1 Greek and Roman Mapping, Georgia Irby

Greek and Roman Mapping

Georgia L Irby

College of William and Mary


In 1857 Harvard Professor of History Henry Torrey bemoaned the school’s dormant map collection: “History,” he said, “cannot be read to advantage without geographical apparatus and particularly good maps.” Maps have always been essential tools for the historian and political scientist, as we see in Strabo’s observation that such documents are useful to governors who can manage affairs better if they know the size of a country, lay of the land, and the peculiarities of sky and soil (Strabo 2.5.8).


Early modern initiatives in Classical cartography and geography parallel the scope and aims of the ancient disciplines, which were themselves a rich intellectual cocktail. The same questions were posed by scholars in Antiquity and of the Enlightenment. What is geography? Is it a “mixed” mathematical topic intersecting with natural philosophy, astronomy, cartography, and geology (as in Eratosthenes, Hipparchus, and Ptolemy)? Or is it the humanizing and humanistic oculus of history (as we see in Herodotus)? Or a political, military, and economic tool? (as in Strabo and Caesar) What are the aims of geography and cartography? To describe the physical earth or to elucidate the peoples on it? For what purposes do we study ancient cartography? For political and philosophical principles in order to establish “usable models” (as in the colonial Americas) or to elevate the taste of elite youth (as for the Society of the Dilettanti in 18th century England)? Like the ancients (especially Strabo who repressed scientific for human geography: 1.3.12), the moderns were concerned with enlivening the inherent tedium of “the dryness of geographical detail” by connecting it to more “agreeable” subjects, such as history, “which,” according to James Rennell, a founder of the Royal Geographic Society in 1830 (and, incidentally, the “father of oceanography”), “is the proper office of geography to explain.”


Today we have two aims: first, to survey the limitations of surviving evidence for maps as a form of record and communication in Greek and Roman culture, and second, to reflect on the evolution of more recent approaches to this material from the founding of the American Philological Association.


To begin at the beginning. Did the Greeks and Romans have and use maps as we understand them? A great deal of evidence suggests yes. Cartographic curiosity was widespread, as anyone who has read Herodotus or Thucydides, or Aeschylus or Vergil knows full well. And this evidence, when properly contextualized, helps to demonstrate how the ancient Mediterranean people understood the value and limitations of maps.


It had long been accepted that the earth was spherical, and in the second century bce, Crates of Mallos (ca 150 bce) produced a terrestrial globe to illustrate Odysseus’ travels. Crates’ globe was described and approved by Strabo (2.5.10), whose Geography is one of our richest sources for ancient cartography, as a more realistic rendering of the world since the globe, like the earth, is spherical. Ptolemy, like his predecessors, knew that the shape of the world would affect the deployment of a map, and thus, in the second century ce, he aimed to solve the problem of projecting a three-dimensional earth onto a two dimensional grid, where cartographic data quickly become distorted. Ptolemy also defined the art of cartography as “an imitation through drafting of the entire known world together with the things that are, broadly speaking, connected with it” (Geography 1.1.1). Ptolemy’s cartographic project was far from the first. It was, in fact, the culmination of cartographic inquiry that began with Homer (Strabo called Homer the “father of geography:” 1.1.11).


That a variety of maps were made and used in a range of contexts is not in doubt. These maps could be graphic or textual. In his will, Theophrastus requested that a physical world-map painted on wooden panels be displayed at the Lyceum (Diogenes Laërtius 5.51). And Apollonius of Rhodes refers to maps displayed on pillars in Aeëtes’ court at Colchis, “on which are all the roads and paths of the sea and land flowing all around” (Argonautica 4.729–781). In book three of the Aeneid, Vergil presents, essentially, a textual map (coasting guide or periplus) of the Mediterranean Sea. Maps could also be practical or symbolic. A cadastral mine plan, for example, survives from Thorikus east of Attica, etched above the entrance to silver mine #3 (Dilke 1985, 26). But the world map commissioned by Julius Caesar was intended as a symbolic show of Roman hegemony over the Mediterranean world in the first century bce. Caesar’s project was completed decades later by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, and it was prominently displayed in marble on the walls of the Portico of Vipsania, near the Ara Pacis. The Marble City plan (for which, see Professor Thill’s paper) was commissioned by Septimius Severus possibly to demonstrate the recovery of city and empire after a tumultuous period of civil war (Reynolds, 1997, 124–134).


