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© 2000, The News and Observer

The Lesson of Timoleon

by Jon Franklin

        Timoleon the Greek lived and died more than 2300 years before a young Cambridge scholar named Richard Talbert set about his doctoral studies.  But, the human condition being eternal, the centuries that separated the Greek from the Englishman wasn't as relevant as it might seem.

        Timoleon had been assigned an impossible task, which was to set Greek Sicily's house in order.  His failure was thought to be a foregone conclusion, but with a combination of guile and butchery, he succeeded. And while it's true that Talbert, now a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is generally not authorized to slaughter recalcitrant colleagues, the parallels are nevertheless strong.

        Talbert is just this fall publishing an atlas of the classical world, and if it isn't immediately clear why that is analogous to facing down a bunch of Sicilian warlords and marauding Carthaginians, well . . . then you obviously aren't a classical scholar and you almost certainly don't know about what happened, or rather what didn't happen, to the Tabula Imperii Romani<end ital>.

        Twelve years ago, when Talbert accepted his assignment with considerable apprehension, the tale was sobering in the extreme.  But now that the first cartons of the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World have arrived in the warehouses of Princeton University Press, he tells it with a quiet, understated relish.

        Classical scholars, in attempting to understand vanished civilizations, need good maps that accurately reveal the locations of cities, towns, roads, mines, aqueducts and other archaeological sites.  Archaeology being a science of discovery, such information accumulates rapidly.  So when scholars early in the 20th century were still using a rare classical atlas published in 1874, experts on the Roman Empire thought it was high time to publish a newer one.

        The project was undertaken in the traditional scholarly manner. In the late 1920s a committee of experts met, discussed the matter at length and, of course, assigned the project an appropriate Latin name: the Tabula Imperii Romani<end ital>, or, literally, the map of imperial Rome. Carefully, and with due academic attention to detail, options were weighed.  Agendas were constructed.  Egos were tiptoed around.  Authority was judiciously distributed.

        Years passed. One by one, the original committee members retired or died and were replaced by other scholars, who in the fullness of time were replaced by others.

        A half century later scholars were still using the 1874 atlas - if they could find it.  Finally, in 1980, a second group of scholars simply gave up on the first group and set about to publish their own atlas.  The Classical Atlas Project, as it was called, was more ambitious than the earlier one.  It would deal both with imperial Rome and classical Greece.

        But eight years later, when Talbert was approached by emissaries of the American Philological Association to head the project, it had already accumulated a history of failure.  The former head had been dismissed, and the project was in ruins. So were other projects that had sprung up from time to time in Europe, and the whole idea of classical mapmaking had fallen into disrepute.

        Talbert figured right off that the American Philological Associations' interest in him was a sheer act of desperation.  The organization was, after all, an American one - and he was, after all, a British subject teaching in Canada.

        It was true that Talbert had, in a certain limited sense, a track record.  He had recently edited a comparatively simple book of ancient maps intended for use as a text by beginning students. It was no great shakes as a work of scholarship, at least in Talbert's own mind; it was utilitarian, was all.  The students needed it, so he'd put it together.

        But as he was being courted for the atlas editing job, it dawned on him that however humble that book might have been, in the eyes of those experienced in classical atlas attempts it was a stunning achievement.  He had edited an atlas!

        It had actually been published! In less than a lifetime! And in only a few more years than it had taken Timoleon to pacify Greek Sicily!<end ital>

        In hindsight, which is of course the essence of history, Talbert was underestimating himself.  In fact, he was almost uniquely qualified for the job.  It was almost as if some omniscient Greek god of atlases was overseeing his scholarship with precisely that in mind.

        Talbert's dissertation on Timoleon, for example, contained a plethora of valuable lessons for an atlas editor.

        Timoleon's mission to Sicily was made all the more daunting because he was given almost no resources or soldiers for the task.  That left him with his wits, which, in Talbert's considered opinion, he wielded with breathtaking cunning.

        "He had a little luck, and he reinforced it by excellent PR.  He outsmarted the bad guys at their own game: He tricked, bossed, butchered and robbed just as much as they did.  But in so doing he always disclaimed any interest in creating a personal domination either for himself or for his family." The result was ruthless effectiveness untarnished by the appearance of self-interest.

        A later piece of Talbert scholarship examined the operation of the Roman Senate. The resulting book, The Senate of Imperial Rome<end ital>, won the American Philological Association's Goodwin Award of Merit and, much more to the point, deepened Talbert's wisdom in how things get done - or got done, at least, in the Roman senate.

        For example, he explains, the Roman senate was not a senate as we think of it today.  It could only be convened by a magistrate, and the magistrate was entirely in charge of the agenda. He and he alone decided what questions would be voted upon and which ones would not.  A savvy magistrate could arrange it so that everyone felt like he'd had his say while insuring that the vote came out the way it was supposed to.

