Imagine you’re in Rome, it’s 205 CE, and you’ve got to figure out the quickest way to transport wheat to Virunum, in what’s now Austria. Your transportation choices are limited: ox cart, mule, ship or by foot, and your budget is tight. What do you do?
Enter ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World. With it, you can survey the options that would have been available to an ancient Roman in that very predicament with the ease of getting directions via GPS.
Type in your starting point, destination, the goods you need to move, and the time of year. Voila! You can quickly see the most cost-effective way to transport the grain.
By generating new information about the ancient Roman transport network, ORBIS demonstrates how, more than anything else, the expansion of the empire was a function of cost.
ORBIS reconstructs the time spent and financial expense associated with pre-modern travel. By simulating movement along the principal routes of the Roman road network, the main navigable rivers and hundreds of sea routes, the interactive route map recreates the infrastructure of the entire pre-modern Roman world in a way that has never been done before.
Classics Professor Walter Scheidel and Stanford Digital Humanities Specialist Elijah Meeks developed the highly detailed digital model over the last eight months. It was officially launched May 2.
“ORBIS is dynamic, not static, and functions both as a publication and as a tool for the creation of new information,” Scheidel said. By allowing users to experiment with a huge number of data combinations, “it lets users do things that could not be done on the printed page.”
Although historians have plotted the thousands of destinations and the land and sea routes that traversed the three continents of the Roman Empire, ORBIS integrates real-life scenarios that illustrate how the empire was held together through trade routes.
“Traditional maps fail to capture the severe environmental constraints that governed the flows of people, goods and information,” said Scheidel, whose research interests focus on ancient social and economic history.
In recreating an ancient journey, an ORBIS user can take into account seasonal conditions, 14 modes of road travel from camel caravan to military march, different types of ships and various speeds of travel. Together, these factors reveal how the Romans came to perceive time and distance.
Before ORBIS, no one, Scheidel said, had formally visualized or demonstrated this pre-modern system of globalization.
The transportation network is part of a comprehensive website that supports data-driven claims with historical and technical information