Backbone of Europe

The oldest chart of the western world, the Tabula Peutingeriana, would be better known to map enthusiasts if it were an approachable document. But on a first look, the scroll, which was designed in the Roman Empire, seems pretty incomprehensible. Of course it's in Latin, but that's not even the biggest problem. The chart is not to scale, but uses a strange squashed "projection", and it's infernally hard to guess where any of its roads go.

Help is at hand at last with my new chart of northern France, Germany, northern Italy, Austria and Slovenia which picks out what you need to know about the part of the Tabula covering Europe's most prosperous areas today.
What is striking is that the ductus of the Tabula -- and an awareness of the geography on the ground -- points to our designer having chosen a main road leading all the way from Boulogne, France to Rimini, Italy as his centerpiece.

This backbone, colored wine-red in my analytical diagram, passes through Reims, Besançon, Lausanne, the Great St Bernard Pass and Cesena. It's not the same as the medieval Via Francigena which led from Canterbury via Florence to Rome, but both the high roads served the same traffic and had many stretches in common.

Another big takeaway: the Tabula Peutingeriana is not oriented north-south. "Up" is north-west. Use the interactive control "Landmass" to see the coasts which the late antique designer had in mind. Of course the match is not perfect: Boulogne ends up on top of London, Leiden in the North Sea and Milan perched on the bank of the Rhine. But it's remarkable that anything matches in something that initially appears so chaotic.

What we are seeing is a very different take on Europe from that we are familiar with in modern maps. This is Roman Europe, with a fortified border in the north along the valleys of the Rhine and Danube (the dark blue line at top). It's also a Europe where most long-distance travel is obstructed by the Alps. The interactive control "Passes" shows how these seal off northern Italy. You can't go round them (except by ship): you have to over them as the playground song tells us.

To prove I haven't cheated, use the interactive control "Manuscript Sections" to see how the places form columns. The vertical layout precisely matches that in the Tabula, a UNESCO Memory of the World treasure now kept in a vault in Vienna. Tell me if you spot any errors. And if you want to see a similar chart of southern Europe, check out my previous blog post, Two Frances.

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