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, or the expression of, their knowledge of world or local geography 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, but not European cartography for another one thousand years. 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 European medieval maps, they are oriented with North at the top instead of East.

In Macrobius’ maps the entire eastern hemisphere of the earth is shown, divided into five zones: two polar or frigid zones, two temperate, and one equatorial, torrid zone. The concept derives from the Greek scientist, Crates of Mallos (Book I, #113), in the second century B.C., who hypothesized that there were four landmasses on the earth, each containing a habitable zone. An impassable ocean, swept by tides, divided these lands from one another. Early Christians found this concept difficult to stomach. If each of these lands were inhabited, how did the descendants of Adam get there? And how was the mission of the apostles, to convert the entire world, feasible? Despite these concerns, Macrobius’ book and map circulated throughout the Middle Ages in hundreds of manuscripts and was a basic text of medieval science.

Macrobius was a late Roman neoplatonic grammarian and philosopher who wrote several eclectic works that were much read in the Middle Ages. Macrobius’ commentary on Cicero’s work includes geographical theories that were to some extent based upon Ptolemy, but with certain differences. Macrobius wrote his Expositio In Somnium Scipionis ex Cicerone [Commentary on the Dream of Scipio by Cicero] in the early fifth century, basing it on the last part of Cicero’s De Republica, in which the Roman general, Scipio Aemilianus [Africanus the Younger], is transported to the heavens by the spirit of his famous grandfather. From this vantage point he is able to look down upon the earth and he saw the earth’s different climatic zones, from cold at the poles to hot at the equator. Cicero’s theme is the transience of human glory and the importance of ruling justly, but Macrobius’ lengthy commentary expands on its cosmic vision. One of a group of energetic encyclopedists of the late empire, Macrobius transmitted to future generations some part of classical science when the original works were lost. There is no evidence that Macrobius was a Christian, but the neo-Platonist ideals to which he subscribed were easily comprehensible to his readers.

Macrobian maps have little space for geographical details, as the northern temperate zone is relatively small. Usually only a few place names, marking the extremes of the known world, are shown. Here, for example, we have the Orkney Islands (farthest northwest), the Caspian Sea (northeast), Indian Ocean (southeast), and the Red Sea (south), while Italy indicates the centre. Occasionally a larger and more detailed map was made on this plan, but mostly zonal maps happily coexisted with other forms of world maps.

Macrobius preferred Eratosthenes’ more accurate calculation for the circumference of the earth (252,000 stadia = ~25,000 miles, vice Ptolemy’s 180,000 stadia = ~18,000 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 climatic 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 the known 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 (see his diagram in the Introduction), the majority of medieval world maps of the Hemispherical Family were constructed in accordance with what is known as the oceanic theory, attributed to a fifth century B.C. Greek philosopher, Crates of Mallos, which recognized two oceanic streams (Book I, #113). The ‘true’ ocean encircled the earth 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, or 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, are 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 there are also examples that have no formal divisions (see #217 and #225.1).

In the Zone Genus the hemisphere is divided into five zones: (1 and 2) those climate-zones at the two poles, uninhabitable because of the cold; (3) the zone at the Equator, uninhabitable because of the torrid heat; and (4 and 5) 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’ fifth century commentary carries further the statement of Cicero concerning the habitable character of this southern zone, specifically known as the Antichthon.  Like Crates, 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 fifth 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 (#202) and the influential and respected scholar St. Isidore of Seville (#205); and expounded graphically on maps by Macrobius, Beatus (#207), Lambert of St. Omer (#217), the Venerable Bede, William of Conches (#205.1), 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.

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 reflected as the center of the world. It is doubtful how soon the Macrobius plans were altered by medieval copyists into the uncertain orientation that 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 (#201C), 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 (Book I, #119).

A Macrobian world map from a 12th century French manuscript, showing five Climate Zones and the Antipodes

The map illustrated on the left 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 mis-located 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 labeled Horcades Insulae [the Orkneys]. Other islands and landmasses are reduced, in Cicero’s words, to the position of mere ‘specks’ upon the water.

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 eighth 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 16th century, one reprint appearing as late as 1560.

