Starting research in literary sources

I joined the Portus-Limen Project only very recently thanks to a PhD studentship. My research involves an analysis of the literary sources, in order to define and precise the terms relating to sea-faring. In this post I will just give an example of the kind of research I’m carrying out, namely from a passage in Strabo. Commenting anything from such a well-known author in such little space as a blog post is difficult, please excuse me for any gross simplifications.

In Strabo, 3.4.7 we read the following:

[Between the Ebro and the Pyrenees] lies the city of Tarraco; it is portless, but it is located in a bay and it provides many other advantages, and today it has no less population than Carthage.

The text is available online, for example in the Perseus Project:

It comes as a shock to read that Tarraco, present-day Tarragona in Catalonia (Spain), is ἀλíμενoς (alímenos). This adjective derives from the noun λιμήν (limén) “port”, but it has a privative alpha which automatically turns it into negative, i. e. ἀλíμενoς = “lacking a port”.

So what does it mean that Tarraco has no port when we know from archaeological evidence that it hat major port structures? Defining the extremely broad meaning of the word λιμήν is a tough issue, as it is the widest-used word for “port”. The general meaning of λιμήν is that of a sheltered area at sea, safe enough for ships to enter and reach the land (it doesn’t matter whether human-built or natural, but sometimes it is specified). Also, note that Strabo himself indicates that Tarraco is situated “in a bay”, so probably the natural geographical conditions would be enough for ships to moor in its coast. But then, why would Tarraco be ἀλίμενος?

The primary meaning of λιμήν is a sheltered area at sea from where ships can reach the land. In this image, boats on the sand in a beach.
The primary meaning of λιμήν is a sheltered area at sea from where ships can reach the land. In this image, boats on the sand in a beach. Photo: Xavier Clotet Gabarró

At the risk of treading into a highly complex field in this very initial state of my PhD, my guess is that it has to do with Strabo’s perception of what is or isn’t “a sheltered area”. We all have linguistic mental clichés so as to link words to realities, but these standards are not the same in all languages. For example, fish in Catalan is peix, but in Spanish it can be pez or pescado, depending on whether it’s still alive. So maybe Strabo understood λιμήν from those he knew in Turkey and Greece, where gulfs are far deeper than in the Catalan coast, and therefore Tarraco would be “unsheltered” in his eyes. In this sense, it is understandable that he finds the place ἀλίμενος.

However, what are the other advantages (κατεσκευασμένη τοῖς ἄλλοις ἱκανῶς) that Strabo mentions? And is the infrastructure in a λιμήν the same as in, for example, a ὅρμος (hórmos)? If not, which basic features must each port-type contain? Such are the issues I will be dealing with during my research in the Portus-Limen Project.

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