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Greek and Roman Mapping

Georgia Irby

College of William & Mary

       The paper surveys the limitations of surviving evidence for maps as a form of record and communication in Greek and Roman culture, and reflects on the evolution of modern approaches to this material.

        That a variety of maps were made and used in a range of contexts is not in doubt. Anaxagoras was credited with creating the first map of the Greek world, and Hecataeus was praised for improving upon it (Agathemerus 1.1).  Herodotus described in detail a map of Aristagoras, tyrant of Miletus (5.36).  Aristophanes used a map of the Greek world as the set-up of an elaborate joke (Clouds 200-218).  Theophrastus bequeathed a world map painted on wooden panels for the Lyceum (Diogenes Laërtius 5.51).  Ephorus of Cyme illustrated his geographical arguments “with the help of enclosed drawings” (Cosmas Indicopleustes 2.80). Among Romans, Julius Caesar as dictator commissioned a world map that was eventually completed by his heir Augustus and displayed in marble on the walls of the Portico of Vipsania, near the Ara Pacis.  Strabo (2.5.8) observed that maps are useful to governors who can manage affairs better if they know the size of a country, lay of the land, peculiarities of sky and soil.  The writings of Herodotus, Thucydides, Caesar, Tacitus, and many others are rich with such details.

      The artefacts, nonetheless, rarely survive, and those that do are liable to be far from complete, such as the Forma Urbis Romae and the so-called Artemidorus Map.  The Peutinger Map has fared somewhat better, but may be more extreme in character than typical.  Until the 1980s modern understanding of ancient cartography was fragmentary, poorly balanced, and largely extrapolated, for example, from medieval interpretations of Ptolemy.  In English, groundwork was laid by E. H. Bunbury’s History of Ancient Geography (1879), H. F. Tozer’s A History of Ancient Geography (1897), E. H. Warmington’s Greek Geography (1934), J. O. Thomson’s History of Ancient Geography (1948), and Aubrey Diller’s The Tradition of the Minor Greek Geographers (1952).

       O. A. W. Dilke’s work straddled the renaissance generated by the more open, culturally sensitive approach to cartography begun by Brian Harley and David Woodward.  Much of Dilke’s Greek and Roman Maps (1985), which scrutinized wide-ranging evidence for ‘maps’ in a variety of contexts and sources, was expanded in his substantial contribution to volume 1 (ancient/medieval, 1987) of Harley and Woodward’s ongoing seminal History of Cartography.

       With this ‘turn’ since the 1980s, the very notion of what should be meant by a ‘map’ has shifted.  Scholars now look beyond the collection and transmission of texts and the reconstruction of artefacts to conceptual and theoretical frameworks.  Ancient cartography is seen as a potpourri of natural philosophy, mathematics, history, anthropology, ethnography, and politics, as in the Routledge Companion to Strabo (ed. Daniela Dueck, 2017).  Cartography in the literary tradition is newly appreciated (James S. Romm, The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought, 1992; William G. Thalmann, Apollonius of Rhodes and the Spaces of Hellenism, 2011). Fresh translations and commentaries are making the fundamental writers accessible as never before (Duane Roller on Eratosthenes and Strabo; J. Lennart Berggren and Alexander Jones on Ptolemy).  The shape and size of the Greco-Roman oikoumene are being interrogated (Klaus Geus and Michael Rathmann, eds., Vermessung der Oikumene, 2013), and geo-political and geo-historical conceptions of space probed (Katherine Clarke, Between Geography and History: Hellentistic Constructions of the Roman World, 1999).  More symbolic resonance is now found in monumental maps (Richard Talbert and Richard Unger, eds., Cartography in Antiquity and the Middle Ages: Fresh Perspectives, New Methods, 2008).  Prospects for the extension of such approaches are bright.

Session/Panel Title

Mapping the Classical World since 1869: Past and Future Directions

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