Tabula Peutingeriana, the 7-meter road map of the Roman Empire

The Tabula Peutingeriana, a gigantic map from the 4th century, shows the entire network of roads that the Romans laid out to connect Europe with Africa and Asia.

Many people believe that the first road guide was the famous one Red Guidelaunched in August 1900 by the French tire manufacturer André Michelin, but the historical reality is different.

Tabula Peutingeriana (detail) with Macedonia in the center. Photo: Wikimedia

Almost 2,000 years before the first guidebooks – which until 1920 were given to motorists in mechanics’ workshops and included practical advice on changing tyres, addresses of places to refuel and a few scenic routes with restaurants and hotels – there were already “service stations” and road maps.

The stations were called residenceand the guides were represented by the Tabula Peutingeriana, a scroll of parchment nearly seven meters long showing the road network of the Roman Empire around the 4th century, from Iberia to Egypt and India.

The oldest surviving copy was made by a monk in Colmar (Alsace, France) in the 13th century and is in the National Library in Vienna.

Tabula Peutingeriana, the 7-meter road map of the Roman Empire
Tabula Peutingeriana (detail). Dacia appears on segments VII-VIII. Photo: Wikimedia

On it, the main roads are marked in red, with markers indicating the days of travel, inns, hot springs, and other places where travelers could rest.

The Tabula Peutingeriana was divided into 12 segments, but the first, which would correspond to the Iberian Peninsula and southern Britain, has been lost. This piece was reconstructed in 1898 by the German cartographer Konrad Miller from other sources.

Digital cartography has allowed the reproduction of itineraries on interactive maps, such as those of his project Jean-Baptiste Piggin or the ancient history teacher’s version of Google Maps Richard Talbert.

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Tabula Peutingeriana, the 7-meter road map of the Roman Empire
The German Konrad Peutinger (1465 – 1547), humanist, jurist and antiquarian, inherited the map from a friend who said he had discovered it in a library in 1494. Photo: Wikimedia

The Romans built a network of roads like a nervous system, with over 80,000 kilometers of access roads throughout the empire. Not only did they create a new geography, but they also introduced an entirely new way of representing the world.

On this first road network there were also bollards, a series of cylindrical stones placed every Roman mile (about one and a half kilometers) on the main routes, which indicated the remaining distance to the next residence.

These residencethe ancestors of auto workshops, inns and gas stations, were places where hikers could spend the night, located along the route managed by the imperial administration.

Tabula Peutingeriana, the 7-meter road map of the Roman Empire
Rome (detail). Photo: Wikimedia

They had baths, storehouses, stores, and taverns that served travelers.

“For the first time, you knew exactly where you were and could be located in the world,” says Mary Beard, a professor at Cambridge University and an expert on classical antiquity, in the documentary Rome, an empire without limits.

Beard also talks about the Vascula Apollinaria or Cups of Vicarello: four silver jugs discovered in 1852 in Lake Bracciano, near Rome, and now on display in the National Roman Museum in the Massimo Palace.

The Appian Way, built in 312 BC, was one of the first and most important strategic roads in the Roman Empire. Photo: Wikimedia

They are engraved with the names of the stops between Gades (Cadiz, southern Spain, near Gibraltar) and the Roman capital, as well as the distances between the stops.

The total length of the route is indicated at the base of the cylinders: 1,800 Roman miles, which is more than 40 days of travel.

Although the purpose of these objects remains a mystery, historians believe that they were a kind of souvenir that allowed the owner to brag about the places visited while drinking wine from the cups.

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Cups from Vicarello. Photo: Wikimedia

As the Michelin man, the emblematic and lively mascot born in 1898 from the hand of the designer O’Galop, would say, “Nunc est bibendum” (“Now let’s drink!”), Horațiu’s formula that the Romanians uttered at parties.

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