A New Edition of Peutinger’s Roman Map

Detail of the Peutinger Map, Segment 5, image © 2004, AWMC

‘Peutinger’s’ map, as it is called — with its extraordinary 22 x 1 ft shape — survives as a priceless, yet isolated, curiosity, and treasured possession of Austria’s National Library, Vienna. It is seemingly a mediaeval copy of a Roman original (missing the western end), but we possess no other map from classical antiquity that even remotely matches its achievement. Land routes stretching all the way from Britain across Europe, North Africa and Western Asia are among its most remarkable and colorful features, and hence some part of the map is a regular choice of illustration for books on Roman civilization. Despite the general familiarity of the image, however, few people have troubled to ‘read’ it, and even those few have typically limited their attention in a very localized way to the aspect which dominates the one full study ever made — namely, the extent to which the routes and distances shown are an accurate reflection of attested conditions on the ground. Moreover this study, entitled Itineraria Romana and published as long ago as 1916 by the amateur scholar Konrad Miller, is now hopelessly outdated; but still no-one has yet dared to address the map from any other perspective. Most recently (since the late 1980s), the broad debate concerning Roman ‘map consciousness’, or the lack of it, has acted as an additional deterrent to novel lines of enquiry. The very influential current view (urged most fully by Kai Brodersen in his Terra Cognita, 1995) downplays Roman engagement with maps, and conveniently sets Peutinger’s aside by classing it as no more than an itinerary diagram ‘decorated’ with physical landscape features.

My aim is to rescue the map from this barren, unmerited predicament, to read it afresh more critically with the support of up-to-date scholarship and technology, and to put forward answers to fundamental new questions about its design, purpose, and impact. I reinterpret the map as no longer just a handy Roman AAA TripTik, but instead as an inventive cartographer’s layered tour de force, which taps not only an accomplished mapmaking tradition but also a sensitive awareness of Late Antique taste. As a result, there will be reason to reconsider the entire character, sources and range of Roman map production, the uses to which such material was put, and its subsequent influence far into the Middle Ages. Above all, Peutinger’s map is no longer consigned to limbo, but at last acquires a political, and even physical, context in the cultural mainstream. See further in this connection my contribution “Cartography and taste in Peutinger’s Roman map,” to R. Talbert and K. Brodersen (eds.), Space in the Roman World: its Perception and Presentation (LIT, Münster, 2004).

Lack of a definitive modern atlas of the classical world has been a persistent hindrance to a full grasp of the Peutinger map’s extensive coverage. This major obstacle has finally been overcome by my Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World (Princeton, 2000). In addition, the practicality today of creating an e-book now makes it feasible and economical (as it is not in print) to present a cumbersome 22ft-long document which was specifically designed to be ‘read’ as a single, seamless creation. Scanned images and digitization enable me to offer a detailed entry for every physical feature, route stretch, and name marked (several thousand in all), as well as to deconstruct the cartographic production process and successive copyists’ changes. Overall, my presentation of data and analysis of it are intended to be accessible to everyone engaged by Roman history and culture, as well as by cartography and by universal questions of how (and why) humans conceptualize and represent their wider surroundings. In many respects this electronic edition will be a challenging revelation that stimulates reappraisal of traditional thinking across a range of disciplines. This presentation is being co-ordinated with a more concise presentation in print being prepared by E. Albu and R.W.B. Salway for the Translated Texts for Historians series (Liverpool).