Medieval Peutinger Map | Book Review

G.T. Dempsey


Emily Albu The Medieval Peutinger Map:  Imperial Roman Revival in a German Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. xv, 169  ISBN: 9781107059429

The Peutinger Map (Tabula Peutingeriana) is unique – an early thirteenth-century medieval recreation of a Roman itinerary map from the late fourth-early fifth century.  Outsized – eleven parchment sheets attached in a roll, measuring approximately a foot high by twenty-two feet long – it provides not a geographic representation of the Roman world, but a schematic rendition of the famed Roman imperial road network (the cursus publicus), some 70,000 miles of roads, ‘with hundreds of icons along their routes, depicting towns and baths, places to change horses and to find a meal or a bed for the night, with mileage from point to point marked in Roman numerals.’ 

The world thus outlined extends from the southern shore of Britain (at least one parchment sheet was missing from the western end of the model) eastward through the Roman empire and beyond, taking in Persia and India to Sri Lanka (these later territories explicitly linked to the conquests and imperial aspirations of Alexander the Great), showing ‘rivers, lakes, islands, and mountains while also naming regions and the peoples who once claimed the landscape.’  Italy, ‘turned on its side and lengthened to fill one-third of the map’s width,’ dominates the map.  The roads are traced out in red ink, the distances in black, water in green, and the icons representing cities (some 350 such vignettes) mostly in brown and blue.

A section of a 1-4th century map showing the area now known as Great Britain.  The ocean is a dark green color and the land is a light grey with dark writing.
A section of the depicting Britannia (present-day Great Britain). Facsimile edition, 1887/1888, by German cartographer Konrad Miller. Image: public domain.

The author, a long-time professor of Classics at UC Davis, sets the stage with a chapter (out of some seven altogether) delineating the essential distinctions between the ‘mapping consciousness’ of Rome from that which developed in the Christendom of medieval Europe.  Roads were the very soul of imperial Rome.  Beginning in the late fourth century B.C. with the Appian Way which ran south from Rome to Capua, the Romans eventually built some 80,000 kilometers of all-weather roads, vital to the ‘creation, maintenance, and proclamation of Roman imperium.’  Roman armies could move swiftly along this network linking all parts of the empire; messages could move even more swiftly:  ‘Romans managed their journeys through itineraries, lists of sites along a given route, with the mileage recorded from each of these sites to the next.  Such itinerary lists – and not maps – were the characteristically Roman method of imagining movement through space….’   While such Roman itinerary maps survive in a variety of media, ‘even carved on four silver goblets’ from the time of Augustus, no Roman global maps survive.  Indeed, it may well be that production of any such map was prohibited, with the globe reserved to the emperor as a symbol of imperial rule.  In the late first century A.D., one Roman was executed by the Emperor Domitian for committing the ‘cartographic crime’ of having a depiction of the world painted on his bedroom wall.

World maps (mappae mundi) found their purpose with the coming societal dominance of Christianity:  under ‘the powerful influence of the new religion, the habit of envisioning linear itineraries yielded to a different kind of spatial thinking, a Christian mapping mentality’ which attempted to combine the world’s physical reality with God’s spiritual destiny for man.  Perhaps the most famous medieval mappa mundi is the Hereford map.  Here, Eden is highlighted at the top with Adam and Eve being driven out by an angel armed with a sword, while, above this scene, Christ sits in judgment with his mother, the Virgin Mary, beseeching him for mercy for remorseful sinners.  Below Eden, the map ‘teems with rivers and mountains, named peoples and territories, cities, monsters, odd flora and fauna’ (much of this information coming from late Roman and early medieval writers on geography and natural science, five of whom the map cites by name – including Orosius and Isidore of Seville).

While the provenance of the Peutinger Map cannot be traced back beyond 1508 when it was bequeathed to Konrad Peutinger by the Librarian to the Holy Roman Emperor (its origins perhaps deliberately obscured to cover up its theft), the map itself has been palaeographically dated to the first quarter of the thirteenth century and to a monastery in southern Swabia.  Greater Swabia is the territory ‘where modern Germany, France, Switzerland, and Austria now meet, with Lake Constance near its center.’  In medieval times, this region produced a number of powerful ducal dynasties with imperial ambitions:  Hohenstaufen, Welf, Habsburg, and Hohenzollern.  

Here we encounter the core of this book’s thesis (as indicated by its sub-title).  Through close examination of the map’s eastern vignettes (in particular, the absence of some such as Alexandria which would surely have been present in any Roman original), Professor Albu proposes a crusading impetus to the map’s commission and the Hohenstaufen as the patrons:  ‘It is tempting to conclude that a long struggle against an autocratic papacy provoked a German prince to commission an imperial Roman map for display as part of his arsenal of propaganda for the ancient rights of Roman emperors.’  The Hohenstaufens ‘all nurtured territorial ambitions to reunite the larger Mediterranean world, including Constantinople and Jerusalem and points east, to recreate the ancient Roman imperium.’  A learned and persuasive conjecture, indeed.

The Peutinger Map is now housed in Austria’s National Library in Vienna and digitized images of the Peutinger Map are also available online.     

Book cover featuring a map from the 4th century.
Emily Albu The Medieval Peutinger Map:  Imperial Roman Revival in a German Empire | Available on Amazon.

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About the author
G.T. Dempsey
G.T. Dempsey is a Research Associate in the history of Late Antiquity at the University of California at Davis and, as a retired American career diplomat, he is also a commentator on American foreign policy.

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