The Peutinger World Map — mapping the late Roman world

Mapping Antiquity part 10

The world of the 4th century CE was one of turmoil, conflict, and change with many parts of the world pulling through a period of chaos and seeing the resurgence of large, powerful empires.

In the far east, the new, but fragile Jin dynasty had recently established its control over China. Overthrowing the Wei Dynasty and uniting the country once more. The short lived Jin ended the division of the three Kingdoms era which had prevailed since the fall of the Han in the 3rd century CE, at least for a brief period.

The centre of the Eurasian landmass was dominated by the Sassanian Shah. The lords of a resurgent Persian Empire, the Sassanid Great Kings saw themselves as the heirs to Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes and dreamt of restoring Persia to the heights of the Achaemenid Kings. At the beginning of the 4th century CE Sassanid Persia stood on the cusp of its first golden era.

In the Mediterranean world, as the 4th century dawned, Rome was emerging from a century of crisis and was once again united under a single strong Emperor. The empire had barely survived the numerous external threats and civil strife which had wracked it for decades since the end of the Severan dynasty. However, the brief respite brought by the Emperor Diocletian’s tetrarch system of four Emperors was ended in bloody internal conflict and civil war that would eventually bring Constantine the great to the throne and set the scene for the triumph of Christianity. However, this was a period of general decline for Rome. Even reunited the empire would never be the same force it once was and in less than two centuries the western half of the empire would collapse into the shifting sands of time.

It was in this world of flux, change and reunification, that the final map of this series was produced, the Peutinger world map. This is the 10th and final article in this series exploring map making in antiquity. You do not need to have read the parts 1 through 9 to follow this piece, but they contribute to a bigger picture and understanding.

The Peutinger world map

Although dating back to approximately the early to mid-4th century CE and offering a unique insight into Roman map making, we do not know who created the map and only a copy made in southern Germany around 1200 CE has survived. The map is named after Konrad Peutinger, a German lawyer of the 15th-16th century and a great humanist scholar of the Renaissance. He amassed a huge collection of antiquities, inheriting the map that would take his name in 1508.

The map depicts the Roman Empire of the 4th Century. Based on information from the Cursus Publicus, the Roman transport system, it depicts settlements, staging posts, spas, rivers and more than 100,000km of roads drawn in red. It has the strange design of being narrow and elongated, possibly because of basing the map on the road network. In short, the map is perfect for planning journeys. Given the difficult military situation the Romans found themselves in at the time, it was more than likely designed to aid in the planning of military campaigns.

However, It may have also played a subtler propaganda role. Reinforcing a narrative of the unity of an empire which had found itself under pressure and frequently divided over a century of strife. Whilst it may have served these purposes, the map may also give us a clue as to the declining fortunes of the empire. When compared to earlier Greco-Roman maps (such as that created by Claudius Ptolemy I the 2nd Century CE) we see a similar conception of the world, indeed the design of the map and the details on the outer edges of the known world seem to be drawn directly from Ptolemy and his predecessors. However, we can speculate that the more limited scope and ambition displayed in the map may not only indicate a different purpose, but also a decline in knowledge of the world beyond Rome’s borders.

Rome enthroned at the centre of the world

Taking a closer look at the details of the map we can deduce much about the state and mindset of the empire of the 4th century.

As you might expect, Rome sits enthroned at the centre of the map, the heart of the sprawling empire, with red roads projecting out in every direction. A curious effect of the narrowness of the map is that Carthage (“Carthagine”) seems only a short distance from the eternal city, whilst in reality it is 600km away.

Constantine’s New Rome (Constantinople) appears almost as prominently as Rome, a hint of the city’s future greatness. Constantinople’s design echoes that of Rome and gives a further clue to the map’s date. Constantine’s city had only been dedicated as the empire’s eastern capital in 330 CE, so we can assume that the map was likely created sometime after this date.

Constantinople — A new Rome

To the south the complex snaking patterns of the Nile are depicted in some detail with the Nile delta sprawling across Egypt’s coast. However, due to the structure of the map, the river appears to flow off to the west, a feature common in other ancient maps as well. The narrow design, and the distorting affect this has, makes the city of Pergamon in Anatolia appear to be a short boat trip away from Egypt, in reality the city is, like Carthage from Rome, about 600km away.

the Nile flowing from the west

Out to the west an echo of Claudius Ptolemy’s Geography’s influence can be seen with an island named Thule being the most westerly point of the map. However, Britannia has been reoriented, now lying east to west. Caledonia being found on the far west of the island. Again, this is a common feature of ancient maps and so the Peutinger map in these aspects is continuing with a long established way of depicting the island of Britain.

Britain, the Iberian peninsula and North Africa

On the eastern edge of the empire, Antioch sits enthroned as the greatest city of the Roman East. The depiction of the Sinai Peninsula shows the beginnings of Christian influence on the Roman elite. Mt. Sinai inscribed with the words “the desert where the Children of Israel wandered for forty years guided by Moses” and again gives us some clues as to the date of the map’s creation and even a hint towards the origin of the map’s creator suggesting as it does a knowledge and perhaps even reverence for Christianity.

Antioch and the Roman East

The far east demonstrates the limits of Roman knowledge, and perhaps interest, at a time of internal strife. Beyond Mesopotamia, India is depicted as a small peninsula and the Caspian Sea a mere inlet of the ocean encircling the world.

The east beyond Rome’s boarder

The inclusion of the mysterious island of Caprobane in the far southeast reflecting that knowledge had perhaps not moved forward since the days of Claudius Ptolemy in the 2nd Century CE. In fact, the more limited detail in the east in comparison to Ptolemy’s earlier work may reflect a regression of knowledge since Ptolemy’s day, perhaps as a consequence of the pressure the Roman system had faced in the century of crisis.

India and the island of Caprobane

The unusual Peutinger Map gives many clues about Roman cartography. It may well represent a different and more practical approach to map making than the Greek maps which came before and clearly influenced the work. The focus is placed less on the scientific and topographic detail and more on the practical and logistical. Equally, it may merely represent a different and changing world view from earlier centuries manifested in a map. The more intricate philosophical, decorative, and political aspects less discernible to the modern eye.

However, given the fall of the western empire that was fast approaching and the third century crisis through which Rome had just emerged. With hindsight we cannot help but wonder if the more limited detail, knowledge, and scope of the work, when compared to earlier Greek and Roman maps, is due to a declining knowledge, skill and understanding of the society which produced it.

This exploration of the Peutinger world map concludes this series looking at maps across the span of classical antiquity. Although this exploration has been by no means exhaustive, the selection of maps viewed over a period of roughly a thousand years, from the fall of Babylon and the rise of Persia to the domination of Rome and its eventual collapse, show how the discipline of map making has grown and evolved over time. How concepts were tried, tested, and dropped or adopted and how some of those concepts are still with us to this day.

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Lewis D'Ambra

Lewis D'Ambra

I write about history and its echoes and lessons for the present.