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Stunning Ortelius Map of the Ancient World, Based on the Work of Claudius Ptolemy

Decorative map of the ancient world based upon the work of Claudius Ptolemy from the second century. This map was published in Ortelius' Parergon, the first historical atlas.

Ptolemy’s influence can be seen in the place names as well as the limited size of the map, as Ortelius includes only what Ptolemy knew of the world. The map shows Europe, Africa, and Asia, from Scandinavia (Scandia Thule) to Madagascar (Menuthias) and as far east as Indonesia (India Extra Gangem). It is set into a much larger empty oval projection which indicates the limits of geographical knowledge from the classical period as compared to the sixteenth-century understanding of the world. The Americas, southern Africa, Australia, and much of East and Southeast Asia are not included on the central map.

The shape of the included continents and coastlines is fairly accurate, reinforcing that these regions were part of the known world and therefore well mapped. Some of the world’s larger rivers are carefully rendered, such as the Nile River (Nilus flu.), and throughout the map mountain ranges and forests give the land texture. These details give the viewer a sense of the physical geography of the land. Large water bodies are filled in with stippling.

Only a few cities are picked out and labeled, such as Jerusalem (Hierasalem), Alexandria, Rome (Roma), and Paris (Lutetia), but they are drawn as miniature views in typical Ortelian style. There are also a number of labels related to classical myths and religion. A group of islands off of the coast of West Africa are labeled as home of the Gorgons or Hesperides (Gorgones, sive Hesprides) figures of Greek mythology, thought to be from far west of Greece. Mount Sinai (Synai mons), where Moses received the Ten Commandments, can also be found in the Middle East.

In the larger oval, the different zones of the world are separated by the five major parallels of latitude and labeled by temperature and habitability. The Arctic and Antarctic regions to the north and south (Zona frigida et inhabitabilis) are noted as freezing and uninhabitable, and the hottest region near the Equator (Aequinoctialis) is labeled as dry and hot (Zona torrida), considered uninhabitable according to the ancients. The temperate regions (Zona temperate et habitabilis) lie in between, with a livable climate.

The entire map is enclosed in an ornate strapwork border, with several cartouches containing additional information. In each corner, a small medallion contains an inset map of the four continents known at the time of this map’s creation, in the late sixteenth century.

There is also a title cartouche at the top, one indicating the cartographer and date below the map, and a final cartouche at the bottom of the page. This final cartouche notes that the map shows the entire world from the view of the ancients, before the year 1492 (when European views of the world were expanded as they came in contact with the Americas). The strapwork and other decorations around the map are some of Ortelius’ most ornate, speaking to the work put into creating it and the overall importance he placed on this map in particular.

Unlike Mercator, Ortelius never produced an edition of Ptolemy's influential Geographia, which was reintroduced to Europe in the fifteenth century. Instead, he compiled his own atlas of the ancient world, the Parergon.

Here, the landmasses depicted are largely in their modern configurations, although the place names on the map are based upon Ptolemy. The effect of the work is to show not just the world as geographers knew it in the second century but also how much farther geographic knowledge had progressed from Ptolemy’s time to Ortelius’.


Although best known for his world atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, the Parergon was a project of personal interest and the work that Ortelius himself considered his greatest achievement. He had a deep curiosity about classical antiquity which spurred him to create the Parergon maps, and the amount of time and detail he put into each map is clearly evident. Ortelius hand drew each map of the Parergon, which required considerable skill and knowledge of the area’s history and geography. It is considered the first historical atlas.

Parergon means supplementary and, accordingly, the first three Parergon maps were published as supplements to the 1579 edition of the Theatrum, which had already been in print for nine years. Over time, successive editions of the Theatrum were supplemented with more Parergon maps, and there are 55 known plates overall. The Parergon was also published as its own atlas separate from the Theatrum on two occasions, once in 1595 and again in 1624.

The Parergon was highly successful both as a supplement to the Theatrum and on its own. It was variously translated into French, German, Italian, and English and regularly printed until 1612. Further editions were more sporadic but still popular, such as the 1624 edition which was published twenty-six years after Ortelius’ death in 1598.

This intricate map successfully blends geography and history. It would be a valuable addition to a collection of world maps, Ortelius maps, or maps of classical antiquity.

Marcel P. Van den Broecke, "Cartographica Neerlandica Topographical Names for Ortelius Map No. 186," Cartographica Neerlandica, accessed July 6, 2019,; Rodney Shirley, Mapping the World (London: New Holland Ltd., 1993), map 176. JE
Abraham Ortelius Biography

Abraham Ortelius is perhaps the best known and most frequently collected of all sixteenth-century mapmakers. Ortelius started his career as a map colorist. In 1547 he entered the Antwerp guild of St Luke as afsetter van Karten. His early career was as a business man, and most of his journeys before 1560, were for commercial purposes. In 1560, while traveling with Gerard Mercator to Trier, Lorraine, and Poitiers, he seems to have been attracted, largely by Mercator’s influence, towards a career as a scientific geographer. From that point forward, he devoted himself to the compilation of his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World), which would become the first modern atlas.

In 1564 he completed his “mappemonde", an eight-sheet map of the world. The only extant copy of this great map is in the library of the University of Basel. Ortelius also published a map of Egypt in 1565, a plan of Brittenburg Castle on the coast of the Netherlands, and a map of Asia, prior to 1570.

On May 20, 1570, Ortelius’ Theatrum Orbis Terrarum first appeared in an edition of 70 maps. By the time of his death in 1598, a total of 25 editions were published including editions in Latin, Italian, German, French, and Dutch. Later editions would also be issued in Spanish and English by Ortelius’ successors, Vrients and Plantin, the former adding a number of maps to the atlas, the final edition of which was issued in 1612. Most of the maps in Ortelius' Theatrum were drawn from the works of a number of other mapmakers from around the world; a list of 87 authors is given by Ortelius himself

In 1573, Ortelius published seventeen supplementary maps under the title of Additamentum Theatri Orbis Terrarum. In 1575 he was appointed geographer to the king of Spain, Philip II, on the recommendation of Arias Montanus, who vouched for his orthodoxy (his family, as early as 1535, had fallen under suspicion of Protestantism). In 1578 he laid the basis of a critical treatment of ancient geography with his Synonymia geographica (issued by the Plantin press at Antwerp and republished as Thesaurus geographicus in 1596). In 1584 he issued his Nomenclator Ptolemaicus, a Parergon (a series of maps illustrating ancient history, sacred and secular). Late in life, he also aided Welser in his edition of the Peutinger Table (1598).