TITLE: Macrobian World Maps
DATE: 400 A.D.
AUTHOR: Ambrosius Aurelius Theodosius Macrobius, 395-423 A.D.
DESCRIPTION: Medieval European cartography reflected the arrest and
decline in geographical knowledge following the collapse of the Roman world.
Ptolemy's Geographia remained known only to Byzantine scholars, and
thence it came to influence the early students of Arabic geography. Only
in one type of medieval Christian European map does there survive, in very
simple form, some concept of Greek geography. The hemispheric maps of Macrobius,
drawn in Spain and later reproduced in the works of the Venerable Bede,
Lambert of St. Omer and others, show the habitable world of the northern
hemisphere and the uninhabited world of the southern, marked with climatic-zones
derived from Ptolemy's clima, and, unlike many other medieval maps,
they are oriented with North at the top.
Macrobius was a late Roman neoplatonic grammarian and philosopher who wrote
several eclectic works that were much read in the Middle Ages. His Expositio
In Somnium Scipionis ex Cicerone [Commentary on the Dream of Scipio
by Cicero] is an extract from the sixth book of Cicero's De Republica.
Macrobius' commentary on this work includes geographical theories which
were to some extent based upon Ptolemy, but with certain differences. Macrobius
preferred Eratosthenes' more accurate calculation for the circumference
of the earth (252,000 stadia =25,000 miles, vice Ptolemy's 180,000
stadia =22,500 miles). With its postulate of a stationary round earth
at the center of the universe and its contention that the environmental
sea, variously called the Atlantic, the Great Sea and the
Ocean, which 'in spite of these big names, is quite small', it is
definitely in the Ptolemaic tradition. However, it departs from that tradition
in making this ocean the boundary, in every direction, of the inhabited
earth, giving it the shape of a lozenge, narrow at the extremes and wide
in the middle, and in positing the existence of three other landmasses corresponding
to the oikoumene [inhabited world], in the remaining quarters of
the earth. In his territorial division, Macrobius adopts the conventional
five zones, and, while maintaining the existence of an Antipodean race
of men, he also maintains that there is no way by which knowledge of them
can be obtained. He, like his near contemporary Martianus Capella, proposed
that this inhabited world, which lay entirely north of the Equator, was
surrounded by an ocean, which also filled the impassable equatorial zone,
a theory which can in no way be reconciled with Ptolemy's catalogue of places
in the Southern Hemisphere.
According to an essay by Michael Andrews, the majority of medieval world
maps of the Hemispherical Family are constructed in accordance with
what is known as the oceanic theory, attributed to a 5th century
B.C. Greek philosopher, Crates of Mallos, which recognized two oceanic streams
). The 'true' ocean encircled the sphere equatorially, while the popularly
accepted ocean which passed through the poles was regarded as subsidiary.
These two streams, flowing at right angles to one another, divided the world
into four equal landmasses. Some groups of maps, however, give no indication
of any equatorial ocean nor in consequence of any quadripartite division.
Andrews further divides the Hemispherical Family of medieval maps into two
main branches: the Oceanic or Quadripartite Division and the
Non-Oceanic or Non-Quadripartite Division. The maps belonging
to the first division, which, to judge by the numerous examples remaining
to us, was by far the most popular in medieval times, is further classified
as Simple and Zone.
The Simple Genus includes maps such as those in the Liber Floridus
of Lambert of St. Omer and some in the works of William of Conches, which
depict the whole hemisphere bisected by the equatorial ocean, but do not
indicate any division by zones. The northern habitable parts in these maps
are often divided in tripartite fashion, but sometimes have no formal divisions
(Slides #217, #225.1).
In the Zone Genus the hemisphere is divided into five zones: Those
climate-zones at the two poles, uninhabitable because of the cold; that
at the Equator, uninhabitable because of the torrid heat; and the northern
and southern temperate zones which were habitable, although only 'our' climate
- the northern temperate zone - was included in the known world. Around
the landmasses flowed an ocean whose currents Macrobius described as running
from the equatorial zone, upwards to the north and downwards to the south,
while the equatorial ocean flows west. As can be seen on some exemplary
maps, the north and south polar bays, where the waters flowing in different
directions met twice daily with a great shock, and in turning back gave
rise to the tidal phenomena. Examples of various Species of this
Genus are to be found mainly in the Commentarius in Somnium Scipionis
of Macrobius, the Philosophia and Dragmaticon of William of
Conches, and less frequently in other works. In the Macrobian maps, the
Cratesian scheme is usually more fully illustrated by the inclusion of inscriptions
dealing with the oceanic tides.
In the Somnium Scipionis of de Republica and elsewhere, Cicero
makes clear his belief in the theory of a southern continent or Antipodes.
Macrobius' 5th century commentary carries further the statement of Cicero
concerning the habitable character of this southern zone, specifically known
as the Antichthon. Macrobius affirms that it is reason alone that permits
us to assume its habitable character, for the intervening torrid zone prevents
us from ever knowing what the truth of that matter may be.
