Claudius Ptolemy on the Vistula River and Its Neighbouring Regions

  • Darius Alekna
Keywords: Vistula, Ptolemy, geography, Roman Empire


The author examines all textual testimonies concerning the Vistula found in Ptolemy’s Geography and the respective maps from its earliest manuscript in the Codex Urbinas Graecus 82. The neighbouring sea coasts, rivers, mountains, cities (poleis), and the peoples come under the author’s scrutiny. The effort is also taken to evaluate the level of knowledge of the river and its region in comparison to the other rivers of Magna Germania and European Sarmatia. Attempting to use the data of the Ptolemaic coordinates of geographical positions, the author bases himself on the calculations of Christian Marx, Klaus Geus, and Irina Tupikova. Below are some conclusions of the research done: 1. Ptolemy maintains the earlier tradition which regards the Vistula as the natural border between Magna Germania and the region which he names European Sarmatia. Nevertheless, his knowledge of the river and the region is highly superior to all previous Roman geographers. it can be measured by the frequency of the mentions of the river name: mentions of the Vistula (nine in Geography) make it equal to the Rhine (ten mentions) and surpass the Elbe (six mentions), the Weser (two mentions), and all the other rivers of Northern Germania up to the Vistula that are mentioned only once. Furthermore, the Vistula is the only river of the Northern part of Europe, for which Ptolemy indicates three points of coordinates, i.e. the mouth, the source, and the greatest confluent (the Bug or the San). Ptolemy indicates the confluents of none other river of the Northern Europe, not even of the Rhine. Ptolemy’s Geography expands the limits of Roman knowledge of the Vistula region up to 500 km on both sides of the river. 2. Having compared the extent of Ptolemy’s knowledge of the regions on both sides of the Vistula, the author can suggest that the side of Magna Germania is known better than the Sarmatian one. In contrast to Germania, there are no cities, no forests nor qualification “great”/“small” before the names of the peoples in European Sarmatia to mention, and the rivers do not mark the borders between the peoples as they do in Germania. 3. As a result of close reading of Ptolemy’s corresponding texts, a chart of the peoples living on both sides of the Vistula is established. Coupled with new efforts of German scholars for rectification of Ptolemaic coordinates, close reading of Ptolemy’s text entitles the author of this article to define the localization of the Lugi Diduni, the Venedi, the Gytones, the Galindi, the Sudini, and the Stavani. The southern border of the Venedi is also established (ca Grudziądz – Venedici montes (Dylewska Góra) – Lake Vištytis). 4. An inspection of the corresponding maps of the Vistula region in the Vatican Codex Urbinas Graecus 82 (68r and 75v) revealed some differences between these maps and Ptolemy’s written text. In the upper reaches, the Vistula turns sharply to the west although there is no such an indication in the text. The other differences between the text and the maps concern the localization of some peoples. According to the map, the Burgundians are absent on the left bank of the Vistula, where they must be according to the text (it seems they ceded their place to the Lugi Omani [Fig. 6, No. 8]). On the right bank, the Finni [Fig. 8, No. 13] are presented to the east of the Gythones [Fig. 8, No. 12] on the map, whereas they must be to the south of them according to the text.