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Map - Orbis Terrarum - Ancient Rome's "The Whole World"

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Greece: The First Map

The Greek geographers of the 5th and 6th Centuries B.C. represented the earth as a disk floating on a sea called the river Ocean (Okeanos) which flowed around the earth. At the center of the map is the Greek city Delphi, which was the center of the world. The first map was drawn by Anaximander of Miletus (c. 611-543).

Herodotus wrote in his History (4.36, tr. Grene) that the many Greeks who had drawn maps have not given the world a reasonable appearance because they have misrepresented the sizes and shapes and the earth's divisions, but they draw "Ocean flowing round an earth that is as circular as though traced by compasses, and they make Asia of the same size as Europe"; what is more, Herodotus says, "I do not know that there is any river Ocean, but I think that Homer or one of the older poets found the name and introduced it into his poetry" (ibid. 2.23).

The first Greek map of the known (and imagined) world, 10 KB

Map Source: based on "Anaximander - The First Map", drafted by Nina Thiel following the coastlines of W.H. Heidel. Reproduced in Brumbaugh, The Philosophers of Greece (1966), page 22. Herodotus 4.36 is quoted in the image's caption, but in a different translation from Grene's above.

Rome: Orbis Terrarum

Although the spherical shape of the earth was well-supported by the time of Aristotle, the Romans continued to use the early Greek representation. The Romans called their map simply Orbis Terrarum ("The Whole World").

Roman World Map, 18 KB

Map Source: "The Orbis Terrarum of the Romans" drawn by Erwin Raisz. Reproduced in Encyclopedia Americana 1954, vol. 18, page 258.

Roman map-makers placed the East at the top of their maps, perhaps, to speculate wildly, because east is the direction from which the sun rises. In the Middle Ages places to the east were called "the Levant", from the Latin levare meaning "to rise". However, the Romans used the verb oriri for "rising" when applied to the sun, moon and stars, a word from which came oriens meaning "the east", "the morning" or "the rising sun", from which comes the English language word "Orient".

A Tour of Rome's "World"

The Ocean Sea

Around the entire "World" flowed Ocean (Phaedo 112e), not only a body of water but also a powerful god (Ocean was one of the Titans, the Elder Gods; Prometheus, Atlas and Epimetheus were Ocean's grandchildren). For his first voyage to the east Columbus was granted the title "Admiral of the Ocean Sea", because that was the sea he intended to sail to the East.

Beginning in Africa at the Strait of Gibraltar came Mauretania, off the coast of which lay the islands called by the Romans the Insulae fortunatae. To the east lay Numidia, followed by Cyrene, Libya and Egypt, which to the south of all lay Ethiopia. These were followed by the Arabian peninsula.

In the East lay Palestine, then Syria, at the southwestern tip of which, on the Phoenician coast, lay the cities of Sidon and Tyrus (which for its resistance Alexander "the Great" razed). It was from the Phoenicians that the Greeks and (thence the Romans, maybe by way of the Etruscans, and therefore) we ourselves have our phonetic alphabet (Athens adopted the twenty-four-letter alphabet of Miletus in 403 B.C.; unlike the Phoenicians, the Greeks also used letters to represent vowels and they wrote left to right): in our written language letters or combinations of letters represent sounds rather than ideas (unlike the hieroglyphs of Egypt, for example).

Beyond Syria lay Mesopotamia bordered by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers; we still use Babylonia's 360°s as the measure of a circle. Farther east lay Parthia, Persia, Aria, and finally India bounded by the Indus and Ganges rivers.

In northern Asia lay the land of the Seres (i.e. Chinese and Tibetans; also called Sinae when approached by sea, from which comes the English language prefix "Sino-"), and then Scythia bordered by the Caspian Sea (which is shown as a harbor of the Ocean Sea).

In the transition to Europe lay Armenia and Sarmatia and "Asia Minor", bordering the Black Sea, to the southwest of which lay Thrace, and to the northwest of which lay Dacia. To the north of Dacia lay the island of Thule, which may have been Scandinavia. The Greek navigator Pytheas (c. 310 B.C.) described it as a land of midnight sun surrounded by a cold dense fog in which men could neither walk nor sail.

The Rhine separated Germania from Gallia (Gaul). The people the Romans called "Germans" lived east of the Rhine and north of the Danube rivers. To the northwest lay Britannia. Bordering the Mediterranean were Hispania, Italia, Illyria, and finally Greece.

