For the Map Geeks

7/6/2012 Uncategorized

For map fans out there, I want to share  what is possibly the nerdiest map ever: Orbis, The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World

A cross-disciplinary team of Stanford historians, classicists, geographers, and programmers have assembled a vast database of historical tide and weather information; the size, quality, and surface of ancient roads; cities and ports; vehicle speed (ships, ox carts, horses, and by foot) to tell us how long it would take (and how much it would cost) to travel from any point in the Roman Empire to any other point. It’s an impressive intellectual (not to mention, graphic) feat to synthesize and relay all this complex information about the transportation and economic systems of Ancient Rome.
Say, it’s Rome in January of 200 CE, and you want to travel to Pergamum on Asia Minor with wheat for sale. What are the fastest options, and how much will it cost? Orbis tells you that the fastest journey from Rome to Pergamum is 18.1 days (2669 km), using a sail ship, a civilian river boat, and either a donkey or wagon to carry the wheat on land. 
But what if you’d prefer to go by land rather than water? Orbis can recalculate your journey. 
For those of us of a certain age, Orbis bring to mind a merging of GoogleMaps and The Oregon Trail, the classic educational computer game for the Apple II.


Almost any American schoolkid from the 1980s remembers The Oregon Trail. In the game, you travel across the Western US, experiencing illness and injury to persons or animals, the dangers of river crossings and attacks, and the travails of hunting and gathering food. 

Oregon Trail and Orbis are different obviously. In Orbis there is no chance of contracting dysentary or drowning in a river. Orbis tells you information rather than taking you on a journey (although Orbis|via lets you choose paths and travel around the Roman Empire). 

But this interactive transportation model, like The Oregon Trail on the old Apple II, is about a complex network and making choices—and how geography, technology, weather, etc, affect these choices. On the Oregon Trail, you might wait too long to travel and contract cholera, but in the Roman Empire, you might find a way to save a few dinera by taking a donkey instead of an ox cart.

– Meera