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The Edges of the Earth in Greek and Roman Thought (3)

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Reconstruction of the world map of Hecataeus of Miletus. Design Jona Lendering.
World map of Hecataeus
Edges of the earth: the parts of the world where, according to the myths of the ancient Greeks and Romans, fabulous creatures and savage barbarians lived. These legendary beliefs influenced geography and can still obstruct our understanding of ancient ethnography.

This is the third part of an article; the first one can be found here.

The Case of the Low Countries

The first author to describe the Low Countries was Pytheas of Massilia, who passed along the coast of Flanders and Holland in his way to the amber island Helgoland in c.325 BCE. He noted that in these regions, more people died in the struggle against water than in the struggle against men. After all, the edge of the world was constantly attacked by the sea. Four centuries later, the Roman author Pliny the Elder expressed the same sentiment.
Herodotus and Strabo
The case of the Low Countries
Model of the terp (artificial mound with farms) of Feddersenwierde. Photo Marco Prins.
A model of the terp (artificial mound with farms) of Feddersen Wierde

There, twice in every twenty-four hours, the ocean's vast tide sweeps in a flood over a large stretch of land and hides Nature's everlasting controversy about whether this region belongs to the land or to the sea. There these wretched peoples occupy high ground, or manmade platforms constructed above the level of the highest tide they experience; they live in huts built on the site so chosen and are like sailors in ships when the waters cover the surrounding land, but when the tide has receded they are like shipwrecked victims. Around their huts they catch fish as they try to escape with the ebbing tide. It does not fall to their lot to keep herds and live on milk, like neighboring tribes, nor even to fight with wild animals, since all undergrowth has been pushed far back.
[Pliny the Elder, Natural history 16.2-3;
tr. John Healy]

Even worse, when you approached the edge of the world, parts of the land spontaneously start to float:
The shores are occupied by oaks which have a vigorous growth rate, and these trees, when undermined by the waves or driven by blasts of wind, carry away vast islands of soil trapped in their roots. Thus balanced, the oak-trees float in an upright position, with the result that our fleets gave often been terrified by the 'wide rigging' of their huge branches when they have been driven by the waves -almost deliberately it would seem- against the bows of ships riding at anchor for the night; consequently, our ships have had no option but to fight a naval battle against trees!
[Pliny the Elder, Natural history 16.5
tr. John Healy]

These two texts happen to be pretty accurate, but no doubt, Pliny's readers were amazed by the wonders of this odd country. One century earlier, Julius Caesar had manipulated their preconceptions when he described the war against king Ambiorix of the Eburones. This barbarian tribe belonged to the Belgians, a group of tribes that were, according to Caesar
the toughest of all Gauls. They are farthest away from the culture and civilized ways of the Roman province, and merchants, bringing those things that tend to make men soft, very seldom reach them; moreover, they are close to the Germans across the Rhine and are continuously at war with them.
[Caesar, Gallic war 1.1.2;
tr. Anne and Peter Wiseman]
The implication is that beyond the Belgians, between the Rhine and the Ocean, lived the Germans, who were even less civilized and more dangerous than the Belgians.

As one could expect from a barbarian, Ambiorix had not been loyal to the Romans, even though he had concluded a treaty. Instead, he had unexpectedly attacked and destroyed a legion. However, Caesar retaliated by exterminating his tribe.

Some of his people fled into the forest of the Ardennes, others into the continuous belt of marshes. Those who lived nearest to the sea hid in islands that are cut off from the mainland by the high tide.
[Caesar, Gallic war 6.31.1;
tr. Anne and Peter Wiseman]
Every reader will have felt admiration for Caesar, who fought against those savage warriors on the edges of the earth, who lived in forests and marshes. However, those islands "that are cut off from the mainland by the high tide" are fictitious: Ambiorix lived in the neighborhood of modern Tongeren and Maastricht, and the only islands that fit the description are the Frisian islands, which are 300 kilometers away. (The Zeeland archipelago did not exist in Antiquity.)

