Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.10.63 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.10.63

Richard J. A. Talbert (ed.), Ancient Perspectives: Maps and their Place in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The Kenneth Nebenzahl, Jr., lectures in the history of cartography.   Chicago; London:  University of Chicago Press, 2012.  Pp. ix, 264.  ISBN 9780226789378.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by Félix​ Racine, McGill University (


The present volume collects papers delivered at the Sixteenth Kenneth Nebenzahl, Jr., Lectures in the History of Cartography held in Chicago in 2007, convened under the theme ‘Cartography of the Ancient Mediterranean World’. Significantly, this series of lectures coincided with the twentieth anniversary of the publication of the first volume of J.B. Harley and David Woodward’s History of Cartography, a revolutionary publication that has changed the study and conceptualization of pre-modern maps in the English-speaking world. 1 Ancient Perspectives thus seeks, at least in part, to reevaluate our knowledge and understanding of ancient cartography. It is aimed as a general scholarly audience rather than specialists of ancient geography, but the wealth of evidence and interpretations will be of interest to specialists and non-specialists alike.

The material is divided between contributors along broadly coherent cultural and technical traditions: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome. This periodization has the advantage of highlighting continuing independent cartographic traditions in the Roman Empire, namely Egyptian religious mapping (the ‘Book of the Fayum’, chap. 3) and Greek world cartography (e.g. Ptolemy, chap. 4). At the same time, this rather traditional division of the subject matter minimizes cross-cultural influences and obscures cartographic traditions less well represented in the literary and archaeological record, e.g. those of Persia (mostly lost but influential for early Islamic cartography), Syria-Palestine (especially Jewish cartography) and early Christianity.

More individual maps survive from Mesopotamia than from any other ancient culture surveyed. This set of evidence is skillfully synthesized by Francesca Rochberg, who surveys a varied material: building plans, field surveys, city maps, regional maps, the so-called Babylonian World Map and celestial maps. The key for uniting this disparate evidence is David Wood’s definition of maps as icons and, in Rochberg’s words, of “mapmaking as a process of developing iconic codes for representing topographical features” (p. 12). 2 Therefore, although this chapter sometimes reads like a catalog of maps, the changing social and cultural norms influencing the presentation of cartographic data is constantly to the forefront. Overall, Rochberg is careful in her analysis of maps and admits freely that we do not know whether most Mesopotamian maps were meant to be accurate representations or didactic models. Most readers will undoubtedly be unfamiliar with the rich evidence for Mesopotamian cartography and will find here a most useful guide.

The Egyptian evidence discussed by David O’Connor is of two kinds: temple art featuring maplike elements and maps on papyrus. Among the latter, the twelfth-century BC Turin papyrus representing the Wadi Hammamat is the most ‘practical’ document of the lot, being perhaps produced for or from expeditions in this region. O’Connor’s suggestion that it may have formed the basis of a tomb decoration (p. 67), while speculative, fits harmoniously with the other cartographic material covered in this chapter. Topographical elements in temple art show a remarkable integration of topographical lists and perhaps data from maps within historical narratives. The ‘Book of the Fayum’, a map-like representation of the Fayum’s sacred landscape likewise shows the re-casting of topographical data for pious displays, whether for priests or as a votive offering (p. 75). As O’Connor notes, Egyptian archaeology’s focus on temples may limit the available evidence for practical maps (p. 49), but even with such limitations in mind the chapter’s emphasis on Egyptian interest in landscapes in different contexts is a welcome one.

The Greek tradition of world maps and large-scale geographical representations is dealt with in two separate chapters: Georgia Irby’s survey of Greek world-mapping until Hipparchus and Alexander Jones’ presentation of Ptolemy’s Geographical Guide. As no classical or Hellenistic map survives, Irby’s contribution is rather concerned with the scant mentions of maps in literature and especially with changing large-scale spatial representations in texts. The ground covered is vast, from the Iliad’s catalog of ships to Hipparchus’ treatise of mathematical geography, and the discussion struggles at times to rise above a simple presentation of the major authors of the Greek geographical tradition—but this it does well. By focusing primarily on the development of mathematical and empirical approaches to world-mapping from the Milesians onward, this chapter unfortunately obscures other major threads running through geographical literature. The complicated relationship between spatial mapping and sequential narratives such as periploi, for example, drops from sight after a quick discussion of Hecataeus, despite the survival of important later representatives of the genre.

Jones’ chapter on Ptolemy is at first sight the odd one out in this volume, focusing on one cartographer rather than on a corpus or set of practices. Stand-alone chapters on Ptolemy have been a fixture of surveys of ancient cartography despite his minor importance and limited influence within the ancient cartographic tradition (as opposed to his influence on late antique cosmology and on later cartographic traditions). But whereas previous surveys have focused on Ptolemy’s cartography as a technical achievement and on the accuracy of his information, Jones offers a highly refreshing analysis of Ptolemy’s epistemological concerns throughout his works, his relationship to the Greek cartographic tradition and his working method, especially in relationship to his predecessor Marinus.

Michael Lewis discusses the tools and techniques of Greek and Roman land surveyors. The emphasis is thus not on the ancient literature on surveying, nor on documents produced by surveying, such as the Orange Cadasters. In fact, readers are warned of the limitations and sometimes untrustworthiness of textual sources. Lewis details the construction and operation of three major instruments: the Greek dioptra, used to calculate distances, angles and elevation, and the Roman groma and libra, used for the horizontal and vertical planes respectively. These devices’ operations are illustrated not only through historical examples but especially through reconstructions and field testing, which make this presentation all the more engaging. Techniques involved in the planning and construction of roads, tunnels and aqueducts are also explored. On the whole, this is the most technical chapter of the lot and also one of the most rewarding.

