Maps! Into the depths of oddly preserved history…

The Romans knew how to conquer.  Even to a middle schooler, the greatest achievements of the Roman Empire are probably its sheer size and the Coliseum.


The question I explored is related to ancient mapmaking in light of this vast empire.  Did the Romans know the proportion of the globe they controlled?  If they did, how do we come across this information?  Were ordinary Romans aware of their expansive control?  Beyond the well-known Peutinger Table and the Forma Urbis Romae, did the Romans make maps?  What did they think the world looked like?  How is this information passed down?  Why does it matter?

To start, a large chunk of our knowledge of Rome, the city, comes form the giant marble map of the city that was hung by Septimius Severus in one of the Imperial fora around 200 AD, the Forma Urbis Romae.  Stanford has an online digital collection of all of the fragments here.  Only about 15% of the map survives.  They are trying to reconstruct the entire map using the fragments, drawings of the fragments, and computer science algorithms to “solve” the roads.  Don’t get lost!

The Peutinger table is fascinating.  It offers a 1’x 21’ map of Eurasia, from Britain to the Ganges, including all of the roads, towns, hotels, eateries, and stopping points along the way.  It even has the distances from place to place and traveling time for different modes of travel.  What is so interesting, though, is the way it is compressed in order to fit this odd format- every feature is stretched out horizontally and compressed vertically.  There isn’t really a consistent scale to the “map” (…probably why it is called a table and not a map).  The roads don’t follow their actual paths across land-just the places they pass through.  The table basically shows what roads one would take from point A to B, how long it would take and what you’d pass along the way.

The Peutinger table and its prominence in the realm of cartographical (great word!) artifacts is likely responsible for the judgments that lead to this type of rebuttal, from a well respected Classicist of the “old guard,” O.A.W. Dilke (character assumptions, and their inherent fallacies, are entirely my own, made from his obituary.  The article is a part of the University of Chicago’s History of Cartography book, available in sections online):

“It would [therefore] be an oversimplification to characterize the Greek period of mapping as concerned solely with the larger theoretical questions of the size and shape of the earth, while assuming that Roman maps were exclusively practical.”

Those assessments are easily understood, however, in a brief overview of ancient cartography.  It is clear that the Greeks were concerned less with the practicality of maps and more with the structure of the cosmos and the planet.  The Romans needed their maps because they built so many roads-roads which they used for sustaining their military campaigns (first) and extensive traveling and commerce (second).

I think it is interesting to note that most of our actual “artifacts” are actually in the form of prose or verse descriptions.  Where you would love to see some marvelous artifact, you often get a lengthy quote describing what the map itself (may have) looked like. (see this article for pictures and quotes, which also has a segment of the Peutinger table and some of the few ancient maps we do have.  This is quite excellent as a general overview, found through a general fact finding mission Google search)  These descriptive quotes are often found in other contexts, especially speeches, where it can sometimes be hard to understand what is going on in these passages.  Whether or not you were in the Dream of Scipio class, you should try to understand or remember sections VI-VII, even in English (about a fifth of the way from the end of the page).

So, “it is – in the final analysis – a lack of maps rather than a shortage of hypotheses that is likely to continue to impoverish our answers to questions concerning the nature of classical maps, the process of their production, and their role and effect in contemporary society.”  (from the same article as the other quote from the History of Cartography, by O.A.W. Dilke)

This leads to the eternal historical yearning for all of the sources we could possibly imagine.  We can, and usually do, wish with all our souls that we had more sources.  We want access to everything from the library of Alexandria, more about Catullus’ book(s?) of poetry, Cicero’s complete works, the complete Peutinger table (Spain and Britain are lost form the surviving copy), the whole Forma Urbis Romae.  But alas, what we have is irrefutably incomplete, somewhat corrupted, and quite scattered.

What is interesting, therefore, is how we piece the fragments of the ancient world (physically) together.  What makes it doubly exciting and worthwhile is the fact that we are still living in the same physical world the Romans did!  Earth hasn’t really changed that much.  For example, with the city of Rome, we combine the textual descriptions (everything from description of the triumphal march to the locations of the Subura), surviving artifacts (like the Forma Urbis Romae), and any other obscure reference to try to get a complete picture.  We also have to work in the chronological evolution of the city- the textual descriptions may come from the Republic and the maps from the Empire.  In part II (the next post), I will explore this integration further and share some REALLY great virtual reconstruction projects.