        This was the management style that had allowed Imperial Rome to organize and run the world, and it stood in stark contrast to the way the various atlas projects had been run - and the shambles that had been made of them.

        Talbert thought his options through carefully.  To produce an atlas would require the cooperation of a daunting number of collaborators all over the world - most of whom would be the academic equivalent of Sicilian warlords. It would take just the right balance of iron-fisted authority and subtle diplomatic manipulation.

        Worse, there was the matter of resources - and even here the parallels with Timoleon continued to hold. The scholars who had approached him to do the job had been most complimentary and friendly, but when he looked at the numbers . . . well, the bank held maybe $130,000.  The estimated cost of the project was about $3.5 million - and that, Talbert told himself soberly, was probably optimistic.  If history was any indication, classical atlas projects bled vast quantities of money before they expired.

        Talbert tried to imagine himself, a proper Englishman, scurrying around asking people for money. It was not a pretty picture.

        So all in all, the chances of success seemed very slim indeed.  But then, on the other hand, that just made the stakes higher. With the proper attitude, and if he kept his wits about him . . . it would certainly be an accomplishment that would advance not only the field but his career as well.

        So it was that, despite his trepidations, Talbert rolled the dice and signed on. Not long after that he moved in Chapel Hill, where he is now a William Rand Kenan professor of history.


        One of Talbert's first jobs was to procure a basic set of maps from which he could remove the modern features, like airports and suburbs, and replace them with archaeological locations dated between about 1000 B.C. to A.D. 600. Those basic maps would come from the U.S. Defense Mapping Agency, which seemed simple enough . . . until he tried it.  Dealing with the pentagon was like . . . well, like dealing with the pentagon.  This proved to be one of the first great tests of his diplomatic skills.  Eventually he got the data he needed through the cultivation of a friend inside the agency.

        In the meantime, Talbert enlisted 85 scholars from around the world, each of which would contribute a piece of the project. Each one had to be academically qualified, of course, but that alone wasn't enough.  Talbert didn't really know how long the atlas would take, and he wanted contributors who were likely to live long enough to see the thing completed.

        They also had to agree to do the work on contract - a contract with teeth.  Talbert, like Timoleon, intended to stay the boss.

        "You have to have the authority," he said.  "I couldn't pay these people much, and I had deadlines, so there was a definite limit on the use of that authority.  Anyway, you won't get very far if you act like a little Hitler.  But you do need the authority.

        "A large number of scholars were involved, easily upwards of a hundred and fifty at one time and another, all strung out across the world, all talking in different languages, all prima donnas with ideas of their own.  That is quite a personnel management challenge.

        "I don't think . . . there have been no feuds, or assassinations, or anything like that.  I think I'm still talking to all these people.  Academics, especially in the humanities, are not known for their cooperative spirit always . . . we don't do teamwork very well. That's why big projects turn out not to have a great deal of success.  They're not well coordinated.  People fall out.  They don't get anything done. I think that's a great pity, because it means that we don't do large projects well.  Large projects demand teamwork, and we're not very good at that.

        "And, no," he added thoughtfully, "I didn't have to butcher anybody.  Not exactly.  But there was . . . well, I'd better not . . . "

        Talbert's task was further complicated by one obvious problem that Timoleon didn't have to deal with, which was technology.  The atlas project happened to go together at the precise historical moment when the very process of mapmaking was changing from film-based to computer based, which meant some of the maps were digital and some were film based.

        Now that the volume is published, though, the non-digital maps will be digitized.

        "The advantages to the computer are amazing," says Talbert.  "Most important, we can continue to update the maps, so that the hole we got ourselves into in the 20th Century, where there WERE no classical atlases, can be avoided.  Since it's on computer, we can just add things as they're discovered.  In the old days, to change something on a map was very laborious, slow - counterproductive, usually.  But with the computer it's fairly simple, so we can keep current.

        "We can also do many useful things with the data bases.  If you want a map of a particular afternoon in the year 217 B.C., if you want to add in where you think Hannibal went, if you want to make a map for a theme, or mix and match, there's a huge potential there.  We obviously want to make maps for students that are affordable - this thing we've just produced is not a textbook, though lots of libraries will have it and so will people who like this kind of thing.  But now we can do CD -ROMs of individual maps, we can . . . the opportunities are limitless.

        "But to undertake a project like this, when the technology was changing so dramatically, I must say, it was difficult."

        But all in all, one of the worst things about the job was the fund-raising.

