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The geographers of Miletus: 6th century BC

Nothing is known of the map of the world supposedly produced in Miletus by Anaximander in the mid-6th century BC. But by the end of the century, also in Miletus, another geographer writes a book of which sufficient details survive for his ideas to be reconstructed. He is Hecataeus.

Like most early mapmakers, Hecataeus puts the most important place at the centre of the world. For medieval Christian cartographers this is Jerusalem. For Hecataeus it is the Aegean Sea, on the east coast of which stands Miletus.

The shape of the world according to Hecataeus has a geometrical simplicity. It is a flat circle, with a continuous ocean forming the rim. The circular land mass is divided into two parts by an almost unbroken stretch of water linked with the ocean on the west at the straits of Gibraltar, then running east the length of the Mediterranean, through the Black Sea and (after a short land bridge) into the Caspian Sea, which joins the ocean on the east.

The semicircle of land above this belt of water is Europe, while the semicircle below is Asia. The part west of the Nile has the subsidiary name of Libya, standing in for Africa.

A grid before its time: 2nd century BC

One of the most rigorous of Greek scientists, the astronomer Hipparchus, foresees in the 2nd century BC the requirements of a modern map. He is critical of mapmaking efforts by his Greek contemporaries, based on measurements taken on the ground. Instead he proposes a grid of 360° of latitude and of longitude (a number relating back to Babylonian systems), on which places will be plotted according to astronomical readings taken on location.

The necessary instruments of measurement (in particular for the accurate recording of time) are not available to Hipparchus. But his bold idea prefigures the principle of scientific cartography.

Artemidorus: c.100 BC

Artemidorus, a younger contemporary of Hipparchus, is exactly the type of cartographer criticized by the older man. Born in Ephesus, he spends years travelling round the coastal areas of the Mediterranean, making his own measurements between places and noting down distances already measured by others. Late in his life Artemidorus settles in Alexandria and writes eleven books encapsulating his discoveries.

One of several Greek geographers undertaking such activities at the time, the name of Artemidorus acquires special distinction only because of an accidental discovery in the late 20th century.

Artemidorus' works are lost in their entirety. He has been known only through the use of his books by Strabo, a Greek author of the 1st century BC who makes a compilation of geograpical knowledge.

But in 1998 fragments of a papyrus scroll are brought to the attention of scholars. Pieced together, it turns out to be Artemidorus' account of Spain, one of the scenes of his personal travels. Of particular interest is the fact that it contains a map - unfinished, and impossible to relate to a particular region, but showing roads, rivers and settlements in an attempt at a realistic spatial arrangement. As the first example of the kind of map now in everyday use, it will ensure the fame of the previously obscure Artemidorus.

A Roman road map: 1st century BC

The emperor Augustus Caesar puts a close colleague, Marcus Agrippa, in charge of a project to map the Roman roads - amounting to some 50,000 miles. A team of surveyors takes almost twenty years to complete the project.

The end result is a master map, carved in marble and displayed on a wall in Rome. Portable copies are made from this, for the use of soldiers and officials travelling round the empire, and this requirement dictates the shape of the map. It is long and thin, suitable for rolling up as a scroll.

A surviving late copy in the Library of Congress, known as the Peutinger Table, is 22 feet long and just 13 inches high. The details shown make no attempt to reflect the spacial reality on the ground. As with a modern map of an underground railway system, they are purely schematic. The Mediterranean, centre of the Roman world, is like a long canal with routes branching off it.

But for the first time in the history of map-making, over a vast region, a traveller at a crossroads can discover with confidence where he will come to if he turns left, turns right or carries straight on.

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