TITLE: Orbis Terrarum
DATE: A.D. 20
AUTHOR: Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa
DESCRIPTION: The profound difference between the Roman and the Greek
mind is illustrated with peculiar clarity in their maps. The Romans were
indifferent to mathematical geography, with its system of latitudes and
longitudes, its astronomical measurements, and its problem of projections.
What they wanted was a practical map to be used for military and administrative
purposes. Disregarding the elaborate projections of the Greeks, they reverted
to the old disk map of the Ionian geographers as being better adapted to
their purposes. Within this round frame the Roman cartographers placed the
Orbis Terrarum, the circuit of the world.
There are only scanty records of Roman maps of the Republic. The earliest
of which we hear, the Sardinia map of 174 B.C., clearly had a strong pictorial
element. But there is some evidence that, as we should expect from a land-based
and, at that time, well advanced agricultural people, subsequent mapping
development before Julius Caesar was dominated by land survey; the earliest
recorded Roman survey map is as early as 167-164 B.C. If land survey did
play such an important part, then these plans, being based on centuriation
requirements and therefore square or rectangular, may have influenced the
shape of smaller-scale maps. This shape was also one which suited the Roman
habit of placing a large map on a wall of a temple or colonnade. Varro (116-27
B.C.) in his De re rustica, published in 37 B.C., introduces the
speakers meeting at the temple of Mother Earth [Tellus] as they look at
Italiam pictam [Italy painted]. The context shows that he must be
talking about a map, since he makes the philosopher among his group start
with Eratosthenes'division of the world into North and South. This leads
him on to the advantages of the northern half from the point of view of
agriculture. The speakers compare Italy with Asia Minor, a country on similar
latitudes where Greeks had experience of farming. After this they discuss
in more detail the regions of Italy. As a visual aid to this discussion,
the temple map will have been envisaged as particularly helpful. But whether
it was only intended to be imagined by readers or was actually illustrated
in the book is not clear. The same applies to possible cartographic illustration
of Varro's Antiquitates rerum humanarum et divinarum, of which Books
VII-XIII dealt with Italy. But at least we know that he was keen on illustration,
since his Hebdomades vel de imaginibus, a biographical work in fifteen
books, was illustrated with as many as seven hundred portraits. Since we
are told that this work was widely circulated, some scholars have wondered
whether Varro used some mechanical means of duplicating his miniatures;
but educated slaves were plentiful, and we should almost certainly have
heard about any such device if it had existed.
Although copies of Agrippa's map were taken to all of the great cities of
the Roman Empire, not a single copy has survived. This reconstruction is
based upon data in the medieval world maps that were, in turn, derived from
Roman originals, plus textual descriptions by classical geographers such
as Strabo, Pomponius Mela and Pliny. The original was made at the command
of Agrippa's father-in-law, the Emperor Augustus (27 B.C. - A.D. 14 ), and
completed in A.D. 20. The map was presumably developed from the Roman road
itineraries, and was probably circular in shape, thus differing from the
Roman Peutinger Table (Slide #120). Shown
here are three continents in more or less symmetrical arrangements with
Asia in the east at the top of the map (hence the term orientation) . The
emphasis upon Rome is reflected in the stubby form of Italy, which made
it possible to show the Italian provinces on an enlarged scale. Moreover,
about four-fifths of the area of the map is devoted to the Roman Empire
alone. India, Seres [China], and Scythia and Sarmatia
[Russia] are reduced to small outlying regions on the periphery, thus taking
on some features similar to the egocentric maps of the Chinese.
The only reported Roman world map before Agrippa's was the one which Julius
Caesar commissioned but never lived to see completed. We are told by late
Roman and medieval sources that he employed four Greeks, who started work
on the map in 44 B.C. These were no doubt freedmen, of whom there were large
numbers in Rome, including many skilled artisans. The four regions of the
world are not self-explanatory, but what Caesar seems to have meant is as
follows: the East (by the cartographer Nicodemus), included everything to
the east of Asia Minor; the West (by Didymus), included Europe except Greece,
Macedonia and Thrace; the North (by Theodotus), included Greece, Macedonia,
Thrace and Asia Minor; and the South (by Polyclitus), included all of Africa.
If Romans were planning this, they would place the northern section much
further west, whereas the cartographers were Greeks, and they followed a
tradition which originated in Rhodes or Alexandria.
