Real, Fictional and Fantastic Geography in the Ancient World

MarĂ­lia P. Futre Pinheiro

Universidade de Lisboa

This paper aims to analyse three trends of the Greek and Roman mentality concerning geographical knowledge: the scientific, the fictional and the utopian trends.  As was the case with other literary genres, the Greeks were the first to develop travel literature and to devise the key elements that would thereafter characterise this literary tradition. This type of accounts originated in compendia, the so-called periplous, which were circumnavigation guidebooks aimed at providing seamen with all kinds of useful and practical information, like navigation routes and tips on winds and sea currents. With the passing of time, these works began to include other elements, such as reference to the habits and ways of living of the different people seafarers encountered on their voyages, making use of a literary re-telling process that, sometimes, makes it hard to tell fact from fiction. There are many examples that bear witness to a long-standing tradition of travel literature which is still very much alive today: Scylax of Caryanda or Aristeas of Proconnesus, whose travel accounts were used by Herodotus to write the corresponding parts of his Stories about India, Arabia and Scythia; Marcian of Heraclea, who went past the Sacred Promontory, today called St. Vicent Cape, on the Portuguese coast; Nearchus and Megasthenes, who sailed down the Asian coast of the Indian Ocean; Pytheas of Massilia, who went on a voyage to Northern Europe, having most likely reached the Arctic region; and Euxodus of Cnidus, who circumnavigated Africa. However, beside this real geography grounded on an allegedly scientific basis, Hellenistic and Roman times were prolific in another type of literature, one of a fictional nature, which mirrored the society of the time, reflecting a cosmopolitan culture based on the historical, economic and social context of the Eastern Mediterranean regions. These novels are set in the geographical space of their heroes' voyages and the protagonists' adventures are anchored in a geography whose routes coincide with the regions into which Greek civilisation expanded during the Hellenistic and Imperial times. In the Greek novel, the geographical references serve a particular purpose, that of the verisimilitude of the fable. The many physical settings where the made-up facts of the plot take place become, thus, a very important source of realia.

Nevertheless, travel accounts have also constituted one of the main sources of inspiration for utopian and paradoxographic tales. Fantastic journey was a recurring theme in the utopian literature of the Hellenistic and imperial times. The destination of the fantastic journey was an utopian place where man aspired to discover a lost paradise. This utopian trend is illustrated by the fabulous works of Ctesias and Agatharchides of Cnidus about India and Ethiopia, respectively, and of Antonius Diogenes (The Marvels Beyond Thule), who gives us an account of a fantastic journey  "into as-yet uncharted realms of fictional invention".

Within the scope of this paper, we will also try to identify some of the laws that determine the construction of a fantastic geographical space and which enable us to characterise fantastic and/or utopian elements, as opposed to the parameters that define an experience truly lived.


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