The thing I hadn’t realised about maps…

…is how political they are. Call me naive (although I’d rather you didn’t), but I’d always assumed that a map just – well, showed you what’s there. Or what used to be there, when it was drawn up. But no. Choices must be made.

This first began to dawn on me when the publishers wanted a map for the front of the second Ruso book. What to include? All the Roman roads and towns and forts? Even if we knew where they all were (and some float about, depending on who you ask) there wasn’t room. Besides, it would have looked a mess. Just how much of a mess may be surmised from the rough draft on the Book 2 page.

The places crucial to the story are there, but important Army bases like Gloucester and Exeter and Caerleon are invisible. Major towns like Silchester and Verulamium don’t seem to exist. And there’s not a road in sight. Leaving them out may have suggested that the story took place in a few key spots surrounded by vast tracts of emptiness, but at least no-one could complain that it was cluttered.

David Mattingley makes a telling point in ‘An Imperial Possession – Britain in the Roman Empire’ – a book I’ve just finished and found very thought-provoking. Observing the map-makers’ priorities, he points out that the Ordnance Survey Map of Roman Britain is precisely that – a map of the Roman-style constructions found in Britain. He says, “In areas where Roman site ‘types’ are uncommon (notably… Cornwall, Wales and northern Britain), the maps appear empty apart from Roman military installations standing guard over large capital letters denoting ‘tribal’ names… what is omitted from such maps is the settlement evidence relating to the vast majority of the population.”

This isn’t a criticism. There just isn’t room for everything. Choices must be made. Don’t you think, though, that the Ordnance Survey’s choices would have gone down awfully well in Rome? Britannia without all those pesky barbarian round houses, brochs* and disused hillforts messing it up. Mission accomplished!

*brochs are those forbidding-looking ancient stone towers found mostly (only?) in Scotland.

4 thoughts on “The thing I hadn’t realised about maps…

  1. I never thought about this, but you’re right. I’ve got David Mattingly’s book but haven’t yet steeled myself to read it.

    If you haven’t already seen it, this article on the History of the Ancient World website about Roman Military Studies in Britain might interest you. I found a link to it on Twitter (@historyancient) and have blogged about it with links – along with a link to the just-released trailer for the film of The Eagle of the Ninth, now renamed The Eagle:

    http://bit.ly/czen1m

    Not too long now to wait for the new Ruso. 2011 looking very promising already!

    1. Ah, so that’s what ‘The Eagle’ is – thanks Sarah, I thought it was one of the (many) new things I’d somehow managed to miss.

      A quick glance at that article suggests it’s well worth a read. As someone who cheerfully places civilians inside forts, I’m always relieved to come across a sentence like, ‘we cannot just call everything inside the walls of bases ‘military’ and everything outside ‘civilian’ since it is clear that soldiers spent much time outside, and non-soldiers were routinely inside, such boundaries.’ Phew!

  2. Ruth, I hadn’t thought about Roman maps in quite that way – very interesting. I’ll have a look at David Mattingley’s book too. Like you, I’ve never believed that a static peace-time garrison could be cut off from the civilian life all around it, any more than it can today! On a more general point, I do know how political maps can. In my first job at the Central Office of Information I was responsible for producing articles and fact-sheets about various bits of East Africa which were just gaining independence from Britain. I was well aware of the dire consequences of drawing boundaries wrong, even by a fraction of an inch, but luckily for me in the next office was an expert and enthusiastic map-o-phile who used to oversee my stuff so I didn’t cause an international incident.

    1. Hm, this is a whole new way in which the pen can be mightier than the sword!
      We’re exploring one of the map’s emptier areas at the moment (Devon) and I’m struck by how little evidence the Roman empire left behind here. Apart from some enthusiastic iron-smelting it looks as though most of the locals pretty much carried on the way they had before. Either they were too poor to buy fancy foreign knick-knacks or they just weren’t interested.

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