Cartography Word of the Day: Oecumene

Fourth in an irregular series

1320051207cratesglobe.jpgA depiction of Crate’s Globe illustrating the known world (“oecumene”) and the three other hypothesized continents. (Source: Raisz’s General Cartography 2nd Ed., McGraw Hill, 1948)

About the time of Claudius Ptolemy the first cartographical notions of the shape of the world as expressed by the ancient Greeks were coming to full fruit. The world for the world that they knew, the so-called “inhabited lands”, was oecumene, meaning just that, “inhabited lands”.

By this time the size and shape of the planet was being discovered and refined. Eratosthenes of Cyrene (276-196 BCE) had already done his famous experiment that had deduced the size of the world to within a mere 14 percent. The 1st Century Greeks inhereted information such as this and refined it, and knew that their oecumene wouldn’t quite cover one-fourth of that area. Having a love of symmetry, then, three additonal contents were predicted along with the oecumene: Perioeci (lit. sense “same latitude, other side), Antoeci (opposite the Perioeci) and Antipodes (lit., “opposite the feet”). The Greek cartographer Crates summed it all up on a globe created in about 150 BCE.

Some of these terms survive into modern speech, particularly as a word describing areas of universal coverage and concern (ecumenical) and as a slang term for Australia (which some still call “the Antipodes”)