Compare the top three of these ancient Greek views of the world with a modern map. Early Greek maps show a large ocean surrounding a very small inhabited area. In the earlier reconstructions, the known world is pictured as a circle with a center somewhere in Greece, and with a radius extending west as far as the Pillars of Hercules (Straits of Gibraltar). In this view, the world extended no further east than India; nor did it extend far south or west of Egypt. The continents of the Americas and Australia are, of course, entirely absent. In the late sixth century map of Hecataeus, there are only two continents, Europe (extending from the Pillars of Hercules to the Euxine and Caspian Seas) and Asia (covering Libya, Egypt, India, and Arabia) *. Even when Africa is separated out, as it is in maps of the fifth century, most of Africa is missing because it was thought of as roughly triangular in shape, with the Mediterranean along its longest side. In such approximations of Herodotus' world view, the Nile (not the Red Sea) separates Asia from Africa (referred to as Libya)+.
In a Medieval world view, referred to as T-O, the O-circle of the world is divided in three by a T, with Asia on top, and Europe and Africa splitting the bottom half. The Mediterranean, Nile and Red Sea are part of Africa, and Jerusalem is the center of the world. The map of Africa is still approximately a triangle but the Red Sea/Nile side is about the same length as the Mediterranean.
Such abysmal ignorance of Africa's coastline would lead one to believe that travel around the western coast of Africa was so difficult as to have been avoided. This is not true. Vasco da Gama, in A.D. 1497-99, was not the first explorer to circumnavigate Africa. The Greek historian Herodotus reports that Pharaoh Necho (Necos) II (ruler from c. 615-595 B.C.) had commissioned a number of Phoenicians to sail down the Red Sea, around the southern tip of Africa and back along the west coast, through the Pillars of Hercules to Egypt (Hdt. 4.42f).
The Roman historian Pliny reports that Polybius may have sailed down the western coast in 146 B.C. -- at the end of the Third Punic War. A Euthymenes of Massilia (Marseilles) may also have traveled down the western coast of Africa, but records of his journey are not even clear as to the century in which he lived, let alone how far he traveled. Even though the Romans did what they could to obliterate the memory of the Phoenician presence in Carthage at the end of the Punic Wars, we still have a first-hand account of an exploratory journey (probably early fifth century) from Carthage westwards, and then south along the western coast of Africa, written by Hanno of Carthage.
+ According to Henry-Davis Maps Monograph on Slide #108.
Next page > Hanno's journey down Africa's western coast >
Comparison of Early Greek Maps Table
|Hecataeus c. 500 B.C.||Herodotus c. 450 B.C.|
|World round||World not round|
|2 Continents: Europe and Asia separated by the Black and Caspian Seas||3 Continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. The Nile river separates Asia from Africa.|
| Europe |
(Aegean and Black Seas)
(Mediterranean, Nile, and Red Seas)