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Ptolemy’s World Map

The next maps in our series of ancient maps were based on the work of Claudius Ptolemy, who is often called the father of cartography.

This lavishly illustrated tome, known as the Codex Ebnerianus, is a manuscript copy of Ptolemy’s major work, the Geographia. It reflects the cosmographical beliefs of the Roman era, many of which were still relevant to fifteenth century thought. It is based on the 1407 Latin translation of Ptolemy’s original work, which was in Greek, by Italian classical scholar, Jacopo di Angelo da Scarperia

The continents on the map are Europe, Asia, and Africa (Libya) with the world ocean to the west. Two large enclosed bodies of water are the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. While India is depicted with the Ganges present, the peninsula itself is much shortened.

Scythia is shown to be in the Indus River Valley, sharing its boundary with Pakistan. Taprobane (Ceylon) is shown significantly enlarged. The Malay Peninsula is called the Golden Chersonese and beyond is the Magnus Sinus, the Great Gulf which includes the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea. Two realms represent China. One, the Qin (Sinae), the other the Land of Silk (Serica) no doubt due to varying accounts received from overland and maritime expeditions.

Claudius Ptolemy (c.100-178) is often described as an ancient Roman Renaissance man and the father of cartography.  He was a Roman citizen who lived in Alexandria which, despite the loss of its magnificent library, was still the home of members of the intelligentsia of antiquity, men of great erudition. Ptolemy is best known for his brilliant scientific treatises in Greek and for the many maps based on his work. 

Ptolemy was not only a great geographer but a mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, and even a poet.  He authored several scientific papers which resonated for centuries within learned circles of many ancient civilizations including Islamic and European. Among his best known works is his treatise entitled Geographia and Cosmographia, a work which served to compile the known geographical knowledge of the second-century Roman Empire. Though lost for centuries the work was found again, and copied in Latin translation in Constantinople in 1407.

Prior to this translation, all Ptolemy’s co-ordinates had been lost in the West. The book was of such import as to challenge the basis of medieval mapmaking, which often had based proportions of countries according to their importance at the time rather than on mathematical calculations. The more influence a country had, the more space it was allotted on a map.

Following the translation of Ptolemy’s great treatise a map based on its theorems was later created and published in 1482. This aroused such interest in his work that at least forty editions of Geographia were published at the end of the fifteenth century. Though many of his calculations later were proven to be inaccurate, the idea of accurate measurement and the introduction of mathematics to cartography changed the nature of European map making forever.

Perhaps the greatest contribution of Ptolemy was not the maps themselves but the concepts behind the maps.  He offered three different methods of map projections and provided coordinates to all the geographic features he knew, more than 8,000 places. The grid system of latitude and longitude is one of the innovations introduced in Geographia. He employed them to plot the coordinates of geographic locations of the known world as derived from Greek, Persain and Roman sources. Ptolemy also described the importance of map projections using mathematical methodology for depicting three-dimensional spheres on a flat surface.

Ptolemy believed the earth to be the centre of the universe and mapped it as such. This model is known as the Ptolemaic System and was used as the predominant cosmological system throughout the ancient world and until as recently as the sixteenth century when the heliocentric models of Galileo, Copernicus and Kepler became predominant amongst scientists, but rebuked by the Catholic Church.  

Despite the influence of the new models, many cartographers continued to use the   projections and systems described in Geographia when making their maps. Such highly regarded cartographers as Ruscelli, Mercator, and  Münster  were among those who continued to publish maps based on the Ptolemaic System.

Enjoy perusing a few examples of their Ptolemaic maps. 

This marvelous woodcut map of Italy, the Adriatic Sea and the Balkans appeared in Münster’s Geograhia Universalis which was first published in 1540. The map is presented in a trapezoidal border. The woodcut border surrounding the text on the verso is thought to be the work of Hans Holbein. Münster’s maps represent new and important works based on Ptolemy, this one with Latin text on the verso framed by a lovely decorative cartouche featuring kings, popes and saints and mythical allegorical figures.

This fascinating  trapezoidal Ruscelli map is from his work La Geografia di Claudio Tolomeo Alessandrino.  Ruscelli based much of his work on that of Claudius Ptolemy, and on the atlas maps of Giacomo Gastaldi. The map focuses on Asia Minor, depicting Anatolia in full plus a bit of Georgia and Armenia, a portion of eastern Europe on the Black Sea, Cypress, Crete and a number of other smaller island of both the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas. Ruscelli uses names from antiquity to identify places and regions, some which have changed and others which are still close enough to the original to be identifiable today.

This is an early and scarce map of present day Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and Oman. Only the first (1578) and second (1584) editions of the atlas were published during Gerard Mercator’s lifetime. The map was based on geographic data, projections and instructions left by Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria, Egypt.

It is thought that Ptolemy's Geography and Cosmographia and its world map played an important role in the eastward expansion of the Roman Empire. Trade throughout the regions of the Indian Ocean was already extensive from the 2nd century CE, and many Roman trading ports have been identified in India. And, according to Chinese sources, Roman embassies are recorded in China as early as 166 CE.


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