‘Java’ in Ptolemy’s Geographia

Medieval Indonesia
9 min readMay 5, 2020

This is my first foray into ‘Classical’ territory on the blog. I didn’t do Greek at school (too much of a pleb) so the Greek has been partly corrected by the excellent Theo Nash. Any mistakes are still my own, of course, and if you notice any do let me know. I have presented all of the vocabulary as it appears in the digitised text, so if a word is in the accusative then I’ve left it there. I’m hopeful that this will encourage readers to actually consult the manuscript.

In the last post I looked at the depiction of the Indian Ocean on the Walsperger world map, and in establishing the intellectual context of the map I mentioned Jacopo Angelo’s 1406 translation of Claudius Ptolemy’s Geographia. The Geographia had an enormous impact on cartography and geography in Latin Christian Europe in the fifteenth century as a result of this translation, and its effects were felt even on maps that relied for their place names on completely different material. In this post, though, I want to look in more detail at the text of the Geographia itself and in particular at its surviving Greek manuscript witnesses, which all date to the Middle Ages.

The Geographia was originally written in Greek in Alexandria in around 150 CE. The oldest surviving manuscripts date to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (Figure 1), though references in earlier texts, particularly in Arabic geographies, confirm the Geographia’s presence and influence in the eastern Mediterranean long before these earliest extant Greek manuscripts were actually written.

Fig. 1 — The title page of possibly the oldest surviving Greek Geographia (which doesn’t have any maps and is pretty hard to read, honestly). The more formal title of the work is ‘Γεωγραφικὴ Ὑφήγησις’, lit. ‘geographical guidance’, but as you can see here it appears to have been known as ‘Γεωγραφία’ in the earliest Greek manuscripts as well. Rome, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Urb.Gr.191, f.130r.

The interesting thing for students of Indonesian history, of course, is that a variant of the name ‘Java’ appears in the Geographia. Whether this is actually a reference to the island we know as ‘Java’ (Jawa in local languages) is a matter of fiery debate, but the fact that the name appears at all in a text so old is noteworthy and interesting.

Ἰαβαδιοῦ in Rome, BAV, Urb.Gr.82

Indeed, the Geographia’s extremely early date means that it contains probably the oldest surviving reference to a place in the Indian Ocean called ‘Java’ (vel sim) in western Afro-Eurasian literature. (1) The oldest manuscripts antedate the return of Marco Polo from China and so can also be said to contain the oldest (arguably) European cartographic depictions of an island bearing a ‘Java’-ish name. (2) The Geographia is thus frequently invoked in arguments about the etymology of the name ‘Java’. I’m afraid I find these arguments rather dull and I’m not really interested in going over the discussions in any particular detail, and I certainly won’t come to any conclusions on the matter — I’d much rather show you a fascinating old manuscript instead. We’ll come back to the etymological question shortly but it isn’t the main subject of this post.

The manuscript in question is Rome, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Urbinas Graecus 82. It was copied in Constantinople in Greek minuscule c.1300 CE, and, as the oldest copy of the Geographia in good condition and with a complete set of maps, it is considered a particularly authoritative witness (see Stückelberger and Mittenhuber 2009:11). Urb.Gr.82 has been in Italy since the fifteenth century at the latest, and it was once owned by early-fifteenth-century Florence’s richest man, Palla Strozzi, who seems to have liked rare and expensive books like this.

As noted above, Urb.Gr.82 appears to contain the oldest depiction of a place called ‘Java’ on a map in a European language (Figures 2 and 3). (3) The map is one of the last in the book, appearing on f.108r. It depicts an island known as Ἰαβαδιοῦ (sometimes presumed to be a genitive form of Ἰαβαδιός, but see below) some way east of the Golden Chersonese (i.e. mainland Southeast Asia or the Malay Peninsula — see Wheatley 1966:138–162):

Fig. 2— The island of Ἰαβαδιοῦ in Rome, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Urb.Gr.82, f.107v-108r, complete with the beautiful Vatican watermark.

