Ancient cartography is generally not a subject that will fill a room. However, this was not the case with the energetic lecture “The Magnificent Peutinger Map: Roman Cartography at Its Most Creative,” given by Dr. Richard Talbert at Knox this past Tuesday.
Dr. Talbert, the William Rand Kenan, Jr., Professor of Ancient History and Classics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has devoted a large chunk of his life to studying a unique item known as the Peutinger Map, a large map of the Roman Empire likely made in the third century.
Though the original map has long since been lost to history, a copy made during the 12th century in Germany still exists and has provided Dr. Talbert and scholars like him with a treasure trove of insights into the Roman worldview.
The lecture began with Dr. Talbert pointing out that although the Romans had access to fairly advanced mapmaking ability for their day, the Peutinger Map displays very little of those skills. Instead, it is one foot tall and twenty-two feet long, depicting the world from the Atlantic Ocean to what is now India, with Rome placed prominently in the center.
Given that Rome is not actually halfway between the Atlantic Ocean and India, a fair amount of creativity was required to pull this off successfully. Dr. Talbert described how the Roman mapmakers used tricks such as making Italy horizontal, eliminating most of the Mediterranean Sea and making the entire Indian subcontinent roughly the size of France to achieve the effect they wanted.
Why then, is a copy of a wildly distorted map considered in the eyes of Dr. Talbert to be a “masterpiece?” Partially because it still is very accurate in some ways. The mileage markings between towns, for example, were correct and suggest that the Peutinger map could have been used as a sort of primitive road map. But mostly because the mapmakers did not set out to accurately depict the ancient world.
Rather, their goal was to show the glory of the Roman Empire at its largest, and in that they succeeded admirably. The sheer size of the map, with its innumerable details, could not have failed to impress the ancient viewer with the might of Roman power, encompassing and showing in great detail most of the known world.
Knox students also came away fairly impressed, not by the majesty of the Roman Emperor, but with Dr. Talbert. “He was a very good speaker,” said sophomore Alex Domasik, “He was also very enthusiastic about history and had a genuine interest in people’s questions.”
“Really interesting,” added junior Liann Amarlo, “In the end I realized maps are much more than road maps.”
Visiting Assistant Professor of History Danielle Fatkin proclaimed it, “one of the best lecture’s I’ve ever heard.” She came away impressed with the ability of the ancient cartographers to use their skills for glorifying their emperor and his territory so effectively. Dr. Fatkin also thought it important that the lecture had helped show Knox students how things they consider value-neutral such as maps may actually be laden with hidden ideological content.
This event was sponsored by the Archeological Institute of America (AIA) as part of its ongoing mission to educate the public on the importance of preserving the past. This is the third year that Knox has hosted lectures by national speakers from the AIA.
Knox, along with Monmouth College and Augustana College, will host several more AIA lectures this year on a wide variety of topics, the next of which will be held at Knox on October 3 and will be on the topic of the Athenian Agora.