Orbis Terrarum Map

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In 27 BC, Octavian took the name Caesar Augustus when he became Rome’s first emperor. Over the years, one of the major challenges he had was getting his retiring veteran soldiers settled on farms.

This was especially difficult after the “Battle at Philippi” in 42 BC and after the “Battle at Actium” in 31 BC when he and his great military commander and personal friend, Marcus Agrippa, defeated Antony and Cleopatra. In both these battles, he merged the Roman soldiers in the opposing armies into his army. For these and other situations, he had a nearly constant need to build new colonies within the borders of the empire.

So that he could better manage this, he commissioned his friend, Marcus Agrippa, to draw up a map of the world. Octavian was also a firm believer that the empire’s borders should not be expanded beyond what would be required to support the new territory.

Agrippa definitely had the background and experience for the project as well as a special interest in charting courses and understanding geography for future military campaigns. He began a painstaking effort, providing detailed commentary about the geography as he worked on the map. Unfortunately, he died in 12 BC before it was finished. Caesar Augustus himself continued the work on the project. He died in 14 AD and the map was finished by others in 20 AD.

The original map did not survive. The historical record indicates that it was drawn in the form of a disk, not uncommon for maps of ancient times. However, it could have been rectangular, more suitable to be painted on a colonnade wall. The “Orbis Terrarum (Circle of the World)” map shown here is a reconstruction of what it might have looked like based on text descriptions of the ancient Roman historians such as Strabo, Pliny the Elder and others. Their descriptions would have been drawn both from the map itself and Agrippa’s detailed commentary about the geography.

The map, with Italy at the center, allowed for more detail of the provinces which are disproportionally larger because of the circular shape. Most of the map is devoted to the Roman Empire, but China (Seres), India, and Russia (Sarmatia) are also shown as small outer regions. The fact that they are on the map is an indication that Agrippa and the historians and leaders of his time were well aware of their existence.

It is impossible to know whether Agrippa thought the earth was round or flat. Given that he was an enlightened man, it is highly likely that Agrippa would have been aware of the works of the Greek scholar, Eratosthenes (276 BC – 195/194 BC) who was known for being the first person to calculate the circumference of the earth.