Claudius Ptolemy was a Greek writer, astronomer, mathematician and astrologer who lived from around 100 AD to 170 AD. To those less immersed in the classics – such as myself – he is better known as a geographer. I always supposed that his Geographia was simply a series of ground-breaking maps of the world as he knew it, but apparently this is not so. The Geography is mostly made up of descriptive texts in which Ptolemy assigned coordinates to all the places and geographical features that he knew on a grid that spanned the known world.
Early 7th century representation of Claudius Ptolemy
Unfortunately the texts he wrote as well as any particular maps he may have included with them were lost for several centuries. Luckily and according to various reliable sources, the texts of the Geographia were eventually rediscovered and brought to Florence in the late 14th century by a certain Jacopo Angeli. He got them from Manuel Chrysoloras a citizen of Constantinople.
Together they translated and published them but did not include any actual maps. From then on a series of other translators tried their hand at converting Ptolemy’s descriptions into proper maps. Perhaps unfortunately they found it irresistible not to update these with the geographical knowledge that had accumulated over the centuries from the time of Ptolemy up to when they were newly published. The oldest translations and compilations – there are about 45 of them – date from the late 15th to the early 16th century.
Ptolemy’s map of the world - Part of the Cosmography compiled in Florence in 1467
Detail of the above map – Gibraltar appears as Calpe as the entire Cosmography was written in Latin
Map of Iberia
Worthy of note perhaps is the odd inclusion of the rather obscure Moorish kingdom of Pamplona which did not last long and was no longer Moorish after the 11th century. Also the identifying of the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada - to which Gibraltar belonged. It was a tributary state of the Crown of Castile from 1248–1492. The separation of Portugal from the rest of Iberia took place in 1128
Detail of the above map – Note the references to the Straits of Gibraltar and the odd spelling of Fretum Herculaneum and Fretum Gibraltar
The Straits of Gibraltar and parts of West Africa
The detailed captions on the west coast seem to confirm the claim by Herodotus that even as far back as the 7th century BC the ancients were quite capable of circumnavigating their known world:
The Phoenicians took their departure from Egypt by way of the Erythraean Sea, (the Red Sea) and so sailed into the southern ocean . . . and it was not till the third year that they doubled the Pillars of Hercules, and made good their voyage home. Next to these Phoenicians the Carthaginians, according to their own accounts, made the voyage.
Detail of the above map
Note the two Pillars of Hercules both stand on the northern side – while the Straits – or at least the very southern part of the Mediterranean - are referred to as Mare Gibraltar - Could the banner on the posts joining the Pillars have held the word Nec Plus Ultra?