1902 Encyclopedia > Pomponius Mela

Pomponius Mela
Roman geographer
(Died 45 AD)




MELA, POMPONIUS, a Roman writer on geography. His little work, though a mere compendium, is the only systematic treatise on the subject preserved to us in the Latin language, with the exception of that which forms part of the encyclopwdic work of the elder Pliny, mid from this circumstance it derives a value to which it would be little entitled from its intrinsic merits. Nothing is known of the author except his name, and that he was born, as he himself informs us, at a small town called Tingentera in the south of Spain. But the date of his work may be fixed with little doubt from an allusion in the preface to a proposed expedition of the reigning emperor to Britain, which can hardly be referred to any other event than the visit to that island of the emperor Claudius in 43 A.D. This conclusion is accepted by all the recent editors ; the view of some earlier scholars, who understood this passage as referring to the expedition of Julius Cmsar, is clearly disproved by the mention of several facts which were not anterior to the reign of Augustus. The little treatise is not only a mere abridgment, occupying less than one hundred pages of ordinary print, but is so deficient in method and systematic character that we should have supposed it to be little more than a mere schoolbook, were it not that we find the name of the author figuring in a prominent manner among the authorities cited by Pliny for the geographical books of his vast compilation.

His general views of the geography of the earth do not differ materially from those which were current among Greek writers from the time of Eratosthenes to that of Strabo, and are well known to us from the great work of the latter author, which was, however, in all probability unknown to Mela, as it certainly was to Pliny. But in one of his views he stands alone among ancient writers on geography, that after describing the division of the earth into five zones, of which two only were inhabitable, he states as an undoubted fact the existence of antichthones, who inhabited the southern temperate zone, but were inacctassible and consequently unknown to the inhabitants of the corresponding zone in the north, on account of the excessive heat of the intervening torrid zone. His views of the division and boundaries of the three continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa coincide with those of Eratosthenes; and, in common with all ancient geographers from the time of Alexander to that of Ptolemy, he regarded the Caspian Sea as an inlet from the Northern Ocean, corresponding to the Persian Gulf on the south. his ideas concerning India are extremely confused and imperfect,altogether inferior to those possessed by Greek writers long before ; he follows Eratosthenes in supposing that country to occupy the south-eastern angle of Asia, whence the coast trended northwards to Scythia, and then swept round to the westward to the opening of the Caspian Sea. As usual he places the Rhipman Mountains and the Hyperborean near the Scythian Ocean, which he of course connects with that supposed to exist to the north of Europe.

With regard to the west of Europe, on the other hand, his knowledge was somewhat in advance of the Greek geographers, as might be expected from the extension of the Roman dominion and civilization in that quarter, and from a writer who was himself a native of Spain. Accordingly we find him possessing a more accurate idea than either Eratosthenes or Strabo of the western coast-line of Spain and Gaul, and its deep indentation by a gulf (the Bay of Biscay) between the projecting headlands of the two countries. Of Britain, on the contrary, he has little to tell us, beyond what we find in Cmsar or Strabo, though he appears to have had a clearer idea of the position of the British Islands than the Greek geographer. He is also the first ancient writer who mentions the name of the Orcades or Orkneys, which he correctly describes as a large group of islands to the north of Britain. Of the north of Europe his knowledge was still utterly imperfect ; but he had a vague notion of the existence to the north of Germany of a large bay, which he calls Codanus Sinus, containing many islands, large and small, among which was one much larger than the rest, which he calls Codanovia, - evidently the same name that reappears in Pliny under the form Scandinavia, which has been attached by modern writers to the great northern peninsula of Europe.

The method followed by !Meld in describing the three continents is peculiar and inconvenient. Instead of treating each continent separately, and describing the countries included in it, he begins at the Strait of the Columns (the Straits of Gibraltar), which was close to his own birthplace, and describes the countries adjoining the south coast of the Mediterranean from Mauretania to Egypt, and afterwards those around the east coast of the same sea with its tributary the Euxine, and then back along the north of the Mediterranean from Scythia to Gaul and Spain. He then begins again with the countries bordering the western and northern ocean from Spain and Gaul round to India, and from thence by Persia and Arabia to the Ethiopians, and thence again round Africa to the straits from which he began. In common with most ancient geographers, he considered Africa as surrounded by the sea, but had a very inadequate idea of its extent towards the south.

The first edition of Pomponius Mela, was published in 1471, and it was very often reprinted in the 15th and 16th centuries. The edition of Voss in 1658, with a valuable commentary, became the foundation of all the subsequent editions, of which those by Gronovius (in 1685 and 1742) are among the best-known and most useful. The edition by Tzschucke, in 6 vols. 8vo (1806), contains an overwhelming mass of notes and commentaries, but by far the best text is that of the recent edition by G. Parthey (Berlin, 1867), who has in many instances restored the original readings, which had been displaced by the conjectures of Voss and others. (E. if. B.)







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