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Adventure Blog

ORBIS: Your Guide to the Roman Empire

Buzz Poole
05/29/2012 - 05:40
Trajan's Column detail, via All-Art.org

Nostalgia, a truly human quality, that yearning for the past that strikes us all at one time or another derives from two words from ancient Greek, "a return home" and "pain/suffering." We all have a tendency to imagine the past through rose-tinted lenses of memory and imagination that fool us into believing that the past was indeed better than the present. That is, until we are reminded of the past's realities. Thanks to a tip from The Economist's Gulliver, a new site, ORBIS, will ensure that you never misrepresent to yourself what it was like to travel across the Roman Empire. As Gulliver explains it, ORBIS is "an interactive map of the Roman Empire as it was around 200AD. The "geospatial network model" includes 751 sites, 84,631 km (52,587 miles) of road or track, and 28,272 km of navigable rivers and canals—not to mention 900 sea routes."

Officially titled ORBIS: The Standford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World, the site explains the project thusly: "Spanning one-ninth of the earth's circumference across three continents, the Roman Empire ruled a quarter of humanity through complex networks of political power, military domination and economic exchange. . . . Conventional maps that represent this world as it appears from space signally fail to capture the severe environmental constraints that governed the flows of people, goods and information."

You have to be up on your Roman Empire place names. With the exception of truly ancient cities like Damascus, if you are looking for Barcelona or Naples, you're out of luck. The cheapest Rome to Damascus route is about 48 days, primarily traveling on the Mediterranean. This seems logical from a purely geographical perspective. But the real dynamics of the Roman Empire's infrastructure become visible when calculating a route like Tanais (located on the Black Sea in modern day Russia) to Jerusalem. On the map it appears to be a straight north-south shot. But according to ORBIS, the shortest distance is not the fastest, even if money is not an issue. The journey tracks back to the southwest, passing through Constantinopolis and then working back east.

The ORBIS developers, Walter Scheidel and Elijah Meeks, have not spared a single detail in reinventing ancient modes and means of travel in today's online world of limitless options. Not only does ORBIS take into account budget, all prices are in denarii, but it also lets you select the time of year during which you plan to travel, along with including options like traveling speeds ("rapid military march") and perks ("porter/fully loaded mule").

The site is an amazing and fascinating tool. First and foremost, it presents ancient history in a contemporary media context, which can engage anyone with an inkling of interest in history. Secondly, even while you might want to avoid 45-day trips to places that today can be reached in hours, if you are a traveler with an interest in the Roman Empire, ORBIS will unquestionably help you plan your next history-themed vacation.

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