Hecataeus (c. 550 BC – c. 476 BC)

Born into a wealthy family in Miletus, in Asia Minor, the early Greek statesman, philosopher, historian and geographer Hecataeus (c. 550 BC – c. 476 BC) was a pupil of Thales. 

After travelling extensively, visiting Greece, Thrace, Persia, Italy, Spain and northern Africa (he reputedly visited Egypt in the company of the Persian king Cambyses), he seems to have taken up a high position in his native city, and devoted his time to writing geographical and historical works although none of his writings have survived intact. 

As a result, his work is only known through fragments and comments by later writers, including Herodotus, Aristotle and Theophrastus.

Hecataeus is known to have produced two works:

The two-volume Periodos ges (Journey round the Earth or World Survey), a comprehensive work on geography began at the Straits of Gibraltar and worked clockwise around the coasts of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. 

In it, he provides information about the people and places a traveller would encounter on a coastal voyage, as well as details of the Mediterranean islands, the Scythians, Persia, India, Egypt and Nubia. 

More than 300 fragments of the Periodos are preserved, mostly in the form of citations for place names in the work of Stephanus of Byzantium.

In association with the Periodos, Hecataeus is credited with improving Anaximander's world map, representing the oikumene as a disc encircled by Oceanus. 

His extremely schematic map is divided into thirds (Europe, Asia, Africa), separated by the Mediterranean, Red and Black Seas, though his representation of Ocean running like a river around a perfectly circular earth, with Asia and Europe of the same size was later ridiculed by Herodotus. 

At the very least, however, Hecataeus understood the relative positions of the continents.

Hecataeus’s other work, the four-volume Genealogia (a.k.a. Historiai or Heroologia) set out to apply a more sceptical and systematic approach to Greek traditions and mythology by setting the poetic fables about the divine or heroic ancestries of Milesian families in a pseudo-chronological framework. 

He seems to have believed that the fabulous traditional elaborations in Greek mythology were underpinned by historical facts that had subsequently been distorted by exaggeration or by the literal interpretation of metaphors.

Fewer than forty recognisable fragments of the work have survived, though it seems to have been used extensively by Herodotus, who only seems to acknowledge his sources when he finds them wanting or finds other reasons to complain.

Herodotus remains, however, indebted to Hecataeus for the concept of a prose history. 

Writing some years after his death, Herodotus acknowledges that Hecataeus had understood the size and power of the Persian empire, and gives details of his involvement in the Ionian Revolt (500–494 BC). 

Although he had advised his compatriots not to rebel against Darius the Great and the insurrection was initially successful, when Miletus was destroyed in 494 Hecataeus was one of the ambassadors to the new satrap, Artaphernes, and obtained a restoration of the Ionic cities constitutions.

© Ian Hughes 2017