The actual maps, however, rarely survive, and maps were almost never included in the manuscripts that have come down to us. But authors may have drawn maps to accompany their geographical tracts. Strabo praised Eudoxus for his skill in rendering figures. Thus, geometrically informed sketches may have accompanied his Circuit of the Earth (Dilke 1985, 26–27). And Eudoxus’ contemporary, the historian Ephorus of Cyme (405–330 bce), illustrated his arguments “with the help of the enclosed drawings” (see Dilke 1985, 27).


The first map of the Greek world is ascribed to Anaximander who may have drawn it to accompany his own Circuit of the Earth (sixth century bce). The terrestrial map may have been little more than an outline of the earth and sea, drawn on a painted pinax or bronze tablet (Diogenes Laërtius 2.1–2; Dilke 1985, 23). And we can only speculate on its details. We do not know the relative sizes of the land masses (were they equal?). Nor can we reconstruct the map’s center (Delphi, Delos, or Miletus, probably). Scholars also dispute the shape of Anaximander’s oikoumenē (was it a circle, a parallelogram, or a parallelogram inscribed within a circle?).


Nonetheless, the art of cartography flourished at Miletus and within half a century or so, as Greek trade and settlement expanded, accruing cartographical detail allowed Hecataeus of Miletus to produce a map that was “more accurate so that it became a source of wonder” (Agathemerus 1.1, third-fourth century; DK A6).


Map as artefacts quickly came to have political resonance. Herodotus painstakingly described a map owned by Aristagoras, tyrant of Miletus during the mounting tensions between the Greeks and Persians (5.36). In 499/98 bce, Aristagoras toured the Greek mainland aiming to secure allies against Darius I (Herodotus 5.36, 126). As a visual aid to persuade potential allies of the imminent danger of the Persian empire, Aristagoras employed a portable map which showed the lands between Laconia, Ionia, and Persia. As was typical, the map lacked any measurable scale. And when the Spartan king Cleomenes inquired about the length of the march between Sparta and Asia, Aristagoras replied “three months,” an ambiguous though standard length of measurement. Cleomenes did not deem the threat sufficiently imminent, and he eschewed the alliance.


Large‐scale maps were known at least by the fifth century. And they continued to serve as visual aids. Socrates used a map on public display in Athens to try to teach humility to Alcibiades who bragged about his own immense wealth and estates (Aelian, Historical Miscellany 3.28). Socrates first asked the statesman to find Attica, easy enough, and then his own fields, which, Alcibiades noted, were not on the map. Socrates then admonished his friend that he had no right to boast of estates “which are not even part of the earth.” Thus the Greeks understood the capacity of maps as instruments of persuasion and as analogies of political and social authority.


In Aristophanes’ Clouds 200–218, first produced in 423 bce during the Peloponnesian War, Strepsiades, an everyman Athenian farmer, toured Socrates’ “think-tank,” the so-called Phrontisterion, where a comically exaggerated Socrates lectured and where a map of the Greek world was displayed (likely inspired by the world map used by the historical Socrates in our previous anecdote). The map included Athens, Strepsiades’ deme, and even Euboea. When Strepsiades asked about the location of Sparta, he became alarmed at its proximity to Attica, and vehemently demanded that his student-guide move the enemy polis further away. Here, a map serves as an effective focal point of contemporary political anxieties.


The artefacts rarely survive, and those that do are liable to be far from complete, such as the Severan Marble Plan. Also, the fragmentary and poorly preserved Papyrus of Artemidorus of Ephesus’ Geography (the so-called Artemidorus Papyrus) seems to have been repurposed as an artist’s exercise book, with sketches of gods, humans, animals, and body parts. In addition to some text on the Iberian peninsula, the papyrus preserves an incomplete geographical map (Kramer 2001, 115) which renders a landscape and about 40% of the Iberian settlements including complex vignettes of larger settlements and several isolated solid rectangles that might indicate Roman way-stations, mansiones (Kramer 2001, 118). If the papyrus is authentic and its text and map are genuine—Canfora (2006) argues that it is a nineteenth‐century forgery—the Artemidorus map would then be the only regional Roman provincial map that has come down to us, apart from the Dura‐Europus parchment shield-cover (45 × 18 cm = 17.7 × 7˝), datable to just before 260 ce.


