Ancient History & Civilisation


Mapmaking in antiquity, as in so many other periods, has attracted more intense interest than ever during the past quarter century. This exciting, fresh engagement is a broad one, embracing the character, scope, and roles of maps in societies everywhere. The ongoing transformation of contemporary mapmaking capacities stemming from the digital revolution has added to the momentum. Stimulus has also come from the heightened value currently attached to interdisciplinary studies: the history of cartography is, after all, nothing if not interdisciplinary. No less beneficial has been scholars’ widespread acceptance of the view that the objects to be regarded as “maps” in premodern societies encompass a far wider, more varied range than a strict definition of the term for today would be likely to allow. A pre-modern map need not necessarily be a factual document produced in conformity with certain widely recognized norms; equally, to evaluate it against inflexible modern criteria rather than in relation to the culture in which it was embedded is likely to prove inappropriate, even counterproductive. As is well known, such a looser definition and more sensitive approach were launched by Brian Harley and David Woodward. “Maps,” proposes Harley in the introduction to volume 1 (1987) of their ongoing History of Cartography, “are graphic representations that facilitate a spatial understanding of things, concepts, conditions, processes, or events in the human world.”

This ambitious, pathbreaking first volume of the History of Cartography took prehistoric, ancient, and medieval Europe and the Mediterranean as its scope. Inevitably, the expert contributors whom Harley and Woodward needed to recruit from among the handful of specialists then available had long been committed to older approaches, and they struggled with mixed success to fulfill their revisionist editors’ pressing call for greater openness and contextualization (see Talbert 2008). Despite these limitations, however—indeed almost because of them—there is no question that this 1987 volume has achieved the status of a touchstone. It is an indispensable synthesis, marking a vital shift to fresh approaches and stimulating a rush of productive new studies which still continue to appear. The prediction that, whenever a second edition is commissioned, its emphases and perspectives are sure to be substantially altered in the light of the impact made by its forerunner should be taken as a handsome and well-deserved compliment.

Twenty years on from 1987, the Newberry Library’s decision to make antiquity the focus of the sixteenth series of the Kenneth Nebenzahl, Jr., Lectures in the History of Cartography furnished the ideal opportunity to offer a rich sense of current approaches and understanding. The seven lectures as published here are designed for a wide (not narrowly specialist) readership, and their conjectures, claims, and conclusions are offered without false confidence. Good scholarship is always a work in progress, and while views articulated in 2007 may well be an advance on established opinion, they in turn are sure to be modified further over time. In recognition of how much coverage a single series can meaningfully accommodate, the library’s choice to confine the 2007 lectures to antiquity was sound. Even so, a series still offered sufficient scope for the interrelated civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome all to be included—in that order—over a span of approximately two and a half millennia. To invite such inclusiveness is especially valuable because so few serious attempts have been made to address mapping within these four civilizations together.

Single lectures were given on mapping in Mesopotamia and Egypt by Francesca Rochberg and David O’Connor, respectively. For Greek mapping, Georgia Irby first surveyed initiatives from Homer to Eratosthenes, that is, from earliest times to the third century BCE. Alexander Jones then discussed the intellectual background and outlook which led Ptolemy in the second century CE to theorize about making a world map based on Eratosthenes’s framework. Michael Lewis discussed the instruments, techniques, and achievements of both Greek and Roman surveyors with special reference to the planning of roads, aqueducts, and tunnels. My own lecture argued that, for all its quality, the cartography of the two large Roman display maps best known to us was only a foundation that each designer in turn had determined to subordinate and exploit for the promotion of Roman imperial power and values. In the final lecture Benet Salway examined texts of many different kinds as a means of gaining a more distinct impression of how Romans and other inhabitants of their empire used maps (if at all), constructed “mental maps” of it, and oriented their worldview.

To be sure, our endeavors have brought both frustrations and rewards. Outstanding among the former is the sheer unevenness of the survival of maps, map-like images, and writings about cartography. Of the different materials used, clay has in fact survived best. As Rochberg explains, so many maps on cuneiform clay tablets from Mesopotamia are known that she could not possibly discuss them all. At Tell el Amarna, an archive of cuneiform clay tablets has been recovered from the brief period when the city was Egypt’s royal capital. Elsewhere in Egypt to date, there has been so little archaeological investigation of settlement sites (as opposed to temples or tombs) that the degree to which even Egypt’s elite used maps still remains obscure for lack of evidence. It is true that by contrast quasi–“world maps” survive there as large, highly visible features on external wall faces of temples; even so, O’Connor cautions, there can only have been limited access to such images, because Egyptian temples were set within walled enclosures to which entry was carefully controlled.

The loss of so much Greek geographic writing and the maps associated with it, while far from exceptional when measured against such losses as a whole, leaves us with a patently inadequate grasp of the successive formative contributions to cartography made above all by early Ionian thinkers, as well as later by Eratosthenes, Hipparchus, and Marinus. Too often such knowledge as we can recover about them must be gleaned from hostile critiques by later authors, Strabo and Ptolemy especially. Indeed, we would not know of Marinus at all but for Ptolemy’s attacks on him, which (ironically) betray how much Ptolemy in fact owed to him. Fate has seen to it, however, that Ptolemy’s Guide to Geography survives complete, while Marinus’s work—both writings and maps—is utterly lost.

