The classical world

The subject of teaching Latin in schools has been in the news lately.  Go back a few hundred years, and learning about ancient languages and civilisations was a fundamental part of education. Fascination with classical learning, and the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, could be expressed in maps as well as other forms. This atlas containing 36 maps of the classical world, with accompanying tables describing the organisation of the Roman Empire, has just been catalogued. All the maps date from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, and almost all are French.

This is an atlas factice – a composite atlas, assembled to order or bound by the collector – and these are always particularly exciting to deal with as you don’t know what you will find next. It has no title page, but bears the spine title “Antient mapps”. It is quite coherently organized, beginning with maps of the eastern and western parts of the Roman Empire (see above), which even include small inset maps of the eastern and western hemispheres for a global view. It goes on to include more detailed maps of the Empire’s regions, and those associated with other early civilizations such as Greece, Illyria and Scythia; then come maps of the regions of Turkey and the Colchis and Albania regions of what is now Georgia in the Caucasus.

Most of the maps don’t appear to be very common, and a detailed map of Gallia Antiquae (ancient Gaul or France), which was first made by the French mapmaker Nicolas Sanson in 1627, appears in a later revised edition by Pierre Moulart-Sanson (his grandson) with additional descriptive text for which we have not been able to find any records elsewhere. It may however appear unrecorded in atlases.

All the countries around the Mediterranean are shown as they were in the times of earlier civilisations, with Roman provinces and in some cases Roman roads marked; roads can be seen converging on the city of Rome on the map above, reminiscent of the old joke that the Roman roads ran very straight in all directions, and all led to Rome. The details of roads are sometimes derived from the Peutinger Table, a Medieval copy of a an earlier map showing the roads of the Roman Empire (you can see a copy online and have fun planning routes on Roman roads here

By modern standards the maps are not that geographically accurate. Some places are shown as being on the same latitude when they are really an enormous distance apart, and ancient sites are occasionally shown in the wrong place. The shape of the Caucasus below is somewhat different to how it would be represented on a modern map. For some of the maps it is very difficult to calculate which prime meridian is being used.

Almost all the maps are French publications, with Nicolas Sanson and his son Guillaume being most widely represented, though a few Italian ones are included. This atlas is in the Bodleian Library, but nine of the maps also appear in another composite atlas held in the library of one of the university colleges, with a manuscript title page, suggesting that these may have been available as a set. These are nearly all by the Sansons.

Antient mapps. [1660-1723] . Map Res 152