Click to read photo caption. Donn Young

“There’s an argument about everything concerned with the map—absolutely everything,” says historian Richard Talbert. But this is what he thinks happened:

It was AD 1500 in Germany. Konrad Celtis—a treasure hunter who often borrowed valuable antiquities from acquaintances and never returned them—was poking around in an out-of-the-way monastery when he came across what seemed to be a fabulously old map. Nailed to a classroom wall, it was a painted strip of calfskin vellum twenty-two feet long and one foot high. The entire Roman Empire stretched across it. Every river, island, region, and town from Britain to Sri Lanka was carefully labeled. A glorious Rome was especially prominent, a network of deep-red roads radiating from it like arteries.

Celtis wanted it.

What he had found was actually a three-hundred-year-old copy of the original map, Talbert says, “or probably a copy of a copy of a copy.” But the relic was—and still is—the only surviving map made by the Romans of their own world during antiquity. It gives us a rare glimpse into how the ancient Romans saw their world, Talbert says, and how they felt and thought about it. For centuries, we’ve known almost nothing about the original map. Now Talbert tells the story in his new book, Rome’s World: The Peutinger Map Reconsidered.

Click to read photo caption. Austrian National Library

There were undoubtedly other copies made along the way, but the one that Celtis found is all we’ve got of the first map, which Talbert believes was made around AD 300 (just one of the many details historians argue about). Most historians say that sometime before Celtis found the map it lost about two feet of its length. But Talbert disagrees. The map has lost at least six feet, he says. That’s how much room it would take to fill in the missing portions of Britain and the Iberian Peninsula. And that would put Rome squarely in the center, which Talbert believes was the mapmakers’ intention.

Celtis was a fanatic and unfettered by scruples, which made him very good at his day job: collecting rare materials for Emperor Maximilian’s library. “But some things he kept for himself,” Talbert says. “The map was one for him.”

Illegal trade in antiquities was just as common then as it is today, Talbert says, and Celtis knew how to play the system. Although no one knows the details of the transaction—no record of a sale exists, Talbert says—Celtis became the map’s new owner. He rolled it up, took it home, and showed it to his educated friends, many of whom were just as voracious for antiquities as he was.

They could all see that the map looked nothing like the earth’s true geography. Whoever had drawn it had squashed the whole arc of the known world into a sausage-like frame, draining the seas and disfiguring the landmasses to make everything fit. And it showed Rome at a preposterous point halfway between Spain and India. The roads, though, seemed about right—very detailed and practical-looking. Ever since the Middle Ages, Talbert says, history buffs and common travelers alike have been infatuated with Rome’s roads and all the long distance trips they made possible.

Celtis’s friends were excited. They might actually be able to reconstruct the ancient routes, if they could just interpret all those symbols and numbers. But Celtis died before they could decipher the map. And for some reason he left the map to his bibliophile friend Konrad Peutinger—maybe Celtis owed him money, Talbert says—on the condition that Peutinger try to have it copied and published. From then on it was known as the Peutinger map.

The printmaking and engraving industry was up and running by the time Peutinger took over the map, and he hired three artists in succession to take the initial step of copying it. The first two were unsatisfactory, and the third died before finishing. Peutinger never got the job done.

“This thing is a copyist’s nightmare,” Talbert says. It could take years of meticulous copying, lettering, engraving, and hand-coloring to reproduce even small maps. Even today, mass-producing a twenty-two-foot-long map isn’t cheap. Cartographers have been pulling their hair out for centuries trying to make affordable, precise, full-scale, color duplicates of the Peutinger map. But no one has succeeded.

One of the first attempts was a half-size engraving in 1598; unfortunately, the copyist took upon himself to “improve” it, Talbert says, and he made various changes here and there. Another tried in 1753, but the engraver often misunderstood the lettering, and he made a mess of it. Of course, almost no one knew about the copies’ errors because so few people could see the Peutinger map firsthand. For centuries, the copies were reproduced in books and were the only images scholars had to work with. No one realized just how inaccurate they were until the first color photographs of the map appeared in the 1970s.

After Peutinger died, the map stayed in his family, although they didn’t really have much interest in it. They tucked it away, and occasionally moved it during wartimes. Luckily for us, Talbert says, it slept quietly in storage, protected from the light, for decades at a time. It was even thought to be lost.

Today the Peutinger map is in the Austrian National Library in Vienna, where the staff have guarded it fiercely since 1738. “They managed to keep it away from Napoleon, and it survived World War II,” Talbert says. But it was a popular item there, and suffered some wear and tear. For decades the library kept it on a sort of roller, he says. “You could wind it and unwind it. It was common for bits to fall off the edges.”