We now turn to the scholars who catalogued, translated, contextualized, and interpreted this large body of knowledge. 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 several men whose scholarship reflected their times, offering two-dimensional interpretations of the texts in light of the accepted political and social superiority of Greco-Roman culture, and focusing largely on “accuracy,” history, and politics, but showing little sensitivity to the nuanced, underlying themes inherent in the primary sources. E. H. Bunbury’s History of Ancient Geography (1879) was an important first step. Bunbury recognized the rich tradition of geographical texts in antiquity and also the lack of a systematic overview in English (the topic had been tackled in German by Ukert as early as in 1816). In two meaty volumes, Bunbury worked chronologically to tease out Greco-Roman geographical knowledge, a paradigm that was followed by Tozer (1897) and Thompson (1948). In 1934, E. H. Warmington helpfully marshalled primary evidence (in English) in his Greek Geography, noting the interstices of geography and cartography with many disciplines including cosmology, climatology, mathematics, and politics. By the 1950s, the primary sources received deeper scrutiny from the distinguished paleographer and textual historian Aubrey Diller whose Tradition of the Minor Greek Geographers was published by APA. With an exhaustive survey of the manuscripts and a fifty-plus page bibliography, Diller produced a much-improved and more complete edition that took into account manuscript variants and texts unknown to Karl Müller, editor of the same corpus in the 1850s. Diller’s prolegomena and commentaries on the Periplus of the Euxine Sea, Menippus, and pseudo-Scymnus remain useful.


A more open, culturally sensitive renaissance in cartography was begun by Brian Harley and David Woodward with their monumental History of Cartography (six volumes, eight tomes; the University of Chicago Press has made the first three volumes available online: https://www.press.uchicago.edu/books/HOC/index.html ). The first volume (1987) included an expanded version of O. A. W. Dilke’s Greek and Roman Maps (1985), which scrutinized wide-ranging evidence for ‘maps’ in a variety of contexts and sources. Thus were opened the floodgates to interpret the material within contemporary contexts and as sources that had profound potential “to advance understanding of past societies” (I quote from the introduction of Richard Talbert’s Cartography in Antiquity and the Middle Ages: Fresh Perspectives, New Methods, edited with Richard Unger, 2008, p. 2).


With this ‘turn’ since the 1980s, the very notion of what should be meant by a ‘map’ has shifted. Scholars are no longer (unprofitably) obsessed with the perceived “accuracy” or “comprehensivity” of ancient cartographic accounts. Research now focuses on conceptual and theoretical frameworks. As we have already seen, ancient cartography was a variegated tapestry of many intellectual threads, as shown in a number of recent surveys, handbooks, and companion volumes. In her slim Geography in Classical Antiquity (2012), Daniella Dueck approaches the material thematically with a focus on the primary trajectories of ancient Mediterranean geography: the widely accessible (and not necessarily fictive) ambit of descriptive geography; scientific and mathematical geography; and the cartographic or visual aspects (in a chapter by Kai Brodersen). Duane Roller’s 2015 survey Ancient Geography: The Discovery of the World in Classical Greece and Rome elicits the sense of wonder, excitement, and adventure that permeated Greco-Roman exploration and cartographic initiatives.


In the Routledge Companion to Strabo, edited by Daniela Dueck (2017), the trajectories of investigation include the ramifications of Strabo’s Stoicism (Myrto Hatzimichali), his literary style (Sarah Pothecary), and his approaches to ethnography and identity (Edward Dandrow). The topic of ethnography and identity is explored more fully in the 2016 Routledge Handbook of Identity and the Environment in the Classical and Medieval Worlds edited by Rebecca Futo Kennedy and Molly Jones-Lewis. Seven articles are categorized under the rubric of “Mapping ethnicity” that treat topics such as location and dislocation in early geography (Philip Kaplan), autochthony (Jacquelyn Clements), and astronomy as a cartographic principle in Ptolemy’s treatment of Arabia Felix (Joanna Komorowska).


