You are here

Ancient Perspectives: Maps and Their Place in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome

Ancient Perspectives: Maps and Their Place in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome

Edited by Richard J.A. Talbert (The Kenneth Nebenzahl, Jr., Lectures in the History of Cartography). Pp. ix + 264, figs. 107, color pls. 9. University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2012. $65. ISBN 978-0-226-78937-8 (cloth).


Interest in ancient geography has grown in recent years, thanks in no small part to Talbert's Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World (Princeton 2000). The chapters presented in this book began as the University of Chicago's 2007 16th Kenneth Nebenzahl, Jr., Lectures in the History of Cartography, also organized by Talbert, which celebrated the 20th anniversary of the first volume of the History of Cartography (J.B. Harley and D. Woodward, eds. [Chicago 1987]). The impact of that work, along with subsequent entries in the series, would be hard to overstate. As Talbert notes, however, it was written when there were comparatively few experts on ancient maps and mapping, often with entrenched opinions, and despite its editors' best intentions, the book's comprehensiveness was at times hampered by an overly conservative outlook.

The book under review seeks to provide a new introduction to the subject that takes account of recent developments; as such, it is not a critical reappraisal of Harley and Woodward's first volume per se. This is a both sensible and pragmatic approach, especially now that the earlier work is available online from the University of Chicago Press as an open access PDF. It certainly succeeds in this goal, although its short title, Ancient Perspectives, offers a better summary than the subtitle, as two of the seven chapters are dedicated to noncartographic topics. Far from being extraneous, these are very welcome additions that help to deepen our understanding of spatial thinking in antiquity. The book covers a period extending from the mid third millennium B.C.E. to 500 C.E., with the exception of one much earlier inclusion, the "Çatal Hüyük map," discussed below. As is perhaps to be expected from a text derived from individual lectures by separate academics, there is considerable variation in style among its chapters, but it manages to remain clear and accessible throughout.

In the first chapter, Rochberg focuses not only on mapping traditions across multiple Mesopotamian civilizations but also on plans, itineraries, and celestial charts. Given the scarcity of hard evidence from later eras, cuneiform tablets and other engraved sources display a remarkable diversity of practice, demonstrating that the ability to represent space at all scales—from architectural plans to the known world—long precedes the examples from classical antiquity. The chapter provides an excellent overview of the material that illustrates each genre of mapping. Its only significant failing is the presentation of the "Çatal Hüyük map" as a spatial representation of a Neolithic settlement. While the earlier interpretation may appear plausible when divorced from the archaeological context, there is no longer any significant justification for treating it as a map. Recent scholarship by Meece ("A Bird's Eye View—of a Leopard's Spots: The Çatal­höyük 'Map' and the Development of Cartographic Representation in Prehistory," AnatSt 56 [2006] 1–16) shows clearly that the symbolism within the image is part of a well-documented repertoire of leopard skin imagery and abstract tessellating patterns. This has important consequences for both the chapter and the book, not least because it brings forward by several millennia the terminus ante quem for the origins of mapping as we think of it today.

Chapter 2 discusses the evidence for mapping from Pharaonic Egypt. It presents something of a challenge to its author (O'Connor), as, apart from a remarkable full-color map on papyrus illustrating the route to a gold mine—rather confusingly and inaccurately referred to as "The Oldest Known Geographic Map in the World" (59)—most Egyptian "maps" appear to have been highly symbolic in nature. Nevertheless, while O'Connor is forced to work the evidence hard, his readings are original and insightful and form a stimulating introduction to the subject area, and they are an important reminder that there are many ways to describe physical and political space.

If the Egyptian material is difficult, then Irby is faced with one of the greatest paradoxes of ancient geography: despite its inestimable importance to the development of post-Medieval cartography, we have almost no extant examples of Greek maps whatsoever, with the exception of medieval reproductions accompanying Ptolemy's Geographike Hyphegesis (itself a Graeco-Roman hybrid). Fortunately, the textual tradition is much stronger—if inevitably not as strong as we would like—and Irby does a fine job of explaining key developments among the Greek geographers. If one were to find criticism with this contribution, it is only in the traditional but problematic tendency to "reconstruct" maps for which our evidence base remains extremely sparse and that may well have looked quite different from those presented here.

Jones' chapter deviates considerably in tone from those before it. It is dedicated to the work of a single individual, upon whom not only a great deal of our knowledge of ancient geography depends, but from whom a great deal of our practice is derived: Claudius Ptolemy. Those seeking a discussion solely of the Geographike Hyphegesis should consult Jones' translation and commentary on the theoretical chapters (L. Berggren and A. Jones, Ptolemy's Geography: An Annotated Translation of the Theoretical Chapters [Princeton 2000]) or ideally the complete Greek and German critical editions (A. Stückelberger and G. Graßhoff, Ptolemaios: Handbuch der Geographie [Basel 2006]; A. Stückelberger and F. Mittenhuber, Ptolemaios: Handbuch der Geographie. Ergänzungsband [Basel 2009]). This chapter provides something else of value: a rounded perspective on Ptolemy's wider philosophical agenda. There is an unfortunate tendency for scholars to study his works independently of one another, to which this paper offers an important corrective. Given Ptolemy's influence on our interpretation of so much else, it makes highly recommended reading for anyone with an interest in Greek and Roman science.

In chapter 5, Lewis takes us in an entirely new direction with a discussion of Greek and Roman surveying methods and equipment. This chapter is perhaps the most likely to be of interest to archaeologists without a direct interest in the history of cartography, providing some important insights into the challenges faced by Roman engineers. It is quite experimental in nature, which helps to introduce some new ideas to the debate, but on occasion it leaves the reader wondering the extent to which evidence that a technique could have been used by Roman surveyors can support an argument that it was so used.

Chapter 6, by Talbert, returns to a more introductory tone, offering an overview of Roman maps that largely focuses on the "map of Agrippa," the Forma Urbis Romae, and the Peutinger map. Talbert is arguably the world's foremost authority on the last, and he has a number of important things to say about it, although those seeking the full arguments behind his more revisionist interpretations will need to consult his recent book, Rome's World (Cambridge 2010).

Salway's final chapter is another change in tone and perhaps the most original contribution. As with chapter 5, it focuses on noncartographic aspects of geography, in this case Roman texts. His central insight, which he exploits in a variety of ways, is that writers must collapse two spatial dimensions into a single textual one. This forces them to order their works, and thus their world, in ways that can betray intentional or unintentional biases. Even if many of the conclusions he draws are tentative, it is an important observation and one that is likely to continue to bear fruit.

Overall, the book provides an excellent single-volume introduction, and several chapters offer new insights to the specialist as well. The diversity in approach is not simply the result of authorial style but of the very different sources of evidence available to us for each period. As increasing numbers of maps and texts become available digitally and online, questions about ancient geographic practice are multiplying. Like the History of Cartography before it, this book will help introduce a new generation of scholars to a field that still has much to reveal.

Leif Isaksen
Department of Archaeology
University of Southampton
Southampton SO17 1BF
United Kingdom

Book Review of Ancient Perspectives: Maps and Their Place in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome, edited by Richard J.A. Talbert

Reviewed by Leif Isaksen

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 4 (October 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1174.Isaksen

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <fa> <span> <i>
Click "Save" to submit your comment. Please allow some time for your post to be moderated.