The Geography of Ptolemy

The British Section

"I know that I am mortal and the creature of a day: but when I search out the massed wheeling circles of the stars, my feet no longer touch the earth, but, side by side with Zeus himself, I take my fill of ambrosia, the food of the gods." Ptolemy

Claudius Ptolemaeus was a celebrated geographer and astrologer who flourished between the reigns of Hadrian and Antonine in the second century AD. A greek by descent, he was a native of Alexandria in Egypt, and became known as the most wise and learned man of his time. He published several books on astronomy, including The Almagest which gave the positions of 1022 fixed stars by latitude and longitude, his discovery of the precession of the equinoxes, and also expounded an Earth-centred view on the workings of the universe based on epicycles - the Ptolemaic System - which was to remain unchallenged until the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus published his theory on a Sun-centred universe, the now-familiar Solar System, in AD1543.

His most remarkable publication, however, was perhaps his Geography, a work of seven volumes, which became the standard textbook on the subject until the 15th century. In the opening chapters of the second book of the Geography, we find information appertaining to the British Isles: Chapter 1 is entitled Hibernia island of Britannia, and deals primarily with Ireland (Northern Ireland and Eire), including the islands of the Inner Hebrides, the Isle of Man, and curiously, Anglesey. Chapter 2 is entitled Albion island of Britannia, and deals with mainland Britain (England, Wales and Scotland), giving lists of the prominent coastal landmarks, river mouths and estuaries, as well as the names of the British tribes and their principal towns.

Ptolemy's Britain
Ebuda [Maxima] Insula 15*00 62°00 Hebrides Islands; Islay? Ebuda [Alius] Insula 15*40 62°00 Jura? Rhicina 17*00 62°00 Isle of Arran? Malaeus 17*30 62°30 Island of Mull Epidium 18*30 62°00 Kintyre, Strathclyde Monaoeda Insula 17*40 61°30 Isle of Man Mona Insula 15*00 57°40 Anglesey / Ynys Môn Adru 15*00 59°30 [unknown] Limnu 15*00 59°00 [unknown] Scetis Insula 32*40 60°45 Isle of Skye Dumna Insula 30*00 61°20 Outer Hebrides Orcades Insulae 30*00 61°40 Orkney Islands Thule 30*20 63°00 Shetland Islands? Toliapis Insula 23*00 54°20 Isle of Thanet Counus Insula 24*00 54°30 [unknown] Vectis Insula 19*20 52°20 Isle of Wight Locopibia 19*00 60°20 Rerigonium 20*10 60°40 Colanica  20*45 59°10 Vindogara  21*20 60°00 Coria  21*30 59°20 Alauna  22*45 59°50 Lindum  23*00 59°30 Victoria  23*30 59°00 Iscalis 16*00 53°40 Aquae Calidae 17*20 53°40 Venta 18*40 53°00
Above map plotted from the coordinates given in the following text

When the coordinates in Ptolemy's description of the British coastline are plotted (see above), an obvious error becomes readily apparent, everything north of the Solway Firth (Ituna Aestuarium) on the western side and the mouth of the River Wear (Vedra Fluvius) on the eastern side has been rotated clockwise by 90°, so all directions north of Hadrian's Wall should be adjusted accordingly.

The www.Roman-Britain.org Version

The following text includes some degree of HTML formatting, in an attempt to improve clarity, and some passages have been broken up to enable display in a tabular format.

The names of the British Tribes have been rendered in bold type.

some passages have been given extra emphasis, to act as headings

Togodumnus' additions to the text are [highlighted and enclosed in square brackets]. Togodumnus is also responsible for any question marks ?, used as eyecatchers for those names over which some doubt exists.

In addition, the following Latin¹ abbreviations have been adopted throughout the translated text:

  1. I know Ptolemy wrote in Greek, but to write in βλοοδυ γρηηκ takes a multitude of keystrokes to encode each individual letter and it will be a complete pain for you to learn the Greek alphabet (unless you are Greek, or like me, were a keen astronomer as a child), so Latin it is.

