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Mathematical Treasure: The Peutinger Map

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Frank J. Swetz (Pennsylvania State University)

The Peutinger Map

One of the most fascinating extant documents from antiquity is the Peutinger map. This is a cursus publicus, a road map of the Roman Empire. The copy existing today was compiled by a monk in 1265 from existing maps dating back to the Roman general and statesman Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (ca. 64 -12 BCE). Contained in eleven parchment scrolls, in total 6.75 meters long, this copy found its way in 1507 to the antiquarian Konrad Peutinger of Augsburg from whom it obtained its name. In 1737 the document was purchased for the Habsburg Imperial Court and eventually given to the Austrian National Library where it remains today.

The road map accurately depicts the network of Roman roads that extended from the Atlantic coast of Europe to almost as far as India, and even indicates the existence of China. Roads are indicated in red ink with the mileage given for each segment of a zigzag path. Each segment of this path indicates a possible day’s travel at the time, with inns, baths, and towns symbolized. While the road system was correctly drawn, topographical and geographical features were distorted and presented in a schematic form. The segment shown above is primarily of the tip of Italy with the Dalmatian coast at the top and the northern coast of Africa at the bottom. At the peak of the Empire, Rome had 53,000 miles of roads; some were even two-lane highways. Rome’s first super-highway was begun in 312 BCE by Appius Claudius Caecus, Director of Public Works. Called the “Appian Way” and nicknamed “The Queen of Roads,” it was 33 feet wide and extended for 112 miles. It is believed that the Peutinger Map was constructed to demonstrate the scope of Imperial Rome’s power; for more information, see Rome's World: The Peutinger Map Reconsidered (Cambridge University Press, 2010) by leading scholar of ancient Mediterranean maps and geography Richard Talbert.

The entire map can be viewed online at the companion website for Rome's World or at the Euratlas website.

The first modern scholar to make an extensive study of the Peutinger Map was the German Konrad Miller. He published his findings in the years 1895-1898 in six volumes. The facsimile of part of the map shown above was included in his work.

Further reading:
  1. Konrad Miller. 1895-98. Mappaemunde: Die ältesten Weltkarten. 6 vols. Stuttgart.
  2. Richard Talbert. 2010. Rome's World: The Peutinger Map Reconsidered. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521764803.

Frank J. Swetz (Pennsylvania State University), "Mathematical Treasure: The Peutinger Map," Loci (October 2013)