Diving into… Dromography

Max, his wife and kids at home. Striegel, B (before 1525)

In 1508, a cer­tain Kon­rad Bick­el, the Librar­i­an of the Emper­or of the Holy Roman Empire (Max­imil­lian I of Aus­tria at the time, click the image) died. In his will, he bequeathed to his friend Kon­rad Peutinger an old man­u­script map, one foot wide and twen­ty-two feet long (33cm x 608cm), made of eleven (lat­er twelve) pan­els of joined sheep-skin parch­ment. Bick­el said that he had found it among the library col­lec­tions in 1494.

But this was not just any map. It was a copy, made some­time between 1100 and 1400 AD of a now-lost Roman map of the world from the 4th cen­tu­ry (300–400 AD) show­ing Roman roads and route-miles from India to Ire­land. A won­der­ful doc­u­ment of the first great era of glob­al­iza­tion and a sort of cel­e­bra­tion of the Roman engi­neer­ing tech­nol­o­gy (and feroc­i­ty and dogged­ness) that made that first ‘glob­al’ inte­gra­tion pos­si­ble.

Portrait of Konrad Peutinger

Peutinger—a wealthy and learned one-time Town Clerk of the city of Ausberg—owned pos­si­bly the finest pri­vate library in north­ern Europe at the time. One of his wife’s rela­tions (the May­or of Aus­g­berg) orga­nized to send the map to Antwerp to the famous pub­lish­ing house of Johannes More­tus in 1591, pre­serv­ing the design of the map, as it turns out, for­ev­er.

It’s a design well worth pre­serv­ing. More like a ‘metro-map’ than a geo­graph­ic pro­jec­tion, the map amply illus­trates the east-west ori­en­ta­tion that Jared Dia­mond iden­ti­fies as one of the acci­den­tal, fun­da­men­tal vec­tors of tech­nol­o­gy, inno­va­tion and growth for Europe (for a pot­ted sum­ma­ry of the Dia­mond the­sis, read this review by a cer­tain Bill Gates, ‘soft­ware devel­op­er’). It is designed to show routes and dis­tances rather than accu­rate­ly rep­re­sent the shape of the land­scape.

One panel of the original parchementClose up of manuscriptSection of redrawn map (Miller, 1870s) showing Nile Delta, Arabian desert (notes wandering of Jews), Smyrna, Rhodes, Cyprus etc

But what routes! 200,000km of Roman roads, laid out in a strip-map, not unlike the most use­ful road-maps (before the age of the GPS) and some­what like dri­ving direc­tions in Google Maps.

Here’s some more on Peutinger and his map.

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