Claudius Ptolemaeus - Geography

Book II, Chapter 1

Hibernia Island of Britannia

[... Ptolemy's description of the Irish coastline, rivers and towns has been omitted from here. ...]

Above Hibernia are the ?Ebuda Insulae five in number

[?= Ebudae Insulae = Hebrides Islands]
the largest of which toward the west is called
Ebuda15*0062°00[?= Islay?]
next to this toward the east likewise is
Ebuda Insula15*4062°00[?= Jura?]
then ?Rhicina17*0062°00[?= Isle of Arran?]
then Malaeus17*3062°30[= Malaius = Island of Mull]
then Epidium18*3062°00[= Epidium Prom. = Kintyre, Strathclyde]

Toward the east of Hibernia are these Islands

Monaoeda Insula17*4061°30[= Manavia Insula = Isle of Man]
Mona Insula15*0057°40[= Mona Insula = Anglesey]
?Adru which is barren15*0059°30[unknown]
?Limnu which is barren15*0059°00[unknown]
[end of chapter one]

Book II, Chapter 2

Albion Island of Britannia

[Part One - The Coastline of Mainland Britain]

A description of the northern coast, above which is the Oceanus Duecaledonius

Novantarum Pen.[== Rhinns of Galloway]
and Prom. of the same name21*0061°40[= Novantarum Prom. = Mull of Galloway]
Rerigonius Sin.20*3060°50[== Loch Ryan, Dumfries & Galloway]
Vindogara Sin.21*2060°30[== Irvine Bay, Strathclyde]
Clota Aest.22*1559°20[== Firth of Clyde]
?Lemannonius Sin.24*0060°00[?= Loch Fyne?]
Epidium Prom.23*0060°40[== Mull of Kintyre]
ost. ?Longus Fl.24*3060°40[?= Firth of Lorn?]
ost. ?Itis Fl.27*0060°40[unknown]
?Volas Sin.29*0060°30[unknown]
ost. ?Navarus Fl.30*0060°30[unknown]
Tarvedum sive Orcas Prom.31*2060°15[== Dunnet Head, Scottish Highlands]

Description of the west1 side which borders on the Hibernian Ocean and the Vergionius Ocean

Novantarum Prom.21*0061°40[== Mull of Galloway, Dumfries & Galloway]
ost. ?Abravannus Fl.19*2061°00[?= Water of Luce, Dumfries & Galloway?]
?Iena Aest.19*0060°30[?= River Cree, Dumfries & Galloway?]
ost. Devas Fl.18*0060°00[== River Dee, Dumfries & Galloway]
ost. Novius Fl.18*2059°30[== River Nith, Dumfries & Galloway]
Ituna Aest.18*3058°45[== Solway Firth]
Moricambe Aest.17*3058°20[== Morcambe Bay]
?Portus Setantiorum17*2057°45[?= nr. Fleetwood, Lancashire?]
Belisama Aest.17*3057°20[== River Ribble, Lancashire]
Seteia Aest.17*0057°00[== River Mersey, Merseyside]
Caeanganorum Prom.15*0057°002[?= Ceanganorum Prom. = Point of Ayr, Clwyd (Deceangi)?
?= Ganganorum Prom. = Lleyn Peninsula, Gwynedd (Gangani/Ordovices)?]
ost. Toesobis Fl.15*4056°20[= Tisobis Fl. = Tremadog Bay, Gwynedd]
ost. Stuccia Fl.15*2055°30[= Stuctia Fl. = Afon Ystwyth, Dyfed]
ost. ?Tuerobis Fl.15*0055°00[unknown]
Octapitarum Prom.14*2054°30[== St. David's Head, Dyfed]
ost. ?Tobius Fl.15*3054°30[unknown]
ost. ?Ratostabius Fl.16*3054°30[unknown]
Sabrina Aest.17*2054°30[== River Severn, Gloucestershire]
Uxella Aest.16*0053°30[== River Axe, Somerset]
Herculis Prom.14*0052°45[== Hartland Point, Devon]
Antivestaeum sive Bolerium Prom.11*3052°30[== Land's End, Cornwall]
Damnonium sive Ocrium Prom.12*0051°30[== Lizard Point, Cornwall]

