On the first page of Lingua Latina per se Illustrata, students review a map of the Roman Empire, which is marked with the names of three continents and several smaller regions. The borders of the continents, however, are not shown, leading to some ambiguity regarding the actual extent of each one.

Nowadays the borders between Asia and Europe/Africa are well defined. As we might expect, Orberg in his text indicates that Greece is in Europe, Syria and Arabia in Asia, and Egypt in Africa. But is that actually how authors of Classical Latin understood the geography of Asia? More specifically:

  • Is Orberg correct that Arabia and Syria were considered part of Asia?
  • Did Asia also include modern-day Turkey?
  • Were any parts of Greece considered to be in Asia, like Crete, Rhodes, or Lesbos?
  • Was any part of modern-day Egypt part of Asia?
  • Was there disagreement on these points?

I'm aware from L&S that the word Asia can have different senses; here I'm interested in how its broad sense, as a continent, was understood.


2 Answers 2


The full range of meanings of Asia is already found in Herodotus. In fact, Herodotus notes that there are three continents: Europe, Asia, and Libya (=Africa), though he didn't particularly like the model himself. Asia, then was everything to the east of the Nile and Hellespont, and so included Persia, India, and the Asian steppes (see e.g. Herodotus 4.44, where he explicitly locates the Persian Empire and India in "the greater part of Asia."

It likely originally meant Anatolia, though the etymology is contested. It did however continue to primarily mean that. In 129, Pergamum was renamed Asia when it became a Roman province.

To get to your specific points:

  1. Yes, Arabia and Syria would have been considered part of Asia.
  2. Yes, it included all of Turkey (except East Thrace, the European part of Turkey including Istanbul).
  3. The Greeks who lived on the Anatolian mainland and nearby islands could be called Asiatic Greeks.
  4. Some claimed the east of the Nile to be Asian (see Herodotus 4.45).
  5. Yes, and see the link above for Herodotus' viewpoint. Others abound, though most of Herodotus' predecessors are lost to time.
  • 2
    Do you know when the Anatolian Peninsula began to be called "Asia Minor"?
    – brianpck
    Feb 15, 2017 at 14:40
  • 4
    I don't think Cyprus is normally considered part of Egypt, but it certainly is an interesting case. Much of modern Egypt is east of the Nile, though, so based on this all of that would have been in Asia, right? Did Latin authors also use the Nile as the dividing line? Feb 15, 2017 at 14:51
  • @brianpck New Advent says Orosius. I thought it had been earlier, but maybe that was due to anachronistic maps.
    – cmw
    Feb 15, 2017 at 19:53
  • "Was any part of modern-day Egypt part of Asia?" The Sinai Peninsula would have been considered part of Asia by the more expansive definition, from what it sounds. That is definitely part of modern-day Egypt. Feb 15, 2017 at 19:55
  • @Nathaniel Pliny, at least, quotes Timotheus who thought so: Joining on to Africa is Asia, the extent of which, according to Timosthenes, from the Canopic mouth of the Nile to the mouth of the Euxine, is 2639 miles.
    – cmw
    Feb 16, 2017 at 19:32

A picture is worth a thousand words.

Luckily, we can look it up in Brill's Historical Atlas of the Ancient World.

Take a look at The world through the eyes of ancient authors. Unfortunately, the maps are copyrighted, so I can't upload them here.

(I'll keep my post, despite some recent downvotes, for those who are genuinely interested in Classical Studies and not afraid to go to the library).

  • 2
    Unfortunately it doesn't look like any of these links work if one doesn't have an account. Feb 15, 2017 at 19:39
  • That is: for readers without access it'd be great if you were able to explain what the maps show (using the links as supplemental for those with access), as you mention. And of course, if other out-of-copyright maps exist, they'd be great to see as well! Feb 16, 2017 at 0:33
  • @Nathaniel well, I'll see what I can do. Meanwhile, I strongly recommend visiting a library to explore the treasures of Brill's New Pauly, a must for anyone seriously interested in Classical Studies worldcat.org/title/…
    – Alex B.
    Feb 16, 2017 at 1:10
  • 1
    If people search the internet hard enough, they can find the Pauly-Wissowa easily enough. Granted, it's the old version and in German, but it more than suffices.
    – cmw
    Feb 16, 2017 at 4:19

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