The oldest known map, from Babylonia, exists on a clay tablet and dates from around 2500 B.C. The ancient Greeks made the first scientific maps in the 500s B.C. The Greeks were interested in creating maps that accurately depicted the size and shape of the known world. The Romans, however, developed maps that had greater value for military and administrative purposes.

During the 500s B.C., the philosopher* Anaximander of Miletus created the first map of the inhabited world as it was known to the Greeks. The geographer Hecataeus, who was also a scholar from Miletus, improved upon Anaximander’s map. Hecateaus thought that the world was a disk and that all the land was surrounded by the river Oceanus. Hecataeus wrote a boon called Journey Around the World, in which he discussed the places and peoples he encountered on a sea voyage along the shores of the Mediterranean and Black seas. Although the Greek historian Herodotus relied on this work when he wrote his Histories, he criticized both Anaximander’s and Hecataeus’s depictions of the earth as being simplistic and naive.

The Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who also lived in the 500s B.C., believed that the earth was a sphere, and by the 300s B.C., most Greek scholars accepted this concept. The philosopher Aristotle provided six different arguments supporting the idea of a spherical earth. His student, Dicaearchus, mapped the Strait of Gibraltar (at the western end of the Mediterranean Sea) and the Himalayas (a mountain range in Asia), both at a similar latitude. He also assumed the existence of an eastern ocean.

In the 200s B.C., Eratosthenes, the head of the Library of Alexandria, used the longitude and latitude of places to determine their distances from each other. Using these figures, he made a remarkably accurate map. Eratosthenes also made a fairly accurate calculation of the circumference of the earth. The Hellenistic* astronomer Hipparchus criticized these measurements and made detailed corrections to Eratosthenes’ map.

In the A.D. 100s, Ptolemy, the mathematician, astronomer, and geographer, created maps that he included in his eight-volume Geography. Ptolemy’s map of the world extended from Thule (probably in the Shetland Islands near Scotland) to Africa south of the equator. Although Ptolemy’s maps contained errors, they were the basis for the maps that were produced over the next few centuries. Ptolemy’s most glaring error concerned the location of Asia. On Ptolemy’s map, the continent of Asia stretched farther east than it actually does. In the late A.D. 1400s, Christopher Columbus used maps based on those of Ptolemy, and when he landed in the Caribbean, he believed that he was actually in Asia.

The greatest advancement in cartography (mapmaking) in ancient Rome was made as a result of Roman military policy. Roman generals surveyed the lands they conquered, and Roman mapmakers used information derived from road construction to make accurate maps of the empire. Surveyors marked off landholdings in each province*, and maps delineating these landholdings were displayed in the forum* of each city. An official map of the Roman Empire—in effect, a map of the entire Mediterranean basin—was prepared during the reign of the first emperor, Augustus.Its creator was Marcus Agrippa, Roman general and administrator and most trusted friend of Augustus. The map was displayed on one of the main gates to the city of Rome so that all visitors could see at a glance the full extent of the empire. (See also Astronomy and Astrology; Geography and Geology, Mediterranean.)

* philosopher scholar or thinker concerned with the study of ideas, including science

* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.c,

* province overseas area controlled by Rome

* forum in ancient Rome, the public square or marketplace, often used for public assemblies and judicial proceedings


One of the most famous maps in the ancient world was the Forma Urbis Romae. Engraved on 151 slabs of marble, the Forma Urbis Romae depicts the city of Rome as it existed in the early A.D. 200s. The map adorned a wall in the Temple of Peace in Rome. Only a portion— about 10 percent—of the map remains, providing scholars with valuable information about life in the ancient city.

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