In the Roman case, the major losses include the means to reconstruct the design of the surveyor’s deceptively simple tools, the groma and the libra (for horizontal and vertical planes, respectively), from either texts or images, let alone from the recovery of sufficient parts of an actual example. For this reason among others, as Lewis demonstrates, we can only speculate about how the astonishingly straight alignments of Roman roads over such long distances were achieved, or how aqueduct channels were laid out and graded to ensure reliable delivery of water from faraway sources. Lost, too, with no hope of recovery are all large Roman display maps beyond fragments of several inscribed on stone and a not quite complete medieval copy of another—the so-called Peutinger map—drawn on parchment (which need not have been the material used for the original). Most frustrating is the loss of the famous large map commissioned for display in Rome by Agrippa at the end of the first century BCE. We are consequently incapable of gauging either how it represented Rome’s new domination of the entire Mediterranean and far beyond or the degree to which the underlying framework of its physical landscape reflected the cartographic advances made by Eratosthenes and his successors in Alexandria. Our difficulty in tracing connections and influences in this instance is indeed only one case among others more serious. Earlier, too, we must be right to imagine that Ionian thinkers’ ideas about worldview and mapping were stimulated by contact with the Near East and Egypt, and that the same applies in the case of Greek techniques for surveying and tunneling. However, the means to achieve more nuanced insight into how such influences were transmitted and adapted is still to be found.

Ever since its rediscovery in the Renaissance, Ptolemy’s Guide to Geography has been admired and valued for its proud commitment to “unpolitical” precision and comprehensiveness as well as for its preoccupation with projection, so that the maps made following its instructions should actually acquire the appearance of part of the globe. Ptolemy brought to the cartography of the globe a philosophy and certain key principles developed for his earlier compilation of a star catalog; that task no doubt held stronger appeal for him, because he considered astronomical measurement more secure than terrestrial. By formulating and applying a further set of theoretical principles, he sought to create a world map that was an exclusively geometric, scientific object. As Jones underlines, it reduced the location of principal physical features, settlements, peoples, and regions to nothing more than a set of coordinates which were in practice less accurate than they might appear. Ptolemy’s distillation of geographic data in this form marks the culmination of efforts by Eratosthenes in the third century BCE to calculate the earth’s circumference, to create a system of coordinates for it, and to subdivide its known, inhabited part (the oikoumene) into distinct regions (“seals,” sphragides). Already in the fifth century Greek thinkers had reckoned both the cosmos and the earth within it to be spherical and had envisaged its division into five symmetrically balanced zones (one of them being the oikoumene), a concept which was to remain current through the Roman period and later.

Despite these remarkable Greek scientific initiatives, with their purpose of comprehending and representing both the earth and the heavens, it would seem justifiable to claim that throughout antiquity most people’s engagement with maps—if they had any at all—was seldom likely to extend beyond the local level, where plans of landholdings, buildings, cities, mines, and the like were produced and consulted. This said, once Rome expanded and consolidated its control of much of Europe, North Africa, and the Near East, many educated Romans and others within the empire do appear to have gained some sense of its overall shape and of the relative locations of its provinces and principal cities. Salway reveals how we may infer as much from close attention to what the presentation of official Roman documents of various kinds takes for granted, likewise that of the itineraries commonly consulted for land travel. Just by what means this emerging “mental map” of the empire as a whole and its major components was acquired, however, remains an intriguing puzzle awaiting further investigation.

Egypt and Rome stand out as the two societies which each in their individual ways developed the exploitation of maps or maplike images for purposes that reduce any practical function to secondary significance. In particular, designers in both these societies grasped the potential for projecting their state’s power through cartography. Accordingly, maplike images form a striking feature of Egyptian temple art that celebrates victories won by a ruler, distant expeditions, and even control of the world. In one notably imaginative scene on the external face of the north wall of the great hypostyle hall of the Karnak temple in Thebes, the imperial god Amun-Re leads to the king Seti I a list—tethered by a rope—of topographical names that together (from Egypt’s perspective) constitute the world’s foreign lands and peoples. A Roman designer with comparable wall space at his disposal inside a hall in a temple complex had the vision to grasp the impact that could be achieved by inscribing there an assemblage (“mosaic” in modern cartographic terminology) of the surveyors’ official large-scale plans for the city of Rome in its entirety at ground level. No human viewer would ever be able to examine all the detail reproduced there close-up (though a god could—the kind of consideration that may have occurred to Egyptian designers too). Even so, the general impression of power, pride, “civilization,” and control made upon human viewers by the huge city presented thus must have been nothing less than awesome.

