Mapping of Europe's Roads from the Romans to CD ROM

By Barnett, Muriel | Contemporary Review, January 1996 | Go to article overview

Mapping of Europe's Roads from the Romans to CD ROM


Barnett, Muriel, Contemporary Review


There was no road-numbering system to help the motorist in unfamiliar territory when I was young, seventy years ago. Instead every year before the family set off for the summer exodus by car, my father would get in touch with the A.A. to supply him with a route map. With its help we could safely negotiate trunk roads, side roads, link roads, as well as unravel the mysteries of locally-biassed sign-posts luring us to irrelevant hamlets. We could with confidence select the correct turning from the bewildering number of exits from village greens on to which we debouched at intervals.

On the day of departure, suitcases were lashed to the exterior luggage-grid, spare cans of petrol were strapped on to the running-board, and we children were ensconsed on the back@seat drumming impatient heels on the cabin-trunk stowed on the adequate floor-space there. My mother would be up front with the precious route-maps, waiting for my father to crank the engine by hand. At the first sign of a kick, he would race for the driver's seat and we were off!

I recollect that even with all this information, there were long stops with the car drawn up in the middle of road junctions while my parents wonderingly spelled out from the local sign-post strange names which bore little relation to our determined course. But the A.A. usually held the answer if the route-maps were studied closely. And so on we would go, pursuing our leisurely way at twenty miles an hour, occasionally reviving up to a breath-taking thirty!

There was a game my mother invented to keep us amused: `Who'll be the first to name this village we are just coming to?' Competition was intense. The local Co-Op or Post Office usually supplied the clue, for there were no boundary boards in those days.

Choosing the picnic place for lunch was another diversion. The backseat passengers were all for starting that half-an-hour after we took to the road, and had to be discouraged until nearer midday. Finally, we would stop near trees and not too close to houses for obvious reasons. My mother would be on the look-out for a horse-trough, where she could clean her progeny's sticky hands after the feast.

But what has all this to do with the Romans? It was not until I had reached adulthood that I discovered the link. I became interested in the history of cartography and leamed that the Roman legionaries `stomped' their way through Europe to the furthest points of Empire using skin scroll maps which they wound and unwound as they progressed. On these the route occupied the middle of the strip with kinks to indicate corners. Items of military interest were shown on either side. All roads led out of and, by the same token, into the city.state of Rome. All roads lead to Rome', as the saying has it. I guess these maps were subjected to real rough wear for none exist today. Now auto-route maps, like so many things, are becoming available on CD Rom - a long way from their Roman origins.

Then, how do we know the Romans had them? A map compiled on the same principle came to light in the sixteenth century in possession of Konrad Peutinger of Augsburg. He had acquired it from Celtes, librarian to the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I. Celtes is said to have acquired it during a clear@out of old documents. This map was accepted by scholars as being a copy of a Roman military map made by Castorious, a Roman grammarian, in the early part of the sixth century. But it is not an exact copy because the landmarks indicated are trading centres, mineral springs and holy places which appear to cater more for the requirements of merchants and pilgrims than for the needs of a conquering army. …

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