How to Show Chronography’s Geography?

by Jesse W. Torgerson

Note: This is the second in a series devoted to the project “Narrative and Geography in the Chronicle of Theophanes the Confessor“. Our first post considered what the question of place in narrative means for historical research. Subsequent posts are concerned with how we set up our database; and, what we consider ‘geography’ in the Chronography.

This second introductory post justifies the procedures previously outlined, stating how, for the time being, my team and I are worrying over the methods by which we collect “geography” from the Chronography (better known as the “Chronicle”) of Theophanes the Confessor.

Here is our current worrying (in the way my canine companion ensures a bone is behaving properly before proceeding) over what it means to grab place-names and plug them into a map, broken out into two questions.

Question 1. What happens when one takes Geography from Chronography? What does it mean to collect geo-graphical (world-writ) data from a chronology (time-writ)?

We begin by interrogating the premise: are we imposing something onto the Chronology, or are we so sure that a chronology is not a geographic text?

Duane Roller, in his recent overview of the development of geographical knowledge from the world of Homer to the “Christian Topography” of Late Antiquity (Ancient Geography: the discovery of the world in classical Greece and Rome, Routledge, 2015) emphasizes the act of translation that is involved in reading ancient geographies with a twenty-first century mind:

It is difficult for a person … accustomed to maps, aerial photographs, and instant access to views of any place in the world, to comprehend the astonishing feats of ancient travelers and geographers. (Roller, p. 1)

What the ancient and medieval texts considered to be geographic, and what we accept as such, are not the same thing. Nevertheless, according to Roller, we can advance in the face of this communication challenge by re-considering what we are willing to accept as “geographic” data.

How many of us consider the catalogue of ships in Homer’s Iliad (Book 2) to be “the earliest geographic document in Greek Literature” (Roller, p. 13)? We don’t but we must. We must expand our view such that we can read Odysseus’ wanderings not as a literary journey that should (or can) be made “geographic” via mapping, but as an actual geographic text as such.

That is because, for Roller, ancient or medieval “geography” is not only the theoretical structure of the world based on reasoning and calculations (Ptolemy), or the cumulative handbooks on earth-knowledge that survive (Strabo), but “geography” also includes any account of people traveling (Roller, pp. 2-5). Granting this, we must be willing to allow “geography” to include a great deal more than we would otherwise.

We must also not pine over what seems to be missing. In ancient works, narratives and mathematics combined to create a special kind of ekphrastic literature. The surviving textual relics of the ancient discipline constitute a very abstract genre in comparison with our notion of geography.

Our geography (especially in practice) has come to be essentially co-terminus with the production, and study, of maps and map-worthy images (i.e., sattelite and aerial photographs).

We look at the ancient material as a lot of words and numbers, with almost no maps to speak of. But ancient geography does not seem to have worried about this: ancient geographers were not overly concerned with maps. We are obsessed with them. Ancient geography is an activity of the mind. Our geography is an activity of the hand.

If we want to re-capture something of the ancient “geography”, we must re-calibrate our reading so that we exchange our geography’s emphasis on space (quantifiable, measurable) over place (bounded locus of meaning, memory, identity) for an older geography with the opposite emphasis: place over space.

Let’s pause for a moment and consider what this means for our practices of reading. When we are confronted with a text that is an ancient geography (think again of the catalogue of ships in the Iliad), we actually have to pause and help ourselves understand this as geography. We have to translate it into our geographic “language” to understand it as such: we have to “map it”.

Image Credit: ( Jenny Strauss Clay, Courtney Evans, Ben Jasnow, and team (
Image Credit: ( Jenny Strauss Clay, Courtney Evans, Ben Jasnow, and team (

How can we effect such a translation for other “geographic” texts that we would not tend to read “as geographies”? What does this mean for how we map the Chronography of Theophanes the Confessor?

To answer this challenge, we are building our methodology from a controversial premise: the Chronography (better known as the “Chronicle”) of Theophanes the Confessor, in all of its complex convoluted opacities, is (among other things) its own geography.

Today, we read “pre-modern” texts as though they are missing maps – usually helpfully supplied in our critical editions and translations. However, while this practice serves an important practical purpose of translation, in the Traveler’s Lab we aim to realize the presumption that for its contemporary, ninth-century audience, a text like the Chronography of Theophanes was not missing a map: it was the map.

The problem is, we simply can’t say this to be so, and then proceed as though we have changed our reading and thinking practices. We’ve lost the habit of thinking a text in this way, to the degree that we can’t simply recapture this other way of thinking by willing it to be so (or, at least, we aren’t convinced we have yet succeeded).

The question, or the challenge, is how to approximate and show what-it-looked-(or, thought-) like? How can we translate this narrated geography into a uniquely-mapped geography we can read?

