New Historical Atlas

If a book supposed to cost 179 euro is sold for 225 euro, you may feel cheated. And if you immediately spot a very grave error, you’re in a bad mood. But the new Historischer Atlas der antiken Welt is too beautiful to complain for too long. It is also a very good book, and even 225 euro is not an unreasonable price.

Anne-Maria Wittke, Eckart Olshausen and Richard Szydlak have succeeded in making an atlas that will be with us for the next two or three decades. It is more than just a set of 184 full-color and 53 b/w maps. There’s always a helpful explanation on the opposite page, which has benefited from the Neue Pauly, the encyclopedia this atlas tries to supplement. Most maps are attractive and I was quite tempted to leaf through the book for an hour or two. I have not resisted this temptation, and soon forgot my initial disappointment. Although a couple of maps are loaded with too much information, most of them are quite clear. The use of colors on the following map is particularly illuminating:

This book sets a new standard, and there lies a problem: it’s just not good enough. I looked up the map of Germania Inferior, a part of the Roman world where I can check information and that offers a simple litmus test that the Historischer Atlas fails to pass. The most detailed map of this part of the Roman Empire has “the so-called Batavian Revolt” as its subject, and is clearly based on the map of the “Batavenaufstand” in volume 2 of the Neue Pauly (1996), which was made by Olshausen. In the Historischer Atlas, he has meticulously copied all his errors.

Take, for instance, the coastline of the Zeeland archipelago, which did not exist until the Middle Ages. The only evidence for islands in Antiquity is Caesar, Gallic War, 6.31.3, a clearly topical description of the edges of the earth that is not to be taken seriously. These phantom islands can be seen on many maps, but Olshausen should have known better: he ought to have consulted a palaeogeographical map (e.g., Zagwijn’s Nederland in het Holoceen, 1986). Instead, he based his map on outdated maps that were in turn based on written sources. This is worse than carelessness: ignoring palaeogeography and uncritically trusting literary evidence is a very grave methodological error.

Other mistakes on the same map: the Insula Batavorum (“the island of the Batavians”) is the land between the branches of the Rhine (Tacitus, Germania, 29), not an island off the coast; the Brittenburg (why this sixteenth-century name, and not its Latin name Lugdunum?) is on the place of the town of the Cananefates, who have moved to the country of the Frisii Minores; they have in turn moved to the land of the Chauci, who have migrated to the east. Traiecum, De Meern (an outdated name), Helinium, and Fectio are also on the wrong place. Although these mistakes are less serious than forgetting to consult a palaeogeographic map, they are inexcusable: any Dutch archaeologist could have explained things, the Barrington Atlas has got these details right, even websites (e.g., have not made so many mistakes. If internet sites can have the facts straight, a team of three university-employed scholars ought not to make errors.

There’s more outdated information. On page 165, Caesar defeats the Belgians at the Sambre instead of the Selle, even though Turquin’s article on the location was published more than half a century ago; on page 172, the Forum of Trajan is shown with the temple in the northwest – it was excavated in the southeast; the map of the Roman Empire during the reign of Septimius Severus on page 207 shows southeastern Iraq as part of the Roman world, while the annexations in Tripolitana, correctly shown on page 212, are ignored; Waššukanni, the lost capital of Mitanni, is correctly shown as unidentified on the map of the ancient Near East in the 15th-14th centuries, but becomes a known site on the map of the thirteenth century, when it was probably abandoned; the map of Alexander‘s campaign is supposed to be based on Bosworth’s commentary, but still, the Macedonian conqueror makes a detour to Ecbatana in 330 BCE, although Bosworth has convincingly shown that Alexander in fact made a short-cut to overtake Darius. Et cetera.

I know these mistakes are rather trivial, but in a book that is sold for this price, the information ought to have been checked and rechecked. Still, the Historischer Atlas is far better than similar publications, and it is unlikely that other scholars will now publish another, equally ambituous atlas. For the time being, this will be the standard. And although I am critical, your 179 or 225 euro are, in the final analysis, well-spent. I had never seen maps of Rome’s Persian Wars (219), the Palmyrene Empire (221), the Sasanian Empire (215 and 217), and the duel between the Sasanians and Byzantines (241) of this quality and beauty. It has already received a place on my desk, next to my dictionaries and the Neue Pauly. I expect that it will remain there for the rest of my life.

PS: Another contribution by Patrick Charlot: Qadamgah.

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