According to Chet Van Duzer, only one Macrobian map that has sea monsters, namely a 12th century mappamundi in Leiden. There is one clear sea dog in the northwestern part of the circumfluent ocean, portrayed simply as a dog in the ocean rather than as a hybrid creature; in the northeastern part of the circumfluent ocean there is another creature, very faded, which is probably intended to represent a marine bear, but again it is portrayed simply as a bear rather than as a hybrid creature. There is also a large fish in the equatorial ocean (labeled verus oceanus) in the middle of the map. These artistically primitive monsters seem to have been the whim of the artist, as Macrobius says nothing about the sea creatures depicted on the map, and there was no tradition of depicting sea monsters on Macrobian maps.

A rare 12th century Macrobian map which has sea monsters, a “sea dog” and what appears to be a faded “sea bear”.

In the library of the University of Salamanca there is a 15th century manuscript probably made in Utrecht that contains a miscellany of works on mathematics, astronomy, computus, geography, and medicine. This manuscript contains a little-known mappamundi which, though quite simple and schematic, has a prominent legend about sea monsters. The map below follows Alfraganus’ Rudimenta astronomica, and is accompanied by some geographical notes on the climatic zones of the earth. It is oriented with East at the top and is a zonal map, showing the regions near the poles uninhabitable because of the cold, the equator uninhabitable because of the heat, and the inhabitable zone in the northern hemisphere as a rectangle on the left, with open ocean in the southern hemisphere. In the southern ocean there is a legend that reads hoc mare profundum et horribile m[ax]imum nutrit cete grandia sicut montes ut test atur Ambrosius, that is, “This deep, horrible, and great sea nourishes whales as huge as mountains, as St Ambrose says.” The reference is to Ambrose’s Hexameron Libri Sex 5.10, which runs:

For that reason, in that place where the wide extent of water precludes every desire to gaze upon it and every sentiment of boldness to sail thereon for the sake of gain, there the whale is said to have his lair. There, too, live a huge species of fish, reported to be mountainous in size by those who have ventured to approach and see them. This huge fish lives tranquilly there, remote from islands and uncontaminated by the nearness of port towns. They have their separate habitats and locations all their own.

Ambrose does not specify which ocean he is describing, but the cartographer’s choice to place this legend in the remote southern ocean is appropriate. This material from Ambrose is not cited on any other map, which demonstrates again how cartographers chose material about sea monsters from eclectic sources. It is interesting to compare and contrast this cartographer’s view of the southern ocean with that of Andrea Bianco (#242). Both indicate that the southern ocean is a location of sea monsters, but while the maker of the Salamanca mappamundi cites a text which speaks of the monsters living tranquilly, Bianco suggests that the monsters come from an entrance to Hell.

A 15th century zonal mappamundi oriented with East at the top, with a legend about sea monsters in the southern ocean

Salamanca, Biblioteca Universitaria, MS 2621, f.155r

Summary: In the early fifth century, Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius presented a global view of the Ocean in his Commentarii in Somnium Scipionis. In many surviving medieval manuscripts of this work, starting in the ninth century, we find maps that illustrate the following geographical ideas. The Earth is subdivided into five zones. Oceanic currents originate in the middle torrid zone. In the east and in the west each of the currents divides into one northbound and one southbound stream. The streams violent collision around the north and south poles results in ebbs and flows. Our known world thus becomes one of the four “islands” on the globe, which corresponds to the ideas of Crates of Mallos (the second century BC, #113, Book I).

The medieval Macrobian maps show two of these four “islands” in the eastern hemisphere. Our inhabited land is in the north and another “island”, in the south. There are four relevant legends around the circumference of the Ocean: the Ocean turns from the east to the north, the Ocean turns from the east to the south, the Ocean turns from the west to the south, and the Ocean turns from the west to the north.


201 Macrobian world map, 12th century, 21.6 X 13 cm, French MS, Walters Art Gallery

201A Macrobian world map, (1483), 14.3 cm diameter, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California (HEH 91528)

201B Macrobian World Map, 14 X 14 cm, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS D’Orville 77, fol. 100r 201C Macrobian world map, (1489), Summa Anglicana, Johannes Eschuidus, 14 x14 cm (note that it is drawn in reverse)

201D Macrobian world map in Bede’s De temporum ratione, 10th century27.5 cm diameter, British Library, BL Cotton MS Tiberius B.V.1, fol.29r

201E Macrobian world map in Petrus Alphonsus’ Dialogus Contra Judeos Petrus Alphonsus, 15th century, Bodleian Library, MS. Laud. Misc. 356

