Classics Strabo
Duane W. Roller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0230


Strabo of Amaseia (c. 62 BCE–24 CE) is known today as the author of the seventeen-book Geography (more properly Geographika), the sole surviving work of its genre in Greek literature, and one of the longest works extant in the Greek language. As a Hellenistic polymath, Strabo wrote other works, including a general history, a study of Alexander the Great, and perhaps a Homeric commentary, none of which has survived in any detail. Yet it is the Geography on which his reputation rests. All that is known about Strabo is from autobiographical notices within the Geography. He was from Amaseia in Pontos, was educated in Nysa in Karia, and eventually came to Rome and became attached to Aelius Gallus, who was the second prefect of Egypt in the 20s BCE. He traveled widely, ending up either back in Amaseia or nearby Pontic Caesarea. He worked on the Geography during much of his life and probably died shortly after 23 or 24 CE, the date of the last material in the work. In its seventeen books, the Geography covers the topography of the known world, from the Iberian Peninsula to India, north to the Arctic, and south to the Indian Ocean. Several thousand places are named. It opens with a history of geography, from the time of Homer to Strabo’s own era, with extensive paraphrases of his geographic predecessors, most notably Eratosthenes of Kyrene (the inventor of the discipline), Hipparchos of Nikaia, Polybios, and Poseidonios. Explorers such as Pytheas of Massalia and Eudoxos of Kyzikos are also examined. It is no exaggeration to say that in the early 21st century, virtually nothing would be known about these personalities, or the history of Greek geography, were it not for the material in Strabo’s treatise. The Geography is a complex, rambling, and discursive work. In addition to contemporaneous geography and the history of the discipline, there are lengthy sections on Homeric criticism, linguistics, cultic history, and the history of Anatolia in the 1st century BCE. To some extent it is an autobiographical memoir, and it contains unique information about major personalities of Strabo’s era, such as Kleopatra VII, Pompeius the Great, and Marcus Antonius. Many unusual words are scattered throughout the treatise. The work is difficult to understand, but the fact remains that without the Geography, comprehension and understanding of the late Hellenistic world would be much more difficult.

The Life of Strabo

Nothing is known about the life of Strabo beyond the information that he provided in his Geography, which, to be sure, is substantial, as outlined in Honigmann 1931. His name is rare, and it is by no means clear whether it is a Greek personal name (examples documented in Fraser and Matthews 1987–) or a Roman cognomen. But it is most likely that “Strabo” was his adopted Roman name and that his birth name remains unknown, issues explored in Pothecary 1999. He was born in Amaseia, in Pontos, in the 60s BCE, about the time that the last pre-Roman king of the region, Mithridates VI, committed suicide. Probably due to the regime change and the advent of Roman control, his family immigrated to Nysa in Karia, an important intellectual and cultural center, where Strabo embarked on a thorough education that included training in the popular Stoicism of the 1st century BCE, as shown in Laurent 2008 and Clarke 1997. By 44 BCE he was in Rome, and in time he became attached to Aelius Gallus, the second prefect of Egypt, whose tenure of office was probably 27–24 BCE. There are few other datable moments in Strabo’s career, but by his own account he traveled throughout the eastern portion of the Mediterranean world (everywhere from Italy eastward). There is no specific evidence as to a professional career, but a particular interest in mining may indicate a possibility. Nevertheless, his life, however lacking in known detail, was typical of the educated Greek in the 1st century BCE and the early 1st century CE, a context explored in Bowersock 1965. He began work on the Geography after writing his history and other works, perhaps in the 20s BCE, and continued with it until his death, sometime shortly after 24 CE. Where he spent his last years is uncertain; perhaps his hometown of Amaseia, or the capital of the new Pontic kingdom of his era, Caesarea (formerly Kabeira), where Queen Pythodoris became his patroness (Braund 2005). Full studies of the career of Strabo are rare, and despite the biographical data the geographer himself provided, modern scholars are generally less interested in Strabo the personality than in details of the Geography itself. An exception to this is Dueck 2000.

  • Bowersock, Glen W. 1965. Augustus and the Greek world. Oxford: Clarendon.

    The seminal study of the world in which Strabo operated, and the interactions between Greek scholars and the new Roman regime that came into power in 30 BCE.

  • Braund, David. 2005. Polemo, Pythodoris, and Strabo. In Roms auswärtige Freunde in der späten Republik und im frühen Prinzipat. Edited by Altay Coksun, 253–270. Göttinger Forum für Altertumswissenschaft 19. Göttingen, Germany: Ruprecht.

    A precise study of the relationship between Strabo and his probable patron, the dynamic queen of Pontos, who came to the throne in 8 BCE, survived for the rest of Strabo’s life, and may have implemented his scholarship.

  • Clarke, Katherine. 1997. In search of the author of Strabo’s Geography. Journal of Roman Studies 87:92–110.

    A discussion of Strabo and the personality and world that allowed him to produce the Geography.

  • Dueck, Daniela. 2000. Strabo of Amaseia: A Greek man of letters in Augustan Rome. London: Routledge.

    The first English study of the life and career of Strabo. Although somewhat out of date, it remains an important piece of Strabonian scholarship.

  • Fraser, Peter M., and Elaine Matthews, eds. 1987–. A lexicon of Greek personal names. 7 vols. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This work is significant because it provides all the evidence for people named “Strabo” and thus allows placement of the geographer within the onomastic traditions of the late Hellenistic world.

  • Honigmann, Ernst. 1931. Strabon von Amaseia (#3). In Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft. 2d ser. Vol. 4A, Part 7, Stoa–symposion. Edited by Georg Wissowa, 76–155. Stuttgart: Metzler.

    Although nearly a century old, this discusses all aspects of the geographer and his work; it remains an exhaustive and thorough study and continues to be valuable in the early 21st century.

  • Laurent, Jérôme. 2008. Strabon et la philosophie stoïcienne. In Special issue: Diderot philosophe. Archives de Philosophie 71.1: 111–127.

    Strabo’s education as a Stoic was an essential part of his identity and pervades the Geography. Laurent discusses the evidence for this part of his career and personality.

  • Pothecary, Sarah. 1999. Strabo the geographer: His name and its meaning. Mnemosyne, 4th ser. 52.6: 691–704.

    DOI: 10.1163/1568525991518366

    A discussion of the significance of Strabo’s name, and how it reveals his position in the world in which he functioned.

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