A Map Showing How the Ancient Romans Envisioned the World in 40 AD

We’ve all seen that famous New York­er cov­er sat­i­riz­ing a New York­er’s dis­tort­ed, self-cen­tered view of the world: Man­hat­tan occu­pies a good half of the image, rel­e­gat­ing the rest of Amer­i­ca (and indeed the world) to the sta­tus of out­er-out­er bor­oughs. What Saul Stein­berg did with a draw­ing in 1976, pio­neer­ing Roman geo­g­ra­ph­er Pom­po­nius Mela had done, in a much less comedic but much more accu­rate way, with text nine­teen cen­turies before. Writ­ing from his per­spec­tive under the reign of the Emper­or Gaius, Claudius, or both, Mela cre­at­ed noth­ing less than a world­view, which tells us now how the ancient Romans con­ceived of the world around them, its char­ac­ter­is­tics and its rela­tion­ship to the ter­ri­to­ry of the might­i­est empire going.

“Pom­po­nius Mela is a puz­zle, and so is his one known work, The Chorog­ra­phy,” writes Frank E. Romer in Pom­po­nius Mela’s Descrip­tion of the World. In that series of three books, which seems not to have con­tained any maps itself, Mela divides the Earth into two rough “hemi­spheres” and five zones, two of them cold, one of them hot, and two in between.

Pulling togeth­er what in his day con­sti­tut­ed a wealth of geo­graph­i­cal knowl­edge from a vari­ety of pre­vi­ous sources, he paint­ed a word-pic­ture of the world more accu­rate, on the whole, than any writ­ten down before. Schol­ars since have also praised Mela’s clear, acces­si­ble prose style — clear and acces­si­ble, in any case, for a first-cen­tu­ry text com­posed in Latin.

Var­i­ous maps, includ­ing the 1898 repro­duc­tion pic­tured at the top of the post (see it in a larg­er for­mat here), have attempt­ed to visu­al­ize Mela’s world­view and make it leg­i­ble at a glance. You can see more ver­sions at Cartographic-images.net, and the David Rum­sey Map Col­lec­tion shows the world accord­ing to Mela placed along­side the world accord­ing to Ptole­my and the world accord­ing to Diony­sius Periegetes. Though Mela showed greater insight into the inte­gra­tion of the var­i­ous parts of the world known to the ancient Romans than did his pre­de­ces­sors, he also, of course, had his blind spots and rough areas, includ­ing the assump­tion that human beings could only live in the two most tem­per­ate of the cli­mat­ic zones he defined. Even so, the maps derived from his work pro­vide an infor­ma­tive glimpse of how, exact­ly, Romans saw their place in the world — or rather how, exact­ly, they saw their place in the cen­ter of it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ancient Rome’s Sys­tem of Roads Visu­al­ized in the Style of Mod­ern Sub­way Maps

The Largest Ear­ly Map of the World Gets Assem­bled for the First Time: See the Huge, Detailed & Fan­tas­ti­cal World Map from 1587

Ancient Maps that Changed the World: See World Maps from Ancient Greece, Baby­lon, Rome, and the Islam­ic World

The His­to­ry of Car­tog­ra­phy, the “Most Ambi­tious Overview of Map Mak­ing Ever,” Is Now Free Online

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • davenug says:

    The real dis­cus­sion is how this eth­no-cen­tric view of “the known world” is not unique, but a char­ac­ter­is­tic of humans in gen­er­al. The Chi­nese his­tor­i­cal­ly & cos­mo­log­i­cal­ly believed them­selves to be the cen­ter of all things, and this informed their soci­ety, cul­ture and pol­i­cy. Same with many, many peo­ples and their cul­tures. It’s the build­ing & embrac­ing of a con­struct of “exis­tence” that pro­vides many solaces and jus­ti­fi­ca­tions. I would argue this con­tin­ues today with much reli­gious ide­ol­o­gy as well as sec­u­lar groups. To dig down a bit, the “view from the cen­ter of it all” starts from child­hood. Do we grow out of that?

  • Francisco González Romo says:

    Salu­dos des­de Méx­i­co

  • anonymus says:

    Hi, this helped me with a project for school. Thanks!

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