Ptolemaic Geography

Geography was understood to be formally separate... from topography and chorography.”

C.W.J. Withers, Placing the Enlightenment: Thinking Geographically about the Age of Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 178.

“geography (n.) 

from Greek geographia “description of the earth's surface,” from geo- “earth” + -graphia “description.””[1] 


Geography and Chorography

This definition of “geography” stems from Ptolemy’s Geographia (The Geography) (c. 150 CE), a treatise on geography and mathematics that had significant influence on early modern mapmakers. In this text, Ptolemy directly contrasts two forms of cartographic representation: geography and chorography. Understanding geography, therefore, can help contextualize our understanding of chorography and its use in Mapping History.

First and foremost, geography and chorography represent different spatial dimensions. Whereas geography is the representation of the entire earth, chorography represents a smaller, local area. According to Ptolemy, these forms of representation should also highlight different aspects of space. A geography requires “mathematical consistency of scale and proportion,” to illustrate the features of the earth’s surface. [2] (Fig. 1) Major countries, rivers, and continents are defined by their dimensions and coordinates. By contrast, a Ptolemaic chorography should emphasize local character over mathematical representation and proportion.

Fig. 1: Ptolemy’s World Map in reprint of Ptolemy, Geographia, c. 1450. Wikimedia commons.

Geography, chorography, and “truth”

Like chorography, geography is often understood as a representation of “truth,” or an attempt to better understand truth. The ways in which the geography of a physical space is structured, in some sense, creates a reality for the viewer. Yet, there are two forms of truth to distinguish between: scientific truth within geography, and truth as a component of character within chorography. Geography was rooted in mathematical and scientific methods which were used to legitimize truth. Whereas chorography highlighted the “personality and uniqueness of a place or region.”[3]  The ostensible ‘truth’ of geographies is particularly notable when geographers depict locations that the audience may never see. The audience’s truth and understanding of this physical space thus become what the geographer decides. 

One notable example is geographic depictions of the world which privilege physical space to Christian groups over non-Christians. This is done through a variety of methods, including how geographers label space and the composition of the geography itself. The Hereford Mappa Mundi is one example of this. Coupled with perceived ‘accuracy,’ these geographies determine a form of reality. Additionally, beginning in the sixteenth century, in the era of European colonization, geography became focused on “successive correction” in depictions of the earth.[4]  European voyages to the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific significantly transformed their understanding of geography, with an emphasis on “truthful” depictions of space.

Geography and chorography in practice

Although Ptolemy made clear the distinction between geography and chorography, scholars have demonstrated that early modern mapmakers did not strictly follow his guidelines. As C.W.J. Withers has stated, in the eighteenth century, “distinctions in scale and substance were often blurred in practice.”[5]  Other scholars have emphasized that Ptolemy was not the only source of knowledge regarding geography or chorography; Strabo, for instance, was also influential[6] . Geography and chorography were also not the only scales geographers had to choose from: early modern mapmakers were deeply involved in mapping individual continents.[7]  Finally, Jessica Maier cautions against interpreting early modern geographies and chorographies as exclusively scientific or creative, respectively. [8] Rather, she suggests overlapping qualities among these types of spatial representation.  

Representing the earth in the medieval and early modern periods

Today a Ptolemaic geography seems like an obvious, even singular, way of representing the earth. It closely resembles cartographic projections we are used to seeing in classrooms or Google maps. However, throughout the medieval world, people used diverse visual strategies to convey the physical or cosmological aspects of the earth. Indeed, geography was “a nebulous concept” during much of this period and was not defined by Ptolemaic concepts.[9] 

Fig. 2: T-O Map. Isidorus, Etymologiae, c. 600-625 CE. Wikimedia commons.

Take a look at the T-O map by the scholar Isidorus of Seville, which he drew around 600 to 625 CE (Fig. 2) This map contrasts sharply with Ptolemaic geography. Both the T-O map and the Ptolemaic geography (Fig. 1) are in fact representations of the same known parts of the world: Europe, Asia, and Africa. However, the mapmakers’ choices in stylization, orientation, measurement, and composition send very different messages about how to interpret the earth.

