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Context: I am going to be starting a D&D campaign in a world based on ancient Greece, rather than your classic Western European medieval fantasy land. This will probably not be the only question regarding everyday life in that place and period, as I am no historian.

Cartography is a fairly important part of a society, but I'm struggling to grasp how important it could have been for antique civilizations. I've read a bit about bookmaking in ancient Greece, but I was wondering if it would have been any different for maps.

Additionally, what sort of maps would they have drawn? How precise would they have been? Greek philosophers are quite well known for their mathematical accuracy, so would they have been able to calculate distances from city to city just as accurately?


EDIT: After consulting the History of Cartography, here are some additional precisions for the question.

Although the article talks in depths about the Greek's world maps, it never really mentions local / regional maps. Would there have been a handy city map at the Agora to tell you where the nearest taverna is? If you needed to travel from Corinth to Athens, would someone just tell you "follow the coast then take a left when you can" or would you be able to purchase a map with topological and political markers?

Apparently Eratosthenes was the first to include precise mathematical precisions in his maps but, once again, the Wikipedia article only mentions world maps. Even if it were just in "days hiking" / "days on horseback", would distance between cities have been known by / accessible to the general populace?

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    There is a large collection of PDFs here . Chapters 5-12 of the History of Cartography (not the wiki page, but the book) discuss Greek and Roman era cartography. – justCal Feb 4 at 13:13
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    Unfortunately for us none of those ancient maps have made it to the current day. We do have descriptions of maps though in other ancient greek writings. The comedy "The Clouds" by Aristophanes has two characters arguing about a map and the correct locations and distances for various local cities in the peloponnese, so the greeks did have some local maps used for travel. I think its also important, when talking about ancient greek cartography, to separate philosophical maps (O T maps) from utilitarian maps (cadastral, travel, nautical, etc.) – ed.hank Feb 19 at 19:04
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Just because nothing survives of early cartographic works does not mean they did not exist. In History we often have to gather information from earlier historical writings, discussing earlier works yet. Gathering information on Geography, and recording this information, Cartography, predate Ptolemy by hundreds of years.

Early Cartographers and Geographers

A section of the wiki page for Anaximander 610-546 BC,

Both Strabo and Agathemerus (later Greek geographers) claim that, according to the geographer Eratosthenes, Anaximander was the first to publish a map of the world. The map probably inspired the Greek historian Hecataeus of Miletus to draw a more accurate version. Strabo viewed both as the first geographers after Homer.

Maps were produced in ancient times, also notably in Egypt, Lydia, the Middle East, and Babylon. Only some small examples survived until today. The unique example of a world map comes from late Babylonian tablet BM 92687 later than 9th century BC but is based probably on a much older map. These maps indicated directions, roads, towns, borders, and geological features. Anaximander's innovation was to represent the entire inhabited land known to the ancient Greeks.

The Babylonian map of the World (6th Century BC) also illustrates that the concept of cartography was alive and well in the 6th Century BCE.

Geographic texts:

Hecataeus of Miletus(c. 550 BC – c. 476 BC) was slightly later, and is said to have improved upon Anaximanders work. Another publication of his however, the Periodos ges, may give you a clue to the level of cartographic knowledge attainable by the ancient Greeks:

Periodos ges was written in two books, the first on Europe, the second on Asia, in which he included Africa. The book is a comprehensive work on geography beginning at the Straits of Gibraltar and going clockwise ending at the Atlantic coast of Morocco following the coast of the Mediterranean and Black Sea. Hecataeaus provides information about the people and places that would be encountered on a coastal voyage between these points, as well as the inhabitants of the various Mediterranean islands, the Scythians, Persia, India, Egypt and Nubia. Over 300 fragments of this work are preserved, mostly as citations for place names in the work of Stephanus of Byzantium.6

Though a written work and not a map per se, this indicates that geographical information for the creation of maps was at hand. This tradition is maintained in nautical circles at least, with the production of the periplus

A periplus (/ˈpɛrɪplʌs/) or periplous is a manuscript document that lists the ports and coastal landmarks, in order and with approximate intervening distances, that the captain of a vessel could expect to find along a shore.

Later, by Roman times (I know off topic for your question) this concept was modified for inland use along roads as the Roman Itinerarium:

...was an Ancient Roman road map in the form of a listing of cities, villages (vici) and other stops, with the intervening distances.


So we can see the concept of cartography was available for your ancient Greek era RPG, at least from the 6th Century BCE. The fact that written works describing the geography of a region existed meant that someone could interpret this data in the form of a map. The information was being gathered and interpreted by the scholars of the time, the philosophers and geographers and historians.

Implied existence and availability of early maps

The remaining question would be how commonly would you encounter these maps. One particular example demonstrates the (limited) public availability of maps. From the History of Cartography, volume 1, chapter 8, pg 139 (emphasis mine):

A story in Aelian of Socrates and his rich pupil Alcibiades shows that any Athenian could consult a world map. Seeing Alcibiades blinded by wealth and boasting of his big estates, Socrates took him to a place in the city (Athens) where a world map [pinakion, diminutive of pinaxl was set up. He told Alcibiades to look for Attica; and when he had found it, he told him to look carefully at his own fields. Alcibiades replied: "But they are not drawn in anywhere." Socrates: "Why then, you are boasting of fields which are not even a part of the earth.

Another example from the same page in the History of Cartography, (also mentioned in comments), is a humorous discussion from a fifth-century comedy by Aristophanes, The Clouds, which takes place in a classroom type situation, where a student is pointing out the location of various cites on a map on the wall, and the observer recommends moving Sparta farther away.

These demonstrate the availability of maps, at least at an institutional level. (The exception might be for nautical type charts or coastal maps in seaport type areas)

So we know maps were available, but possibly scarce. If you did find such maps,the accuracy was rarely expressed in absolute terms, but mainly in positional knowledge. The most accurate information would come from the most commonly traveled routes, such as shorelines and rivers.

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  • Thank you very much for the details! This is really what I was looking for, and I suspected that this sort of information could only be found in texts describing everyday events involving maps, and I definitely would not have been able to find those by myself :) – Whitehot Feb 21 at 9:10
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I suppose no ancient Greek maps or their descriptions survive to answer this question. The earliest maps (and a mathematical theory of making them) that we know were made by Ptolemy, who was not exactly an "ancient Greek". He lived in the Roman empire in 2-nd century AD, contemporary of Trajan, and he wrote in Greek. Even his maps illustrating his famous book Geography did not survive in original form: the maps illustrating surviving copies of his book were made in medieval times. The reason is that a book is much easier to copy than maps. But his book describes mathematical theory of map projections (the first such description that we have) and there is no doubt that the original was illustrated with maps.

You can see it by typing "Ptolemy's map of the world" on Google, but this is a restoration, not the original map.

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Look into Alexandre Magnus, thanks to Aristotle, cartographers, botanists, zoologists, geologists etc. accompanied the King and his Army as they conquered the world! However, from Macedon to the Hellespont, details were required! Don't know how much time you have, so thought this lead might be useful. I'll add specifics & sources pre and Post-Alexandre (if you still need them) when I'm home.

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    Yes, please add sources. Thank you. – Lars Bosteen Feb 20 at 5:50

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