Sign In

Forgot Password Create Account

Sri Lanka, As Known To The Greeks

Fine old color example of this remarkable early map of Taprobana (Sri Lanka), from the 1486 Ulm edition of Ptolemy's Geographia.

The map is drawn from the work of Nicolas Germanicus, whose manuscript maps were created to illustrate pre-1470 editions of Ptolemy's Geographia.

The present map is from the second edition of this work, which was first published in 1482.


The earliest recorded note of Taprobana dates to before the time of Alexander the Great as inferred from Pliny. The treatise De Mundo (supposedly by Aristotle, but according to others by Chrysippus the Stoic (280 to 208 BC)) described an island the size of Great Britain. The name Taprobana seems to date to the Greek geographer Megasthenes around 290 BC.   Eratosthenes (276 to 196 BC) references Taprobana in his Geographia. Ptolemy (139 AD) incorporates Taprobana in his geographical treatise, identifying it as  a relatively large island south of continental Asia.

Taprobana was the home of the legendary single giant footed man-like creatures. G.U. Pope, in his book "Textbook of Indian History", claims the name to be derived from Dipu-Ravana, meaning the island of Ravana. 

Historically, there was some debate over the location of Taprobana.  Locations claimed included:

  • Sri Lanka, as in Ptolemy's map and climes
  • Sumatra, as in the birthplace of Enrique of Malacca
  • A phantom island

While Ptolemy's Taprobane has been the subject of debate, it appears to be the present day Sri Lanka on the medieval maps of Abu-Rehan (1030) and Edrisi (1154) and as described by Marco Polo (1292).  The tradition of the Middle Age use of Latinized placenames and delineating places with fanciful figures contributed to absurd designs and confusion regarding the island and Sumatra. In the fifteenth century, Niccolò de' Conti mistakenly identified Taprobana with a much smaller island.   Taprobana/Ceylon/Sri Lanka is marked in the 1507 Martin Waldseemuller map.

The debate regarding the proper location of Ptolemy's Taprobana continues in Sebastian Munster’s Cosmographia of 1580, which incorporates a map of Taprobana with a title in German describing it as "Sumatra, a large island", although there was nothing that was available to Munster which warranted the re-opening of the Sri Lanka/Sumatra debate and this seems to be the final milestone in Taprobana's confused history. 

The Ulm Ptolemy 1482-1486

The 1482 Ulm edition of Ptolemy's Geographia was the first edition printed north of the Alps map and the first to appear in color which was applied by the publisher. The Ulm edition of the Geographia was one of the most important cartographic texts of the early Renaissance and the first edition of the work to be printed outside Italy. The text for this edition was a manuscript translated into Latin by Jacobus Angeli and edited by Nicolaus Germanus that had been brought to Ulm from Rome in 1468. The Ulm Ptolemy was first published in 1482 by Lienhart Holle, the same year as Berlingheri's Florence edition. Ashley Baynton Williams notes:

Working independently of Berlinghieri, but apparently using the same or similar models, Holle also added modern maps of Spain, France, Italy and Palestine, but also the first printed map of Scandinavia, composed by Cornelius Clavus, circa 1425-27. Holle's maps were printed from woodcuts, and are characterized by heavy wash coloring for the sea areas, typically a rich blue for the 1482 edition, and an ochre for the 1486 edition. These bright colors, and the greater sense of age that woodcuts convey, make this series the most visually appealing of the [Ptolemeic] maps.

Holle went bankrupt shortly after the original publication and the work was taken over by Johann Reger, who issued a second edition in 1486.

As noted by Baynton Williams, the first edition can be distinguished from the second edition by the use of the blue wash color in the ocean, whereas the second edition employed a brown wash in the ocean.

Condition Description
Old Color.
Laor, E. 604; Tibbetts, G.R. 7 (1482).
Claudius Ptolemy Biography

Claudius Ptolemy (fl. AD 127-145) was an ancient geographer, astronomer, and mathematician. He is known today through translations and transcriptions of his work, but little is known about his life besides his residence in Alexandria.

Several of his works are still known today, although they have passed through several alterations and languages over the centuries. The Almagest, in thirteen books, discusses astronomy. It is in the Almagest that Ptolemy postulates his geocentric universe. His geometric ideas are contained in the Analemma, and his optical ideas were presented in five books known as the Optica.

His geographic and cartographic work was immensely influential. In the Planisphaerium, Ptolemy discusses the stereographic projection. Perhaps his best-known work is his Geographia, in eight books. However, Ptolemy’s ideas had been absent from western European intellectual history for roughly a thousand years, although Arab scholars interacted with his ideas from the ninth century onward.

In 1295, a Greek monk found a copy of Geographia in Constantinople; the emperor ordered a copy made and the Greek text began to circulate in eastern Europe. In 1393, a Byzantine diplomat brought a copy of the Geographia to Italy, where it was translated into Latin in 1406 and called the Cosmographia. The manuscript maps were first recorded in 1415. These manuscripts, of which there are over eighty extant today, are the descendants of Ptolemy’s work and a now-lost atlas consisting of a world map and 26 regional maps.

When Ptolemy’s work was re-introduced to Western scholarship, it proved radically influential for the understanding and appearance of maps. Ptolemy employs the concept of a graticule, uses latitude and longitude, and orients his maps to the north—concepts we take for granted today. The Geographia’s text is concerned with three main issues with regard to geography: the size and shape of the earth; map projection, i.e. how to represent the world’s curve proportionally on a plane surface; and the corruption of spatial data as it transfers from source to source. The text also contains instructions as to how to map the world on a globe or a plane surface, complete with the only set of geographic coordinates (8000 toponyms, 6400 with coordinates) to survive from the classical world.