Richard Talbert’s chapter on large-scale Roman maps links the development of this cartographic tradition to the expansion of Roman power across the Mediterranean in the last two centuries BC, which put Rome in contact with Greek geographical traditions and also provided the occasion for victorious generals to display pictorial representations of conquered lands in triumphs and public places. The monumental description of the world commissioned by Agrippa (here understood as a pictorial map rather than a text)3 holds a special place in Talbert’s history of the development of public, large-scale maps, on account of both its novelty and its influence on later authors and imperial geographies. What is implied in this discussion is that large-scale mapping at Rome was intimately tied to the power of the state, either as an organizing principle or as an object of celebration. Talbert skirts this issue in his discussion of the marble plan of Rome, which deals primarily with the map’s layout and contents, but addresses it head-on with regard to the Peutinger map and its context. The suggestion that the map is a Tetrarchic creation holds much merit, but Talbert’s speculation that it originally adorned a tetrarch’s aula (pp. 184-86) feels out place within the tone and approach of the other contributors, who carefully avoid going beyond the available evidence.

Salway’s closing chapter examines Roman itineraries and geographic catalogs and for evidence of a “map consciousness”, i.e. “the sort of picture of the world that the educated Roman carried around in his or her head” (p. 193). The range of evidence considered is broad and varied but in all cases the question boils down to the ordering of information in texts: does it reflect some spatial awareness or is it the result of other considerations? Some documents clearly obey non-geographical ordering principles, such as the alphabetic lists of place-names in the Maximum Edict or hierarchical lists in the Notitia Dignitatum. A close reading of other documents reveals an awareness of the spatial disposition of place names, from the tendency to list items in an anti-clockwise geographic order in documents as varied as the Republican Sententia Minuciorum and the late antique Verona List, to the probable use of a map to compose the Claudian inscription at Patara and Hierocles’ Synecdemus. Salway argues quite persuasively that spatial orientation can also be detected in the provincial nomenclature of the Principate, with provinces named superior being closer to Rome and inferior being away from it. This chapter provides a useful corrective to the now dominant view of Roman spatial perceptions as ‘odological’, i.e. organized along itineraries.

A clear strength of this collection is the contributors’ effort to situate ancient maps and cartographers within their cultural or intellectual settings. However, this focus comes at the expense of other aspects of the study of ancient mapmaking. First, there is overall very little engagement with theoretical scholarship produced by geographers and historical geographers since the late 1990s, despite its relevance to some of the problems raised by the production and outlook of ancient maps. 4 Second and more importantly, the complex relationship between maps and other modes of geographical representation is only occasionally hinted at and deserves a fuller treatment. To take one example, Agrippa’s map was but one aspect of Augustan geographical representations in Rome and was in dialogue with the nearby Res Gestae and its catalog of nations, as well as the Portico of the Nations. There is nevertheless one exception: the relationship between itineraries, toponymic lists and maps is well covered and forms something of a thread running through all chapters, whether as data for surviving maps (e.g. Ptolemy), as elements to be integrated within maps themselves (e.g. the maps of Seti I and Peutinger), or as a competing format for describing places and regions (e.g. early Greek maps).

It would be unrealistic to expect such a collection to cover all kinds and examples of ancient mapping, especially in contexts where these are both abundant and difficult to interpret. Nevertheless, a number of important cartographic traditions that have recently witnessed scholarly advances are noticeably absent from this volume. One is Jewish and Christian mapping, from the 2nd c. BC Book of Jubilees to the sixth-century AD Madabba mosaic map, which borrowed and interpreted elements from the broader Greco-Roman cartographic tradition. 5 Also absent are cartographic elements in Roman decorative arts. A prime example of this category is the third century AD mosaic map from Haïdra illustrating Mediterranean islands;6 its disregard for the proper location of islands relative to each other finds striking echoes in Roman geographical literature, especially Julius Honorius’ Cosmographia, itself a commentary on a map.

By bringing together scholarship until now disseminated in separate historical fields, this volume fulfills admirably its aim of making accessible recent advances in the study of ancient cartography and, to some extent, ancient geographical knowledge. Scholars of ancient geography will occasionally find new arguments and evidence to consider, but it is newcomers to the field who will benefit the most from this collection. ​


1.   J.B. Harley and D. Woodward, eds., The History of Cartography. 1: Cartography in prehistoric, ancient, and medieval Europe and the Mediterranean. (Chicago, 1987).
2.   Inspired from D. Wood, The Power of Maps (New York, 1992).
3.   For the opposite view see K. Brodersen, Terra Cognita: Studien zur römischen Raumerfassung. 2nd ed. (Hildesheim, 2003), 268-87.
4.   See particularly T. Ingold, The Perception of the Environment (London, 2000); J. Pickles, A History of Spaces (London, 2004); M. Curry, “Toward a Geography of a World without Maps: Lessons from Ptolemy and Postal Codes,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 95 (2005) 681-91.
5.   Jewish and Christian material is acknowledged by Salway (p. 154) but left out of his analysis on practical grounds.
6.   F. Bejaoui, "Îles et villes de la Méditerranée sur une mosaïque d'Ammaedara," CRAI 1997 (1999) 827-58. ​

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