Our best effort thus far involves, in our data-gathering stage, “capturing” and “tagging” as “geography” many items that would not be considered to be “geographic” by a contemporary 21st-century reader. To give one example, we would tag “… the bishop of Neapolis wrote to the emperor …” as (at minimum) three “geographic” statements: one about Neapolis, one about the journey of a letter, and one about Constantinople. The thousands of these sorts of phrases combined – in this account of the known world from the beginning of time and matter – to create what we must acknowledge as a geography of the entire known world, embedded within an account of the entire known world through time.

By tagging all of these statements for their “geographic” content, we plan to create a data set that we will then seek to manipulate into multiple visualizations, which in sum allow us to understand something of how the geographical reading of this ninth-century text.

This results in the three approaches mentioned in our previous post: first, trying to represent data in ways that convey something like the mental, or conceptual map in which places work together in this narrative; second, trying to “plug in” of all of this data onto projections of the world current at the time: e.g., Ptolemy’s geography; and, third, trying to translate the above two projections for our own eyes, by “plugging” them into a a projection of the world that makes sense to us, a twenty-first century map.

Question 2: What kind of place and space are we dealing with, and how will we show it? How can one describe and utilize the geographic and topographic data within a work that is composed in a milieu, whose geography is other than ours?

In all of this, we are equally concerned with how this approach to place-ness works with narrative theory. In the end, in all of our translating of geography, we don’t want to lose sight of the fact that the topography of Theophanes’ chronography is embedded in story.

Theophanes’ geography is fully narrativized; it functions as a very real but also very abstracted narrative topography. Isn’t it likely that many if not most ninth-century readers did not spend the entire Chronography tracking places on a mental map from Ptolemy’s Geography (as plausible and productive as we think such a reconstruction would be)?

In this, we are thinking with works of criticism and theory concerned with the question of how narrative works.

Elana Gomel, for instance, justifies the project of her recent Narrative Space and Time: Representing Impossible Topologies in Literature (Routledge, 2014) as embarking upon a journey to fulfill a void that feels strikingly like that we have identified:

There has never been a sustained study of narrative techniques used to represent [non-Newtonian spaces], or of their cultural significance. (p. 3)

Though above we stated that our ancient geographies (here including Theophanes’ Chronography) are dominated by spaces that may be heavy on inter-relationality, locality, and regionality (i.e., “places”), at the same time, these spaces in sum make the claim of universality, of accounting for cosmos.

Thus, both pre-modern geography and post-modern narrative, need:

… study of the narrative and cultural poetics of impossible spaces. … spaces that refuse to be mere places.

Image: Cover of “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges, a text discussed by E. Gomel (“Narrative Space and Time” 2014) as creating an “impossible space” through the technique of embedding, or the creation of a “pocket universe” within the “universe” of the text.

If postmodern literatures feel the need to develop a language for discussing how narratives work with space and place in a non- (or post-) Newtonian universe, then though our pre-Newtonian texts may in theory work within a Euclidean (rationalist) universe, they are so much more dominated by the rules of story than by the rules of rationalized space, that the “impossible spaces” of postmodern literature would seem to have more to offer for sense-making than modern concepts of geographic location.

As the philosopher Jeff Malpas recently put it (“Thinking Topographically: Place, Space, and Geography,” 2013), the ideal would be to

… sustain contradictory aspects of the narrative, preserving their complexity and refusing the impulse to reduce the narrative to a stable meaning or coherent project. (p. 3)

Or, to repeat our own phrasing, to

… evoke the imaginative fictive world that a historical text works with, as an imaginative fictive world, when we also know that when our ninth-century chronicle writes ‘Constantinople’ it does also mean a certain metropolis in which the author was physically sitting at that moment.

We will have an answer to these problems when we can articulate a multi-faceted answer to how it is that this text meant, when it stated: “Constantinople.”


Even now, these questions already help us to articulate that, in deciding what and how we map whole texts (even bits of texts), we are stepping into a recognized inter-disciplinary problem. To address this problem well, we need to be aware of the resources produced, and questions posed, by (at the least) geographers, philosophers, and literature scholars.

In the previous post I posed the overall question as one that concerns primarily the discipline of history, and as a question primarily for historical texts. However, I hope that it is now clear that though the answer we are looking for is colored by historians’ lenses and historical goals, this is not only a historical question and this is not a problem that historians are alone in still struggling for the tools to solve. The answer, likewise, will not come from historians alone.

For now, we will claim that (building on the above definition of place as relational and as such distinct from the extensible “universe” of space) we historians might first work to “map” both the inter-related places and then the entire inter-relatedness of these places in our historical and chronological texts. It is only then that we might consider that we have enough material to embark upon the entirely different conversation: that of deciding what relationship these places have to space.