Eventually the library took the map off the roller and separated it into its original eleven segments, which had been gummed together before the map was painted. Unfortunately, Talbert says, vellum has a tendency to warp. While separating the sections saved the map from further damage, the pieces will never fit perfectly together again. Each one is now stored in its own plastic case, and they seldom come out of storage for any patron. Even while Talbert was writing his book about the map, he was never allowed to see all eleven segments together—just one at a time over the course of two years.

The idea that the Peutinger map is merely a sort of ancient AAA guide has persisted, Talbert says, possibly because many of the names and numbers painted along the roads to indicate distances are actually correct, and have helped modern mapmakers create entire atlases of the Roman Empire. The distances are almost always in Roman miles (equal to a thousand paces), although Talbert found that sometimes the miles are swapped without warning for leagues (one and a half times the length of a Roman mile). And the farther east the numbers go, the more bizarre they become, meaning the mapmakers probably used eastern reference sources that listed distances in Persian parasangs or Indian kos.

But we know today that even the paths that the roads follow are often all wrong, Talbert says—and that’s not just copyists’ mistakes. “Some scholars have gotten tremendously worked up over this, and they write long screeds correcting the mapmaker,” he says. “But they’re missing the point. Ultimately, all the road detail is filler.” If the map didn’t have a practical purpose, he says, it must have had a cultural one.

So why would a culture that knew so much about the far reaches of its empire muck up Rome’s place in things so egregiously? And why did the original makers choose that particular shape? Why does it look like a funhouse mirror image of the Western world? How could the map have been displayed? And whose was it?

The purpose of the Peutinger map, Talbert claims in Rome’s World, was not to help anyone plot a route from Gibraltar to Persia—it was to brag about the glory of Rome and show off how posh and civilized the empire had become. “The overall message is ‘Yippee, Rome rules the world. Rome is literally the center of the world,’” Talbert says. “Geographically, that’s ludicrous, but that’s not the point.” The point was to make it impressive and ostentatious, and to bring a satisfied smirk to the faces of the educated people who saw it. “There’s this in-joke, a sort of ‘Tee-hee-hee-ha-ha-ha, don’t you know that the world isn’t really like this.’ This kind of sense of humor was very popular among educated, aristocratic people.”

Click to read photo caption. Daniel Talbert

In Rome’s World, Talbert makes the case that the map is probably just one segment of a globe map, an old Greek concept that was still going strong in Roman times. Globe maps were made up of five or more horizontal zones. The middle zone at the equator was boiling hot and uninhabitable. Above that was the great northern zone controlled by Rome. And above that, a horrible, cold zone. There were also thought to be southern equivalents, but since the middle zone was impassable, no one gave much thought to those.

If the Peutinger map was part of a globe, all the zones stacked together would have made a chart six feet high. Each section would probably have been painted on panels, not vellum, Talbert says, so they could be moved or copied. And such a monstrously huge artwork would need a prominent spot to occupy.

Talbert says it just so happens that around the time the original map was made, the new fashion was for an emperor to sit on a throne in a special cove of the imperial palace called an apse. That’s where he received homage. Imagine, Talbert says: “People would grovel to approach him, and there he is in splendor.”

Talbert opens Rome’s World and points to a picture of one such room found in a ruined palace in Croatia. “A globe image would work remarkably well in the apse there behind him,” he says. From that spot, the Roman zone—with Rome in the center—would appear just above the emperor’s head, and create a very impressive sight. Anyone approaching the emperor would be humbled by this vision of peace, control, and order.

“Now, you can say ‘That’s brilliant,’ or you can say, ‘That’s twaddle,’” Talbert says. And although he thought his ideas would cause an uproar, so far many of his colleagues have liked this theory—even if they do still disagree on the details.

Rome’s World comes with access to digital views of the entire Peutinger map. Any cartographer or Roman history enthusiast can visit a website at Cambridge University Press to study the map in ways that were never before possible. You can use the site’s database to look up every mountain, river, and symbol, and read every red-inked word on the entire map. There’s even a list of illegible symbols, each linked to its own spot on the map so that you can peer at it closely.

After years of studying the Peutinger map, Talbert is convinced his theories are plausible. But there are some things we’ll probably never know for sure, he says. Just how much of the map is missing? When and where was the original actually made? How faithful is this only remaining copy to the original? “Whether we’ll ever know more about the Peutinger map than we do now is a faint hope at best,” Talbert says, “but still a far from inconceivable prospect.”

Richard Talbert is the William Rand Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of History in the College of Arts and Sciences. Much of the data entry for the online database was contributed by student assistants in UNC’s Ancient World Mapping Center. To see the Peutinger map online, visit cambridge.org/us/talbert/. In 2007, the Peutinger map was added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.