Mapping Vergil: Cartography and Geography in the Aeneid

Georgia L. Irby

College of William and Mary


At its core, the Aeneid is a tale of travel and adventure, and the land- and seascape become just as important as the peoples whom the exiled Trojans encounter. Many cartographical and geographical topoi emerge from reading this great epic within the context of Graeco-Roman scientific geography. The Aeneid, in fact, reflects the best cartographic advances of the day and is presented in the same way as other “maps” from ancient Greece and Rome – not in the modern pictural sense but, rather, verbally. Vergil, furthermore, seamlessly incorporates many of the key aspects of ancient geography (topography, climatology, ethnography) to enhance overarching themes of his masterpiece. In this talk, we will explore Vergil’s use of narrative maps (in particular, the map described by Helenus, Aeneid 3.374-462 and Aeneas’ shield as a political map, Aeneid 8.671-28) and how Vergil’s narrative maps compare with the ambit of Greco-Roman cartography. We will also examine how Vergil manipulates topography and employs both eponymous and culturally specific toponyms (Caietae portus, Latium, Laurentine Tiber). Geography in Vergil, like geography in “scientific” or “historical” sources, was concerned only with the inhabited/habitable world (oikoumene) and the human stamp on the landscape. Describing and mapping the world conveyed powerful symbolic resonance, and Vergil’s Aeneid can thus be interpreted as a literary analog to the initiatives of Julius Caesar and Marcus Agrippa to map the entire Roman empire.