I’d originally intended to include maps in my list of Ten Things the Romans Didn’t Have, but then realised that it’s not quite that simple, and the subject deserves its own post.

Picture the command tent of a Roman general on campaign, his subordinate officers gathered for a briefing. It’s difficult to imagine this scene without a map being present somewhere; how else is the general to explain his plans? Perhaps the map is drawn on a scroll, unrolled upon the table. Perhaps it’s much larger, and fixed to a frame – the general maybe has a stick, to point out the important details… Maps are so much part of our idea of strategic and tactical planning, it’s hard to see how an army could have operated without them.

And yet, the Romans apparently did just that for a large part of their history. The Latin language has no word for what we would consider an accurate scale map – mappa just means a sort of posh table napkin. Ancient literature has several examples of Romans – even high ranking ones – becoming completely lost while trying to get from one place to another, and having to rely on local guides. In one instance, Julius Caesar lost track of his army while trying to find his way around Gaul.

But this did not mean that Romans had no conception of the shape of the world around them. Far from it – late Roman mosaics from Ammaedara in North Africa and Madaba in modern Jordan show large-scale pictorial landscapes with the coastlines and the names of the cities gorgeously illustrated. But these landscapes are not maps – they are decorative rather than functional. Nobody could navigate their way around the islands of the Mediterranean using the Ammaedara map – for a start, some of islands appear more than once!

Nevertheless, the Romans were capable of visualising large spaces in a more schematic way. The so-called Forma Urbis, or ‘Severan marble plan’, was an enormous map of the city of Rome, inscribed onto marble panels and originally erected on one inside wall of the Temple of Peace, close to the Forum. Its original purpose is rather obscure, but it may have been connected to the office of the Praefectus Urbis, or prefect of the city. Fragments of it survive today, and allow us to guess what the complete plan might have looked like. The level of detail is extraordinary – even the internal walls of houses are plotted, which must have been a gift for potential burglars – and would perhaps have been enhanced by coloured paint in situ.

One of the surviving fragments of the marble plan of Rome.

One of the surviving fragments of the marble plan of Rome.

But even this plan is not drawn to an accurate scale, nor was it ever altered. In fact, it may have been as decorative in its intention as the mosaic landscapes of Ammaedara and Madaba; the ‘real’ city map, if there was one, was perhaps transcribed onto papyrus or vellum sheets and regularly updated.

The closest thing to a larger-scale map in the ancient world was the itinerary, a sort of route guide to major destinations, noting the stopping places and the distances between them. Using one of these lists, an ancient traveller could follow the excellent Roman road network from one end of the empire to another, with a good chance of arriving in the right place. Luckily, several of these ancient itineraries survive today, giving us a good idea of how people in the Roman world might have planned their journeys. One of the most famous even survives in illustrated form, albeit as a medieval copy. The Peutinger Table, as it’s commonly known, shows a plan of road routes and cities across the world, from Britain to India, although the furthest western section is lost.

Section of the Peutinger Table, showing northwest Europe, the Rhine, northern Spain and the south coast of Britain

Section of the Peutinger Table, showing northwest Europe, the Rhine, northern Spain and the south coast of Britain

The dimensions of the Peutinger plan appear strange to us today. It’s possible that the original was displayed on the wall of a public portico, perhaps in Rome: at least one such ‘world plan’ is known from ancient literature. This would explain why the lay of the land has been oddly stretched and folded, to fit a long narrow space.

The late Roman writer Vegetius mentions that written itineraries had a military function too:

[The general] should have itineraries of all regions in which war is being waged written out in the fullest detail, so that he may learn the distances between places in terms of the number of miles and the quality of roads, and examine short-cuts, by-ways, mountains and rivers, accurately described.

Some of these itineraries appear to have been pictorial, although Vegetius implies that this was a rare thing by his day:

Indeed, the more conscientious generals reportedly had itineraries of the provinces… not just annotated but illustrated as well, so that they could choose their route when setting out by the visual aspect as well as by mental calculation
Vegetius, De Rei Militari, III.6

We do have an example of this sort of ‘illustrated itinerary’, or what might approximate one, from a military context. A fragment of leather shield cover discovered at Dura Europos in Syria (dated to c.AD257) shows a part of the Black Sea coast, with the towns along the way, and even an oversized ship to provide a ‘visual aspect’ to the scene.

Dura Europos map

So can we call these ‘illustrated itineraries’ or itineraria picta ‘maps’? Probably not, in the modern sense. The view they give of the world is abstract, like a diagram. The London Underground map might provide a good analogy. Fine for tracing a route from point to point, but not much use for determining actual distances or the relation of one place to another. Anyone leaving the main arterial roads would have found their itinerary fairly useless.

Nevertheless, for the Romans these itineraries clearly sufficed, and, as Vegetius points out, they were used as we would use more accurate scale maps today. They would enable a Roman general to plan his campaign strategy, sending his troops to certain destinations and giving him a good idea of how long they might take to get there.

What about tactical maps? Obviously an itinerary would be of little use with that. But we should remember that, in an age before long-range weapons and motorised transport, most battles took place in a very limited area. The average battlefield was only a few miles square. If the general wanted to explain his tactical plan to his officers, he could very easily have taken them out of the gloom of the command tent and onto some suitably prominent place, and simply pointed at the features of the landscape that would play a part in the coming battle!