Description of the south side below which is the Oceanus Britannicus

After the Ocrium Prom. is
ost. Cenio Fl.14*00351°45[unknown]
ost. Tamarus Fl.15*4052°10[== River Tamar, Devon and Cornwall]
ost. Iscas Fl.17*4052°20[== River Exe, Devon]
ost. ?Alaunus Fl.17*4052°40[unknown]
?Magnus Portus19*0053°00[?= Magnvs Portvs = Bosham Harbour, nr. Chichester, Sussex]
ost. Trisantonis Fl.20*2053°00[= Trisantona Fl. = River Arun, Sussex]
?Novus Portus21*0053°30[?= nr. Brighton and Hove, Sussex]
Cantium Prom.22*0054°00[== South Foreland, Kent]

A description of the eastern and the southern side next to which is the Oceanus Germanicus

After the Tarvedum Prom., or Orcades, by which it is known
Virvedrum Prom.31*0060°00[== Duncansby Head, Scottish Highlands]
Verubium Prom.30*3059°40[== Noss Head, Scottish Highlands]
ost. Ila Fl.30*0059°40[== River Helmsdale, Scottish Highlands]
a high shore29*0059°40[?= Foothills of Beinn Dhorain, Scottish Highlands]
Varar Aest.28*00459°40[== Beauly Firth, Scottish Highlands]
ost. Loxa Fl.27*3059°40[== River Lossie, Grampian]
Tuesis Aest.27*0059°00[== River Spey, Grampian]
ost. Caelis Fl.27*0058°45[== River Deveron, Grampian]
Taezalon Prom.27*3058°30[= Taexalorum Prom. = Kinnaird's Head, Grampian]
ost. Deva Fl.26*0058°30[== River Dee, Grampian]
ost. Tina Fl.24*0058°30[== River Eden, Fife]
Boderia Aest.22*3059°00[= Bodotria Aest. = Firth of Forth]
ost. Alaunus Fl.21*2058°30[== River Aln, Northumberland]
ost. Vedra Fl.20*1058°30[== River Wear, Tyne & Wear]
Dunum Sin.20*1557°30[== Tees bay, Cleveland]
?Gabrantuicorum Sin. with many harbors21*0057°00[?= Bridlington Bay?]
?Ocelus Prom.21*1556°40[?= Spurn Head, Humberside?]
ost. Abi Fl.21*0056°30[= Abus Fl. = River Humber, Humberside]
Metaris Aest.20*3055°40[== The Wash]
ost. Gariennus Fl.20*5055°40[= Gariannus Fl. = River Yare, Norfolk]
a Promontory21*1555°05[unknown]
ost. ?Sidumanis Fl.20*1055°00[unknown]
Tamesa Aest.20*3054°30[= Tamesis Aest. = Thames Estuary, Greater London]
Next to this the Cantium Prom.22*0054°00[== South Foreland, Kent]

[Part Two - The Tribes and Cities of Mainland Britain]

