What Columbus Didn’t Know

Peter Green

  • The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek, the Man who Discovered Britain by Barry Cunliffe
    Allen Lane, 182 pp, £12.99, October 2001, ISBN 0 7139 9509 2
  • Ptolemy’s Geography: An Annotated Translation of the Theoretical Chapters edited by J. Lennart Berggren and Alexander Jones
    Princeton, 232 pp, £17.95, January 2002, ISBN 0 691 09259 1
  • Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World: Atlas and Map-By-Map Directory by Richard J.A. Talbert
    Princeton, three volumes, £300.00, September 2000, ISBN 0 691 03169 X

These three books constitute both landmarks and cautionary warnings in a long process that none of them addresses directly. Take Barry Cunliffe’s reconstruction of the exploratory voyage by Pytheas of Massalia (Marseille) in the late fourth century BC: this not only exposes the striking lack of direct knowledge then prevalent among Mediterranean peoples about virtually anywhere outside their own charmed climatic circle, but suggests the powerful emotional liminality that is always around to reinforce ignorance. Pytheas’ sober and specific report on Cornish tin mines, the amber trade and (probably) Iceland and the Arctic Circle got him branded as a liar by writers such as the geographer Strabo, who preferred the authority of myth, and was equally ready to dismiss Megasthenes’ first-hand descriptions of India on the same basis. Ptolemy of Alexandria (c.90-168 AD), the theoretical chapters of whose Geography we now have in a superlative new translation, was the first systematic cartographer to introduce the mapping of geographical points by precise co-ordination of parallel and meridian; but he also rejected both Eratosthenes’ near-accurate calculation of the Earth’s circumference and, worse, Aristarchus’ theory of a heliocentric universe in favour of the old (and psychologically more satisfying) geocentric worldview supported by Aristotle. Since his own achievement ensured his subsequent enshrinement as an unquestioned authority, these two cardinal errors were guaranteed an extraordinarily long shelf-life. Finally, the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, which triumphantly incorporates all the latest developments of computerised geographic information systems (GIS), still has to struggle with human error and prejudice when reluctantly confronted with political rather than physical data, and (perhaps because of this) takes its lead, fashionably, from Fernand Braudel in privileging the latter whenever possible.

The history of cartography (and of exploration, with which it has always been bound up) is not always seen for what it is: one aspect of the slow development of human self-knowledge, as reflected by historical changes in the way we evaluate our place in the world and the universe in which we find ourselves. The implications of these changes extend far beyond geography: they permeate our social and political structures, our scientific assumptions, our theologies. Some of the problems involved were discussed recently in the LRB (1 November 2001) by Lorraine Daston. Maps as propaganda, silent censorship, symbols of power hint eloquently at the human dimensions of the process, the deceptiveness of a theoretical objectivity. Even the world seen from the outside, in the Apollo pictures taken from the Moon, small and bluish in a dark infinity, is as liable to evoke thoughts of domination and power – even, strangely, of ‘lust for material possessions’ (Denis Cosgrove) – as of metaphysics, religion or poetry. Once again, I suspect, Braudel has exerted a silent influence, like the pull of magnetic North, on the terms of contemporary discourse. On the other hand he would argue that we must always bear in mind those static or slow-changing factors in nature against which human activities must invariably be dwarfed. Or, in this case, certain slow and glacially persistent features of the human psyche.

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[*] Oxford, 608 pp., £25, 10 February 2001, 0 19 924019 1.