The T-O map is a highly stylized representation of the earth. The outer circle (“O”) of the map represents the mare oceanum (ocean sea), which was believed to surround the major continents. The Mediterranean Sea and Don and Nile rivers form a “T” shape that separate the land masses into three parts: Asia, Europe, and Africa. (Hence the moniker, “T-O”.) Asia’s position at the top of the map emphasizes the paramount importance of Jerusalem, the holy land for medieval Christians. This map, then, is not a literal representation of space. Medieval people knew the earth was spherical, and that continents had irregular borders. However, they chose to represent such spaces in a “richly iconographic and allegoric” manner to convey a medieval Christian worldview. [10] 

By contrast, the Ptolemaic geography emphasizes the physical and mathematical qualities of the earth, rather than underlying religious meaning. Mapmakers following the Ptolemaic model attempted to depict the shapes, proportions, and positioning of landmasses and oceans based on measurement, not religious worldview. They “dealt primarily with points and line, and pursued resemblance only with respect to the overall shape and form of the” earth. [11] The curvature of the earth, too, is evident in these representations. (Fig. 1)

Geography, chorography, and Mapping History

Thus, the Ptolemaic geography, much like chorography, was a distinct way of representing and understanding the earth. It was not a self-evident form of representation; early modern mapmakers had numerous traditions to work with, including the “T-O” map. Understanding the history of Ptolemaic geography and chorography underscores a central argument of Mapping History: that mapmakers and artists make conscious choices in the way that they depict spaces, and that those spaces hold historical meaning.



Example Quotes

Cosgrove, Denis. Geography and Vision: Seeing, Imagining and Representing the World. London: I.B. Tauris, 2008.

-          “Ptolemy’s contributions to early modern geography was the distinction between geography as a science of the whole earth and its major divisions, in which mathematical consistency of scale and proportion was vital, and chorography as a mode of description in which truth to the individuality, personality and uniqueness of a place or region was the goal, and in which accurate scaling in relation to the larger spatial frame was not significant.” (7)

Cosgrove, Denis. “Introduction: Mapping Meaning,” in Denis Cosgrove, ed. Mappings. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

-          “The field of numbers and mathematical abstraction, the sublimity of global knowledge and representation, was restricted to the work of the geography. As a mathematician, the geographer dealt primarily with points and line, and pursued resemblance only with respect to the overall shape and form of the oecumene.”  (90)

Unger, Richard V. Ships on Maps: Pictures of Power in Renaissance Europe. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

-          “They [map-makers] saw themselves as scientists too and so, just like the cartographers they described, sought accuracy. Their measure of the quality and value of any map was how well it reflected physical reality, how well it conformed to the maps of their own day and to future maps which would only improve as the field of cartography continued to march toward greater precision. For those historians the progress of geography was the successive correction which led maps to approach the truth more closely.” (3)

Withers, C.W.J. Placing the Enlightenment: Thinking Geographically about the Age of Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

-          “Geography was understood to be formally separate from cosmography, the study of the position of the earth in the celestial system, and from topography and chorography. These distinctions in scale and substance were often blurred in practice, for cosmography and astronomy especially so, since many geographical works begin with a discussion of the earth’s cosmological or astronomical place, and geography and astronomy were commonly taught together.” (178)

[1]"Geography," Etymology Dictionary Online. Accessed April 28, 2021. 

 [2]Denis Cosgrove, Geography and Vision: Seeing, Imagining and Representing the World, (London: I.B. Taurus, 2012), 7

 [3]Cosgrove, Denis. Geography and Vision: Seeing, Imagining and Representing the World. London: I.B. Tauris, 2008. Pg. 7.

[4]Richard V. Unger, Ships on Maps: Pictures of Power in Renaissance Europe (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 3. 

[5]C.W.J. Withers, Placing the Enlightenment: Thinking Geographically about the Age of Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 5.

[6]William Keith Hall. From Chronicle to Chorography: Truth, Narrative, and the Antiquarian Enterprise in Renaissance England (Ph.D. Dissertation, UNC Chapel Hill, 1995), 20. 

 [7]Katharina Piechocki, Cartographic Humanism: The Making of Early Modern Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 27.

 [8]Jessica Maier, “A ‘True Likeness’: The Renaissance City Portrait,” Renaissance Quarterly 65, no. 3 (2012): 712.

Andy Merrills, "Geography and memory in Isidore's Etymologies," in Keith d. Lilley, ed., Mapping Medieval Geographies: Geographical Encounters in the Latin West and Beyond: 300-1600 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Pres, 2013), 46. [RR9] [RR9]

[10]Keith D. Lilley, City and Cosmos: The Medieval World in Urban Form (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 30.

[11]Denis Cosgrove, “Introduction: Mapping Meaning,” in Denis Cosgrove, ed. Mappings (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 90.

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