From Ptolemy to Pilgrimage: Images of Late Antiquity in Geography, Travel and Cartography
Lecture by Scott Johnson
Given at the Library of Congress, on June 9, 2011
Overview: A survey of Greek and Latin geographical tradition during Late Antiquity (c. 200-600 CE), when various genres of travel narrative rose to prominence. Scott Johnson links this mode of writing to the transition from a pagan/Greco-Roman world to a Christian one as new ways of explaining the known world mixed the classical inheritance with biblical and early Christian history. This mixture was to influence directly the new institution of Christian pilgrimage, while setting a foundation of religious practice for Byzantium, Islam and the western Middle Ages.
Excerpt: Sometime around the year AD 300 a map was produced unlike any other that has survived from the ancient world. This map is today called the Tabula Peutingeriana or Peutinger Table named after its early modern owner Konrad Peutinger. We know from Peutinger that he received the map as bequest in 1508 from a Konrad Bickle. But prior to this bequest, we have no external information about where or when it was produced or what’s its transmission history was. In fact, had this map not survived, scholars today may have no idea that the Romans could have produced such a monument of cartography. The Peutinger Table does provoke by its very existence a host of questions about the way that ancient thinkers viewed the world they lived in and how they sought to describe that world. As I will attempt to show in this talk the Peutinger Table offers an important though perplexing vista on ancient geographical thought. I will contend that it should be read along side a host of other attempts of geographical description both contemporary to it as well as prior and subsequent to its creation. However these attempts are not primarily maps but literary text. Important continuities and discontinuities arise when these are compared with the Peutinger Table. Thus against those who would treat the Peutinger Table as a sui generis composition of the late ancient world without comparandum or who perhaps might wish to read the Peutinger only as one early step in the theological history of scientific cartography, a narrative in which the Peutinger Table does not come out looking very good in the end. I would argue that this map, the only world map to survive from the Greco-Roman world offers a unique opportunity to explore in detail the cultural history of the period in which it was originally made. This period called late antiquity in the scholarship, roughly 300 to 600 AD, or from Constantine to Mohammed has come to be viewed over the past 50 years as a crucial transitional period in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern history. And consequently the study of contemporary late antique views of the breath and length of their late antique world has significance for history grit large, more on this later. For now, I would like to turn to the map. In its surviving form, the Peutinger Table now in the Austrian National Library in Vienna is not an autograph version but a medieval copy dating to around AD 1200 with an original underlying composition dating to, as I said, probably around AD 300, though some claim it was as much 500 years later. Not having the autograph is not very surprising since we rarely–we very rarely have autograph copies of works by ancient authors. We are always working with copies of copies though fortunately in this case it is generally agreed that the medieval copy has reproduced the original accurately.