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  • Terra Incognita: Mapping the Antipodes before 1600
  • Bruce Fetter
Terra Incognita: Mapping the Antipodes before 1600. By Alfred Hiatt (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2008) 298 pp. $60.00

Many historians of cartography bristle when their colleagues in the humanities interpret maps as tropes that represent arcane realities. Thus, when a professor of English introduces one element in ancient world maps, the antipodes, “as a space outside of history, faith, and politics” (8), he might find his audience extremely skeptical. Nevertheless, Hiatt proves his claims by mastering an enormous variety of sources ranging from classical texts, commentaries, diagrams, maps, and a scholarly literature that ranges from classics through philosophy to the history of early maps. Indeed, his new book may represent the revival of the history of an idea that evolved as it was applied to a changing array of political contexts.

That evolution is charted in seven chapters spanning two millennia. The ancient Greeks realized that although they could theorize about the [End Page 439] climate in unknown regions of the world, they could not describe the spherical earth beyond a known world, the ecumene, constructed from travelers’ reports. They therefore speculated about an unknown world beyond it, the antipodes, the antithesis of the world that they knew. Roman writers such as Cicero, Virgil, and Pliny, used the unknown character of the antipodes as a means of questioning policies of the Caesars who ruled much of the ecumene. As Hiatt puts it, “If they could not speak, antipodal regions could nevertheless signify . . . in terms that could cut to the heart of European political and cultural identity. . . . The supposition of more than one antoecumenical region carried important implications for the imagination of political power (32).”

In the later Empire, claims to authority in the known world were disputed between Christians such as Augustine, who argued that humans could not live in the antipodes, and non-Christians including Macrobius and Martianus Capella, who argued that they could. This debate continued long after the collapse of the Western Empire, gradually taking a visual form. Comments on classical texts began to include diagrams of the earth, which included both the world known in Western Europe and the antipodes. Hiatt interprets these diagrams as “more than visual aids to accompany the text; they are explicitly a mode of understanding with a status equal to words” (51).

These diagrams were not just an evolutionary step in the direction of representing the entire earth as a single space. The antipodes, according to Hiatt, became “metacartographical space—as the part that speaks the whole, expresses its function and rationale . . . opposite to the known world, it also preceded it, signifying land itself, the fundamental basis of habitation, and the precondition for cartographic representation” (66). Medieval illustrators used the space of the antipodes as a recessus, a remote place or retreat on which they could write their comments about the unknown world or, in Dante’s case, Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven (106). As Hiatt puts it in his introduction with regard to another medieval term used to describe the antipodes, “terra incognita constituted an a-cartographic mode of representation within the map . . . land unknown but not unthought” (11).

During the fifteenth century, two innovations made it possible for Western Europeans to explore parts of the world that had been previously considered unknowable. The first was the translation of Ptolemy’s Geography into Latin, which demonstrated that the second-century Egyptian scholar had already described what were thought to be parts of the antipodes. The second was the extension of travel by the Portuguese around the coast of Africa, thanks to the introduction of the compass from China and the triangular sail from the Indian Ocean, which made accessible a part of the world that, in medieval times, had been part of the antipodes. These new lands were relabeled terra inventa, land discovered (147). Their accessibility, according to Hiatt, presented a problem for the papacy, which claimed to represent all Christians, and which had waged the Crusades against Muslims for 300 years. To maintain its ecclesiastical [End Page 440] authority, the Church needed to claim jurisdiction over the newly discovered lands “through acts of representation, whether on a...


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