We have already seen that the Greeks and Romans believed that the edge of the world consisted of forests and mountains. Indeed, we find several authors maintaining that the Dutch coast is rocky (e.g., Tacitus, Annals, 2.24). Forests are also mentioned, especially in religious contexts. For example, during the Batavian revolt, the leader of the rebels,

Julius Civilis, invited the nobles and the most enterprising commoners to a sacred grove, ostensibly for a banquet. When he saw that darkness and merriment had inflamed their hearts, he addressed them.
[Tacitus, Histories, 4.14;
tr. Kenneth Wellesley]
This is a remarkable line, and many Dutch scholars have been looking where this sacred grove might have been. In fact, their question is wrong. To a Roman author like Tacitus, mentioning a forest was something like adding couleur locale to a story about barbarians. In his Germania, the same writer describes the hunting customs of the Germanic tribes, ignoring the fact that many Germans were farmers.

Tacitus often uses the two extreme types of barbarism and civilization. In his description of the Batavian revolt in the Histories, Julius Civilis is a noble savage, who opposes a decadent and incapable Roman commander, Marcus Hordeonius Flaccus. In his Annals, Tacitus tells about two Frisians who visited Rome, and caused quite a stir with their uncivilized behavior (Annals, 13.54). 

Other authors use the same stereotypes to describe the Low Countries. Strabo of Amasia and other writers inform their readers that the Romans recruited their cavalry among the tribes living near the Ocean, "because they are by nature most aggressive" (Geography, 4.4.2).  When Cassius Dio describes the battle in the Teutoburg Forest (Roman History, 56.20), he mentions mountains, ravines, and impenetrable forests. The battlefield has been discovered near Osnabrück, and there were neither mountains nor ravines. There may have been a forest, but it was certainly not impenetrable, because there was a village on walking distance from the excavated part of the battlefield.

In the first century CE, the last remains of tribal society disappeared from Gallia Belgica, and the area along the Rhine (called Germania Inferior) followed a bit later, after the Batavian revolt of 69-70. There were Roman cities like Tongeren, Cologne, Xanten and Nijmegen, and the most important economic activity was agriculture. Nevertheless, Greek and Roman texts continue to describe the Low Countries as if its inhabitants are ferocious savages.

This attitude towards the Low Countries (and any other country on the edges of the earth) can easily be explained. Any literate Greek or Roman was taught at school that he was civilized, and learned what civilization truly meant. Another reason is that he studied "classical" authors, and no newer texts. When the historian Arrian of Nicomedia (second century CE) wrote a treatise on far-away India, he used sources from the fourth century BCE, because later texts were written in what he regarded as lousy Greek.

As a consequence of these two factors, the ideas about barbarians on the edges of the earth remained intact until the fourth and fifth century CE. We can still find the stereotypes in the Orations of Libanius (59.132), in Sidonius Apollinaris' Panegyric on Majorian (238-250) and in the theological treatises of Salvian (On God's government 7.63-64). In fact, they have survived until the present day, because many scholars still use these texts instead of the results of archeaeology to study the ancient Low Countries.


  • Klaus Karttunen, "The Ethnography of the Fringes" in: Egbert Bakker, Irene de Jong and Hans van Wees (eds.), Brill's Companion to Herodotus (2002 Leiden), pages 457-474
  • Jona Lendering & Arjen Bosman, Edge of Empire (2012)
  • Wilfried Nippel, Griechen, Barbaren und "Wilde" (1990 Frankfurt am Main) 11-29
  • Patrick Thollard, Barbarie et civilisation chez Strabon. Étude critique des Livres III et IV de la Geographie (1987 Paris)
Edge of Empire. The book Arjen Bosman and I wrote about Rome's Lower Rhine Frontier.
Edge of Empire. The book Arjen Bosman and I wrote about Rome's Lower Rhine Frontier (order; review)

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