The First Transit Map: a Close Look at the Subway-Style Tabula Peutingeriana of the 5th-Century Roman Empire

The first sub­way train, as we know such things today, entered ser­vice in 1890. Its path is now part of the North­ern line of the Lon­don Under­ground, itself the first urban metro sys­tem. The suc­cess of the Tube, as it’s com­mon­ly known, did­n’t come right away; the whole thing was on the brink of fail­ure, in fact, before cre­ations like 1914’s Won­der­ground Map of Lon­don Town aid­ed its pub­lic under­stand­ing and bol­stered its pub­lic image.

At the time, Britain still com­mand­ed a great empire with Lon­don as its cap­i­tal; the Won­der­ground Map placed the Lon­don Under­ground in the con­text of the city, mak­ing leg­i­ble the still fair­ly nov­el con­cept of an under­ground train sys­tem with copi­ous whim­si­cal detail.

Nor was the Roman Empire any­thing to sneeze at, even dur­ing the fourth and fifth cen­turies after its decline had set in. Though it came up with some still-impres­sive inven­tions, includ­ing long-last­ing con­crete and mon­u­men­tal aque­ducts, the tech­nol­o­gy to build and oper­ate a sub­way sys­tem still lay some way off.

But that did­n’t stop Mar­cus Vip­sa­nius Agrip­pa, a gen­er­al, archi­tect, and friend of emper­or Augus­tus, from com­mis­sion­ing a map of the empire that read more or less like Mas­si­mo Vignel­li’s 1972 map of the New York sub­way. That ambi­tious work of car­tog­ra­phy, his­to­ri­ans now believe, inspired the Tab­u­la Peutin­ge­ri­ana, which sur­vives today as the only large world map from antiq­ui­ty. The video above from Youtu­ber Jere­my Shuback approach­es the Tab­u­la Peutin­ge­ri­ana as “the first tran­sit map,” despite its dat­ing from the thir­teenth cen­tu­ry, and even then prob­a­bly being a copy of a fourth- or fifth-cen­tu­ry orig­i­nal.

While the Roman Empire did­n’t have elec­tric trains and pay­ment cards, they did, of course, have tran­sit: the word descends from the Latin tran­sire, “go across.” Many a Roman had to go across, if not the whole empire, then at least large stretch­es of it. In the­o­ry, they would have found a map like Tab­u­la use­ful, with its sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of geog­ra­phy in order to empha­size city-to-city con­nec­tions. But that was­n’t its pri­ma­ry pur­pose: as Shuback puts it, this over­sized map of all lands dom­i­nat­ed by the Romans was “made to brag.” Who­ev­er owned it sure­ly want­ed to imply that they pos­sessed not just a map, but the world itself.

Relat­ed con­tent:

A Won­der­ful Archive of His­toric Tran­sit Maps: Expres­sive Art Meets Pre­cise Graph­ic Design

Down­load 67,000 His­toric Maps (in High Res­o­lu­tion) from the Won­der­ful David Rum­sey Map Col­lec­tion

The Roman Roads of Britain Visu­al­ized as a Sub­way Map

“The Won­der­ground Map of Lon­don Town,” the Icon­ic 1914 Map That Saved the World’s First Sub­way Sys­tem

Ani­mat­ed GIFs Show How Sub­way Maps of Berlin, New York, Tokyo & Lon­don Com­pare to the Real Geog­ra­phy of Those Great Cities

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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