        Given the failures of the past, there was little trust in Talbert's ability to succeed.  His first coup was a substantial grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities - but like many such grants it came with strings attached.  For one thing, it was matching money, which meant Talbert had to beat the bushes even harder.  And, as he learned along the way, it was one thing to get a pledge from a big foundation and quite another to deal with the fine print and extract the actual money. Finally, given the dubious history of atlas projects, donors often preferred to fund the project not in a lump sum but in a continuing grant that could be cancelled in case the project went belly up.

        At times, it was downright hairy.  Once Talbert had a cartographer's bill for $50,000 and the cupboard was bare.  It was a crisis of Grecian proportions, and Talbert scurried to survive it.  At another one point, naming rights went to a big donor who wanted to call it The Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World.  That was fine with Talbert.  Just so long as he got the money.

        Had Timoleon had to beg?

        Asked the question now, Talbert hesitates, thinking.  There was nothing in the record to that effect.

        "But yeah," he concludes.  "Surely he did.  Especially early on."

        But even successful begging wasn't enough. Once he brought home the money, he had to keep a his thumb firmly on it.

        Here, too, history held its lessons.  One legendary German project, involving a set of maps of the near east, had consumed some $30 million of public money between the 1960s and the time Talbert undertook to edit his atlas.  Depending on the exchange rate, Talbert said, the resulting map collection sells for three to four thousand dollars

        "As a result, almost nobody's ever heard of it, though we do actually have a copy in the UNC map collection.  UNC is probably one of the few universities in North America to have copy of all 300 or so maps.  We certainly didn't want that to happen to OUR project. So we had to keep the cost reasonable."

        As it was, the Barrington Atlas budget would top out at $4.5 million -- a million dollar overrun in a field of scholarship where grown men with doctorates fought like panthers for grants of no more than a few thousand dollars.

        The 1990s were hectic years for Talbert.  Budgets, budgets, budgets. Diplomatic emergencies, ruffled feathers to soothe, letters to write, donors to schmooze.  More budgets.  Email messages flew back and forth between the United States and England, France, Germany, Italy, India, Poland. Still more budgets.  Haggling over deadlines, haggling over editing, learning the craft and lingo of cartography. And, of course, proofing. Proofing was incredibly tedious and time consuming, given the expectation of exactitude.

        Talbert had a persistent nightmare that some of his contributors wouldn't turn in their work, and the project would have to be put on hold for want of a single map.  In the event, he didn't have all the maps in hand until 1998 which - in the world of cartography, was perilously close to the edge.

        Now that the books in print, Talbert intends to be one of the first scholars to use it.  He is due a sabbatical, needs a sabbatical, deserves a sabbatical - and he plans to spend it, of course, examining a map.

        But the subject of his current fascination is not just any map, it's one of the rarest and most valuable in the world - the only surviving map made by contemporary Romans of their empire.

        It's called the Peutinger Map, Talbert says, enthusiasm creeping into his voice.  "This thing is enormous, and it's primarily a road map of the Roman empire and beyond.  We just have the one example of it, and it's in Vienna, where it's closely guarded in the national library."

        Scholars have examined the details of the map for various projects, says Talbert, "But what nobody's done is to stand back, and look at the thing as a whole and say: Who made this. And what are the layers in this? And what does this tell us about Roman mapping capacities?

        "It's a very worthwhile thing to do but nobody has done it because, in order to carry out that project, you clearly need a decent set of maps of the ancient world as WE see it, to compare to the Roman map.  And, until this month, no such modern map has existed."

        Meanwhile, the fruits of his labor lays on a nearby table, its dust jacket decorated with a glossy map of Pompeii and vicinity.  Across the top is written Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World<end ital>.

        Across the bottom, in somewhat smaller but still bold letters, is "Edited by Richard J. A. Talbert."

        It is a thick tome, 13 by 19 inches - 102 full-color maps spread over 180 pages recreating the entire world of the Greeks and Romans from the British Isles to the Indian subcontinent and deep into North Africa.  Weighing in at about nine pounds, it oozes academic substance.  Along with a CD index, the book is priced - for a short time only - at $250; a virtual steal for the serious student of Greece and Rome. In October, the price goes up to $325.

        "Look it up on Amazon.com," says Talbert, shifting into his book-hawking mode. "It's the Christmas present of the millenium! It's the only book like it, and there will never be another.  Just think! For the person who has everything, this is what you need! "

        The pre-publication reviews do nothing to dampen his enthusiasm.

        "Quite simply the most important and most complicated project to be undertaken in classical studies this generation," writes a reviewer from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

        A scholar at the Sorbonne adds that "This atlas provides us with a vital missing tool. It is a model of creative planning, and will be absolutely indispensable."

The moment was a long time coming, even by the standards of classic scholars.  It is a moment to savor, a magnificent moment, a triumphant moment . . . a Timoleonian moment, even.  For Talbert, too, has achieved the impossible.

Jon Franklin