The capital city (μητρόπολιν) of the island of Ἰαβαδιοῦ is said to have been named Ἀργύρη, ‘Silver’ (from ἄργυρος). This town can be seen in the depiction of the island on the Urb.Gr.82 map with its little battlements outlined in red (Figure 3). From the perspective of actually identifying the island the town’s name is rather unhelpful: It can be compared to the (mythical, folkloric) islands of ‘Silver’ (argyre) and ‘Gold’ (chryse) that appear in the description of India in Pomponius Mela’s De Chorographia (43 CE). (4)

Fig. 3— A close-up of Ιαβαδιο in Rome, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Urb.Gr.82, f.108r. I’m not a specialist in Greek minuscule to say the least, so the entire caption isn’t clear to me, but the name is easy to make out.

The description of this Ἰαβαδιοῦ (⟨ϊαβαδιοῦ⟩ as it is spelled in the text) in the Geographia (f.57va) is fairly short. The island is listed after a couple of other places in the Indian Ocean said to have been home to cannibals (ἀνθρωποφάγων). It is said to be ‘most fertile’ (εύφορωτάτη); gold (χρυσόν) is produced there; and its capital, as mentioned above, is named ‘Silver’. This accords rather well with later stereotypical descriptions of the western islands of the archipelago and of Sumatra in particular, although of course it’s not detailed enough to actually allow us to pinpoint which island it’s supposed to be.

In the view of the aforementioned etymologists, however, the crux of the description is this line (Figure 4):

ϊαβαδιοῦ, ὃ σημαίνει κριθῆς νῆσος

Iabadiou, which means “Island of Barley”.’

Fig. 4— The description of ϊαβαδιου in Ptolemy’s Geographia. Rome, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Urb.Gr.82, f.57va.

It’s probably worth looking at this line for a moment, although I’m a little reluctant to do so. Arguments about the etymology of ‘Java’ have been rather fierce in the past; the exchange between Waruno Mahdi and Arlo Griffiths in Archipel a few years ago was particularly unedifying (see Mahdi 2013).

The essential problem is this: Variants of the name ‘Java’ appear in lots of old texts in lots of languages — Arabic, Chinese, Greek, Latin, Old French, Sanskrit, and others — in reference to places that may or may not have been the island we now call Java. Some are definitely references to Sumatra instead, and some may even refer to Borneo, as possibly in Bracciolini’s De Varietate Fortunæ and probably in the Sanskrit Vāyu Purāṇa (as Roland Braddell once argued; see also Kullanda 2006). The question that vexes so many scholars is whether the ‘Java’-ish appellations originally referred to (part of?) one or other of these islands (Figure 5). The problem is compounded by the fact that large islands often don’t even have traditional names in Malayo-Polynesian-speaking societies, so a certain amount of flexibility in the referents of names used in old texts should probably be expected.

Fig. 5— The vexed question.

The standard view is that Ptolemy’s ϊαβαδιοῦ is a transliteration of the Sanskrit name Yavadvīpa, or of Yāvadīvu, a Middle Indo-Aryan/‘Prakrit’ variant. Dvīpa means ‘island’ and yáva does indeed mean ‘barley’ — or, as Monier-Williams’ A Sanskrit-English Dictionary (1899:847 sub यव) says, ‘in the earliest times prob[ably] any grain or corn yielding flour or meal’.

Barley (Hordeum vulgare) doesn’t grow well in the tropics and it has never made up a significant part of the diet in the Indo-Malaysian archipelago, as far as we know, but other grains were certainly eaten in the region in Ptolemy’s day, including rice (Oryza sativa) and foxtail millet (Setaria italica). In Old Javanese the latter was called jawawut, and sometimes also simply jawa, from proto-Austronesian *zawa, and it is notable that one Old Javanese text — the fifteenth-century prose work Tantu Paṅgĕlaran (Pigeaud 1924) — says that Jawa (=the Javanese-speaking parts of Java) was named for its abundance of jawawut.