The story of the origin and the persistence of the belief in that continent,
of the controversies which grew out of that belief, of the centuries of
exploration in search of the elusive shores of the Terra Australis,
is one of the most curiously interesting in the record of human thought
and action. The maps in which the theory found delineation are of much more
than incidental interest in the present discussion. The symmetry and logic
contained in the theory that if the earth was indeed a sphere (an idea also
proposed by Greek philosophers as early as the 5th century B.C.) then, for
the equilibrium of that sphere to be maintained, it was a necessity of the
laws of physics that there exist landmasses in the south and west to act
as "counter-weights" to the masses of the north and east which
formed the oikoumene or inhabited world of Europe, Northern Africa and Asia.
This theory of the Antipodes, therefore, has haunted geographical
thinkers with a persistence bridging not centuries but millenniums. The
concept was continually debated in 'print', often vehemently, by the Church
Faithful such as Cosmas Indicopleustes (Slide #202 )
and the influential and respected scholar St. Isidore of Seville; and expounded
graphically on maps by Macrobius, Beatus, Lambert of St. Omer, the Venerable
Bede, William of Conches, and others, for more than 2,000 years.
The long controversy was settled, so far as the western Antipodes were
concerned, when America was discovered and its great extent revealed on
maps. The desire to discover the southern antipodes, or the Antichthon,
became thereafter one of the impelling motives of exploration and cartography,
as can be evidenced in the work of such people as the late 18th century
English geographer, Alexander Dalrymple and the continual efforts at Antarctic
exploration that has persisted to the present day.
The map illustrated above is characteristic of the later medieval versions
of the Macrobian world-picture, although some examples preserve richer nomenclature.
This example displays a roughly drawn land mass to the left, representing
Europe: Temperata nostra, above which is the northern frigid zone:
Septentrionalis frigida inhabitabilis. The enclosed water represents
the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea, etc. To the right is a vaguely formed
Asia with the words Mare Caspian, set down at random, below which are areas
intended to depict Arabia and India. The scribe has mislocated the caption
for the Red Sea and Indian Ocean: Mare Rubrum Mare Indicum. Africa,
intercepted by the equatorial Perusta zona just below the Mediterranean
edge, finally tapers off against the impassable stream which cuts the known
world off from the bowl-shaped continent at the south of the circle, Temparata
Antipodum, and below, the Frigida Australis Inhabitabilis. In
the ocean to the left of Europe are two large islands labelled Horcades
Insulae [the Orkneys]. Other islands and land masses are reduced, in
Cicero's words, to the position of mere 'specks' upon the water.
As mentioned earlier, the orientation is relatively unique for medieval
mappaemundi, in that Macrobian maps are oriented to the north, vice
the east, where Jerusalem was often mistakenly reflected as the center of
the world. It is doubtful how soon the Macrobius plans were altered by medieval
copyists into the uncertain orientation which we find in other manuscripts.
It is certain, however, that Macrobius himself definitely put north at the
top, for in one place he states that the upper temperate zone was inhabited
by men of our race. In one of these climate/zone-maps in particular (Slide #201E), a distinction is drawn between the 'domestic
folk' of the same temperate zone and the 'wild men' of the woods, who inhabited
arctic and torrid lands. Not all Macrobian maps display only five zones,
some depict seven zones or belts; the division of the world into climate-zones
or belts can be traced back to Marinus of Tyre and Ptolemy (Slide
The work of Macrobius experienced tremendous popularity throughout the time
period loosely termed the Middle Ages, even considering the inherent distributive
limitations of hand-copied manuscripts. By the 12th century the work of
Macrobius had become standard textbook material in the schools, eight centuries
after his initial work. Marcel Destombes has recorded about 150 manuscripts
dating from 1200 to 1500 A.D., two-thirds of which preserve copies of the
basic map design illustrating Macrobius' theories as expounded in parts
of the first and second Books of his Commentary. As alluded to earlier,
these maps also had extensive influence on the medieval mappaemundi of
others, from the Venerable Bede in the 8th century, to Lambert of Liege,
William of Conches and Honorius of Autun in the 12th century, and a less
direct, though discernible impact on the cartography later developed by
Arab scholars. Printed copies of the Macrobius text and derivative maps
can be found at least well into the 15th century, one reprint appearing
as late as 1500.
201 from a 12th century French Manuscript.
201A from Nordenskiöld, 1483 (Brescia), the first printed map on which
the currents are denoted.
201B from an unknown manuscript map in the Bodleian Library.
201C from Nordenskiöld, 1489, by Johannes Eschuidus, sixteen gods provide
from land and sea (note that it is drawn in reverse).
201D a 10th century manuscript map from Bede's De temporum ratione..
201E a 15th century manuscript map from Petrus Alphonsus' Dialogus Contra
201F a 9th century manuscript Macrobian map.
*Andrews, M., "The Study and Classification of Medieval Mappae Mundi",
Archeaologia, vol. LXXV.
*Beazley, C., The Dawn of Modern Geography, volume II, pp. 573-575; 625.
*Brown, L.A., TheWorld Encompassed, nos. 7, 8, Plate II.
*Destombes, M., Mappemondes, A.D. 1200-1500, #18-#21.
*Harley, J.B., The History of Cartography, Volume One, pp. 243-44,
Kimble, G., Geography in the Middle Ages, pp. 8, 11, 162-63.
*Nordenskiöld, A.E., Facsimile Atlas, Plates 1 and 5.
*Wroth, L., The Early Cartography of the Pacific, pp. 164 -168.