What’s Wrong with Geography?

TozerStatistics – aren’t they wonderful? The title of this piece was premised on my reading recently that geography students are among those who have the greatest difficulty finding work after graduation. On Googling to verify this, I found several impressive bits of info (pie charts and everything!) which demonstrated either that this WAS or most emphatically WAS NOT the case. But, ploughing on regardless …

Geography was not my favourite subject at school, not because I wasn’t fascinated by maps, exploration etc., but because lessons consisted of rote learning of the rivers of England and the products of Scotland. If you say ‘Dundee’ to me, I think ‘jute’, so that clearly stuck, though the position of Dundee on a coastline map of Scotland would give me pause. And like H.G. Wells’ Arthur Kipps, I can still just about do ‘Ty Wear Tees ‘Umber’, though it took a visit to Durham for me to realise that its magnificent location is on a cliff over the Wear.

The dark, Satanic jute mills of Dundee

The dark, Satanic jute mills of Dundee

Fishing in the Wear, in the shadow of Durham cathedral, from Hugo's 'The Bewick Collector', vol. 2

Fishing in the Wear, in the shadow of Durham cathedral, from Hugo’s ‘The Bewick Collector‘, vol. 2








However, in this very small respect I am marginally ahead of my own children, who none of them seem ever to have had a geography lesson – though, as they frequently point out, there’s no point, as they can just look ‘it’ up on their iPhones…

For most of the nineteenth century, geography did not exist as a subject of study in British universities: extraordinary when you think of the burgeoning of institutions like the Royal Geographical Society and the Hakluyt Society, but not so extraordinary when you think of the innate conservatism of the ‘old’ universities. In the late 1880s, the R.G.S. funded instruction in geography at Oxford and Cambridge (though degree courses were not established until after the First World War). One of the earliest university teachers was Henry Fanshawe Tozer (1829–1916), clergyman, classicist and traveller, whose History of Ancient Geography we have just reissued.

Unlike many of the classically educated travellers of the period – Morritt, Leake, Walpole, or Clark – Tozer was interested less in the classical remains of Greece and Asia Minor than in the physical and human geography of the area. He published two major books describing his (often arduous) journeys, in 1869 and 1881, and this 1897 work sums up his encyclopaedic knowledge of ancient geographers.

He subdivides geography into four parts: mathematical (dealing with ‘those questions which depend on the sciences of astronomy and geometry’); physical (which ‘treats of the surface of the earth’); descriptive and political (which deals with the surface of the earth in terms of its human habitations); and historical, which ‘regards the earth from the point of view of its effect on human society and the progressive development of the race’.

The starting point of Tozer’s review is the Mediterranean, and specifically the period in the eighth century BCE at which Greek city-states began to send out colonies not only around the Mediterranean but into the Black Sea and beyond the Straits of Gibraltar. He believes that it was not a coincidence that the earliest Greek geographers (and geometers) grew up in the cities – notably Miletus – which founded colonies: links maintained with the daughter cities meant that news about the wider world fed back to the ‘mothers’ before being disseminated around Greece. And of course these colonies in due course became mother cities themselves, so that eventually the Greeks grew to have a sphere of contacts, if not always great influence, throughout the Near East, North Africa, and even western and northern Europe.

The world view of the geographer Hecataeus of Miletus (550–476 BCE)

The world view of the geographer Hecataeus of Miletus (550–476 BCE)

Of course, problems arise in working out where the Greeks actually went, when there are no artefacts to flag their presence and when written accounts may be at second or third hand. The pioneering work of Karl W.L. Müller (1813–94) had pulled together (in his five-volume Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum (1841–1872) and two-volume Geographi Graeci Minores (1855–61)) the fragments of geographical writings known at his time, and Tozer acknowledges his debt to these works. (We will shortly be reissuing Müller’s edition of Strabo, who was one of Tozer’s own favourite authors.)

The difficulty with such material, as Tozer points out, is that the combination of fragments quoted out of context, damaged texts, disbelieving commentary by later transmitters, and the ever-vexed problem of the use of proper names, makes it very difficult to work out what is being said about where.

King Seleucus I Nicator (358–281 BCE) sent a man named Megasthenes on a diplomatic mission to the court of Chandragupta Maurya, emperor of most of north India. His original account is lost, but sections are preserved in Strabo, Arrian and Diodorus, and, as Tozer puts it, comparison of these descriptions with the works of Indian historians now available in the West corroborates, ‘even in points of minute detail, the evidence of Megasthenes’.

Bronze bust of Seleucus

Bronze bust of Seleucus

The (alleged) footprints of Chandragupta Maurya

The (alleged) footprints of Chandragupta Maurya










But in the north-west of Europe, matters are less easily cross-checked. Pytheas from Marseilles went on an epic journey which, as it survives in Diodorus, may have included a circumnavigation of the British Isles and even entry to the Baltic Sea. He is supposed to have reached the mouth of the river Tanais and found amber on the seashore – the Tanais might be the Vistula, and the amber Baltic, but the river and the amber could both have been on the coast of Friesland. (And in any case the Tanais river is the Don, so Pytheas may have meant only that he had reached that latitude, which of course begs all sorts of further questions … )

A nineteenth-century take on Pytheas, from his home city of Marseilles

A nineteenth-century take on Pytheas, from his home city of Marseilles


Pytheas was in fact generally distrusted by both Polybius and Strabo: most unfairly, in the light of later knowledge, they thought he was exaggerating, or just lying. Tozer supports him, and he has been ‘rehabilitated’ more recently in an absorbing book by Professor Barry Cunliffe.

Tozer’s judicious treatment of his confusing and sometimes contradictory resources (I’ve run out of space before getting to Herodotus, let alone Ptolemy), and his entertaining prose style make a good read out of a complex topic – why didn’t we have this sort of textbook at school?


This entry was posted in Archaeology, classical geography, Classics, Geography, History, Mathematical Sciences, Travel and Exploration and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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