BMCR 2012.04.14

Rome’s World: The Peutinger Map Reconsidered

, Rome's World: The Peutinger Map Reconsidered. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. xviii, 357. ISBN 9780521764803. $90.00.


The so-called “Tabula Peutingeriana” or, as Talbert prefers, the “Peutinger map” is an (incomplete) map of the Roman world named after one of its former owners, Konrad Peutinger. The map, which includes an elaborate network of routes, consists of eleven single parchment segments, each of which measures 33 cm ca. in height and between 58 and 70 cm ca. in width. The segments are designed to be joined together side by side to form a long ribbon measuring approximately 33 x 672 cm. According to Talbert, the Peutinger map is an (unrevised) copy, produced around A.D. 1200, of a lost late antique original dating to the era of Diocletian’s tetrarchy (ca. A.D. 300).

The book consists of an introduction, five chapters, a conclusion, nine appendices (which constitute nearly a third of the book), the endnotes, a bibliography, an index and a gazetteer. It is richly illustrated — especially in chapters one and five — with black and white plates and figures. An important and valuable addition to, and part of, this book is the digital material, including, among other things, the Peutinger map in color as a seamless whole on the basis of full-size digital photographs taken in 2000 by the Austrian National Library (where the map is conserved today). The user has the option of navigating, zooming, and overlaying on the map various thematic layers. Furthermore, the website includes a database with commentaries of all the names and almost all the features on the map and an outline of rivers and routes on the basis of the Barrington Atlas maps.1 Talbert frequently refers to the online contents in his book and has solved the problem of reproducing the map in an elegant way appropriate to our time. This has been a challenge to scholars since the map’s discovery some five hundred years ago.. Hence the main aim of the book, “to render the map more widely accessible and more comprehensible with the support of up-to-date scholarship and technology” (p. 1), is undoubtedly achieved.

Already in the Introduction (pp. 1–9), the author reveals his new interpretation of the Peutinger map’s archetype, which he understands as having been part of a larger artistic ensemble for a public space in an imperial palace under the rule of the Tetrarchs. With this fresh approach, Talbert breaks away from the traditional view of the map as a road map and mapped itinerary.

The first chapter (pp. 10–72) gives a complete survey of the history of the Peutinger map, starting with its discovery by Conrad Celtis in an unknown place and at an unknown moment around 1500 and the various publications of and about the Codex Vindobonensis 324 (its actual shelfmark at the Austrian National Library). Talbert notably reassesses Franz Christoph von Scheyb’s edition of 1753, which has been criticized too heavily and unfairly by later scholarship. Additionally, he points out the value of Peter Katancsich’s edition of 1824/5, which has not yet received the recognition it deserves. He discusses Konrad Miller’s publication from 1916 as the last systematic presentation of the Peutinger map. Talbert considers this, as well as later contributions to the scholarship on the map, rather traditional in approach.

Chapter two (pp. 73–85) presents a novel approach to the study of the Peutinger map: the author2 discusses its material aspects, with particular regard to the palaeographical features. This yields new evidence for the history of the map itself as well as for its exemplar. The surviving copy never seems to have extended farther to the left, as a distinct vertical line at the western margin suggests. Furthermore, the analysis shows that the Peutinger map was copied layer by layer and not by any pricking or tracing method. Several holes in the top and bottom borders of the map seem to testify that it once was on display, perhaps by being hung on a wall. This period of display would have pre-dated Celtis’ discovery of the map. The expert examination of the scripts and letter forms suggests that the original goes back to late antiquity and that the extant copy was produced by a single individual — an artist rather than a scribe — around A.D. 1200, supposedly in the south German region or Alsace. Less convincing than the palaeographical evidence for the place of production is the mention of the SILVA VOSAGUS (Vosges mountains) and SILVA MARCIANA (Black Forest): these regions are depicted on the Peutinger map by rows of trees, which could — as claimed by the author — point to a copyist familiar with these regions, which are in fact forested. But apart from the possibility that the two silvae were presented in a similar way already on the exemplar, our copyist could simply have been inspired by the term silva for his presentation (provided that he had basic knowledge of Latin). As the “alphabetical list of all named features on the Peutinger map” in the online database easily shows, the SILVA VOSAGUS and SILVA MARCIANA are the only silvae on the map, and the fact that no other trees are depicted on the map3 should not be taken as additional proof for the place of the copy’s origin.

