How Did the Romans Map Their Empire?

And why didn’t their maps look like ours?

George Dillard


If I asked you to imagine the Roman Empire, you’d probably envision something like this:

By Thomas Pusch, CC BY SA 3.0

It’s an image that hangs in countless history classrooms (or occupies a slide in teachers’ PowerPoints, at least). The Roman Empire, for some reason always salmon-colored, clearly delineated on a map. The boundaries of the empire look so precise; we see Roman territory and non-Roman territory, a neat geographical binary.

But where does this map come from?

You might think that, as conquerors of the Mediterranean world, the Romans would have recorded their conquests on maps like the one we see above. But you’d be wrong.

The oldest maps of the Roman Empire, showing a distinction between Roman and non-Roman territory, date to the Renaissance. They’re reconstructions of the empire by mapmakers like Abraham Ortellius, who made this map in 1606:

Public domain

Though, as you’ll see, the Romans did have some maps, they don’t seem to have used them in the same way that we do, which means that the Romans may not have envisioned their empire in the way that we do, either.

Romans didn’t have sophisticated mapmaking equipment. They couldn’t survey their empire from the air or find GPS coordinates via satellite. Imagine how hard it would be to map a coastline, say, by sailing past it, or to render the course of a river by walking along its banks.

But it also seems that Romans just didn’t envision the world in quite the same way that we do. We’re used to seeing and using maps on a daily basis, and envisioning everything from geopolitical disputes to our daily commutes through maps. But Romans didn’t do this, at least not very much. We have, for example, no evidence that they ever mapped out the borders of their empire in the same way that every high school student sees them.

So if Roman officials didn’t think of their empire as a blotch of color on a map with clear borders, how did they envision their world?