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Ancient Asia

Ancient Asia from the Perspective of Ancient Greece and Rome

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Hecataeus World Map

In the 6th Century B.C. and even in Herodotus' time, the world was thought of as 3 continents, Europe, Asia, and Libya/Africa.

Public Domain. Courtesy of Marco Prins and Jona Lendering.

To the people of ancient Greece and Rome, the Aegean and Mediterranean seas were the center of the world. Over to the east, towards the rising (oriens: whence, orient) sun, lay Asia. At one time, those were the only two continents the Greeks knew of. Asia and the Classical world came into repeated contact and conflict with each other once they grew much beyond the stage of isolated, but neighboring city-states; eventually, a balance of power was established with the Persians in control in the East and the Greco-Romans in the West.

For the early ancient Greeks and Romans, Asia can be thought of as an unraveling mystery. The European border was formed from the Tanais or Don River, the Sea of Azof, the Black (Euxine) Sea, the Propontis (Sea of Marmora) and the Aegean. Generally, the Red and Arabian seas served as the southern/African border. But what lay to the east?

Because of the East-West balance of power, however tenuous, the Roman Empire never extended very far into Asia, although the Macedonian Alexander the Great had gone as far as the Hydaspes River (Jhelum) in India, and part of his Asian territory survived in Hellenistic hands long enough to fall to Rome -- much later. Greece and Rome were also aware of land beyond the Punjab, the land of silk and spice traded along the silk road.

Asia Minor vs Asia Major

To the Classical World, the best known part of Asia was Asia Minor, also known as Anatolia. Asia Minor was located between the Aegean, Mediterranean, and the Black Seas.

Early Greek colonists -- when Asia meant only the western portion of Asia Minor and an excellent place to settle -- considered Lydia's eastern border river, the Halys, as also a border between upper and lower Asia. Later, the western mountains of the Euphrates served as an eastern border river separating the rest of Asia.

Another division was between what was on this side of the Taurus Mountains and what was on the other. This side (Asia intra Taurum) was the area north and northwest. The rest of the continent was Asia extra Taurum. In Italy, the Alps served a similar naming function. Cisalpine Gaul was the Italian side of Gaul; Transalpine Gaul was Gaul beyond.

A more lasting division was between Asia Minor and Asia Major. Asia Major was east of the Don and Black Sea, including Sarmatica Asiatica, Colchis, Iberia, Albania, Armenia, Syria, Arabia, Babylonia, Mesopotamia, Assyria, Media, Susiana, Persis, Ariana, Hyrcania, Margiana, Bactriana, Sogdiana, India, the land of the Sinae and Serica.

South of Asia Minor lay Syria. South of Syria lay Arabia, which runs into the Indian Ocean. Arabs from this region would eventually supplant the Persians in the East, but that was in the early Middle Ages, and so beyond the scope of this Ancient/Classical History site.

Armenia and Assyria

East of Asia Minor, between the Black and Caspian Seas lay Armenia, Colchis, and Iberia.

East of Syria and northern Arabia lay Assyria, Mesopotamia, and Babylonia, running into the Persian Gulf.

Persia and India

Beyond the Assyrian areas, lay Persia, running almost to the Indus River. Beyond the Indus lay the two parts of India, the first to the Ganges, and a more easterly part that included Tibet. Above India and Persia lay the Scythian lands. [See Central Asia.]

China

East of the two parts of India lay Sinae and Serica -- China, but the Greeks and Romans knew little about their territory or most of the islands.

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