The word 'Europe' was first used by the Greeks to indicate central Greece, then the whole Greek mainland, and by 500 B.C. all the land to the north and west of Greece as well. The boundary between Europe and Asia was the Don River.

The Romans called the Mediterranean Sea Mare Nostrum ("Our Sea"). "We live round this sea," Plato wrote, "like frogs round a pond" (Phaedo 109b; tr. Tredennick). He was speaking of the human beings known to his time, "we who dwell between the river Phasis [which flowed into the eastern end of the Black Sea] and the Pillars of Heracles".

Calpe (Gibraltar) was one of the pillars set up by Hercules, marked non plus ultra ("no more beyond"), signifying the impassible (to all, Pindar said) limits of the world.

The Roman "World" was not very different from the world described by Herodotus in 440 B.C., although its borders had been extended outward a ways. Japan was unknown as, of course, were the Americas. Europeans did not discover Australia until the Dutch sailed there in the early 1600s; its present name, however, comes from a land imagined by Claudius Ptolemy in the 2nd Century A.D. to connect the east coast of Africa with China, a land to which he gave the name Terra Australis ("The Southern Region").

Outline of Ptolemy's world map, 14 KB

Map Source: based on "Outline of Ptolemy's World Map", in Encyclopedia Americana 1954, vol. 18, page 258.

Note.--Tredennick's actual version is: "we live round the sea like ants or frogs round a pond". Jowett has: "just like ants or frogs about a marsh".


Continue with Chronology of the European Discovery of Sea Routes to the East.


Map-Making Developments after the Voyages of Columbus

Most of the maps drawn in the Middle Ages were copies of the Roman Orbis Terrarum. But around the year 1410 an atlas by Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria from circa 150 A.D. was translated into Latin; this atlas greatly influenced the map-makers of the Renaissance. Based on the maps of the Phoenician Marinus of Tyre, unlike the floating-disk maps of the early Greeks and of the Romans, Ptolemy's maps resemble in format the maps in use today.

The Circumference of the Earth

Various ancient Greeks had estimated the circumference of the earth, among them Aristotle, Archimedes, and Eratosthenes of Alexandria. It was the calculation made by Posidonius of Rhodes (b. ca. 135 B.C.), however, that had been accepted by Columbus, as it had also been by Ptolemy. But this estimation had turned out to be much too small, just as Columbus's estimation of the length of Asia had turned out to be much too large. Columbus had believed Asia to be much closer to Europe than it is.

Giovanni Matteo Contarini's 1506 World Map, 9 KB

The map above by Giovanni Matteo Contarini of 1506 shows a partly Columbus-esque view of the world. Although the map does not use the too-small circumference of Posidonius, it does show a greatly elongated Asia. Contarini located "Kathay" (Cathay or China) north of the Caribbean islands Columbus discovered. And "Zipagu" (Japan, the land where the sun rises) is shown not too far to the west of the islands. (Pedro Cabral's Ilha da Vera Cruz is here called Terra S. Crucis.)

Diogo Ribero's 1529 World Map, 5 KB

Diogo Ribero's 1529 copy of Spain's padrón real ("Royal Regulation, or, Pattern, or, Standard") names the South American continent Mundus Novus ("New World") and Central America Nueva Espagna ("New Spain"). With the exception of the western coast of the Americas and the far North and South, this map shows the earth as it is seen today. It was the first map to suggest the immense expanse of the Pacific Ocean and to correctly locate China and India.

The sources for much of the last three paragraphs above were the article "Map" by Erwin Raisz in Encyclopedia Americana 1954, and The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2nd Edition (1970).

In 1501 Amerigo Vespucci explored the eastern coast of South America as far south as Buenos Aires. The first map to use the name "America" was drawn in 1507 by Martin Waldseemüller in Alsace. That map and the text that introduced it were the origin of the name "America" applied to the quarta orbis pars -- "the fourth region of the world" -- i.e. fourth after the other three regions: Europe, Africa and Asia. Because a thousand copies of Waldseemüller's map were printed, it was much more widely distributed than earlier manuscript maps which had had to be redrawn each time by hand.


The URL of this Web page: https://www.roangelo.net/valente/terrarum.html
Last revised: 12 December 2019 : 2019-12-12 (Earlier revision 20 April 2008) by Robert [Wesley] Angelo.

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