The Map of Macrobius before 1100
By Alfred Hiatt
Imago Mundi, Vol. 59:2 (2007)
Abstract: The subject of this article is the tradition of world maps that illustrate Macrobius’ Commentary on the Dream of Scipio in manuscripts produced before 1100. Examination of the maps in manuscript context reveals that the primary purpose of the image was to illustrate the direction of ocean flows, the formation of seas, and the relationship of the known world to unknown but hypothesized regions. The image was not static: it was adapted in several different ways—at times simplified, at others made more complex. The evidence of pre-twelfth-century manuscripts suggests that it is possible to identify sub-groups within the corpus of Macrobius maps, but that it may not be possible to establish lines of descent from the original fifth-century map.
Introduction: Historians of cartography have long recognized the importance of the world map contained in the early fifth-century commentary written by Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius on Cicero’s Dream of Scipio. Many classificatory systems advanced for medieval maps in the twentieth century identified Macrobius maps within a particular category, that of the zonal or ‘hemispheric’ map, which represented the northern and southern hemispheres divided into climatic zones, in contrast to maps of the T-O and other varieties that showed only or primarily the known world.
Macrobius maps have nevertheless been studied far less than ecumenical maps, and treatment of them has frequently been cursory. Consequently, while the large number of maps extant in medieval manuscripts of Macrobius’ Commentary have often been noted (estimated at around 150, although the precise number is not known), several misapprehensions about these maps persist. The purpose of this article is to provide a clearer picture of the nature—and particularly the function—of the world map in Macrobius’ Commentary in the thirty-five pre-1100 manuscripts in which it appears. I shall also outline some of the ways in which the map was altered and adapted during the twelfth century.