Celts, Ethiopians and peoples in the middle: Polybios, Poseidonios, and Strabo on climate zones (mid-second century on)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Celts, Ethiopians and peoples in the middle: Polybios, Poseidonios, and Strabo on climate zones (mid-second century on),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 26, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=18177.

Ancient authors: Polybios, Poseidonios, and others as discussed by Strabo (early first century CE), Geography 2.2-2.3 (link).

Comments: Before turning to his geographical and ethnographic survey of the inhabited world, Strabo begins with a discussion of the climatological studies of Parmenides (fifth century BCE), Polybios (ca. 140s BCE), and Poseidonios (early first century BCE). In particular, his discussion of climates focuses on the divisions of the earth into both climate zones (2.1-3.1) and hemispheres (3.1-3). But peoples inhabited these so-called zones.

The ancient Greek notion that human populations were shaped by their environments means that this sort of theorizing had implications for the evaluation of peoples. Although Strabo goes on about other details at length, implications for peoples lurk in the background and sometimes come into the foreground. So, for instance, Strabo talks about the Fish-eaters in the southern zone and we are told that Poseidonios himself also explained the zones in terms of peoples who inhabited them: Scythians and Celts in the north and Ethiopians in the south. On this, compare Ephoros on the four peoples, corresponding to four winds, framing the world (link). Strabo also talks about the climate affecting the physical attributes of animals and plants (also implying human animals) living in particular zones.

Crucial to notice is that Strabo (building on Poseidonios) thinks that “the middle regions . . . are temperate and inhabitable” and that the north and south have climates that are not conducive to good living. Lurking behind this is the idea that places like Greece and Rome are in the middle, in the temperate, and superior, zone. The peoples from that zone will therefore be balanced in attributes and superior themselves, as the reasoning would go.


Book 2

[Poseidonios on the five climate zones]

(2.2.1) Now let us see what Poseidonios has to say in his work On the Ocean. In that work he seems to deal mainly with geography, treating it partly from the point of view of geography proper, and partly from a more mathematical point of view. And so it will not be out of place for me to pass judgment on a few of Poseidonios’ statements, some of them now and others in my discussion of the individual countries, when there is opportunity, always observing a kind of standard. Now one of the things that is proper to geography is to hypothesize that the earth as a whole is sphere-shaped, just like the heavens, and accept all the conclusions that follow this hypothesis, one of which is that the earth has five zones.

(2.2.2) Poseidonios, then, says that Parmenides was the originator of the division into five zones, but that Parmenides represents the burned [i.e. hot and dry] zone as almost double its real width, inasmuch as it falls beyond both the tropics and extends into the two temperate zones. While Aristotle calls “burned” the region between the tropics, and “temperate” the regions between the tropics and the “arctic circles.”

However, Poseidonios objects to both systems and justly so, for by “burned,” he says, is meant only the region that is uninhabitable on account of heat. Now regarding the zone between the tropics, more than half is uninhabitable if we may base a conjecture upon the Ethiopians who live south of Egypt. That is the case if: first, each division of the burned zone made by the equator is half the whole width of that zone; and, second, of this half, the part that reaches to Meroe [capital of Kush, south of Egypt] from Syene [modern Aswan, Egypt] (which is a point on the boundary line of the summer tropic) is five thousand stadium-lengths (stadia) wide, and the part from Meroe to the parallel of the Cinnamon-producing land [i.e. the port for import from India, equivalent of “Barbaria” / modern Somalia (link)], on which parallel the burned zone begins, is three thousand stadium-lengths in width. Now the whole of these two parts can be measured, because they are traversed both by water and by land.