Does this identify ϊαβαδιοῦ as Java (in our modern sense)? I suppose you should read the back-and-forth between Mahdi and Griffiths before you come to any conclusions. I’m happy to leave that problem where it is, particularly as Ptolemy was writing over a millennium before most of the other texts I work on were written, and the description in the text is vague enough that it could have been almost anywhere in western island Southeast Asia.

Try to Have Fun

Here’s a little conclusion: I don’t think there’s quite enough enjoyment of amazing sources like this in Southeast Asian studies. They’re often treated as but fodder for abstract and sometimes rather miserable debates about onomastics. I’m a joie-de-vivre man myself, though, and a born-again humanist: If I’d wanted to approach texts as if they were simply ammunition for arguments then I would have gone into law.

It’s surprisingly rare for Southeast Asia specialists to actually look at European, Middle Eastern, or East Asian manuscripts or early printed texts, and it’s not uncommon at all for Southeast Asianists to use old and not particularly up-to-date editions or to refer obliquely and casually to an entire tradition of texts (‘Marco Polo says…’). I understand that not everybody is going to learn how to read Old French or Greek minuscule on top of Old Javanese and Malay (and Sanskrit, and ___), and it’s true that digitisation has only just begun to allow us easy access to the full range of pertinent manuscript material. But often the result of the perfunctory way in which these sources are used is that the magic of looking at and reflecting on them is lost. We miss what makes them worthy of our time and attention.

The mere fact that a Southeast Asian island appears by a recognisable name in a thirteenth- or fourteenth-century manuscript of a second-century Greek text is a fascinating and marvellous thing in its own right. I think the same is true of all those cloves and nutmegs and so on in medieval Latin Christian texts, which is why I dedicated so many posts to looking at them without really bothering to come to any conclusions. Just look at all those wonders! To me this seems like the proper humanistic work of philology, and I personally want to get as far away as I can from the idea of philological and etymological research as a joyless macho slog of obscure arguments accessible only to the initiated. You have to sit back and think about it all to get the pleasure.

Anyway, more next time — perhaps on opium or another fun subject like that.

A. J. West — Leiden, May 2020.


(1) I’m choosing my words carefully here: The surviving manuscripts were written in or at least near what we would now call Europe but Ptolemy lived and worked in Alexandria, which is of course in Africa.

(2) As I mentioned in the last post, though, the connection between Ptolemy’s ‘Java’-ish place and Polo’s Java(s) does not seem to have been made in the Middle Ages.

(3) Whether you think Constantinople is in Europe or of it in some way is up to you. I suppose it doesn’t matter too much.

(4) The oldest manuscript of De Chorographia, incidentally, is Rome, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vat.lat.4929, a Carolingian-era copy that served as the basis of literally every other copy in existence. The manuscript has been digitised — see f.184ra for the description of Cryse and Argyre.


Kullanda, Sergey. 2006. Nushāntara or Java? The acquisition of the name. Indonesia and the Malay World. 34:91–97.

Mahdi, Waruno. 2013. À propos de “the problem of the ancient name Java and the role of Satyavarman in Southeast Asian international relations around the turn of the ninth century CE”. Archipel. 86:229–234.

Monier-Williams, Monier. 1899. A Sanskrit-English dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pigeaud, Th. 1924. De Tantu Panggělaran. ‘s-Gravenhage: H. L. Smits.

Stückelberger, Alfred and Mittenhuber, Florian. 2009. Klaudios Ptolemaios Handbuch der Geographie. Basel: Schwabe.

Wheatley, Paul. 1966. The golden khersonese. Kuala Lumpur: Pustaka Ilmu.



Medieval Indonesia

Posting about ancient and medieval Indonesia, up to ~1500 CE. Mainly into 14th & 15th century stuff, but earlier is fine too.