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On This Fourth-Century Map, All Roads Really Do Lead to Rome

The Peutinger Table reveals the vastness of the Roman Empire and the idea that its great city was at the center of everything that mattered.

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On the Peutinger Table some distances are compressed, while others are expanded. Here the southern half of the Italian Peninsula spans across this section and the Mediterranean appears no wider than a river.

Although it resembles nothing like the clear outline of a modern map of the region, the Peutinger Table is a snapshot of how Romans viewed their world, one in which they were at the center. Their zone of influence stretched from Britain to India, connected by the Roman Empire’s signature innovation, roads.

At first, a modern viewer might struggle to make sense of this map. At 22 feet, it is very long, but barely 14 inches high. Peer closer, and familiar European place-names can be picked out, such as Roma at the very center. Little by little, the viewer realizes that Europe and Asia have been squeezed down into a narrow corridor; the snaking waterways that look like canals are, in fact, different parts of the Mediterranean, and a delicate web of parallel red lines is a colossal network of roads.

Measuring the World

The Peutinger Table is a copy of a Roman map thought to have been made in the fourth century, partly because it features the city of Constantinople, which was founded in 330. Scholars believe that this version was created in the mid-1200s by a monk in the city of Colmar, in what is today northeastern France. The copy was found in the 15th century and bequeathed to the German scholar and bibliophile Conrad Peutinger, for whom it is named.

Although scholars cannot be sure how faithful the 13th-century copy is to the original, this unique artifact offers a wealth of insight into the Roman worldview and is an essential subject in the study of ancient cartography. The map consists of 12 sections in total, 11 of which are on display in the Austrian National Library in Vienna. The 12th section, corresponding to Hispania (Spain) and the British Isles, is the only missing part of the masterpiece.

The Routes of Power

All maps have different points of view. They emphasize certain types of information in favor of others, some of which may even be omitted. For example, Greek maps tended to focus on elements that showed scientific knowledge, while Roman maps highlighted the practical. They served to keep track of the network of roads that connected different parts of the empire.

Roman maps like these were called itineraria. There were two kinds: The itineraria adnotata resembled charts that listed the roads, the stations along them, and the distances in between. The best known of these is the third-century Antonine Itinerary, which includes a “road map” of Roman Britain. The second category of maps, to which the Peutinger Table belongs, were more visual—the itineraria picta.

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From Hispania to India

The Peutinger Table does not just map the Roman Empire. It starts in the far west, with what is now Spain, and ends at the Indian subcontinent and the island of Taprobane (Sri Lanka). It thus covers the entire ecumene (the Greek term for the known inhabited world) and includes many details along each route.

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This 18th-century engraving shows the German bibliophile who acquired the map that bears his name.

Rivers and seas, geographical features, and, of course, cities, are depicted in precise drawings and vivid colors. The map also shows centers and hospices, places along the route where travelers could rest and change mounts. This essential information was crucial for anyone setting out on a long journey. The Mediterranean’s commercial ports are also shown (including Ostia, Rome’s main point of entry by sea) as are thermal baths.

The wealth of information would suggest that the map was certainly not made solely for military purposes, although it could have been used for that. A series of notes explains the relevance of certain places, almost in the style of a guidebook. The note for the Sinai region, for example, reads: “The desert through which the children of Israel, guided by Moses, wandered for 40 years.” Scholars are unsure if this note appeared on the original or if these sentiments were written by the medieval cartographer.

A note in the far east, in modern-day Tajikistan, marks the traditional spot where Alexander the Great was asked by an oracular voice as to how much farther he intended to expand his empire: “Accepit usque quo Alexander?—Until where, Alexander?” Scholars believe this note is a medieval addition to the map, an ironic comment on the futility of imperialism added to a work that is glorifying the reach of empire.

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A milestone was erected along Roman Roads in Germany during the reign of Emperor Decius, A.D. 250.

The center of this glory is, of course, Rome. It is represented by an enthroned figure holding a globe, a spear, and a shield: Rome is the caput mundi (capital of the world) to where all roads lead. Special emphasis is also given to two cities in the east, Constantinople and Antioch, although they are depicted as smaller than Rome. Interestingly, Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Oplontis—cities destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in the first century A.D.—are shown. Their inclusion shows that, although the Peutinger Table dates from the fourth century, it may have been based on earlier maps.

The Great Highway

The most important feature of the map are roads—70,000 Roman miles of them, many more than the Antonine Itinerary, all marked out in red. However, it is not possible to calculate real road distances or geographical scale from the map. The Peutinger Table also has a loose relationship with the cardinal points of the compass: The Nile River, for example, flows from west to east, instead of from south to north.

All of these features can be explained by what is known as “the hodological concept” (from the Greek word hodós, meaning “road”). To the Romans, the road network defined the space in which their empire had expanded. Modern ideas about latitude and longitude are not relevant here, because its spaces are represented as horizontal and linear—almost like a highway itself.