1902 Encyclopedia > Geography > The Romans. Attempts at Systematizing Geographical Information.

(Part 4)

The Romans. Attempts at Systematizing Geographical Information.

The Romans did not encourage navigation and commerce with the same ardour as their predecessors; still the luxury of Rome, which gave rise to demanded for the varied products of all the countries of the known world, led to an active trade both by ships and caravans. But it was the military genius of Rome, and the ambition for universal empire, which led not only to the discovery but also to the survey of nearly all Europe and of large tracts in Asia and Africa. Every new war produced a new survey and itinerary of the countries which were conquered. In the height of their power the Romans had surveyed and explored all the coast of the Mediterranean, Italy, Greece, the Balkan peninsula, Spain, Gaul, western Germany, and Britain; but the eastern parts of Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Russia were still unknown regions. In Africa their empire included Egypt Carthage, Numidia, and Mauritania. In Asia they held Asia Minor and Syria, had sent expeditions into Arabia, and were acquainted with the more distant countries formerly overrum by Alexander, namely, Persia, Scythia, Bactria, and India. Roman intercourse with India especially led to the extension of geographical knowledge.

The first Roman who undertook a journey to India was solely influenced by the desire to acquire a knowledge of the people and their doctrines. This was Apollonius, a resident at Antioch, who set out towards the close of the first half century of our era. He and his attendants, Damis and Philostratus, reaches the Indus, and journeying across the Punjab, came to a bronze pillar with the inscription " Here Alexander halted"; but it is doubtful whether the party advanced as far the Ganges. It was, however, in the reigns of Severus and his immediate successors that Roman intercourse with India was at its height.

In all time, while warriors and explorers extended the area of geographical knowledge, there have been students who have striven to systematize and put into due form the accumulated information. From the first it was perceived that a knowledge of localities could not be attained without some notion of their relative positions, and their distances from each other. Consequently the attempts to establish fixed principles on which the surface of the earth, or nay portion of it, could be delineated, were almost coeval with the earliest voyages of discovery.

The first attempt made to determine the position of places appears to have depended on the division of the earth into "climates," distinguished by the species of animals and plants produced in each. This method, however, was soon abandoned for another, which consisted in observing at places the length of the longest and shortest dava by means of a "gnomon." An upright pillar of a known height being erected on a level pavement, by observing the lengths of the meridian shadows the progress of the sun form tropic to tropic was traced. The most ancient observation with the gnomon is that of Pytheas, in the days of Alexander the Great, who observed at the summer solstice at Massilia that the length of the meridian shadow was to the height of the gromon as 213 1/8 to 600, an observation which makes the meridian altitude of the sun at Marseilleson that day 70º 27´. The merit of the invention of the gnomon in Greece is ascribed to the astronomical school of Miletus; but there is reason to believe that this method of observation was invented in Egypt, and that Thales carried the knowledge of it into Greece. This was the first step towards connecting geography with astronomy; and little further advances was made until the establishment of the famous astronomical school of Alexandria.

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