The goal of this project was to investigate on the one hand the diachronic development of the concept of island, or rather, insularity, through a philological examination of the literary sources, and on the other hand to reconstruct the role this concept played in the context of Greek and Roman thought.


The examination of literary testimonies of Greek and Latin authors shows how islands and insularity were used in the ancient world as mental models for perceiving and defining space. Roman housing complexes were named “islands” (insulae); the flooded Nile landscape as well as high-lying cities and villages were considered as islands via analogy.

Being important reference-points for travellers oases were compared with islands and the desert was considered as profundum aequor. The diversity of the forms if islands, from which their names often were derived, provided a great varietas (variety) of the immensa spatia (endless spaces) on sea. All these examples seem to hint the importance of the island idea as a cognitive category for defining and perceiving space in Greek and Roman cultures and represent an ideal work basis for a new consideration of the islands according to the modern theory of Cognitivism. Moreover, the islands, together with the coasts and promontories, served to define the sea straits, as the cases of mare Creticum (Cretan sea) and mare Siculum (Sicilian sea) show.

An analysis of the island names helps to reconstruct the perception of the pelagic realities during archaic times in historical framework of the Greek exploration and colonisation of the Western Mediterranean. Place names such as Trinakria (trinakria nesos = triangular island) allow a reconstruction of a geometrical spatial conception of the island of Sicily. Furthermore, one could ask whether a perception determined by “common sense geography” also played a role in the naming of places, especially in colonial areas.