So you’ve read a few lives and realized that your ancient geography is rusty. The Penguin Translations come with some maps, but it’d be nice to have all the maps for all the lives in one place. Furthermore, it’d be really useful to have an offline resource that one could consult in the classroom or use at home. I’ll go over where to find the best physical maps for Plutarch, then I’ll show some of the best free digital maps for reading Plutarch, and I’ll close with a way to find those niggling places that a Google search doesn’t even seem to solve.
Best Physical Atlas Maps for Reading Plutarch
I had too often relied on Wikipedia’s maps, which are pretty good, but don’t always cover the level of detail that Plutarch does. Your best bet for all the reading you do from history—whether Plutarch or not—is any edition of Shepherd’s Historical Atlas. The atlas runs from the ancient world all the way through and beyond World War I, depending on the edition you buy. My ninth edition ends in 1979. Nonetheless, this $20 reference becomes a powerful ally whether you’re studying Plutarch, the middle ages, (check out the fascinating ground plan of a monastery or medieval manor) or World War I.
Compared to modern maps, Shepherd has more of a hand-drawn feel and the older maps can feel a bit crowded. If you’re a map nerd, you may love poring over the map and finding something new to pull away with each time, like exploring a Gothic cathedral. The main advantage of a physical atlas is that it allows you to consult the large index to find the more obscure rivers, cities, or regions.
Second Best Atlases for Plutarch
The other physical atlases that would help are more expensive and more narrowly focused than Shepherd, but may be easier to read than Shepherd. For Plutarch, you’d require both the Penguin Atlas of Ancient Greece and Atlas of Ancient Rome. The atlas for Greece is (in Feb. 2021) $8 brand new, and I’ve never seen it that cheap before so maybe it’s worth snatching up now. These atlases have a “Look Inside” feature on Amazon that allows you to see the bigger, more colorful maps with clear explanations of wars, colonization, and culture.
Best Digital Maps for Reading Plutarch
In even better news, the 1923 edition of this venerable atlas has been digitized online, hosted by the University of Texas. To help, I’ll put all the helpful maps in one place here arranged according to the six or so rough historical periods Plutarch’s Lives fall into:
|Historical Period||Plutarch’s Lives|
(linked to Podcast episode)
|Rise of Rome: Monarchy to Republic||Romulus|
|Foundations of the Greek Polis||Theseus|
|Greece’s Golden Age: 5th-century BC||Themistocles|
|Macedon’s Rise and Hellenism’s Spread||Agesilaus|
|Rome: Rising Republic||Coriolanus|
Cato the Elder
|The Roman Republic Falls: Civil Wars||Marius|
Cato the Younger
Foundations of the Greek Polis
All of these maps will be a great reference for too many lives to enumerate, but I’ll point out some of the highlights while giving another overview of Plutarch’s project (be sure to check out the timeline if you want to see not just the where but the when laid out in order). The Attica map covers spots from the latter half of Theseus’s walk around the Saronic Gulf from Troezen to Athens. It help locate the silver mines Themistocles uses to establish the Athenian Navy (look for Laurium).
The detail of the harbors of Athens helps us see how far Athens is from the water. We should also notice how Themistocles built a bigger, more fortified port at the Piraeus to replace the smaller one at Munychia. Everything for the battle of Salamis shows up here from the lives of Aristides and Themistocles, from the island where Aristides stations himself to capture survivors (Psyttaleia) to the mountain (Aegaleos) from which Xerxes watches the battle unfold.
Speaking of Salamis, the naval battle fought in a narrow strait of water, we also have the detail from Thermopylae, the strategic loss the Spartans suffered to give the rest of the Greeks time to prepare for the Persian onslaught. We may remember that Thermopylae doesn’t cease to be important after this most famous defeat. Three hundred years later, Cato the Elder single-handedly leads the Roman troops down upon their Macedonian adversary in a surprise they would’ve expected if they’d read as much history as Cato!
This plan of the acropolis, probably the weakest of all the maps in Shepherd, still gives us plenty to think about as we read the Life of Themistocles and imagine the populace debating what “wooden walls” mean as they fortify this hilltop. It does, however, clearly point out the Parthenon as Pericles re-built it.
The better image of the Athenian Acropolis is from the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. While nothing beats going to Athens, these maps are helpful both before you’ve been and after you’ve returned to remember where the Agora, Areopagus, and Acropolis fit with one another. The heart of the world’s first democracy philosophized, worshipped, adjudicated disputes, bought goods, sold wares, initiated wars, eulogized their veterans, wept at tragedies, and laughed at comedies all in this two-square-mile complex of stoas, gymnasia, stadia, statues, and temples.
