The limit of our inhabited world?: Identifying subversive elements in Eratosthenes’ geographical treatises
thesisposted on 28.03.2022, 17:36 by Joshua McDermott
The landmark geographical works of Eratosthenes of Cyrene were produced under Ptolemaic patronage in the latter half of the third century BCE. These treatises have been traditionally understood as shaped by the heated philosophical debates of Athens, rather than the ideological concerns of the Ptolemaic regime in Alexandria. Much needed revision of this view has been adopted by recent scholarship, re-examining Eratosthenes’ geographical treatises through the lens of imperial geography. However, such propagandistic readings tend to overlook significant elements which do not seem to support Ptolemaic ideological concerns. Identification of subversive elements can contribute to a more nuanced reading of Eratosthenes’ geographical works as literature developed within the sympotic court culture, in which an élite scholar was expected to flatter, yet also challenge, his royal patron as a ‘friend of the king’ (φίλος τοῦ βασιλέως). Examination of the geographer’s natural and cultural digressions with narratological tools reveal a distancing of the reader from a sense of imperial control, instead elevating competing forces which diminish or even undermine vital Ptolemaic religious and geo-political concerns. Alternate political systems are celebrated, natural causation emphasised and ideologically-potent mythological causation challenged, distancing the reader from a sense of the regime’s primacy within the inhabited world. Eratosthenes’ mathematical geography requires a different approach. For the identification of subversion within the mathematical elements of Eratosthenes’ geographical works, the role of the focaliser is considered. Whilst some aspects may encourage the privileged unified focalisation that is the hallmark of imperial geography, other areas resist such a reading, instead elevating alternate focalisation of the landscape, effectively challenging geo-political claims of the regime. The identification of subversive elements and consideration of their sympotic context provides a more nuanced understanding of Eratosthenes’ geographical treatises as court literature which may have ostensibly reflected his patron’s concerns, but also carefully challenged elements of Ptolemaic imperial and religious ideology.