We may speculate whether this map was flat and circular, even though such
a shape might have been considered 'unscientific' and poorly adapted to
the shape of the known world. That is the form of the Hereford world
map (Slide #226), which seriously
distorts the relative positions and sizes of areas of the world in a way
we should not imagine Julius Caesar and his technicians would have. A late
Roman geographical manual gives totals of geographical features in this
lost map with recording names, but even the totals turn out on examination
to be unreliable.
Agrippa's map was compiled to further Roman imperial expansion. M. Vipsanius
Agrippa (64/63-12 B.C.) was one of the earliest supporters of the young
Octavian in his fight to establish himself as Julius Caesar's heir. He first
became prominent as governor of Gaul, where he improved the road system
and put down a rebellion in Aquitania. He pacified the area near Cologne
(later founded as a Roman colony) by settling the Ubii at their request
on the west bank of the Rhine. In 37 B.C. he was a consul and built Octavian
a fleet which enabled him the following year to defeat Sextus Pompeius in
Sicily; Agrippa as admiral of this fleet used a new type of grapnel devised
by him. His greatest victory was in 31 B.C. when off Actium, near Preveza
in western Greece, Octavian and he defeated Antony and Cleopatra. He was
one of the main helpers of Octavian when in 27 B.C. the latter was invested
with special powers and the title Augustus. In 23 B.C. Augustus, as he was
ill, handed his signet-ring to Agrippa, thus indicating him as acting emperor.
The same year Agrippa was given charge of all the eastern pans of the Empire,
with headquarters at Mitylene. In 21 B.C. he returned to Rome and married
Augustus' daughter Julia. After he had put down the Cantabri of northern
Spain in 19 B.C., he returned to Rome more permanently and was given additional
favors. From 17/16 to 13 B.C. he was pacifying the eastern provinces, and
in 12 B.C. went to Pannonia, but died shortly after his return.
Augustus had a practical interest in sponsoring the new map of the inhabited
world entrusted to Agrippa. On the re-establishment of peace after the civil
wars, he was determined on the one hand to found new colonies to provide
land for discharged veterans, on the other hand to build up a new image
of Rome as the benevolent head of a vast empire. Mapping enabled him to
carry out these objectives and to perfect a task begun by Julius Caesar.
It became, among other things, a useful tool in the propaganda of imperial
Rome. Agrippa was an obvious choice as composer of such a map, being a navalman
who had travelled widely and had an interest in the technical side. He must
have had plans drawn, and may even have devised and used large-scale maps
to help him with the conversion of Lake Avemus and the Lacus Lucrinus into
The world map, incomplete at Agrippa's death in 12 B.C., was completed by
Augustus himself. It was erected in Rome on the wall of a portico named
after Agrippa, which extended along the east side of the Via Lata
[modern Via del Corso]. This portico, of which fragments have been found
near Via del Tritone, was usually called Porticus Vipsania, but may
have been the same as the one which Martial calls Porticus Europæ,
probably from a painting of Europa on its walls. The building of this colonnade
was under taken by Agrippa's sister Vipsania Polla. The date at which the
building was started is not known, but it was still incomplete in 7 B.C.
Whether the map was painted or engraved on the wall we do not know. The
theory that it was circular is in conflict with a shape that would suit
a colonnade wall. Some scholars believe that the map is even likely to have
been rectangular, probably with north rather than south at the top.
The chief ancient writer who refers to Agrippa's map is the elder Pliny,
who frequently quotes Agrippa by name; though whether in most cases his
source is the map or the commentary is hard to say. Pliny's most specific
reference to the map is where he records that the length of Bætica,
the southern Spanish province, given as 475 Roman miles and its width as
258 Roman miles, whereas the width could still be correct, depending on
how it was calculated. Pliny continues: 'Who would believe that Agrippa,
a very careful man who took great pains over his work, should, when he was
going to set up the map to be looked at by the people of Rome, have made
this mistake, and how could Augustus have accepted it? For it was Augustus
who, when Agrippa's sister had begun building the portico, carried through
the scheme from the intention and notes [commentarii] of M. Agrippa.'
In point of fact Augustus may have delegated the detailed checking to one
of his freedmen, such as his librarian C. Iulius Hyginus. Certain phases
in Pliny lead one to suppose that they came from a commentary, not a map.
Thus Agrippa is said to have written that the whole coast of the Caspian
from the Casus River consists of very high cliffs, which prevent landing
for 425 miles. If the commentary had not been continuous, but had merely
served as supplementary notes where required, there is a possibility that
by Pliny's time, some eighty years later, it might have gone out of circulation.
