Historical Atlas of Ancient Christianity
St. Davids, PA: Institute for Classical Christian Studies Press, 2013
Pp. ix + 478. $124.95.
Editor’s note: The authors of this review were commissioned to review this specific volume within the context of a wider discussion about cartography and the role of digital humanities.
“From the Greeks to Google Earth, it is not in the nature of maps meaningfully to change anything. Instead, maps offer arguments and propositions; they define, recreate, shape and mediate. Invariably, they also fail to reach their objectives” (Jerry Brotton, A History of the World in Twelve Maps [New York: Viking, 2012], 16). The recent publication of the Historical Atlas of Ancient Christianity (hereafter HAAC) is a notable if flawed achievement: it is now the only English atlas of early Christianity in print. HAAC is a translation, with some minor revisions, of Atlante Storico del Christianesimo Antico, edited by Angelo Di Berardino with Gianluca Pila (Bologna: EDB, 2010). In a field that proliferates instrumenta studiorum—handbooks, lexica, encyclopedias, and search engines abound—the general lack of interest in the cartography of late antique Christianity comes as some surprise.
Yet the HAAC is not without competition. Though long out of print, the Atlas of the Early Christian World, produced by Christine Mohrmann and Frédéric van der Meer, which covered the years between 50 and 600 c.e., still proves a venerable ancestor (originally published as Atlas van de Oudchristelijke Wereld [Amsterdam-Elsevier, 1958; third edition 1966]; trans. Mary F. Hedlund and H. H. Rowley [London, 1958; 1966]). Mention should also be made of the Atlas zur Kirchengeschichte: Die Christlichen Kirchen in Geschichte und Gegenwart, edited by Hubert Jedin, Kenneth Scott Latourette and Jochen Martin (Freiburg, 1970; second edition 1987). It was never translated into English (though into French and Italian), but the first twenty-five maps transport readers from the origins of Christianity through the early seventh century. Then there are the atlases of the classical and post-classical world. Here the gold standard remains the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, edited by Richard J. A. Talbert (Princeton, 2000). It too reaches into the seventh century.
A simple bibliography of print atlases—august tomes that sit on a shelf somewhere in the library stacks or perhaps rest comfortably on a podium in one’s office—is no longer sufficient. If we survey the horizon, it is possible to see that much of the cartographic exploration of the early Christian world is happening within the digital cosmos. In coming years HAAC will increasingly look over its other shoulder at the ever-growing world of digital humanities. It will find that this medium provides a more interactive, and freely accessible, means of traversing the early Christian world.
To appreciate the current state of map-making and to weigh the pros and cons of digital versus traditional print atlases, it is important to grasp the broader topography of digital projects that are focused on ancient geography. One noticeable plus of the digital atlas is the fact that recent technological advances [End Page 601] often provide a better medium than print for presenting and facilitating the reader’s interaction with maps. A good example of this difference lies in the afterlife of the Barrington Atlas.
After the Classical Atlas Project (1988–2000) brought about the publication of the Barrington Atlas in the year 2000, the project did not end. Geographic research of the classical Mediterranean continued via the Ancient World Mapping Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with Talbert at the helm and Tom Elliott as its founding director. The prodigious amount of organized data within the Barrington Atlas had originally been placed on a CDROM but was then transferred to a digital gazetteer called the Pleiades Project in 2005, directed by Elliott.
The geodatabase within Pleiades grows on a daily basis and now exceeds the Barrington Atlas by thousands of sites. Not only is Pleiades an interactive, open-source software initiative; its dataset forms the scholarly, reliable, and peer-reviewed foundation for a spate of other digital projects. One example...