But the rest of the distance, up to the equator, is shown by calculation based upon the measurement which Eratosthenes made of the earth [252,000 stadium-lengths] to be eight thousand eight hundred stadium-lengths. Accordingly, as is the ratio of the sixteen thousand eight hundred stadium-lengths to the eight thousand eight hundred stadium-lengths, so would be the ratio of the distance between the two tropics to the width of the burned zone [16,800 : 8,800 :: 33,600 : 17,600. The ratio is 21:11, and the width of the burned zone 17,600 stadium-lengths; cf. 2.1.3, link]. And if, of the more recent measurements of the earth, the one which makes the earth smallest in circumference is introduced – by which I mean Poseidonios’ measurement, estimatings its circumference at about one hundred and eighty thousand stadium-lengths—this measurement, I say, renders the width of the burned zone somewhere about half the space between the tropics, or slightly more than half, but in no way is it equal to or the same as that space.

And again, Poseidonios asks how one could determine the limits of the temperate zones, which are non-variable, by means of the arctic circles, which are neither visible among all men nor the same everywhere. Now the fact that the “arctic circles” are not visible to all would not be helpful for his refutation of Aristotle, because the “arctic circles’ must be visible to all who live in the temperate zone, with reference to whom alone the term “temperate” is in fact used. But his point that the “arctic circles” are not everywhere visible in the same way but vary, has been well taken.

(2.2.3) When Poseidonios himself divides the earth into the zones, he says that five of them are useful with reference to the celestial phenomena. Of these five, two—those that lie beneath the poles and extend to the regions that have the tropics as arctic circles—have shadows on all sides; the two that come next and extend to the people who live beneath the tropics have shadows in one direction; and, the zone between the tropics has shadows in both directions.

But for purposes of human interest there are, in addition to these five zones, two other narrow ones that lie beneath the tropics and are divided into two parts by the tropics; these have the sun directly overhead for about half a month each year. These two zones, he says, have a certain peculiarity, in that they are parched in the literal sense of the word, are sandy, and produce nothing except silphion [an unknown plant, with medicinal and other properties, which had become extinct by the Roman period] and some pungent fruits that are withered by the heat. This is because those regions have in their neighbourhood no mountains against which the clouds may break and produce rain, nor indeed do they have rivers flowing through. For this reason, they produce creatures with woolly hair, crumpled horns, protruding lips, and flat noses (for their extremities are contorted by the heat); and the Ichthyophagians (“Fish-eaterslink) also live in these zones. Poseidonios says it is clear that these things are peculiar to those zones from the fact that the people who live farther south than they do have a more temperate atmosphere, and also a more fruitful, and a better-watered, land.

[Strabo challenges Polybios’ notion of six climate zones]

(2.3.1) Polybios [Histories 34.1.14] makes six zones: two that fall beneath the arctic circles, two between the arctic circles and the tropics, and two between the tropics and the equator. However, the division into five zones seems to me to be natural as well as geographical: natural in relation both to the celestial phenomena and to the temperature of the atmosphere. In relation to the celestial phenomena, because of the shadows all around, the shadows in only one direction, and the shadows both directions. This is the best way to determine the zones. The appearance of the constellations to our sight is at the same time determined because, by a kind of rough-outline division, the constellations receive their proper variations; and, in relation to the temperature of the atmosphere, because the temperature of the atmosphere, being judged with reference to the sun, is subject to three very broad differences, namely, excessive heat, lack of heat, and moderate heat that influence animals, plants, and everything else below the air or in the air itself. And the temperature of the atmosphere receives its proper determination by this division of the earth into five zones: for the two frigid zones imply the absence of heat, agreeing in the possession of one characteristic temperature. In a similar way, the two temperate zones agree in one temperature, that of moderate heat. While the one remaining is consistent in having the remaining characteristic, in that it is one and burned in temperature.

It is also clear that this division is in harmony with geography. For geography seeks to define by boundaries that section of the earth which we inhabit by means of the one of the two temperate zones. Now on the west and on the east it is the sea that fixes its limits, but on the south and the north the nature of the air. The air that is between these limits is temperate both for plants and for animals, while the air on both sides of these limits is not temperate, because of excess of heat or lack of heat. It was necessary to divide the earth into five zones corresponding to these three differences of temperature.

In fact, the cutting of the sphere of the earth by the equator into two hemispheres, the northern hemisphere in which we live, and the southern hemisphere, suggested the three differences of temperature. For the regions on the equator and in the burned zone are uninhabitable because of the heat, and those near the pole are uninhabitable because of the cold. However, it is the middle regions that are temperate and inhabitable.