Returning to Strabo’s Geography, in the wake of Stefan Radt’s German translation (2002-2011), Duane Roller’s 2014 page-turning translation and 2018 commentary are the first in English since Horace Leonard Jones’ seven volume Loeb set (1917-1932). Needless to say, Roller’s work brings Strabo into the twenty-first century, making him accessible to a new generation. Other fundamental writers have also received fresh translations and commentaries (Duane Roller on Eratosthenes: 2010; J. Lennart Berggren and Alexander Jones on Ptolemy: 2000). Further editions are in the pipeline under the auspices of the “Translated Texts from Antiquity” Series which is being spearheaded by Colin Adams at the University of Liverpool. These will include editions of Hanno and Avienus (Duane Roller) and a new translation and commentary of Pomponius Mela (by me, hopefully), which will update the European commentaries of the 1970s and 1980s [Italian (Parroni: 1984), French (Silberman: 1988), Spanish (Guzmán Arias: 1989), German (Graz: 1969), Swedish (Ranstrand: 1971)] and provide deeper analysis than the scant scholia in Romer’s 1998 translation of Mela.

New approaches are, moreover, brought to bear on understanding the frame, internal structure, shape, and size of the Greco-Roman oikoumenē. And new avenues are being interrogated for cartographic knowledge. Edited by Klaus Geus and Michael Rathmann (2013), Vermessung der Oikumenē presents nineteen articles that explore diverse and often fragmentary sources of cartographic knowledge, from coasting guides, infrastructure (Klaus Grewe on aqueducts), to military diplomata (Richard Talbert). Political and historical conceptions of space are probed in Katherine Clarke’s Between Geography and History: Hellenistic Constructions of the Roman World (1999). Also of note is the symbolic resonance of monumental maps, such as the Peutinger Map, the Severan Marble Plan, and the Arabic Book of Curiosities of the Sciences and Marvels for the Eyes (see Talbert and Unger 2008). In the 2016 Brill’s Companion to Ancient Geography Pietro Janni explores water-ways, including the Mediterranean Sea, the outer oceans, and rivers as cartographic principles [“The Sea of the Greeks and Romans”]; and Veronica Bucciantini tackles riverine expeditions [“Geographical Description and Historical Narrative in the Tradition of Alexander’s Expedition”]. In The Sea in the Greek Imagination (2016), Marie-Claire Beaulieu, furthermore, explores the sea as a cosmological boundary between the living and the dead, and the human and divine. Thus Ocean is recognized as a bounding principle in several registers, cartographic, ritualistic, and cosmogonic.


Finally, cartography in the literary tradition is also newly appreciated. I would be remiss to omit James Romm’s The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought, 1992, where he explores the literary and philosophical underpinnings of Greek and Roman geographical literature as grounded in Greek concepts of space. In Apollonius of Rhodes and the Spaces of Hellenism (2011), William G. Thalmann explores how space is construed by the Argonauts’ complex interactions with non-Greeks, as informed by the multicultural environment (and its concomitant anxieties about identity) that transformed the Greek understanding of their own culture and the world in the post-Alexander universe. In my own work, I explore the interstices between science and culture. In forthcoming book chapters I investigate the Chorography of Pomponius’ Mela as a declaration of the author’s cultural identity (Roman and Iberian), and I scrutinize the political manipulation of cartography in Euripides’ Ion, Apollonius’ Argonautica, and Vergil’s Aeneid.


We have here surveyed just a selection of the scholarship on Greco-Roman cartography (in English) that reflects recent approaches. Cartography mattered to thinkers in antiquity. For them and us, understanding the deployment of places and peoples helps to impose order on the world, and it also aids in reinforcing a sense of identity and cultural or social value. The sources are varied and broad-ranging, from historical and political, to documentary, to subtle and not-so-subtle nods in the standard literary corpus (Martial writes himself onto a literary map in Epigram 1.61; and Ovid has Odysseus drawing sketches of battle plans at Troy on Calypso’s beach: Art of Love 2.125-142). Understanding, contextualizing, and interpreting these data with sensitivity to the contemporary context helps to restore the totality of cartographic knowledge and inquiry in antiquity. What matters is not if Aeschylus misplaced Themiscyra or Salmydessus (Prometheus Bound 724-726), or if Vergil got the relative longitudes of Rome and Carthage wrong (Aeneid 1.13-14; see Strabo 2.1.40), but rather what questions they were asking and how ancient authors brought the evidence to bear on those queries. How did the ancient conception of cartography mold the cultural and social world-views of the Greeks and Romans? What does this body of evidence tell us about Greco-Roman values, prejudices, and their interactions with the ‘other’? How was cartography employed as a political or cultural symbol? New approaches open up that world, providing us with an exciting glimpse into how the ancients viewed their world, themselves, and each other.



Select Bibliography

Beaulieu, Marie-Claire, The Sea in the Greek Imagination (2016).