The Novantae dwell on the side toward the north below the peninsula of this name, among whom are the following towns:
?Locopibia19*0060°20[unknown]
?Rerigonium20*1060°40[unknown]
Below are the Selgovae, among whom are the following towns:
?Carbantorigum19*0059°30[unknown]
?Uxellum18*3059°20[unknown]
?Corda20*0059°40[unknown]
Trimontium19*0059°00[= TRIMONTIVM = Newstead, Borders]
From these toward the east, but more northerly, are the Damnoni, among whom are the following towns:
?Colanica20*4559°10[unknown]
?Vindogara21*2060°00[unknown]
?Coria21*3059°20[unknown]
?Alauna22*4559°50[unknown]
?Lindum23*0059°30[unknown]
?Victoria23*3059°00[unknown]
Further south are the Otalini5, among whom are the following towns:
?Coria20*1059°00[?= CORSTOPITVM = Corbridge, Northumberland?]
?Alauna23*0058°40[?= ALAVNA = Learchild, Northumberland?]
Bremenium21*0058°45[= BREMENIVM = High Rochester, Northumberland]
Next to the Damnoni, but more toward the east near the Epidium Prom. are the Epidi and next to these the Cerones; then the Carnonacae, and the Caereni but more toward the east; and in the extreme east dwell the Cornavi; from the Lemannonis Sin. as far as the Varar Aest. are the Caledoni, and above these is the Caledonian forest, from which toward the east are the Decantae, and next to these the Lugi extending to the Cornavi boundary, and above the Lugi are the Smertae;
below Caledonia are the Vacomagi, among whom are the following towns:
?Bannatia24*0059°30[unknown]
?Tamia25*0059°20[unknown]
Pinnata Castra27*1559°20[= Pinnata Castra = Inchtuthill, Tayside]
?Tuesis26*4559°10[unknown]
Below these toward the west are the Venicones, whose town is
?Orrea24*0058°45[?= Horrea Classis = Carpow, Fife?]
More toward the east are the Taezali and the town
?Devana26*0059°00[?= Devana = Aberdeen, Grampian?]
Below the Selgovae and Otalini are the Brigantes extending to both seas, among whom are the following towns:
Epiacum18*3058°30[= Epiacvm = Whitley Castle, Northumberland]
Vinovium17*4558°00[= Vinovivm = Binchester, Durham]
Caturactonium20*0058°00[= Cataractonivm = Catterick, North Yorkshire]
?Calatum19*0057°45[?= Calacvm = Burrow in Lonsdale, Lancashire?]
Isurium20*0057°40[= Isvrivm = Aldborough, North Yorkshire]
?Rigodunum18*0057°30[?= Rigodvnvm = Castleshaw, Greater Manchester?]
?Olicana19*0057°30[?= Olenacvm = Elslack, Lancashire?]
Eboracum, Legio VI Victrix20*0057°20[= Ebvracvm = York, North Yorkshire]
?Camulodunum18*0057°45[?= Cambodvnvm = Slack, South Yorkshire?]
Near which on the Opportunum Sin. are the Parisi and the town
Petuaria20*4056°40[= Petvaria = Brough on Humber, Humberside]
Below these are the Brigantes but some distance toward the west are the Ordovices, among whom are the towns:
Mediolanum16*4556°40[= Mediolanvm = Whitchurch, Shropshire]
?Brannogenium16*4556°15[?= Bravonivm = Leintwardine, Hereford & Worcester?]
From these toward the east are the Cornavi, among whom are the towns:
Deva, Legio XX Victrix17*3056°45[= Deva = Chester, Cheshire]
Viroconium16*4555°45[= Viroconivm = Wroxeter, Shropshire]
Next to these are the Coritani, among whom are the towns:
Lindum18*4056°30[= Lindvm = Lincoln, Lincolnshire]
Ratae18*0055°30[= Ratae = Leicester, Leicestershire]
Next are the Catuvellauni, among whom are the towns:
?Salinae20*4555°50[unknown]
Urolanium19*2055°30[= Vervlamivm = St. Alban's, Hertfordshire]
Next to these are the Iceni, whose town is called
Venta20*3055°20[= Venta = Caistor St. Edmund, Norfolk]
Farther eastward and near the Tamesa Aestuarium are the Trinovantes and the town
Camulodunum21*0055°00[= Camvlodvnvm = Colchester, Essex]
Below the peoples we have mentioned, but more toward the west are the Demetae, whose towns are:
?Luentinum15*4555°10[?= Lventinvm = Pumsaint, Dyfed]
Maridunum15*3054°40[= Moridvnvm = Carmarthen, Dyfed]
More toward the east are the Silures whose town is
?Bullaeum16*5055°00[?= Bvrrivm = Usk, Gwent]
Next to these are the Dobuni, and their town
Corinium18*0054°10[= Corinivm = Cirencester, Gloucestershire]
then the Atrebati and their town
Caleva19*0054°15[= Calleva = Silchester, Hampshire]
Next to these, but farther eastward, are the Canti among whom are the towns:
Londinium20*0054°00[= Londinivm = London, Greater London]
?Daruernum21*0054°00[= Dvrovernvm = Canterbury, Kent]
Rutupie21*4554°00[= Rvtvpiae = Richborough, Kent]
Below the Atrebati and the Canti are the Regni and the town
Noeomagus19*4553°05[= Noviomagvs = Chichester, Sussex]
Below the Dobuni are the Belgae and the towns:
?Iscalis16*0053°40[?= Iscalis = nr. Bawdrip, Somerset?]
Aquae Calidae17*2053°40[= Aqvae Svlis = Bath, Avon]
Venta18*4053°00[= Venta = Winchester, Hampshire]
Toward the west and south of these are the Durotriges whose town is
?Dunium18*0052°40[?= Dvnvm = Hod Hill, Dorset?]
Next to these, but more to the west, are the Dumnoni, whose towns are:
?Voliba14*4552°00[unknown]
?Uxella15*0052°45[?= Vxelis = Launceston, Cornwall?]
?Tamara15*0052°15[?= Tamaris = Plymouth, Devon?]
Isca, where is located Legio II Augusta17*3052°45[= Isca = Exeter, Devon]

