by Doug Ward

Today we generally think of maps as having a particular set of practical uses. Maps tell us where a place is, how to get there, and how long the trip is likely to take.


However, maps can also have a number of other purposes. Among other things, a map may be a work of art, an advertisement, or a piece of political propaganda.


During my student days, one popular poster for dormitory walls was Saul Steinberg's "View of the World from Ninth Avenue," a New Yorker magazine cover from March 29, 1976. Ninth Avenue is pictured at the bottom of this cartoon poster. Then comes Tenth Avenue, a quarter of the way up the poster. Halfway up is a stretch of water labeled "Hudson River." Beyond that is a rectangle representing the rest of the United States, containing "Jersey", "Chicago", "Kansas City", "Texas", "Utah and Vegas", and "Los Angeles." A small sliver of Mexico appears to the left of this rectangle, and a bit of Canada to the right. Next comes the Pacific Ocean, and in the distance are thin mounds labeled "China", "Japan", and "Russia." The cartoon portrays the relative importance of New York in the overall scheme of things-at least in the minds of some New Yorkers.


More recently, the makers of Absolut Vodka created a stir in 2008 with a Mexican ad campaign. The ads featured a map of North America with pre-1848 borders, showing the territories that now comprise California and the southwestern United States as part of Mexico. The provocative map suggested that in an "Absolut world," Mexico would once again control those territories.


According to classical historian Richard Talbert, maps have always served a wide range of purposes and made a variety of statements. To discern what a particular map is trying to say, one should pay close attention to the details the mapmaker chose to include and the way in which those details are presented. In a lecture given at Miami University on September 20, 2010, Talbert devoted special attention to one remarkable example, an ancient Roman map of the known world.


Mapping Rome's Greatness

Talbert, the William Rand Kenan, Jr., Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, began his lecture by explaining that the leading mapmakers of the ancient Roman world were the Greek cartographers of Alexandria, Egypt. The Alexandrians took a scientific approach, carefully investigating the question of how to construct the most accurate two-dimensional representations of a three-dimensional world. Their work is exemplified by the Geographia of Claudius Ptolemy (second century A.D.), an extensive atlas that includes coordinates for some eight thousand places.


Rome made use of the work of the Alexandrians, but Roman mapmaking was concerned with more than scientific accuracy. The Romans wanted maps that would proclaim the stature and scope of their city and empire. For example, the Forma Urbis Romae, a map of Rome carved into 150 slabs of marble between 203 and 211 A.D., presented the features of the city in intricate detail. This huge map, measuring approximately 60 by 43 feet, was displayed on the outer wall of a library attached to the Templum Pacis ("Temple of Peace").1 Since the bottom of the map was situated twelve feet off the ground, it was not primarily designed to help visitors find their way around Rome. Rather, its purpose was to impress observers with the size of the city.


Similarly, maps of the Roman Empire would have expressed Rome's pride in the extent of its territory. This pride is clearly evident in a speech given by the orator Eumenius in 298 A.D., on the occasion of the rebuilding of a school at Augustodunum (today's Autun, France). In remarks addressed to the provincial governor, Eumenius spoke of the educational value of maps for the youth of the Roman Empire:


Furthermore, in these porticoes let the young people see and contemplate daily every land and all the seas and whatever cities, people, nations that the unconquered rulers either restore by affection, conquer by valour or restrain by fear. Since there are pictured in that place, as I believe you have yourself seen, in order to instruct the youth (so that they might learn more clearly with their eyes what they comprehend less readily by their ears), the sites of all locations with their names, their extent, and the intervening spaces, the sources and terminations of all the rivers, the curves of all the shores, and the Ocean, both where its circuit girds the earth and where its pressure breaks into it, ... . For now, at last it is a delight to see a picture of the world, since we see nothing in it that is not ours."2



The Peutinger Map

We are aware of only one Roman world map that has survived (via a medieval copy) to the present day. Judging from the place names on this map, it probably originated in the late third or early fourth century A.D.3 A parchment copy was made several hundred years later, probably around 1200 A.D. In the late fifteenth century this copy was discovered by Konrad Celtes (1459-1508), librarian of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. Celtes bequeathed it to his friend and fellow antiquarian Konrad Peutinger of Augsburg (1465-1547), for whom the map has come to be named. Since 1738 the Peutinger Map has been part of the collection of the Austrian National Library in Vienna.