At the beginning of chapter three (pp. 86–122), Talbert rightly emphasizes the unusual shape of the map — an elongated strip. On the one hand, this shape must have been chosen deliberately; on the other hand, it had a decisive impact on the presentation of the cartographical contents. When Talbert subsequently argues that the maker of the original map must have intended to place Rome at the very center of it, he adopts a suggestion already made by Michael Hummelberg as early as 1526. This view, on the grounds of which Talbert postulates three missing segments at the left end of the original map,4 is taken for granted throughout the rest of the book although it is never carefully argued with reference to evidence. Still, this chapter is a systematic and painstaking examination of all the mapmaking aspects and cartographic components that are part of the Peutinger map. It has a special focus on the networks of routes and the pictorial symbols, both of which elements, in Talbert’s eyes, have been overvalued. The generally high degree of selectivity, inconsistency, and carelessness characteristic of the map would not meet cartographic needs, nor was the map produced for such an aim (according to Talbert).

Chapter four (pp. 123–132) is devoted to the reconstruction of the now lost original map from the Peutinger map, the sole surviving copy, which, according to the author, has come down to us through several successive copies of varying quality. Talbert repeats his opinion that the lost original map must “have been produced for display in a ruler’s public space during the Tetrarchic period” (p. 123). Consequently, he considers any Christian elements on the map, but also the name Constantinopolis and the conspicuously large symbol for Antiochia (which is even larger than the symbol for Rome), as additions. As well, he investigates further erroneous details concerning names, figures, and routes which have crept in during the course of transmission.

In chapter five (pp. 133–157) Talbert discusses the authorship, date, possible sources, historical context, and purpose of the original map. As he points out, his suggestions are speculative. Still, Talbert convincingly argues that a map like the Peutinger map could hardly be imagined to serve as a map for travelers, despite the fact that it could be folded and transported. His suggestion that the original map was made for public viewing and that, with its unusual shape, it would have best fit into an apse of an imperial reception hall is attractive but cannot be confirmed. In addition, the interpretations of some of the various archaeological examples cited for comparison are based on conjecture. Other questions worth considering are neglected, for example, whether the surviving copy’s exemplar/original must necessarily have been similar or even equal in shape, size, and purpose.5

After a comparative listing of routes in Italy in the Bordeaux and Antonine Itineraries and the Peutinger map (pp. 158–161),6 the concluding chapter (pp. 162–172) resumes discussion of the three characteristics of the map in the context of classical cartography: its unusual shape; its positioning of Rome at the center; and, as a unique feature of a classical map of the world, the network of routes. It then treats possible lost copies of the Peutinger map, among which the anonymous Ravenna Cosmography seems to give evidence of the use of at least the same type of map. Furthermore, a map in one of the manuscripts that contains Beatus’ Commentary on the Apocalypse (Talbert only indicates the manuscript’s place of preservation, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, but it must be MS lat. 8878) exhibits close affinity to the Peutinger map in naming places. Finally, a sketch drawn around 1495 by the Italian humanist Pellegrino Prisciani in all likelihood shows a detail of a map very similar to the Peutinger map. In the Middle Ages, the Gough map in particular is supposed to have been influenced by the Peutinger map or a similar map.

The nine appendices (pp. 173–286) in part contribute further materials and commentary regarding the history of scholarship on the Peutinger map (app. 1–6) and in part offer user’s guides to the online contents (app. 7–9).

With his unquestionably fresh or rather, in Talbert’s own words “radical, not to say provocative” interpretation (p. 7), the author succeeds in showing that the Peutinger map indeed represents much more than a “mere route diagram”. Even if this book may in some parts be too speculative, it is a very rich, detailed and inspiring study. In combination with the supporting online materials, it will undoubtedly stimulate further research on and debate about the Peutinger map.


1. Richard J. A. Talbert (ed.), Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, with Map-by-Map Directory, Princeton (NJ) and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000.

2. This chapter is partly coauthored with Martin Steinmann (2.1 “Material, Condition, and Conservation”) and partly written by Steinmann (2.2 “Paleography”).

3. Except for some trees embellishing the large symbol for Antiochia.

4. In 1898, Konrad Miller presented a reconstruction of the western end of the map arranged in a single additional segment (Konrad Miller, Mappae mundi: Die ältesten Weltkarten, vol. 6, Stuttgart, 1898, Tafel 5).

5. Only once, on p. 145, does Talbert briefly consider the possibility that the surviving copy could be “an earlier copyist’s reduction of a taller original”, but immediately dismisses it; he nowhere examines the opposite possibility.

6. Reprint from Mauro Calzolari, “Ricerche sugli itinerari romani: l’Itinerarium Burdigalense,” in Studi in onore di Nereo Alfieri, Atti dell’Accademia delle Scienze di Ferrara, Supplemento, vol. 74, 1997, pp. 127–189, at 147–151.