Sources of Information
about ancient geographical names in Britain
The Place-Names of Roman Britain is the classic book in this field, which this website updates. It was published in 1979 by A.L.F. (Leo) Rivet and Colin Smith, whom we abbreviate R&S. Many of their write-ups of names have been posted on the web by Marikavel.
Ancient literary authorities that report geographical names are listed in chapter 2 of R&S. Nowadays one can read many of the original texts online, sometimes with better translations and critical analyses than used to be readily available even in big libraries. Classical authors who cited British names include Julius Caesar, Pliny and Tacitus in Latin, plus Cassius Dio and Strabo in Greek. Later (Christian) authors include Bede and Gildas. Watch out that the chapter and page numbers commonly cited may come from different editions from what you can actually find!
The “hardest” information about name spellings comes from inscriptions carved into stone (votive altars, epitaphs, milestones, etc), written on metal (coins, utensils, souvenirs, curses, etc), or scratched on pottery or wood. Such names cannot have been altered by mediaeval scribes, but original spellings can be a bit weird and hard to decipher after many centuries. The best online source of data about them is the Clauss/Slaby epigraphic database, but there are also databases of Romano-British inscriptions, Vindolanda tablets, Celtic inscribed stones, and more limited lists for pottery, and coins.
The top classical source for locating ancient place names is the Antonine Itinerary (AI), a set of Roman army marching orders, complete with mileages, from the early AD 200s. R&S report AI information carefully, taken from the transcriber Cuntz, but we have not seen any photos of the original manuscripts to check. AI routes follow Roman roads, on which the standard work was by Ivan Margary, though various people are trying to extend his work.
Ptolemy’s Geography was written around AD 140, in Greek, but survives only in copies from a thousand or so years later. It names coastal features, rivers, islands, tribes, etc that road-based itineraries miss out, offering exact latitude/longitude coordinates for many of them. It can be a major challenge to trace the text back towards its original and to unscramble the mathematical errors, both random and systematic, that affect its locations. Published versions of Ptolemy’s names are often badly distorted, by being taken from Latin translations or only some of the surviving Greek manuscripts. One Ptolemy version is among the valuable classical texts put on the web by Hogan. Here we try to show the best Greek spellings, taken from a book that is based on all the available manuscripts, which sometimes overrule those shown by R&S.
Real progress in sorting out Ptolemy’s locations has been made (but not really finished) by a group in Berlin, whose books one and two are written in German, with a follow-up in English about Scotland. Dr C. Marx kindly sent us a list of British locations as Ordnance Survey locations ± likely errors, for non-specialist cartographers to use.
The Notitia Dignitatum was a sort of order of battle of the Roman army from about AD 400, now viewed a bit sceptically. The Peutinger Table was a sort of schematic map of Roman roads and places, probably originally from the AD 400s, but it includes little of Britain.
The largest number of early names (about 307 from Britain) is in the Ravenna Cosmography (RC) which was written around AD 700, by someone who aspired to classical Latin erudition but lived among Vulgar Latin and Germanic speakers. It was studied carefully by Richmond and Crawford, whom we abbreviate R&C. (Beware the confusing abbreviations – R&S, R&C, and RC!) R&C published photographs of all three manuscripts, and their main conclusions have been put on the web by Fitzpatrick-Matthews.
We are in a unique position to understand RC names, thanks to a research project on all 307 of them in Britain, which is being written up for conventional publication. Contrary to what R&S wrote, RC is no more corrupted than other ancient manuscripts, and the order in which it lists names is very logical in terms of geography and Roman roads. R&S actually went backwards from R&C and introduced a lot of unnecessary confusion, because they were so utterly bewitched by the prevailing false dogma that early names were created in Celtic.
For information about the archaeology of individual Roman-era sites we generally refer to Pastscape (for England), or Canmore (for Scotland), or Archwilio (for Wales). For informative presentations about many sites Roman-Britain is superb. Just watch out that all these sites are under-resourced and cannot always keep up with the latest information.
This website uses lots of hyperlinks (instead of traditional academic references), which will often take you straight to downloadable information or details of the book/article concerned. Of course hyperlinks tend to die, and we may not get everything connected up properly, but a big list of old-style references is here.