Professor Talbert noted several distinctive features of the Peutinger Map. One key characteristic of this map is its ambitious scope. As we now have it, the map includes territory from eastern England all the way to Sri Lanka. It is clear, however, that the western end of the map, with the rest of the British Isles and the Iberian peninsula, is missing. The original map probably had its western boundary at the Atlantic Ocean. Red lines indicate the major Roman roads, some 70,000 miles of roads all together. Places linked by the roads are listed-over 2700 place names in all-with distances between "adjacent" locations on the roads indicated in Roman numerals.


Like most maps today, the Peutinger Map places north at the top and east to the right. But its dimensions are unusual, to say the least. It is estimated that if the missing left end of the map were present, it would be about twenty eight feet long. (Twenty two feet remain.) The map is, however, only about thirteen inches high. Talbert mentioned that one author in the 1960s referred to the Peutinger Map as "an absurd ribbon."


One way that the map's creator managed to include so many place names is by emphasizing land over water. Bodies of water-e.g., the Mediterranean Sea- are pictured by very thin strips, leaving more room to squeeze in roads and the cities through which they passed. Some places are also emphasized over others. In particular, Italy is situated at the center of the map and receives more space, for example, than the much larger territory of Persia to the east.


What was the original purpose of this unique map? Since it contains so much information about Roman roads, one popular guess is that the Peutinger Map was assembled as a reference for travelers, an ancient analogue of a modern subway map or Auto Club Triptik. Talbert believes that this theory is anachronistic, reading too much of today's pragmatic orientation toward maps back into Roman times. His own theory is that the original map, much like the Forma Urbis Romae, was intended primarily to highlight the vast extent of Rome's Empire and influence in the world. He envisions it as a wall hanging in an imperial palace, arranged so that Rome, at the center of the map, was strategically situated above the throne. He further speculates that the map originates from around 300 A.D., a time when Roman was regaining some control over its unwieldy Empire under the rule of Diocletian's Tetrarchy. In Talbert's view, the Peutinger Map expresses the kind of pride that was evident in Eumenius's oration.


Talbert is the author of a book about the Peutinger Map4 and has supervised the development of a new digital version of the map that can be studied in conjunction with the book. Scholars will be able to use these resources to make further progress in our understanding of the Peutinger Map.


Concluding Thoughts

It seems significant that only one Roman world map has survived to the present day. Despite Rome's pride in the size and greatness of its territories, the Roman Empire eventually went the way of all human empires. As Psalm 24:1 says, "The earth and everything in it, the world and all its inhabitants, belong to the Lord" (HCSB).


The extensive road system depicted in the Peutinger Map played a major role in events that followed Rome's heyday. Roman roads facilitated travel and communication, helping Christianity to spread throughout the world.


Like Rome, Christian Europe produced maps that were more concerned with communicating a message than they were with geographical accuracy. One example is the Hereford Mappa Mundi, a world map from thirteenth century England. In this map Jerusalem, rather than Rome, occupies the center position, and Paradise is at the top. Medieval maps like this one reflect a different, more lasting set of priorities.


1Today about ten to fifteen per cent of this map survives, in the form of 1186 fragments.


2Quoted by Benet Salway in "The Nature and Genesis of the Peutinger Map," Imago Mundi, Vol. 57, Part 2: 119-135.


3One important clue is the almost complete absence of Christian references in the map.


4Rome's World: The Peutinger Map Reconsidered, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Issue 26





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