A New View of Greece and Rome
The publication of The Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World fills a scholarly gap
The Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, edited by Richard J.A. Talbert
Princeton University Press; 175 pages, plus CD-Rom Directory; £205
A ‘gap of gaps’, as one librarian recently described it to me, is finally filled. With the publication of the Barrington Atlas by Princeton University Press this autumn, everyone with an interest in the Greeks and Romans and their interaction with other peoples has access to a basic tool which has been missing for over a century. In 1980, as part of an investigation into the need for new tools, the American Philological Association branded the persistent lack of good maps of the classical world a disaster. The project which was established to create some, however, made a false start, and in 1988 I was invited to begin again.
The prospects seemed daunting. There were sharply differing opinions about what should be done, and typically no ideas of how anything could be achieved in practice or any notions of cost. The question of scale was altogether hazy; a few idealists advocated aiming for a standard scale across the whole atlas, with apparently no concept of what that would entail. Even if we did attempt to be so ambitious, I wondered, would we ever finish? And even if we did, could the resulting publications ever be affordable?
It was plain that I – as a historian – needed insight into the very different discipline of cartography. This was provided by what was then Donnelley Cartographic Services in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (now MapQuest. com), who designed every feature of the atlas from scratch. In addition I needed to involve a publisher (Princeton) and to be initiated into the cruel business of fundraising. Costs were hard to predict, but they were obviously going to be huge (around $4.5 million, as it turned out). If I didn’t keep meeting them with new funds, even a temporary shutdown might prove permanent.
The plan settled upon in 1990 targeted a specific set of priorities. First was the production of a bound atlas, rather than a series of loose sheets, and one comprehensive enough to include the whole span of known Greek and Roman penetration, from the British Isles to India and deep into North Africa. With non-expert users in mind, I was concerned to render the physical landscape clearly, and to use as few scales as possible. Last but not least, I wanted this atlas to be available by the beginning of the new millennium, at a price that individual purchasers could contemplate as well as libraries.
Under these conditions, I realised that it would be challenge enough to cover everywhere within the classical world just once; further types of map would have to wait. Adoption of a single scale proved impracticable. If too small, it would not do justice to our extensive knowledge of well-researched areas; if too large, it would demand an impossibly high number of pages, many showing nothing but desert, mountain or swamp. We settled on 1:500,000 for the ‘core’ and 1:1,000,000 for most of the periphery, with a few very small-scale (1:5,000,000) renderings of the remotest regions and three larger-scale (1:150,000) maps for the environs of Athens, Rome and Constantinople. Even in the folio-size format adopted, this coverage requires 99 maps extending over 175 pages.
These pages in turn required bases showing the physical landscape, and experts on ancient history and archaeology to make the compilations. The bases came from satellite-generated aeronautical charts produced by the US and UK military. Teasing this remarkable material out of such possessive authorities proved a slow, tense struggle (and today the loophole that once permitted it is closed). For quality and consistency of map compilation, I persuaded ten colleagues each to oversee a broad region and to recommend the best experts on the different areas within it; thus over seventy more colleagues worldwide were recruited. I sent out each draft map for confidential evaluation by another expert who was not otherwise involved; more than ninety scholars took on this important role.
The detailed instructions for compilation made stringent demands. First, the compilers had to specify how the modern landscape should be changed back to its ancient aspect so far as is known (this was often very different, especially in the great river deltas and other low-lying areas). Next, they had to mark a broad range of cultural data – classifying the significant sites and locating them accurately, tracing the courses of roads, aqueducts and fortifications, and reflecting name-changes over time (at the outside, c.1000 BC – c.640 AD). Then the compilers had to provide the basic facts about each site or feature marked – period of occupation, corresponding modern name, modern country and references for further information – for listing in the Map-by-Map Directory. A fully searchable CD-ROM of this amazing 1,400-page accompaniment to the Barrington Atlas comes with each copy; there is also a two-volume print version. Together, the Atlas and the Directory map document the entire classical world in a way never attempted before for many of its regions.
The increase of opportunities to exploit digital technology proved vital to the project’s completion. At the outset its use was not yet an option, so most of the 1:500,000 scale maps (made first) were produced by the film-based method. Even today, digitised versions of their bases are not available. However, once the Digital Chart of the World (DCW) was released in 1993 (a digital version of our 1:1,000,000 base series), MapQuest produced all the maps at that scale and smaller on computer. In the process, their cartographers have done an immense amount to enhance the quality of the DCW material and to add contours and elevation tints or modelling.
Digital technology is also the key to unlocking tremendous further potential from the fresh vision that the atlas offers. At the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, a new Ancient World Mapping Center is starting work to expand and diversify what has been achieved to date. For researchers, authors, instructors and others, it aims to promote cartography, geographic information science and historical geography as essential components of ancient studies. So the Barrington Atlas, with its striking maps and wide appeal, constitutes not only a giant step forward, but also the foundation for limitless future initiatives.
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