A. W. Dilke
published on 21 August 2012
Whereas the Greeks, particularly in Ionia in the early period and at Alexandria in the Hellenistic age, made unparalleled strides in the theory of cosmology and geography, the Romans were concerned with practical applications. This contrast is sometimes exaggerated, yet it can hardly be avoided as a generalization when seeking to understand the overall pattern of cartographic development in the classical world as well as its legacy for the Middle Ages and beyond. Roman writers did not attempt to make original contributions to subjects such as the construction of map projections or the distribution of the climata; most cartographic allusions in the literary texts-as well as the surviving maps-are connected with everyday purposes. Whether used for traveling, for trade, for planning campaigns, for establishing colonies, for allocating and subdividing land, for engineering purposes, or as tools of the law, education, and propaganda to legitimize Roman territorial expansion, maps ultimately were related to the same overall organizational ends. In cartography, as in other aspects of material culture, ideas first nurtured in Greek society were taken over and adapted to the service of the Roman state.
It is not only by chance, therefore, that it is in three particular applications of mapping-road organization, land survey for centuriation, and town planning-that Roman maps, or descendants of them, have survived. In the first two Rome was preeminent both in accuracy and in output. Such extant maps, while more numerous than those surviving from ancient Greece, are nevertheless only a tiny fraction of the numbers that were originally produced in the Roman period. The value of the media used-many were cast in metal or painted or carved on stone-contributed directly to their demise. The metals were melted down, and the stones were reused for other purposes in the less organized way of life that followed the fall of Rome. But despite the many gaps in our knowledge arising from such factors, Roman mapping is sufficiently distinctive-in both its impulses and its products-to be treated as a series of discrete chapters in the cartographic history of the classical period.
The History of Cartography, Volume 1: Cartography in Prehistoric, Ancient and Medieval Europe and the Mediterranean, Edited by J. B. Harley and David Woodward (University of Chicago, 1987)