Pseudo-Skylax - A 'Scientific' Geographer

Greek Traveller, Mapper, Geographer or Armchair Scholar?


Arising from his work on the ancient Greek city-state for the Copenhagen Polis Project, Graham Shipley has been studying the neglected Greek text known as the 'Periplous' (circumnavigation) of Pseudo-Skylax. In about 9,000 words of prose, it describes the coasts of the world known to the Greeks, the peoples and cities along those coasts, and some of the major navigational landmarks such as capes. It begins at Gibraltar, moves along the north shore of the Mediterranean, circles the Black Sea clockwise, and returns to its starting-point by way of Asia Minor (Turkey), the Levant, and the coast of Egypt and North Africa.

'Facsimile of part of the 13th-century manuscript, made in 1855' (from: P. A. Poulain de Bossay, Recueil de voyages et de mémoires, 7: 97-8)

However, it seems clear that the work is not the record of an actual voyage; what, then, is it? To add to the puzzle, the work - preserved only in a single, late medieval manuscript - purports to be by Skylax, an explorer of the late 6th century BC named by Herodotos; but this cannot be true, for the text repeatedly refers to the Greek world as it was in the 4th century BC. For that reason it is known as Pseudo-Skylax.

Even though the book is one of only a handful of technical treatises surviving from Classical Greece before the Hellenistic period, it has not been the subject of a complete commentary since 1855, and only short extracts have been ever been published in English. Now, after exhaustive study of the manuscript and of previous scholarship, Graham Shipley has produced a completely revised Greek text, an English translation, and a detailed commentary on historical and geographical aspects.

In the Introduction Graham considers the work's literary and scholarly aims. His close analysis reveals that the Periplous is an attempt to represent the world of the Greeks in a new, scientific way. It belongs firmly alongside philosophical investigations of the human and natural world that were being carried out at Athens at an increasing pace in the second half of the 4th century BC. One of the author's aims is clearly to 'measure' the length of the world - for him, this means calculating how long it takes to sail round the Mediterranean and Black Sea - just as Aristotle did in the 320s and his pupil Dikaiarchos a little later. It seems likely that the unknown author we call Pseudo-Skylax provides a model for those investigators, and can thus be described as the first surviving 'scientific' Greek geographer.

skylax cover

For much more information see the new volume:

G. Shipley (2011) Pseudo-Skylax's Periplous - The Circumnavigation of the Inhabited World: Text, Translation and Commentary.

University of Exeter Press, 2011.

Click here for the link to the publisher site.

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