5th Century Greece
This Aegean-centered map works best as a quick reference to all the islands of the Aegean. When coupled with the map above it, you can often see that alliances fall along dialectical lines; that is, those who speak the Ionic dialect of Greek tend to get along more easily and have stronger cultural ties with each other than with the speakers of other Greek dialects. The second map provides one place for tracing the marches of Darius or Xerxes from Sardis, where the Royal Road ended, to Attica in each invasion of the Persian War.
What the second map really sets up, though, is the Athenian conflict with the Spartans. In the middle of the fifth century BC, Sparta rejects empire but seeks unrivaled hegemony in the Peloponnesus (the green and yellow part of the first map, labelled in the second map as the land mass below the Gulf of Corinth). When Athenian power encroaches into the Peloponnesus, allying itself with Argos and the Achaeans, the Spartans make more and more demands on the Athenians to stand down. Pericles convinces the Athenians to draw the line in the sand and the Peloponnesian War begins.
Macedonian Rise and Fall
After the Peloponnesian War (404 BC), Athens is in ruins. While they rebuild, the Spartans have inherited an empire and handle it poorly under the power of Lysander. Even worse, this empire corrupts military morals of the Spartans, giving them a love of luxury they never had before. With two military geniuses leading them, Pelopidas and Epaminondas (sadly, one of two lost lives of Plutarch), the Thebans defeat the Spartans at the battle of Leuctra (371 BC). They then hold their hegemony over the Greek city-states until the Macedonians begin rumbling around under Philip around 350 BC.
And then, of course, through Philip’s conquest of Greece and later assassination, we reach the man everyone has heard of even if they’ve never studied ancient history: Alexander the Great. The map has to zoom out considerably to take in the scope of his rapid conquest, in part facilitated by the Persians’ organization of a vast empire into governable pieces. That said, Alexander does manage to conquer regions still mostly controlled by much less-organized tribes. One of the reasons he marries Roxane is because she’s a Bactrian princess, the daughter of an important chieftain.
The plan of Tyre in the lower left-hand corner shows one of Alexander’s most daring plans, even if it didn’t actually lead to victory. The only Phoenician city-state who refused to capitulate immediately, Tyre thought themselves insulated (literally) from Alexander’s infantry and cavalry. While Alexander waits for his navy to arrive and blockade Tyre, the Tyrians watch his infantry build a mole (land-bridge) out to the city so that they can successfully besiege it by land and sea. The Tyrians surrender before the mole is completed, but Alexander’s strategy has not been forgotten.
One version of Alexander’s final moments has a friend asking him who should inherit his kingdom. Alexander’s response is one word in Greek: κρατίστῃ, to the strongest. The Wikipedia entry on the Diadochi (successors of Alexander) has better maps than these, but these are worth studying for what they pack in.
The successors of Alexander had carved out lucrative empires for themselves less than 30 years after his death, but with the exception of the Ptolemies in Egypt, it’s all a facade. Underneath this static map churns the internal turmoil and external threats to every successor to Alexander, from the short-lived success of secretary-turned-general Eumenes all the way to the luxurious decline under house arrest of Demetrius “City-Sacker.”
Eventually, the Romans soak up more than half of Alexander’s previous empire. One highlight of this second map is that the Romans will never have direct access to the people of the Indus Valley and beyond. The Parthians will always stand in their way. They become a defining enemy for so many lives: Lucullus makes peace with them in Armenia, Crassus dies fighting them, Caesar was about to leave on a Parthian campaign when he is assassinated, and Mark Antony’s military luck first frays when he fights them.
Rome: Rising Republic
While Pyrrhus is a fantastic link from Alexander to Rome, we usually need to back up a bit and understand the layout of Rome, first as polis, then as regional power in Italy, then the unrivaled power in the Mediterranean. Except for the occasional setback, the Romans were good at winning even when they lost. The wars of the early Republic prove to use that they were by no means invincible, but they were certainly indefatigable.
The layout of Rome never ceases to matter in all of Plutarch’s Lives. This map makes clear that Republican Rome was small. Nonetheless, we see the bridge Horatius jumped from in the lower left-hand corner, as told in the Life of Publicola. We see the temple of Jupiter Stator, originally built by Romulus where he stopped the Sabine attack. The Tarpeian Rock, from which criminals were hurled headlong is on the Capitoline, shows up Romulus’s life too.The Temple of Juno Moneta held the sacred geese whose obnoxious honking woke up the sleeping Romans and prevented the Gauls from sacking the Capitoline. The circular temple of Vesta, detailed in the Life of Numa Pompilius, appears in the middle of the forum.
