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Through the Lens of History – Vision 14: “You can’t get there from here” Maps in the West from the Ancient World to the Middle Ages

13 August, 2010

Through the Lens of History: Using History for Better Gaming
Vision 14: “You can’t get there from here”
Maps in the West from the Ancient World to the Middle Ages

Maps are more than ways to show how to get from place to place; they are tools to help us understand the world. Ancient Greek maps placed the Oracle at Delphi at the center of the world, and medieval European maps made Jerusalem the central point. Both illustrate important aspects of how these cultures viewed the world and their place in it.Part I – The History

The oldest known map dates to between 6,300 and 6,100 BCE in Çatal Höyük (a prehistoric site in Anatolia, Turkey). It outlines a town plan showing some eighty buildings with a volcano (possibly erupting) in the background. There are fragmentary maps from Egypt and the Fertile Crescent region dating back to 2,300 BCE. Maps started becoming more common after 600 BCE, with surviving plans on papyrus from Egypt and molded clay tablets from Assyria and Babylon. It is about this time that the Greeks began to turn their creativity to maps.

We are told, by Strabo, writing around 10 BCE, that the first world map was compiled by Anaximander in the early sixth century BCE. This was followed soon afterwards by a treatise on geography by Hecataeus that showed the world as a disc. Both of these philosophers were of the school of thought that accepted the Homeric theory of a disc-shaped world encircled by the great river Okeanus with Delphi and the Aegean at the center of the habitable world. The Pythagorean theory of a spherical world, formulated shortly thereafter, was taken up by Plato, Herodotus and Aristotle, and gradually won acceptance throughout the Hellenic world.

The greatest collection of information on maps and geography was Strabo’s 17-volume Geographica which summarized the study of geography up until that point (fortunately for historians, as most of the sources he drew upon did not survive but at least Strabo’s references remain). Strabo’s work -as well as his miscalculation of the circumference of the world- was later used by Claudius Ptolemy, a Greek mathematician, astronomer and geographer, to write his Geographia (in a mere eight volumes) in 150 AD. Ptolemy’s book was, it is said, illustrated with a world map, 26 regional maps and a multitude of smaller maps, none of which have survived, though the book itself has (and some historians are unsure if the maps existed at all). While Ptolemy’s work was written at the height of Roman Imperial power it seem to have little or no contact with Roman mapping practices which were concerned with practical rather than scientific matters.

The earliest recorded Roman survey map dates to 167-164 BCE. The Romans seem to have preferred square or rectangular maps which suited the Roman fashion of placing a large map on the wall of a temple or colonnade. For the Roman, maps were practical tools for showing land ownership and planning buildings. The Roman developed many tools to assist in accurate surveying as new colonies needed to be divided quickly, properly and legally. Surveyors were needed to plan the roads, cities and fortifications that the Roman world depended on.

Around 10 BCE, Orbis Terrarum (Survey of the World), begun by Vipsanius Agrippa, son-in-law of the Emperor Augustus, was finished under Augustus’ direction two years after Agrippa’s death. The map, which does not survive, is believed to have shown the known world of the Romans. It covered a wall of a portico in Rome named after Agrippa. The map was annotated so that anyone planning to travel could further investigate his or her route. Sadly, none of this survives except as referenced by other authors.

The Romans used maps in an attempt to impose order and control on the lands they conquered. One of the forms of maps used was the itinerary map which was organized in a linear fashion, noting distances between cities with descriptions of the main geographic features. Entirely a tool to guide travelers on their way from one place to another, the itinerary map survived well into the Middle Ages, especially as a guide for pilgrims.

The Greeks, and later, Romans, often traveled by sea. Records of these journeys were called periploi (from peroplus, a sailing around or coastal voyage). These recorded the coastlines and landmarks, gave rough estimations of distances and suggested routes. One such work Ora Maritima (‘sea-shore’) , written in verse, by Senator Rufus Festus Avienius in the 4th century CE, details his travels from Massilia (Marseilles, France) to Gades (Cadiz, Spain). Avienius’ record is of particular interest as the coast west of Marseilles has changed drastically since ancient times. Some periploi included detailed trading information, what to trade, what to trade for and (in some cases) what gifts to give to the local ruler.

With the fall of the Roman Empire, much of the technology of mapmaking was lost. Some knowledge of map making methods remained available in the Byzantine Empire, but even there skills declined. In Byzantium, in the fifth century CE, Cosmas Indicopleustes, a widely traveled Alexandrian merchant and later convert to Christianity, was a believer in a flat world with the heavens above. Cosmas argued for such a view of the world, incorporating both Greek and Old Testament elements, and expounded on such views through his written works such as the Christian Topography, in twelve volumes (his works on geography and astronomy are lost).

Elsewhere in Christendom, the view of the Earth as flat returned to vogue with the so called T-O maps, these showed the world as a disc with a T the division between the three continents of the ancient world, Africa, Europe and (western) Asia, and the O describing the surrounding ocean. Jerusalem is usually, but not always, at the center of these maps. The first T-O maps appear circa 700 CE and they quickly became common throughout Western Christendom.

While large-scale cartography suffered from the loss of education and access to the works of the Greek and Roman writers, the practical use of maps for planning, continued as is evidenced by such work as the precisely drawn plans for the monastery of St Gall (St Gallen) in Switzerland. Drafted between 816-23 CE and placed on a grid with a scale of 2.5 Carolingian feet per square, the St Gall plan shows that not all Roman knowledge was lost and that practical mapping continued to be used.

It was not until after the rediscovery of lost Greek and Roman works during the Renaissance that European scientists, explorers and map makers discovered the next set of conceptual tools needed to advance into a more scientific age of cartography. But that is a story for another time.

Part II- Breaking it apart and putting it back together

Maps have always had an intrinsic value beyond what they mapped. They show a part of the world that you can hold in your hand (or at least touch.) They show you much more than you can see by just looking out over the land. With maps you can see what lies beyond the next hill or where the river goes. But, of course, maps are not always accurate . . .

Maps are valuable; they can help you locate what you need, be it a lost city or the right place to trade for emeralds. Maps can define ownership, borders and political alignments. All of which can be useful, especially if your country is in a war. Border incidents can be so nasty.

The classic use of maps in gaming is the treasure map. But the territory that a map covers can change considerably over time (especially following cataclysmic events). An itinerary map would be the perfect choice for such a plot, as the characters would have to figure out what has charged at each stage and which way they have to go to get to the next part of the map.

Map can be politically valuable, as they may show claims and borders as they were originally fixed. For example, the original map showing the border between two aristocratic estates (or two nations) is needed to settle a land dispute that is near to spilling over into violence. Unfortunately, the map is in a distant monastery archive and must be retrieved before things go too far.

Or a map might show the way to an abandoned mine, lost because of shifting trade patterns or the threat of war. Maps of this sort might be used as the bait for a classic confidence game. (“My grandfather used to work in the mine before the territory was overrun by the Duke’s men. But he left me a map showing the way there.”).

Supplemental d20 Material:

New Feats

Expert Surveyor [General]

You have a good eye and better hand for practical mapping and surveying.

Prerequisites: Knowledge (geography) 1 rank, Perception 1 rank, Wisdom 11.

Benefit: You gain a +3 bonus to Profession (surveyor) checks and a +2 bonus to Craft (mapmaking) checks when making a map from direct observation. Further, you have a +3 bonus to Perception checks made to determine distance to or size of an object.

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