Knowledge is power, and having superior geographical knowledge vs. your imperialistic enemies and competitors was probably a big advantage in the middle ages. Some specific examples would be knowledge of fast and easy ways for traveling long distances, knowledge of water sources, places for animal hunting, agriculture, etc.

What techniques did the Romans use to measure geographical distances/topography, and how detailed were their maps from a qualitative and quantitative point of view? Could they use this knowledge to quantify how much provisions and men they needed for distant conquests and travels?

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    Good question. I like this a lot! As far as I know, Romans maps were pretty good for the time, and were built on Ancient Greek maps. It even had (quite oddly placed) regions for China and perhaps Japan, I believe. They would have undoubtedly been the best maps of Europe/the Near East for the time, where proceeding farther east from around Persia onwards, the Chinese/Han dynasty maps would have looked a lot better. – Noldorin Oct 30 '11 at 17:31
  • I remember in Ancient Rome: Using Evidence by Pamela Bradley, the comment was made that in the leadup to the second punic war, it was unclear if the roman senate was aware the city Saguntum was below the treaty line along the Ebro (then Ibre river) – Tomas Oct 30 '11 at 18:15
  • upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/77/… this is how wrong they would have been. That was early republic days however. – Tomas Oct 30 '11 at 18:16
  • Good question indeed. Plus one. – Kentaro Tomono Feb 17 at 2:17

Well one way to answer would be to just show you some Roman maps. While they are not a perfect as modern maps, I would say that, for Europe at least, they are not bad. Remember that until recent times It was not possible to gauge longitude accurately. So for example, on this map copied in the 15th century from Ptolemy's 150AD work, you can see allot of east to west distortion but the north south seems to be reasonable to my eye.

Note that the map makes seas and rivers prominent but doesn't show land features like mountains. It is really a map of routes. Like a modern subway map, it is the line and the names that are important. The scale, less so.

Large sections of this map have been drawn from imagination or stories. Notice that the area east of Maysia is quite incorrect. An enlargement of this East Asian area is shown below.

(source: wikimedia.org)

Other Roman maps I have seen, such as this other map of the world, look odd to our eyes. Several conventions that we take for granted have not been followed. North is not at the top. The Mediterranean, the centre of the Roman world, is in the centre, and the area between Asia and Africa has been guessed and so no Americas. However, once you get past those issues, It does seem to be a usable depiction of much of Europe, Northern Africa and near Asia.

Many more Roman maps can be found by in google's image search.

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    This map also dispels the notion that the world was thought to be flat before 1942. It can easily be seen that this map is a section of a sphere, not a flat area. – dotancohen Jan 31 '12 at 15:38
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    @dotancohen, I'm not sure that 1942 is really the year people think of when imagining the discovery of the roundness of the earth... – Joe Aug 21 '12 at 20:20
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    Thanks, if only I could edit that post. Of course I did mean 1492, the year of the Spanish Inquisition. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! – dotancohen Aug 21 '12 at 20:31

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