Two late geographical writings, the Divisio orbis and the Dimensuratio
provinciarum (commonly abbreviated to Divisio and Dimensuratio
) may be thought to come from Agrippa, because they show similarities
with Pliny's figures. There are, however, cases, e.g. the combined measurements
of Macedonia, Thrace and the Hellespont, which agree with Pliny on areas
where he does not name Agrippa but may nevertheless in fact have been using
We may treat as secondary sources Orosius, Historiae adversum paganos,
and the Irish geographical writer Dicuil (AD 825). Orosius seems to have
read, and followed fairly closely, both Agrippa and Pliny, as well as early
writers from Eratosthenes onwards. Dicuil tells us that he followed Pliny
except where he had reason to believe that Pliny was wrong.
It is also claimed that Strabo obtained his figures for Italy, Corsica,
Sardinia and Sicily from Agrippa. His source was clearly one commissioned
by Romans, not Greeks, as his figures for those areas are in miles, not
stades. But Strabo never names this source, referring only to 'the chorographer'.
Such a word certainly ties up with Divisio I: 'The world is divided
up into three parts, named Europe, Asia, Libya or Africa. Augustus was the
first to show it [the world] by chorography.' Evidently there is a slight
difference of meaning between this and Ptolemy's definition, by which chorography
refers to regional mapping.
Although the term chorographia literally means 'regional topography',
it seems to include fairly detailed cartography of the known world. The
Agrippa map probably did not, in the absence of any mention, use any system
of latitude and longitude. It no doubt inherited a system of regional shapes
from Eratosthenes. It is, as one might expect, more accurate in well-known
than less-known parts, and more accurate for land than for sea areas. From
the quotations given by Dilke, there would appear to be a general tendency
by Agrippa to underestimate land distances in Gaul, Germany and in the Far
East, and to overestimate sea distances. If west Africa is any guide, in
areas where distances were not well established, they were probably entered
only very selectively. What purpose was served by giving a width for the
long strip from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea is not clear.
For a more complete assessment of what Agrippa wrote or ordered to be put
on his map, we may turn to passages where Pliny quotes him specifically
as reference. These include both land and sea measurements, though the most
common are lengths and breadths of provinces or groups of provinces. In
this context, length normally means the greater of the two measurements.
The fact that for continental measurements it also usually means west-east
or north-west/south-east is largely coincidental. Although the words used
are longitudo and latitudo, they have no connection with longitudinal and
latitudinal degree divisions. Dilke provides a detailed discussion of Agrippa's
measurements using quotes from the elder Pliny's Natural History.
It is a pity that Pliny, who seems to be chiefly interested in measurements,
gives us so little other information about Agrippa's map. For a general
description, however, of what is meant by chorography we may turn to Strabo
ii.5.17 (as mentioned above,Strabo nowhere names Agrippa as his source):
It is the sea above all which shapes and defines the land, fashioning gulfs,
oceans and straits, and likewise isthmuses, peninsulas and promontories.
But rivers and mountains too help with this. It is through such features
that continents, nations, favorable sites of cities, and other refinements
have been conceived, features of which a regional [chorographic map is full;
one also finds a quantity of islands scattered over the seas and along the
Clearly Agrippa's map had many of the above features, but whether n also
contained main roads is uncertain. But on the credit side, Agrippa's map,
sponsored by Augustus, was obviously an improvement on that of Julius Caesar
on which it is likely to have been based. The fact that such an insignificant
and distant place as Charax was named on the map shows the detail which
it embodied. Moreover it seems to have been the first Latin map to be accompanied
by notes or commentary. Romans going to colonies, particularly outside Italy,
could obtain information about the location or characteristics of a particular
place. Also the full extent of the Roman Empire could be seen at a glance.
Certain medieval maps, including the Hereford and Ebstorf
world maps (Slides #224
and #226) are now
believed to have been derived from the Orbis Terraum of Agrippa,
and point to the existence of a series of maps, now lost, which carried
the traditions of Roman cartography into Christian Europe. The small T-O
maps so popular in later Roman times may, themselves, have been derived
from reductions of the Agrippa map (these were the ubiquitous type of diagrammatic
map of the world inserted in many geographical treatises of the later Roman/early
Medieval period) .
LOCATION: (this map only exists as reconstruction)
Bagrow, L., History of Cartography, p. 37.
Dilke, O.A.W., Greek and Roman Maps, pp. 39-53.
*Raisz, E., General Cartography, pp. 12-13.