THE SOUTHERN LIMITS OF AFRICA IN ANCIENT GEOGRAPHY

A. V. Van Stekelenburg

Abstract


Hellenistic scientists were well aware of the fact that Africa had once in the
north-west been connected to Europe and in the north-east had not always been
joined to Asia. The concepts of geological time and of the horizontal movement of
continental plates were of course not within their reach, but their conclusions were
nevertheless based on sound scientific observation and reasoning. Our most
important source for the history of ancient geography till Augustan times is the
Geographia of Strabo, written between 9 and 5 B.C. and partly revis~ in A.D. 18-
19 (Dilke 1985:62). Strabo quotes the physicist Strato of Lampsacus (died c. 270
B.C.) on the existence of a submarine ridge between Spain and Morocco, and he
states that excavations on the Isthmus of Suez produced seasand and shells proving
that it had once been covered by a body of water that had formed a connection
between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea (1.3.4). These matters were of interest
to Homeric commentators when they touched upon the wanderings of Odysseus and
Menelaus, since the former was thought to have sailed through the strait at the
Pillars of Hercules into the Atlantic,l and the latter in the account of his travels to
Telemachus had stated that his wanderings had taken him to the Ethiopians (Od. 4,
81-86). Since Homer recognises two groups of Ethiopians "abiding both where the
sun sets and where he rises" (Od. 1, 24), the eastern Ethiopians were considered by
some to be the inhabitants of India, and the western to be the African blacks living
on the southern shores of Africa. Homeric commentators argued the case for either
of these two groups as hosts of Menelaus.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.7445/41-1-2-215

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