The prominent basilica (the equivalent of the Greek stoas, a roofed-building to conduct public business) in the Republican period was built by the father of the Gracchi brothers, Tiberius and Gaius. Cato the Elder also built the Porcian basilica nearby.
As Roman influence expanded up and down the Tiber river, the Romans made more enemies. The lives of Publicola, Coriolanus, and Camillus cover most of the nearby enemies. In those lives we read about the Lars Porsena of Clusium (second environs map) taking in the last exiled Roman King and fighting, at least at first, on his behalf. We see Coriolanus earn his strips attacking the Volscians only to switch sides and lead the enemy army against Rome herself. Look for the tiny town of Tusculum, where Camillus and Cato the Elder were born, Cicero and Lucullus built villas for themselves, and the first town outside Rome to earn citizenship in the Republic including the right to vote (cum suffragiō).
A map that still treats Rome like a polis emphasizes how long Rome operated like a polis—at least until the end of the Third Punic War (about 600 years). That’s why the information in these zoomed-in maps still matters when we hear about Hannibal humiliating the Romans right in their own backyard at the Battle of Lake Trasimene (217 BC). This figures prominently in the Life of Fabius Maximus, because his tactics are still studied by modern militaries.
After the embarrassing loss (which Fabius was not involved in), he refused to engage Hannibal directly. Instead, he forced Hannibal to stretch his supply-lines and logistics to their breaking point, without ever fighting him in a pitched battle. He earned the title “The Shield of the Romans” and the nickname “Delayer” for these defensive efforts. While not the most glamorous approach, Fabian tactics prevented Hannibal from taking Rome’s army out of the field, leaving the city of Rome open to direct attack.
And so, what is purple in this map will become Roman Red by the end of the third-century BC. Rome has no more enemies in the Western Mediterranean. Then, in the same fateful year (146 BC) they burn two cities to the ground: Carthage in the West and Corinth in the East. With this stroke, no Mediterranean power can stand against Rome and so it’s no surprise that Sulla, Lucullus, Pompey, and finally Caesar march East they adding more provinces, power, and prestige to the Roman eagles. They finally make the Mediterranean what they have always called it “Our Sea” (Mare Nostrum).
The Roman Republic Falls: Civil Wars
But in the same decades that Rome’s power expands into three continents, this polis at the middle has grown corrupt. Soldiers are faithful to the generals who give them rewards and land, a trend started by Marius but exploited by every talented general thereafter. Sulla turns the Roman legions against the people of Rome, publishing lists of political enemies who must die. Caesar and Pompey more famously face off representing the tottering, corrupt, and overconfident power of the Senate against the swift and efficient war machine that Caesar has built.
And finally, though Plutarch’s Lives lead up to but never spotlight Augustus, Mark Antony goes mad and declares himself and Cleopatra emperors ruling from Alexandria. Octavian has the pretext he needs to remove an old enemy, but Antony beats him to it and as Octavian’s legions land in Egypt, Antony and Cleopatra meet their famous end.
I hope this is a resource you can bookmark, share with friends, and come back to as you work your way through the best biographer of the ancient world. Feel free to contact me if you have a specific question or think I missed an obvious resource everyone should know about.
Other Resources for Exploring Old and Free Maps (for Plutarch and Beyond)
This robust tool is based on the Barrington Atlas, the most robust atlas project centered on the Ancient World. It will remain a top resource for years to come. While the cost of the physical atlas is out of reach for an individual, this search engine puts pretty much every single temple, road, aqueduct, polis, battle-site, or harbor we know about. That said, its interface requires a learning curve and it’s more a tool for those who want to make maps than those who want to gaze on them.
This is a cool website to explore if you already know where you’d be on a modern map. Zoom in on the place you want to explore and a sidebar opens up with older versions of maps of the same place. If you click on the link, you’ll be centered on Rome and can explore those maps.
The University of Texas has a pretty exhaustive list that includes two versions of Shepherd’s Historical Atlas. If you didn’t find what you needed here, or you’re looking for a map for a period outside of Plutarch, this would be a great resource to peruse.
These maps come from a college-level Roman history text. I have no familiarity with the text itself but the maps look good to me, though black and white.
Since many of the pictures from the above link are no longer showing up, I’ll post some of the maps from this last link here so that you can see what you’d be requesting. I have five of the six maps they list and will place them below. These are huge files because they can be blown up to classroom map size and still remain sharp. Has anyone taken a high-definition image like these and paid to have them printed and laminated? I wonder how much that would cost.