2016-07-28

Summer of Ptolemy

Until about 25 years ago, it was unreflectingly supposed that the ancients used maps. It has now gradually achieved acceptance among historians (but perhaps not yet in the wider public) that scaled maps as we use them today are a cultural invention, attributable in the West at least to the medieval and modern period.

That is not to say that the ancients did not understand the idea of a map.

The archaeological record indicates that diagrams showing land from a birds-eye perspective were normal enough, but they tended to be schematic like our urban-train-line diagrams. The Turin Papyrus Map shows gold mines in Egypt. The gromatici of Classical Rome drew scaled survey plans. The 3rd century Forma Urbis Romae was the acme of such work, amounting to a plan of all Rome. But these showed land as contiguous property, not as a surface to cross from A to B.

The use of a large-scale map as a navigation aid was either not widely understood or rejected as ridiculously complicated to set up and deploy. Sailors noted bearings and relied on them. Land travellers perused itineraries, not maps. Late Antiquity created the Peutinger Diagram, a schematic of routes in the whole known world, but it was not made to scale.

Ptolemy, who seems to have lived in the 2nd century, wrote out a method for applying scale far larger than that of the gromatici to make maps of the world, and collected the longitudes and latitudes taken by sailors and travellers in about 8,000 locations in Europe, Africa and Asia to do so. He was far ahead of his time and was not followed. From an ancient perspective, the idea must have seemed counter-intuitive: in a world where 90 per cent of the land and all of the sea was empty waste, why employ time and costly papyrus to "dwell" on it?

A millennium later, the great scholar Manuel Planudes (c. 1260 – c. 1305) created maps from Ptolemy's geographical data. We now doubt that Planudes saw any Ptolemaic originals.

Among the most wonderful possessions of Federico da Montefeltro (1422-1482), the duke of Urbino and fabulously wealthy book collector, was a superb manuscript from about 1300, Urb.gr.82, preserving the Geography of Ptolemy (text) and the Planudes maps. It is one of the most important manuscripts of Ptolemy, preserving what is known as the Omega recension, and is known as U.

U came online as part of the digitization of the Vatican Library only a few weeks ago. Here is how it shows the region of London and the English Channel:


Federico owned a second copy (he was rich enough) made in the 15th century, Urb.gr.83, based on this recension, with 64 smaller regional maps and four large additional maps. This codex featured two decades ago in the Rome Reborn exhibition. It was uploaded to the online portal on July 26, 2016. Here is its take on the same region:

The Vatican is the essential place to go to recover the Geography. It also owns an essential manuscript of the Xi recension, Vat.gr.191, fols 127-172, or X, also online, but without maps, the arrival of which I covered in a blog post one year ago. The closely related A (Pal.gr 388) has not yet been digitized, nor have Z (Pal.gr. 314), V (Vat.gr. 177) or W (Vat.gr. 178).

For more details of the key manuscripts, see the Hans van Deukeren page. and also check the Daniel Mintz page. The definitive edition of the Geography was published by St├╝ckelberger in 2006.

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