My love for ancient Greek and Roman history dates back to my early teens. I loved the shows Hercules: The Legendary Journey and Xena: Warrior Princess. The historical and mythical characters in the shows made me curious about who they were, and what life was really like during that time. I began reading numerous books on ancient history, and my passion only grew from there. I even got my undergraduate minor in Classical Studies which covers languages, literature, history, art, and other cultural aspects of the ancient Mediterranean world. So anytime I come across items in our Collection related to the ancients, I completely nerd out and delve into researching them as much as possible. My most recent find is a 17th-century map titled Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis Geographica Ac Hydrographica Tabula. That’s the fancy Latin translation for “New Geographic and Hydrographic Map of the Whole Earth.” But this map also has another name which I will reveal momentarily.
Created in 1652 by Claes Jansz Visscher, this is one of four world maps with decorative panels issued by Visscher between 1614 and 1652. The map itself is fairly accurate for its time. Five out of the seven known continents are represented. (Australia and Antarctica would not be fully “discovered” until the late-18th and -19th centuries.) But it’s not the map itself I’m drawn to. It’s the upper and lower border illustrations. The right and left border scenes beautifully represent allegorical depictions of the known continents, various cultures, and several notable cities. But, my favorites are along the top and bottom — embellished scenes of the first 12 Roman emperors, atop horses, dressed in their battle armor. Thus, this piece is often called “Twelve Caesars Map.”
At the top are the first six Roman emperors (L-R): Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero.
At the bottom (L-R) are: Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasianus (Vespasian), Titus, And Domitianus (Domitian).
The men who ruled the Roman Empire are always interesting to read about, and studying this map reinvigorated my fascination in them. Some were better rulers than others. Caligula and Nero, two of my personal favorites to read about, are quite probably among the worst leaders. Oh, and a quick side note: Julius Caesar was not technically Emperor. The Senate deemed him more of a tyrant and dictator, hence why they assassinated him. Nevertheless, his story ties into the eventual establishment of the Roman Empire, and the leaders who would eventually rule over it. The Roman Empire officially began in 27 BCE when Augustus Caesar became the first imperator (emperor) of Rome. It would become one of the greatest empires in human history, lasting until 476 CE when the Western Roman Empire collapsed.
Using allegorical, historical, and mythical figures on 16th-, 17th-, and 18th-century maps was a common trend. Imperial portraits of this time period were regularly stylized after Classical themes, including being dressed in military garb, or shown on top of a horse, if not both.
But why did Visscher include these 12 Roman figures on his map? Perhaps he was a fan of Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (ca. 69 CE – ca. 140 CE), better known simply as Suetonius. Suetonius was a historian and writer whose best known work is De vita Caesarum (Lives of the Caesars,) written in 121 CE. Similar to Visscher’s map, Suetonius’s book is also often called … (pause for dramatic effect) …“The Lives of the Twelve Caesars.” Why? Because this work contains biographies of the first 12 Caesars of the Roman Empire. I cannot say with certainty this was why Visscher included the emperors. But the map and book tie in nicely together, nevertheless. Or perhaps Visscher included the emperors as a nod to their status as leaders and important historical figures. They ruled one of the largest, most influential empires of the western world known to history. The legacy of Ancient Rome is still evidenced in western culture — in government, law, language, architecture, engineering, and religion. For better or worse, these men were, “in their time, masters of the destinies of a large portion of the human race.”1
1. Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, trans. Alexander Thomson and Thomas Forester (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1890), vi.
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus. The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Translated by Alexander Thomson and Thomas Forester. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1890.