The people of the Ancient world understood the world according to what they observed and what they learned through education and folk tales. While some cartographers and geographers made genuine and useful efforts to map territory, some scholars of the day simply filled in the blanks.
Surviving copies of maps created by Ancient Roman cartographers incorporate details that range from the impressive — but understandably inaccurate and incomplete — to the fantastical.
All maps of large territories created before air travel and spaceflight are bound to look imprecise when compared to modern examples.
When Rome contacted or conquered a new territory, cartographers did not have the advantage of a bird’s eye view or technologically advanced surveying equipment.
Still, the Romans managed to build an impressive network of roads and a system of aqueducts that surely required an impressive grasp of geography and topography as well as significant mapping skills.
Roman maps were largely practical
Though records of Roman cartography are scarce, scholars have noticed that when comparing Ancient Roman maps to their Greek counterparts, Romans were more concerned with the maps’ practical uses for military and administrative means and tended to ignore mathematical geography. Greeks, on the other hand, used latitude, longitude and astronomical measurements.
In fact instead of Greek maps, Romans preferred to rely on an old “disk” map of Ionian geographers as a basis for their needs.
A brief history of major Roman maps
The writings of Livy tell us that maps were set up in temples as early as 174 BC, including one of Sardinia placed on the island as a monument and later another of Italy on a temple wall in Tellus.
Porticus Vipsania: the public map of the world
Roman general, statesman and architect Agrippa (c. 64 – 12 BC) researched the known geography of the Empire and beyond in order to create the Orbis Terrarum or “map of the world”. Also known as the Map of Agrippa, it was placed on a monument called the Porticus Vipsania and was on public display in Rome on the Via Lata.
Engraved in marble, Agrippa’s map depicted his understanding of the entire known world. According to Pliny, though the map was based on Agrippa’s instructions and commentary, its construction was actually begun after his death by his sister and finished by Emperor Augustus, who sponsored the project.
The only previous known attempt at a world map was one commissioned by Julius Caesar, who employed four Greek cartographers to map the “four regions of the world”. However, the map was never completed and, like the Porticus Vipsania, is lost.
Strabo (c. 64 BC – 24 AD) was a Greek geographer who studied and worked in Rome. He completed Geographica, a history of the known world, which included maps, under the first half of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius (14 – 37) AD.
Strabo’s map of Europe is impressively accurate.
Considered the first Roman geographer, Pomponius Mela (d. 45 AD) is known for his world map as well as a map of Europe that rivalled Strabo’s in accuracy and detail. His world map, from around 43 AD, divided the Earth into five zones, only two of which are habitable, being the southern and northern temperate zones. The area between is described as impassable, as it is too hot to survive crossing.
Dura-Europos route map
The Dura-Europos Route Map is a fragment of a map that had been drawn onto the leather cover of a Roman soldier’s shield dating from 230 – 235 AD. It is the oldest European map that survives in original and shows the route of the soldier’s unit through Crimea. The name places are Latin, but the script used is Greek and the map includes a dedication to Emperor Alexander Severus (ruled 222 – 235).
A copy of a 4th century AD map of the road network of the Roman Empire, the Tabula Peutingeriana dates from the 13th century shows thoroughfares in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, Persia and India. The map highlights Rome, Constantinople and Antioch.