From Agrippa to Pliny: The Vistula in Roman Geographical Writings from the First Century AD

  • Darius Alekna
Keywords: Vistula, geography, Agrippa, Mela, Pliny


The article deals with all known early testimonies about the Vistula River up to the end of the first century AD, together with some linguistic and archaeological data. The conducted research leads to several conclusions. First references to the Vistula were connected to the fact that it was mentioned as the eastern boundary of Germania. It is known that the idea to delimit Germania geographically belonged to Caesar who thought that the Rhine was its western boundary. Such delimitation raised a question about its eastern boundary. Reading the fragments of Agrippa’s geographical Commentaries we can conclude that he was the first to designate the Vistula as the eastern boundary of Germania. All subsequent geographical tradition followed him, although Tacitus, who had known the region better, was sceptical on this matter. Looking at the chronology of the increasing amount of data on the Vistula, we can observe that the upper reaches of the Vistula (Agrippa mentions an expedition looking for the eastern boundary of Dacia) and its middle reaches (Mela mentions a crook of the Vistula) were known to Romans first, and only later we find data on its lower reaches. Pliny mentions the River Guttalus falling into the Ocean to the north of the Vistula. Also, he is the first to mention the inhabitants of the lower reaches: Veneti, Sciri, and Giri. His sources had linguistic contacts with the Balts living in that region. Such a chronology might be explained by the Romans’ military actions in the middle reaches of the Danube and the establishment of the winter military base in Carnuntum. The known sources show that Roman geographers disagreed on the name for the region situated to the east of the Vistula. Agrippa named it Dacia, Mela described it as Sarmatia, and Pliny preferred the name of Scythia. In all cases, the logic for choosing the name is clear. The names of the southern regions, which were well known to the Romans, had been moved to the north. Summarizing the major part of different knowledge, Pliny presents some elements from the history of discovery of the lower reaches of the Vistula. He knows about Pytheas’ expedition and gives an account on the opinions of the Greeks. Furthermore, his accounts allow reconstructing at least two marine journeys to the lower reaches of the Vistula.