Friday 7 March 2014

Greeking Out

This week marks a new and exciting milestone in the Pelagios 3 project - the start of work on the ancient Greek geographic tradition. There's more Latin to do of course: our work packages run on a staggered, overlapping 6-month basis, and, while we already have 19 documents in the system (some in both Latin and their modern language translation), future additions will include some major itinerary lists—including the Antonine Itineraries and Ravenna Cosmography—as well as a number of smaller but fascinating geographic sources such as the Haidra mosaic, some more inscribed vessels, and the Piazzale delle Corporazione at Ostia.

But from today we'll start introducing Greek documents into the system. Ancient Greek traditions of knowledge about geography extend far beyond Plato's "frogs around a pond" metaphor for Greek settlements around the Aegean Sea. From Homer's Odyssey, Greek texts push the boundaries of travel, exploration and knowledge, and Odysseus, the man who 'saw the cities of many men and knew their minds', stands as the archetypal explorer for Greeks who settled in places as far off as the Black Sea, Massalia (Marseille) and Libya. Later Greek authors like Hecataeus, HerodotusAristotle, PytheasEratosthenes, Hipparchus, Posidonius, Artemidorus and Ptolemy are largely responsible for the way we conceptualise geography today (indeed, Eratosthenes invents the discipline), and we still use the terms that they came up with—terms such as equator, meridian, parallel, latitude and longitude. At the same time, much Greek geography is almost cosmological in nature—an attempt to understand the form of the earth and its place in the universe.

Remarkably, however, given the number and detail of these ancient witnesses, almost no Greek maps survive, and it is debate whether maps were even a feature of Greek traditions of geographical knowledge. (A map documented in Herodotus's Histories, carried by a certain Aristagoras of Mytilene, becomes the site of contestation and debate, while Herodotus himself 'laughs at' the schematic representations of his contemporaries.) Instead Greek conceptualizations of the world were almost exclusively in a narrative form, from numerous periploi (sailing itineraries) to Strabo, whose Geografica remains central to our understanding of global geography in the transition to Empire. 

Working with Ancient Greek texts will introduce some new challenges for us to tackle. To begin with change in alphabet will take a little getting used to for some of the team! Fortunately recent work by Bruce Robertson, Greg Crane and others on OCRing ancient Greek means that we should be able to include a range of previously inaccessible texts. We can also draw on experience form the Hestia project and a promising new approach developed by Thomas Efer at the University of Leipzig that can identify toponyms in a Greek text by comparing it to a previously marked up English text. We don't yet know what will be the most efficient combination of methodologies but at least we have plenty to choose from.

We have enormously enjoyed working with the Latin texts and will continue doing so, but the possibilities for analysis opened up by annotating documents from these two strongly related yet radically divergent traditions are incredibly exciting.

Jerusalem depicted in the Madaba Mosaic (6th C. AD). Image from Wikimedia Commons.