Herodotus' critique of geography
(Hdt. 4.36.2-45.5)

From Hdt., book 2

Chapter 36

[2] And I laugh to see how many have before now drawn maps of the world, not one of them reasonably; for they draw the world as round as if fashioned by compasses, encircled by the Ocean river, and Asia and Europe of a like extent. For myself, I will in a few words indicate the extent of the two, and how each should be drawn.

Chapter 37

[1] The land where the Persians live extends to the southern sea which is called Red; beyond these to the north are the Medes, and beyond the Medes the Saspires, and beyond the Saspires the Colchians, whose country extends to the northern sea into which the Phasis river flows; so these four nations live between the one sea and the other.

Chapter 38

[1] But west of this region two peninsulas stretch out from it into the sea, which I will now describe.

[2] On the north side one of the peninsulas begins at the Phasis and stretches seaward along the Pontus and the Hellespont, as far as Sigeum in the Troad; on the south side, the same peninsula has a seacoast beginning at the Myriandric gulf that is near Phoenicia, and stretching seaward as far as the Triopian headland. On this peninsula live thirty nations.

Chapter 39

[1] This is the first peninsula. But the second, beginning with Persia, stretches to the Red Sea, and is Persian land; and next, the neighboring land of Assyria; and after Assyria, Arabia; this peninsula ends (not truly but only by common consent) at the Arabian Gulf, to which Darius brought a canal from the Nile.

[2] Now from the Persian country to Phoenicia there is a wide and vast tract of land; and from Phoenicia this peninsula runs beside our sea by way of the Syrian Palestine and Egypt, which is at the end of it; in this peninsula there are just three nations.

Chapter 40

[1] So much for the parts of Asia west of the Persians. But what is beyond the Persians, and Medes, and Saspires, and Colchians, east and toward the rising sun, this is bounded on the one hand by the Red Sea, and to the north by the Caspian Sea and the Araxes river, which flows toward the sun's rising.

[2] As far as India, Asia is an inhabited land; but thereafter, all to the east is desolation, nor can anyone say what kind of land is there.

Chapter 41

[1] Such is Asia, and such its extent. But Libya is on this second peninsula; for Libya comes next after Egypt. The Egyptian part of this peninsula is narrow; for from our sea to the Red Sea it is a distance of a hundred and twenty-five miles; that is, a thousand stades; but after this narrow part, the peninsula which is called Libya is very broad.

Chapter 42

[1] I wonder, then, at those who have mapped out and divided the world into Libya, Asia, and Europe; for the difference between them is great, seeing that in length Europe stretches along both the others together, and it appears to me to be wider beyond all comparison.

[2] For Libya shows clearly that it is bounded by the sea, except where it borders on Asia. Necos king of Egypt first discovered this and made it known. When he had finished digging the canal which leads from the Nile to the Arabian Gulf, he sent Phoenicians in ships, instructing them to sail on their return voyage past the Pillars of Heracles until they came into the northern sea and so to Egypt.

[3] So the Phoenicians set out from the Red Sea and sailed the southern sea; whenever autumn came they would put in and plant the land in whatever part of Libya they had reached, and there await the harvest;

[4] then, having gathered the crop, they sailed on, so that after two years had passed, it was in the third that they rounded the pillars of Heracles and came to Egypt. There they said (what some may believe, though I do not) that in sailing around Libya they had the sun on their right hand.

Chapter 43

[1] Thus was the first knowledge of Libya gained. The next story is that of the Carthaginians: for as for Sataspes son of Teaspes, an Achaemenid, he did not sail around Libya, although he was sent for that purpose; but he feared the length and loneliness of the voyage and so returned without accomplishing the task laid upon him by his mother.

[2] For he had raped the virgin daughter of Zopyrus son of Megabyzus; and when on this charge he was to be impaled by King Xerxes, Sataspes' mother, who was Darius' sister, interceded for his life, saying that she would impose a heavier punishment on him than Xerxes;

[3] for he would be compelled to sail around Libya, until he completed his voyage and came to the Arabian Gulf. Xerxes agreed to this, and Sataspes went to Egypt where he received a ship and a crew from the Egyptians, and sailed past the Pillars of Heracles.

[4] Having sailed out beyond them, and rounded the Libyan promontory called Solois, he sailed south; but when he had been many months sailing over the sea, and always more before him, he turned back and made sail for Egypt.

[5] Coming to King Xerxes from there, he related in his narrative that, when he was farthest distant, he sailed by a country of little men, who wore palm-leaf clothing; these, whenever he and his men put in to land with their ship, left their towns and fled to the hills; he and his men did no harm when they landed, and took nothing from the people except cattle.

[6] As to his not sailing completely around Libya, the reason (he said) was that the ship could move no farther, but was stopped. But Xerxes did not believe that Sataspes spoke the truth, and, as the task appointed was unfulfilled, he impaled him, punishing him on the charge first brought against him.

[7] This Sataspes had a eunuch, who as soon as he heard of his master's death escaped to Samos, with a great horde of wealth, of which a man of Samos got possession. I know the man's name but deliberately omit it.

Chapter 44

[1] But as to Asia, most of it was discovered by Darius. There is a river, Indus, second of all rivers in the production of crocodiles. Darius, desiring to know where this Indus empties into the sea, sent ships manned by Scylax, a man of Caryanda, and others whose word he trusted;

[2] these set out from the city of Caspatyrus and the Pactyic country, and sailed down the river toward the east and the sunrise until they came to the sea; and voyaging over the sea west, they came in the thirtieth month to that place from which the Egyptian king sent the above-mentioned Phoenicians to sail around Libya.

[3] After this circumnavigation, Darius subjugated the Indians and made use of this sea. Thus it was discovered that Asia, except the parts toward the rising sun, was in other respects like Libya.

Chapter 45

[1] But it is plain that none have obtained knowledge of Europe's eastern or northern regions, so as to be able say if it is bounded by seas; its length is known to be enough to stretch along both Asia and Libya.

[2] I cannot guess for what reason the earth, which is one, has three names, all women's, and why the boundary lines set for it are the Egyptian Nile river and the Colchian Phasis river (though some say that the Maeetian Tana‡s river and the Cimmerian Ferries are boundaries); and I cannot learn the names of those who divided the world, or where they got the names which they used.

[3] For Libya is said by most Greeks to be named after a native woman of that name, and Asia after the wife of Prometheus; yet the Lydians claim a share in the latter name, saying that Asia was not named after Prometheus' wife Asia, but after Asies, the son of Cotys, who was the son of Manes, and that from him the Asiad clan at Sardis also takes its name.

[4] But as for Europe, no men have any knowledge whether it is bounded by seas or not, or where it got its name, nor is it clear who gave the name, unless we say that the land took its name from the Tyrian Europa, having been (it would seem) before then nameless like the rest.

[5] But it is plain that this woman was of Asiatic birth, and never came to this land which the Greeks now call Europe, but only from Phoenicia to Crete and from Crete to Lycia. Thus much I have said of these matters, and let it suffice; we will use the names established by custom.


See the course syllabus.