Comparable in imagination, but altogether more radical in its design, is the Peutinger map of the known world under Roman sway. There can be little doubt (as I argue in chap. 6) that its designer relies in the first instance upon a physical landscape base of the type developed by Eratosthenes. He has the temerity to distort it massively, however, so as to fit the vast span from the Atlantic to India within a most elongated, but squat, frame, one that moreover features the city of Rome as its center point! In consequence, seas are contracted, landmasses remolded, and (perhaps a further innovation) land routes traced throughout the empire and beyond to the east. Cartographically informative the bizarre result may still be in some respects, but its main aim is rather to project Roman values through a cartographic image—pride in peace, for example, urbanization, order, inclusiveness, ease of communication.

It emerges clearly that in none of the civilizations encompassed by this volume was there much development of uniform standards or expectations for maps. That is hardly a surprise, perhaps, given how little standardization there ever was in any aspect of ancient life. Even so, it is a fundamental insight to keep in mind, given our predilection for expecting “progress” and our tendency to assume too readily that many modern standards were also applied in the past. With reference to Mesopotamia, Rochberg delivers an important caution: “Extant cuneiform maps cannot be considered to constitute a coherent tradition of cartography in which a continuous evolution of mapping techniques or even conceptions of the map itself are evident over time” (p. 13). Indeed, none of the languages used by the civilizations featured in the volume is known to have settled upon a term which unequivocally signified “map” as we would understand one; instead, broader terms, which had to be interpreted in context, continued to be used. The very concept of a map remained loose, therefore, and we must be prepared to consider that the purpose for which one was made may not necessarily correspond to the obvious in the eyes of the modern observer—as in the case of the Turin papyrus map from Egypt. There were no equivalents either to the abstract “cartography” or to the collective “atlas” (nineteenth- and sixteenth-century formulations, respectively, in fact); attestation of groups or sets of maps is in any case minimal. Mass production of identical copies of any complex map was in effect impossible. Antiquity lacked the means to measure time or distance with precision, as well as universally adopted units in which to record the latter in particular. Irby reminds us that even the length of the “stade” which Eratosthenes chose as the unit for recording his calculation of the earth’s circumference is not certain (there were several Greek “stades,” of differing lengths).

Cultural values, too, might impose restraint. These civilizations seldom placed a high premium on exploration, say, or on aggressive expansion of trading markets, nor were their religions (before Christianity) strongly motivated to proselytize. In the case of Egypt, moreover, O’Connor observes that the functions and “decorum” of temples and tombs “would militate against the depiction or inclusion of topographically accurate maps or plans in our modern sense” (p. 49). Elite Greek and Roman education always remained unavowedly rhetorical and literary, rather than artistic or scientific. It is true that the cartography of Eratosthenes and Ptolemy favored the northern orientation (north at the top of the map) familiar today, but Salway’s discussion leaves no doubt that a variety of alternatives continued to be preferred without comment or apology by other mapmakers and writers throughout the Roman period. Even in official documents there was no standard sequence to adopt in referring to the three continents (Asia, Europe, Africa) or in describing the principal regions or provinces of the Roman empire. For the latter purpose, it may be added, it was far from typical to begin from Rome itself; rather, for many Romans the Mediterranean Sea evidently became the pivotal feature in their worldview. Altogether, however, readers of texts and viewers of images would not have expected adherence to any set of norms of the modern type. By the same token, they cannot have been deterred or offended by the need to interpret a variety of differing perspectives; still less would they expect a map to include a “key” that explained symbols or linework styles or colors.

Except at the most local level, a high degree of geographic accuracy was not normally expected of maps. Rather, they were valued more as consciously selective aids to the efforts made by users to comprehend their place within larger and bewildering surroundings, not just the earth, but also the heavens and often an imaginary underworld. It need be no surprise that ancient mapmakers typically situated the area of their own people at the center of their presentations. Ptolemy’s exceptional decision not to do this, but instead to present the world comprehensively in a scientific, “unpolitical” manner, reflects unusual detachment and confidence. Typically, too, in the minds of most users, maps were only one among several means by which they developed their worldview, and to them (unlike us) not even necessarily the most important means. Here the present volume with its chosen focus on maps inevitably falls short. Salway’s contribution acts as a reminder that for a fuller understanding careful account must also be taken of texts and lists of all kinds. In particular, there is no question that an alert reading of Greek and Roman authors can uncover much about their worldview—among major ones, for example, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius, Julius Caesar, Pliny the Elder, Pausanias, and Ammianus Marcellinus. Research of this type has already proven very rewarding, but there is more to be done and the results are sure to be revealing.

At the same time, to hope for discoveries of fresh material is far from unrealistic. The so-called Artemidorus papyrus, only published in full in 2008, includes a substantial contemporary specimen of cartography recovered from classical antiquity, a find of extraordinary value despite all the controversies to which it predictably gives rise (Brodersen and Elsner 2009). The most fervent hope must be for the emergence of finds that will illuminate ancient Egyptian mapmaking. In the meantime Rochberg’s contribution leaves no doubt that the surviving record of mapmaking in ancient Mesopotamia—an amazingly creative and diverse range of accomplishment from the local to the cosmic, with a strong religious impulse—is at present quite unmatched for any of the other civilizations discussed. It is only fitting, therefore, that her most instructive contribution should open the volume.

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