[Part Three - The Remaining British Islands]

The islands which are near Albion Insula and the Orcades Prom. are

Scetis island32*4060°45[= Scitis = Skye]
?Dumna island30*0061°20[?= Outer Hebrides (North Uist, South Uist & Isle of Lewis]

Above these islands are the Orcades, about thirty in number

the middle of which is in30*0061°40[?Orcades = Orkneys (possibly including Shetlands]

Far above these is the island ?Thule.

[?= Thule / Ultima Thule ?= Shetland Islands ?= Iceland ?= Norway == A mythical northernmost inhabitable island.]
The part of this which extends much toward the west is in29*0063°00
that which is farthest eastward is31*4063°00
that which is farthest northward is30*2063°15
that which is farthest southward is30*2062°40
the middle is in30*2063°00

Eastward from the Trinovantes region there are two islands

?Toliapis23*0054°20[?= TANATVS Isle of Thanet, Kent?]
?Counus island24*0054°30[unknown]

Below Magnus Portus is the island Vectis

the middle of which is in19*2052°20[= VECTIS = Isle of Wight, Hampshire]
[end of chapter two]
Textual Amendations
1The 1932 edition has east.
2The 1932 edition has 56°00.
3The 1932 edition has 14*51.
4The 1932 edition has 27*00.
5The 1932 edition has Otadini.

Other RBO Geographical Resources

Antonine Itinerary * Notitia Dignitatum * Ravenna Cosmography * Peutinger Table * Nennius' Cities

The basis for this page is Book 2 of Ptolemy's Geography, the last two paragraphs of chapter 1, and the entirety of chapter 2, purloined from the website of Bill Thayer; which is - he assures me - in the public domain.

For the Complete Text of Ptolemy's Geography

Bill Thayer's Roman Gazetteer

Bibliographical Links

The Geography of Claudius Ptolemaeus, trans. by E.L. Stevenson (Dover, New York, 1991);
Place Names of Roman Britain by A.L.F. Rivet & Colin Smith (Batsford, London, 1979);
Historical Map and Guide: Roman Britain by the OS (4th Ed., 1990);