201E1 Macrobian world map in Petrus Alphonsus’ Dialogus Contra Judeos Petrus Alphonsus, 15th century, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, MS. Lat. 11130, fol. 82r

201E2 Macrobian world map in Petrus Alphonsus’ Dialogus Contra Judeos Macrobius, 14 X 14 cm, James Ford Bell Library, MN

201F Macrobian world map, 9th century, 12 cm dia., British Library, BL MS Harl. 2772, fol. 70v

201G Macrobian world map in Commentarium in somnium Scipionis, 15th century, 12.5 cm diameter, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Ottob. Lat. 1137, fol. 54v., Rome

201G1 Macrobian World Map, 1492, 12.5 cm diameter, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Ottob. Lat. 1137, fol. 54v., Rome

201H Zone map from Macrobius’, Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, 1521, 4.5 inches diameter; 14 x 14 cm, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library (reversed)

201I Macrobian World Map, Commentaire sur le songe de Scipion. Manuscrit sur parchemin, BNF, Manuscrits (Latin 6371 f° 20v°)
201J Macrobian World Map, Ioan Gryphius Excudebat, 1560
201K Macrobian World Map, 1519, 14 X 14 cm, James Ford Bell Library, MN (reversed)
201N Macrobian World Map, 14 X 14 cm, James Ford Bell Library, MN
201O Macrobian World Map, 14 X 14 cm, James Ford Bell Library, MN
201P Macrobian World Map
201Q Macrobian World Map, 1560
201R Macrobian World Map, 1506
201S Macrobian World Map
201T Macrobius Map

201U Macrobius Map, 9th-10th century, Brussels, Bibliotheque Royale, MS 10146, fol. 109v

201V Macrobius Map, 10-11th century, Bamberg Staatsbibliothek MS Class. 38, fol. 20r.

201W Macrobius Map, 10th century, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana MS Palat. lat. 1341, fol. 86v.

201X Macrobius Map, 10 th-11th century, Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 14436, fol. 58r. 

201Y Macrobius Map, 11th century, Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Clm 6362, fol. 74r

201Z Macrobius Map, 10th century, Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Clm 6364, fol. 23r.

201Z1 Macrobius Map, 12th century, British Library, Egerton MS 2976, fol. 62v

201Z2 Macrobius Map, 12th century, Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 4612, fol. 103v

201Z3 Macrobius Map, 12th century, Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Clm 18208, fol. 32v.

201Z4 al-Qazwini Macrobius Map, Al-Qazwini, 12th century

201Z5 Macrobius Map, 10-11th century, Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 14436, fol. 58r. Appendix 1, no. 9.

201Z6 Macrobius Map, 12th century


*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., The World Encompassed, nos. 7, 8, Plate II.

*Destombes, M., Mappemondes, A.D. 1200-1500, #18-#21.

*Edson, E., Mapping Time and Space, How Medieval Mapmakers viewed their World, pp. 75-81

*Edson, Evelyn, The World Map, 1300-1492, Baltimore, 2007, 300 pp.

*Galichian, R., Countries South of the Caucasus in Medieval Maps: Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, p. 21.

*Harley, J.B., The History of Cartography, Volume One, pp. 243-44, 299-300, 353-54, Figures 18.10/70.

*Harwood, J., To the ends of the Earth, 100 Maps that changed the world, p. 43.

*Hiatt, A., “The Map of Macrobius before 1100”, Imago Mundi, 59: 2, 149-176

Kimble, G., Geography in the Middle Ages, pp. 8, 11, 162-63.

*Nordenskiöld, A.E., Facsimile Atlas, Plates 1 and 5.

Scafi, A., Mapping Paradise, pp. 86, 90, 91, 111, 173, 174, 186-7, 224-5

*Suarez, T., Shedding the Veil, pp. 13-17, Plate 2.

*Van Duzer, C., Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps, pp. 28-29, Figures 15, 16, 31.

*Wroth, L., The Early Cartography of the Pacific, pp. 164-168.

* illustrated

For a very detailed discussion, I highly recommend the following article from

Imago Mundi (59:2. 149-176)

The Map of Macrobius before 1100


Alfred Hiatt is a lecturer in the School of English, University of Leeds. Correspondence to: Dr A. Hiatt, School of English, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK. E-mail: a.hiatt@leeds.ac.uk

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.

For examples of this style of mapping, see 201.1, 201.2 and 201.3