Tag Archives: ancient cartography

Mapping: NEW and IMPROVED

We know that the Romans made maps.  We know what a few of them physically look like, and we know, indirectly, the general scheme of many others, through textual descriptions.  These are remarkable on their own, sharing with us the ancients’ visualization and understanding of their globe.  We also have a pretty good sense from engravings, ruins, and archaeology of what some parts of the empire looked like.  But we seem to be preoccupied with developing modern maps of the historical Roman Empire further, and having these available on the web.  There are tons of articles, sites, and blogs devoted to the exploration of how we piece together artifacts and archaeology, and how we visualize this information.  We can talk about Classics, we can blog about it, we can immerse ourselves in its words, and now we can take virtual tours of it!  Of course these are not exactly like wandering the streets of ancient Rome, but they are pretty close.  They allow us to be stunned by the size of the Pantheon, the height of Trajan’s column, and the sheer vastness of the empire and its connections. 

There are some cool projects that explore the connectivity of societies and geographical areas. (For a modern one, check this out.  I saw it on Lydia’s Facebook, but it came from NPR’s “Krulwich Wonders” series.)  It is really intriguing to think about geography in terms of the actual relationships between people and places, not the arbitrary borders drawn by the ruling global powers.  If you’ve ever taken a history or political science class, you should be familiar with the dilemmas presented when trying to match up the nation and the state (for example, Japan is easy, but Iraq is hard.).  For this reason, maps that are more than just visualizations of arbitrary and familiar borders are much more interesting.  

Considering this new form of mapping, I began to wonder about the purpose of maps. Begun as a way to travel (accurately and efficiently) and visualize vast areas of land and sea, maps were essentially a way to convey knowledge of places and their peculiarities.  Maps probably, then, began as an ancient form of the World Wide Web.  By that I mean that they were once the portable, accessible, understandable, and sometimes intuitive resource for passing along information and keeping track of it.  There were different ways to visualize this information (Peutinger table vs. google earth), find the information itself, and organize it all.  Some maps were specific; others were general.  Anyone could make and use a map (depending on the scale and desired level of accuracy, of course).  With arbitrary borders, maps were a way the empire, or whatever global power existed at the time, expressed this power.  Intentionally inaccurate maps were ways to manipulate the populace.  Just like the internet has grown in scope, complexity, and pertinence, so have maps.  Modern maps now present the ancient world AND every imaginable facet of the modern world (cell phone calls, flow of currency, etc.), in all kinds of ways-3-D, super detailed, you name it.  Each has evolved into a somewhat nebulous and entirely diverse collection, for which the world’s civilization is indebted.  And now, all these maps are accessible through the internet!

So, here is, in essence, a collection of the sites that lead me to these thoughts.  Pretty much my Top-Ten list for digital maps related to the Classical world, in no particular order, and likely with glaring omissions:    

Here is the Digital Roman Forum, the Rome Reborn project (of the university of Virginia), Aquae Urbis Romae (also from Virginia)and a site devoted to Trajan’s Column (part of the STOA project for digital humanities resources, started at the University of Kentucky, but now covering and encompassing a whole lot more! If this had been my starting point for this blog, I probably would have been so fascinated by everything they compile that I never would have completed a post. The Pleiades project is also through STOA.).  They are all incredible sites, and I really hope you check them out.  I had to share these three because of their sheer impressive collections of knowledge.  They also present some different ways of organizing and making this information searchable.  The Digital Roman Forum  (a project of UCLA) is searchable by geographical location, year, or keyword.  Other sites use only keywords, or only years.  This whole blogging project has made me think a lot about how we find, use, store, and share information with the internet as a primary tool.  If you had an unlimited supply of neurons and synapses, I would wager you’d spend many of them absorbing some of this information.  

This site has a very high quality set of images of the Peutinger table.  I think it’s fascinating!  I can’t get over it.  You should look at this site, and maybe you’ll get as excited as I am.  It is FANTASTIC.  Maybe it’s just a novel idea to me, maybe it’s just really cool and old, maybe this is just a cool site with great resources.  Check it out.  I’m obviously biased towards this site and the Peutinger Table, but that doesn’t make this resource any less valid.  

For similar reasons, this site with the Forma Urbis Romae fragments is interminable.  I didn’t mention in the last post, but it also talks about how researchers are using computer science algorithms to determine convergence between roads and fill in the missing areas of the map.  If you’ve been to Rome, I’m not sure you can fit algorithms to its roads, but they have apparently found it useful and are continuing to explore it.  

The Digital Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilizations has some cool layering features.  I haven’t quite figured out how to utilize it fully, but it looks like a really vast valuable resource.  It is put out by Harvard, and maintained by various people there, so any extreme viewpoints are likely to be quashed.  

Stanford University’s ORBIS site allows you to fiddle around with itineraries and travel plans throughout the empire.  You can do it based on speed, mode of travel, and cost (which was the most important).  This site is super fun to mess around on and explore- and makes you feel even more like a Roman!

The Pleiades site is full of information, and presents some interesting ways of citing, categorizing, and approaching the gazetteer or atlas.  It is also community built, which makes for astounding diversity in the links it presents. You can also search the site in numerous ways: by place, category, name, etc. Super neat.

I ran across this Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative, which combines numerous sources and mapping tools into one.  It seems to be some kind of “deep web” search tool, where one can discover other resources.  Think back to our first two Library sessions.  

And, finally, there is Lacus Curtius.  This post, and this blog, for that matter, would probably not be complete without what L.J. Swain, formerly of WMU’s Medieval Institute, calls “simply the dream of the web fulfilled.”  I think he sums it up pretty well.  I’ve gone down the deep dark hole of following the links every time I’ve looked at this site.  There is just so much information here.  I hope you enjoy it.  Heck, you might even be able to use it in your own blog!  


Source Notes:

Pleiades and ORBIS were mentioned on Sarah Bond’s post on PhDiva, but I found them when I was researching the last post.  I also found many of these sites by searching the Rogue Classicist Blog for “mapping,” “virtual ancient Rome,” and “ancient cartography.”  I came across Lacus Curtius and this site through a dogpile search for “ancient cartography” or “virtual ancient map.”  This also lead me to the “Rome Reborn” site, which presents a nice list of other resources, including the Digital Roman Forum, Aquae Urbis Romae, and Lacus Curtius. The site just linked had most of the other resources I found, including Orbis, the Electronic Cultural Atlas, and the Forma Urbis Romae site.   Because so many of these sites were from educational institutions and linked to each other they appear fairly reliable.  More searching for the names and reputations of these people and sites did not turn up anything alarming.  


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