequence) the earth which we inhabit is situated, surrounded by a sea and similar to an island. This, as we said before, is evident both to our senses and to our reason. But let any one doubt this, it makes no difference so far as geography is concerned whether you believe the portion of the earth which we inhabit to be an island or only admit what we know from experience —namely, that whether you start from the east or the west you may sail all around it. Certain intermediate spaces may have been left (unexplored), but these are as likely to be occupied by sea as uninhabited land. The object of the geographer is to describe known countries. Those which are unknown he passes over equally with those beyond the limits of the inhabited earth. It will, therefore, be sufficient for describing the contour of the island we have been speaking of, if we join by a right line the outmost points which, up to this time, have been explored by voyagers along the coast on either side."[3]

We may pass over the specific criticisms of Strabo upon various explorations that seem to have been of great interest to his contemporaries, including an alleged trip of one Eudoxus out into the Atlantic, and the journeyings of Pytheas in the far north. It is Pytheas, we may add, who was cited by Hipparchus as having made the mistaken observation that the length of the shadow of the gnomon is the same at Marseilles and Byzantium, hence that these two places are on the same parallel. Modern commentators have defended Pytheas as regards this observation, claiming that it was Hipparchus and not Pytheas who made the second observation from which the faulty induction was drawn. The point is of no great significance, however, except as showing that a correct method of determining the problems of latitude had thus early been suggested. That faulty observations and faulty application of the correct principle should have been made is not surprising. Neither need we concern ourselves with the details as to the geographical distances, which Strabo found so worthy of criticism and controversy. But in leaving the great geographer we may emphasize his point of view and that of his contemporaries by quoting three fundamental principles which he reiterates as being among the "facts established by natural philosophers." He tells us that "(1) The earth and heavens are spheroidal. (2) The tendency of all bodies having weight is towards a centre. (3) Further, the earth being spheroidal and having the same centre as the heavens, is motionless, as well as the axis that passes through both it and the heavens. The heavens turn round both the earth and its axis, from east to west. The fixed stars turn round with it at the same rate as the whole. These fixed stars follow in their course parallel circles, the principal of which are the equator, two tropics, and the arctic circles; while the planets, the sun, and the moon describe certain circles comprehended within the zodiac."[4]

Here, then, is a curious mingling of truth and error. The Pythagorean doctrine that the earth is round had become a commonplace, but it would appear that the theory of Aristarchus, according to which the earth is in motion, has been almost absolutely forgotten. Strabo does not so much as refer to it; neither, as we shall see, is it treated with greater respect by the other writers of the period.


While Strabo was pursuing his geographical studies at Alexandria, a young man came to Rome who was destined to make his name more widely known in scientific annals than that of any other Latin writer of antiquity. This man was Plinius Secundus, who, to distinguish him from his nephew, a famous writer in another field, is usually spoken of as Pliny the Elder. There is a famous story to the effect that the great Roman historian Livy on one occasion addressed a casual associate in the amphitheatre at Rome, and on learning that the stranger hailed from the outlying Spanish province of the empire, remarked to him, "Yet you have doubtless heard of my writings even there." "Then," replied the stranger, "you must be either Livy or Pliny."