Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Scale's the Thing

The strange thing to your left is the photo of something like a map; it is called the Rand McNally Histomap of World History, by John B. Sparks. It purports to show the relative importance of nations and empires 1950 B.C. to 2000 A.D. This object hung on the back of the door, the door into my office—when I still had an office outside the home—and on the rare occasions when I closed that door, the large pink blob in the center of this histomap reminded me of the Glory That Was Rome. — Did so, indeed, until, on one occasion, I looked at the graphic seriously and discovered that the image did not have a horizontal scale.

I dug out the rolled up copy again this morning. I had been reading Dante’s Convivio (The Banquet, a philosophical work) in which our poet urges us (Chapter 4, Book 4) to accept the concept of an imperial ruler because Rome’s preeminence had led to God’s own approval of the Latin people as the exemplars of mankind.

That claim then reminded me of my retired map; I found it on a shelf. But over all these years I had forgotten about the missing scale at the bottom of this curious object. Indeed, if you accept John Sparks’ imaginative scaling, Rome does seem, during this vast expanse of time, to be by far the largest single domain ever to grace the globe. Then, sitting down at the machine again to consult the oracle about the scale once more—thinking that in the intervening time I had become so much more skilled at Googling that I would be successful now—I discovered that the missing scale is missing still. What had changed, in the meantime, is that lots of people had discovered this lack and had made their displeasure known. Too bad.

I had fairly recently looked at population data reaching back into antiquity and discovered in that process that Sparks could not have used headcounts to size his empires and realms. Not enough menaningful data. He may have used geographical extent—but surely, with Rand McNally as his publisher, someone there should have reminded him to note the fact. Yes, at its greatest extent Rome’s footprint pretty much covered Europe and bits of Africa and Asia, but how much territory did China then occupy—and India? Their populations, by guess and by golly, must have been quite large even then.

Well, too bad. We carry mental maps and censuses inside our heads—and in Dante’s world the memory of Rome, and the more recent memory of Charlemagne’s empire, still loomed very large. And, to be sure, Dante (1265-1321) might have known of Marco Polo (1254-1324) but may not have read Polo’s Il Milione; he was busy writing his own opus and may have written his Convivio (finished circa 1307) before he had heard of Kublai Khan.

The second photo shows the histomap from closer up, focus on Rome—as it usually is here in the West as we look back in time. Great realm! But without a scale, how can we know for sure that Octavian ascended the throne of empire with a nod from on High? If Dante had studied China, however, he might well have added the useful concept of The Mandate of Heaven to his arguments in Chapter 4, Book 4.

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If you can stomach the price, Amazon will sell you this item even today: Histomap of World History.

1 comment:

  1. Really, there's no scale along the X axis? Amazing. Surprising too that we, none of us, noticed that until now. Very interesting....

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