Berggren, J. L. and A. Jones, Ptolemy’s Geography: An Annotated Translation of the Theoretical Chapters (2000).

Bianchetti, Serena, Michele Cataudella, and Hans-Joachim Gehrke, eds. Brill’s Companion to Ancient Geography: The Inhabited World in Greek and Roman Tradition (2016).

Bunbury, E. H. History of Ancient Geography (1879).

Canfora, L., “Postilla Testuale Sul Nuovo Artemidoro,” Quaderni di Storia 64 (2006): 45–60.

Casson, Lionel, Travel in the Ancient World (1994).

Dilke, O.A.W., Greek and Roman Maps (1985).

Diller, Aubrey, The Tradition of the Minor Greek Geographers (1952).

Dueck, Daniela, ed. Routledge Companion to Strabo (2017).

Dueck, Daniela, Geography in Classical Antiquity (2012).

Geus, Klaus and M. Rathmann, Vermessung der Oikoumenē (2013).

Guzmán Arias, Carmen, trad. & notas. Corografia (1989).

Harley, J.B. and D. Woodward. Cartography in Prehistoric, Ancient, and Medieval Europe and the Mediterranean (1987): https://www.press.uchicago.edu/books/HOC/index.html

Heidel, W. A., The Frame of the Ancient Greek Maps (1937).


Irby, Georgia L., “The Politics of Cartography: Foundlings, Founders, Swashbucklers, and epic Shields,” in New Directions In Ancient Geography: Proceedings of the Association of Ancient Historians 14edited by Duane W. Roller, forthcoming.

Irby, Georgia L., “Tracing the orbis terrarum from Tingentera,” in New Directions In Ancient Geography: Proceedings of the Association of Ancient Historians 14edited by Duane W. Roller, forthcoming.

Irby, Georgia L., “Cartography,” in Georgia L. Irby, ed., A Companion to Science, Technology, and Medicine in Ancient Greece and Rome (2016), pp. 819-835.

Jones, H. L., transl., Strabo: Geography (1917-1932).

Katherine Clarke, Between Geography and History: Hellenistic Constructions of the Roman World (1999).

Kennedy, Rebecca Futo and Molly Jones-Lewis, Routledge Handbook of Identity and the Environment in the Classical and Medieval Worlds (2016).

Kramer, B., “The Earliest Known Map of Spain (?) and the Geography of Artemidorus of Ephesus on Papyrus,” Imago Mundi 53 (2001): 115–120.

Parroni, P., introd., ed. crit. e comm. a cura. Pomponius Mela De chorographia libri tres (1984).

Radt, Stefan (ed.), Strabons Geographika (2002-1011).

Ranstrand, G., ed. Pomponius Mela: De chorographia libri tres (1971).

Reynolds, D. W., Forma urbis Romae: The Severan Marble Plan and the Urban Form of Ancient Rome (1997).

Roller, Duane W., A Historical and Topographical Guide to the Geography of Strabo (2018).

Roller, Duane W., “Geography,” in Georgia L. Irby, ed., A Companion to Science, Technology, and Medicine in Ancient Greece and Rome (2016), pp. 247-262.

Roller, Duane W., Ancient Geography: The Discovery of the World in Classical Greece and Rome (2015).

Roller, Duane W., The Geography of Strabo: An English Translation with Introduction and Notes (2014).

Roller, Duane W., Eratosthenes’ Geography: Fragments Collected and Translated with Additional Material (2010).

Romer, Frank E., transl. and introd. Pomponius Mela’s Description of the World (1998).

Romm, James S., The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought (1992).

Silberman, Alain, texte établi, trad. & annoté. Pomponius Mela: Chorographie (1988).

Talbert, Richard J. A. and Richard Unger, eds., Cartography in Antiquity and the Middle Ages: Fresh Perspectives, New Methods (2008).

Talbert, Richard J. A., Rome’s World: The Peutinger Map Reconsidered (2010).

Thalmann, William G., Apollonius of Rhodes and the Spaces of Hellenism (2011).

Thomson, J. O., History of Ancient Geography (1948).

Tozer, H. F., A History of Ancient Geography (1897).

Ukert, F. Geographie Der Griechen Und Romer Von Den Fruhesten Zeiten Bis Auf Ptolemåus (1816).

Warmington, E. H., Greek Geography (1934).



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