Some source notes:  This was my google post.  I used it to begin a search for “ancient cartography,” in quotations so I could find the exact phrase, hopefully in some titles, articles, or pages related to the subject.  The article by James Muhly was a link in the first page of results, and was through the University of Pennsylvania’s Archaeology and Anthropology periodical, Expedition.  Lots of cool stuff there, if you’re looking.   The Peutinger Table and Forma Urbis Romae were also found using general google searches, with the operator site:edu.  The general google search for “ancient cartography” also brought me to the U Chicago book with the O.A.W. Dilke piece.  Of course, because of Google’s tracking habits and compulsion for predicting intent, my search results are probably different than yours.  In these searches, I also stumbled upon something called “the ancient world wide web,” a now defunct archive which lists some other sources I explored and may have irreverently referenced.  For some of the other preliminary research, I used dmoz and ipl2. All these sources were from respected institutions of higher learning, and the two authors do not present any red flags in searches and references.  They are both respected Classicists specializing in maps.  How awesome



7 thoughts on “Maps! Into the depths of oddly preserved history…

  1. Steve Maiullo

    This is a terrific post, Isabel. I learned a ton from reading it. Thank you so much for your research!

  2. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    Isabel, this is such a cool subject to research! You said that most of our “artifacts” come from prose descriptions, which I love love love! I’m curious to see how our current history texts different from ancient ones in terms of landscape description. Since everyone has GoogleMaps or something today, is there still a need for written descriptions of locations? Would someone in two thousand years have a good idea of what our cities looked like through text sources only? ~ A. Hoffman

  3. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    Allyson…I’ve been thinking about that. There is an idea that has been gaining popularity at least since I heard about it in the NYTimes in the Spring of 2011 (That fascinating snippet here: that humans are becoming less able to remember things-phone numbers, addresses, birthdays, Latin principle parts- because of the “Information Age” and its advancements. As an old person at heart, I like to memorize phone numbers and addresses because technology often fails disastrously (remember when the internet was down and we all had to do our online homework? Yeah…). I hope that our linguistic and descriptive abilities are not in decline because we can take pictures with our phones, which we have with us constantly. When we were in Rome, there were times when I decided not to take pictures (museums) so I would actually remember the things I saw rather than relying on pictures I took. Hopefully modern writers do not rely on the same things- oh, they may not know what the Pantheon looks like, but they’ll look it up and can find the column that I’m talking about…

    You could also go down the path of the decline of language skills, via twitter, texting, no more reading, etc. I find it lamentable, but part of the necessary evolution of languages.

    Here is an article about our memory adapting to technology- Basically, the modern human mind has decided that if we know where to find something, we don’t have to remember it- we just need to know where it is.

    Anyway…those are some supah-fast responses to you. Thanks for commenting. -Isabel

  4. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    Isabella, this is an excellent! While reading your post, I noticed one similarity between the ancient world and the modern world (more specifically–twentieth century America). Like the ancient Romans, we initially built our modern highway system for militaristic purposes as well. As the resident expert on roads, do you know if the majority of nations–ancient or modern–create their highway and road systems with their respective militaries in mind?

  5. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    This is cool! we talked for a while about the evolution of early maps of Africa in one of my econ. classes, and the findings were strange- early explorers did not have a great idea of what the coast looked like, and they had primitive measuring instruments. what they did know was what was happening on the inside of the mainland; where different tribes and cities were located. the information was silly some of the time, one part of africa being designated “land of the people with mouthes in their stomachs”, but much of it was useful. as instrumentation for cartography evolved, the coastline became more accurate, but so did their standards for information, so all of the information about rivers and cities in mainland of Africa disappeared. eventually it all caught up, and we have today’s maps. It makes one think about our standards for differentiating the truth from lies. it also makes one think about maps. thought my little tidbit was relevant. -Nathanus Huber

  6. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    Wow, amazing post! It’s so thorough in presenting information, while at the same time keeping readers engaged and offering analysis of your sources (which there are so many of that you made it easy for the curious reader to keep learning). I had never really thought about how we came to have the maps of the ancient world before; I always took it for granted that we could Google search ancient Rome and see the borders of the empire. Definitely intriguing to think about!

    -Elaina D.

  7. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    Isabel, great post! It’s interesting to think about the way we have acquired all of this information about our ancient ancestors, because I know that sometimes I tend to take this information for granted. It really takes a lot of people wanting to figure these things out in order for us to have them! Thanks for the insight, and I’ll keep in mind how much work went in to learning about these things, even though for us it seems like we just have them all at our fingertips.



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