What if Ancient Greeks had GIS Technology?


From the ancient times, humans have been trying to explain all the natural phenomena happening around the earth. “What if…” is a typical question for ancient Greeks Geographers, known as panepistimones (which means pan = all , epistimones = scientists) (Leontidou L. 2011).  This question have been posted by different kind of scientists and artists like mathematicians, philosophers, poets, rhetorical theorist, and doctors. The term of cartography was established prior to the use of the word of geography, which was established by Eratosthenes, according to Wikipedia.  The word cartography comes from the Greek words khartes meaning papyrus (paper) and graphein meaning to write; the need of humans to transfer the shape of their reality into paper.

The first geographers were not just geographers with the meaning that we are using today. Nowadays, things are different. Geographers are different, as the world changes quickly in time and space scale. Contradictory, cartography remains almost the same, from the ancient times till today in terms of what every mapmaker has to take into consideration: the purpose of its map, symbology, generalization, projections, cartographic errors and naming convention. The only thing that has already changed is that the selection of information through time and the saving of this procedure… now we have GeoDatabases!

Nowadays, GIS technology gains more and more roles in modern societies. It’s a useful tool, with powerful implications in place and scale. What is GIS? GIS or (GISystems) is the mix of hardware, software and practices used to run spatial analysis and mapping programs (Gregory D. et al, 2009). Geographical information is information about where something is or what is at a certain location (Gregory D. et al, 2009). In just a few words, GIS is a tool for geographic analysis; a system that helps us to analyze like geographers.

In ancient times, even if there was not any GIS system, a unique cartographic system was established, that was used even in the 16th century (Woodward D. & J.B.Harley). Scientific measurements for earth distances by means of meridians and parallels were first made by Eratosthenes in the 3rd century BC (Bagrow L. & R. A. Skelton). The “magical spell” of how those early cartograhers could explain and understand, the shape or size by using a great variety of techniques based both on qualitative and quantitative methods, is not known yet. The first maps represented mainly the Mediterranean area, logically, as many ethnicities evolved firstly around this sea. The oldest known world maps date back to ancient Babylon from the 9th century BC (Bagrow L. & R. A. Skelton). One of the first maps was created by Anaximander, which was circular in form and showed the known lands of the world grouped around the Aegean Sea at the center (Robinson, 1968).

Map modeled after a depiction of Anaximander's World Map from An Introduction to Early Greek Philosophy by John Mansley Robinson, Houghton and Mifflin, 1968.

Map modeled after a depiction of Anaximander’s World Map from An Introduction to Early Greek Philosophy by John Mansley Robinson, Houghton and Mifflin, 1968.

What is in common among ancient Greeks cartography and GIS nowadays? First of all, GIS like all technologies, is an outcome of both social and technological developments, something that happened also in ancient Greek cartography. Technically, there is the same theoretical background as far as the cartographic science. The basic difference is that today we can produce maps massively, in any scale, with any detail, with punctuality and minimum cartographic errors. We have in our hands one of the best technological miracles, GIS! In ancient times, there were not ideal tools, but there was spirit, imagination and the willing of exploring the unknown… Today, we have the tools, but sometimes we are missing the curiosity of unknown, the inspiration; we have to turn the Emotional Geography on… If ancient Greeks, had GIS technology, everything will be different, the world would be changed… Today, we are living in a world with no limits; let’s take advantage of the GIS period and to write our own cartographic history!


John Mansley Robinson.  1968.  An Introduction to Early Greek Philosophy, Houghton and Mifflin.

Bagrow L. & R. A. Skelton. 2010. History of Cartography.

Gregory Derek, Johnston Ron, Pratt Geraldine, Watts J. Michael and Whatmore Sarah. 2009. The Dictionary of Human Geography. United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell Publications.

Leontidou L. 2011. Ageografitos chora -Greek idols on epistemological routes of European geography-. Propompos Press (Greek).

Woodward D. & J.B. Harley.  1993. The Project of History of Cartography, The University of Chicago Press.

Wikipedia (2013). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_geography, “History of Geography”.


Like this article and want more?

Enter your email to receive the weekly GIS Lounge newsletter: