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 Rivet & Smith. 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 source for precisely locating Roman place names in Britain is the Antonine Itinerary (AI), a set of Roman army marching orders, complete with mileages, from the early AD 200s. Rivet & Smith report Itinerary information carefully, taken from the transcriber Cuntz, but we have not seen any photos of the original manuscripts to check. A searchable online text for the whole of Europe is online here. Itinerary routes follow Roman roads, on which the standard work was by Ivan Margary, whose work is being extended by RRRA, the Roman Roads Research Association.
The Peutinger Table was a schematic map of Roman roads and places, which can be inspected online here. It includes just one edge of Britain. Collis (2003) described it thus: “the map painted for Augustus' colleague M. Vipsanius Agrippa and completed just after his death in AD 12; it was copied with additions in the fourth century and then further copied in the thirteenth.”
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. See here for full details of our ongoing project to assign locations to all 130-plus names to which Ptolemy assigned coordinates. 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. Beware that published versions of Ptolemy's names are often badly distorted, being taken from Latin translations or only some of the surviving Greek manuscripts. One Ptolemy version used to be 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 Rivet & Smith. 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 Christian Marx kindly provided a list of British locations as Ordnance Survey locations ± likely errors, for non-specialist cartographers to use. Later work by Dmitri Gusev and colleagues is not yet fully published. An English translation of Ptolemy's theoretical chapters is now available
The Notitia Dignitatum was a sort of order of battle of the Roman army from about AD 400. See here for more information.
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 speakers of late Latin and Germanic. Its text is fully online here in a scan of the book by Pinder & Parthey (1860). 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, which we have scanned to show here. Their main conclusions were put on the web by Fitzpatrick-Matthews. This website treats Cosmography names in greater detail than anywhere else, thanks to a research project on all 307 of them in Britain, which has so far been blocked from conventional publication by cowardly editors deferring to mentally fossilized referees. Contrary to what R&S wrote, the Cosmography 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.
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). Just watch out that all these sites do not have the resources to always keep up with the latest information. A large fraction of all archaeology in Britain is now available for free download from the CBA (Council for British Archaeology) website. The Roman-Britain website used to offer superbly informative presentations about many Roman sites, but, sadly, its founder was unable to continue and the new owner of the domain has not yet properly resuscitated it.
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.