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Fig. 1. A interpretation of the world described in the Ravenna Cosmography, published in Mappae Mundi: Die ältesten Welkarten by Konrad Miller in 1895-98
The Ravenna Cosmography is essentially a series of lists of place-names covering the known world of the Roman period from India to Ireland. The sections dealing with Britain list over 300 place-names (Rivet and Smith 1979, p.190), followed by a list of rivers and then a list of islands. Of all the major sources, this should have been the most useful to a student of Roman Britain and yet, thanks to its plethora of corrupted entries and the lack of apparent logic with which the lists are put together, it has always taken second place as a source for the study of Roman Britain to Ptolemy’s Geography.
It was compiled, probably in the early years of the eighth century, by an unknown monk in Ravenna for another cleric, Odo (Rivet & Smith 1979, p.185). There are just three surviving manuscripts dating from the 13th and 14th centuries, with marked variations in spelling, copying errors, and layout. For example, of the 315 British names lists, the three manuscripts spell just 200 names the same way (Fitzpatrick-Matthews 2013, p.4).
It is generally agreed that the Cosmographer was using a map or maps as his source, but just how many maps or whether or not he was also using itineraries and other sources seems to have lead to as much disagreement as interpretation of the text itself. It is also clear that he was aware that there had been many more settlements and forts than he described, as his opening words to the chapter dealing with Britain read “In that Britain we read that there were many civitates and forts, of which we wish to name a few” (Fitzpatrick-Matthews 2013 p.3). The text is divided into eight main groups, the South West, Britanniae provinciae, Hadrian’s Wall and the borders, The Antonine Wall, Scotland north of the Antonine Wall, Diversa loca (other places), River-names, and then islands. Within each main group, the order of places can seem almost random, making cross-country leaps without any apparent reason. However, it is possible to break the lists down into shorter sections, which then start to make more sense. It seems possible that he was attempting to follow the lines of roads on his source map, or at least working in lines across the map (ibid), although there were clearly issues caused by his including places on nearby roads rather the one he was working along. The intriguing possibility that the document may hold clues to the Roman road network and the sites along it is of clear interest to any student of Roman roads in Britain.
There were three major attempts in the twentieth century to reveal the twigs that make the bird’s nest of the British section of the Cosmography; by Sir Ian Richmond and O. G. S. Crawford in 1949, then Louis Dilleman, published in 1979, and finally A. L. F. Rivet and Colin Smith, also published in 1979. A fourth, and arguably more successful attempt, was made in the first decade of the 21st century by Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews.
It is our hope to be able to publish a version of the original text and an interpretation in due course. In the mean time, there are links to Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews’ substantial transcription, interpretation and analysis opposite. Just a word of warning, given the extreme difficulties in understanding and interpreting this document, other interpretations of the British section that can be found on the internet should be treated with extreme caution.