[Poseidonios on the northern Scythian / Celtic zone and the southern Ethiopian zone]

But when he adds the two zones beneath the tropics, Poseidonios does not follow the analogy of the five zones, nor yet does he employ a similar criterion. However, he was also apparently representing zones by the criteria of peoples (ethnē), because he calls one of them the “Ethiopic zone,” another the “Scythian and Celtic zone,” and a third the “intermediate zone.”

[Strabo on hemispheres]

(3.2) Polybios is not right in this, namely, in that he defines some of his zones by means of the arctic circles: two that fall under the arctic circles themselves, and two between the arctic circles and the tropics. For, as I have already said, non-variables must not be defined by points that are variable! And we must also not employ the tropics as boundaries of the burned zone. I have already said this as well. However, when he divides the burned zone into two parts, it is clearly no foolish notion that has moved him to do so, because it is by this notion that we very suitably use the equator to divide the whole earth into two parts, namely, the northern and the southern hemispheres. For it is clear that, if the burned zone as well is divided according to this method of partition [i.e. Polybios’ theory of six zones rather than five zones], Polybios reaches a convenient result. That is, each of the two hemispheres is composed of three whole zones, each of which is similar in form to its corresponding zone in the other hemisphere. Now a partition of this kind allows division into six zones; but the other partition does not altogether allow it. Anyways, if you would cut the earth into two parts by means of the circle that runs through the poles, you could not reasonably divide each of the two hemispheres, the western and the eastern, into six zones, but the division into five zones would be sufficient. This is due to the similarity of the two sections of the burned zone that are made by the equator, and the fact that they are contiguous to each other, which renders their partition useless and superfluous. Yet the two temperate and the two frigid zones are, in fact, similar in form respectively, though they are not contiguous. So, therefore, if you conceive of the whole earth as composed of hemispheres of this kind, it will be sufficient to divide it into five zones.

However, if the country that lies under the equator is temperate, as Eratosthenes says it is – being an opinion with which Polybios agrees, though he adds this: that it is the highest part of the earth and for that reason is subject to rains because at the season of the northwesterly winds [in summer] the clouds from the north strike in great numbers against the mountain peaks in that region –  it would be much better to regard it as a third temperate zone, although a narrow one, than to introduce the two zones beneath the tropics. In keeping with these circumstances are the following (which Poseidonios has already mentioned): namely, that in those regions the oblique motion of the sun is more rapid [i.e. less intense heat from the sun] and similarly its daily motion from east to west is rapid. For when revolutions are accomplished within the same period of time, those on the greatest circles are the more rapid.

[Strabo disengages from the climatological debate of Poseidonios and Polybios]

(3.3) But Poseidonios objects to the statement of Polybios that the inhabited region under the equator is the highest. For, says Poseidonios, there can be no high point on a spherical surface, because the surface of a sphere is uniform all around. Actually the country under the equator is not mountainous, but rather is it a plain that is approximately on a level with the surface of the sea. The rains that flood the Nile come together from the mountains of Ethiopia. But although Poseidonios expresses himself this way in this passage, he concedes the view of Polybios in other passages, saying he suspects that there are mountains beneath the equator and that the clouds from the two temperate zones strike against those mountains on both sides and cause the rains.

Now here the lack of consistency is obvious. Yet even if it is accepted that the country beneath the equator is mountainous, another inconsistency, as it seems, would arise, because these same men assert that the ocean is one continuous stream around the earth. How can they place mountains in the centre of the ocean— unless by “mountains” they refer to certain islands? Regardless, this falls outside the parameters of geography [i.e. study of the earth, not ocean]. Perhaps we should pass over these matters for examination by someone who proposes to write a treatise on the ocean.


Source of translation: H.L. Jones, Strabo, 8 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1917-28), public domain (passed away in 1932), adapted by Daniel Mitchell and Harland.

Leave a comment or correction

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *