Scholars of ancient history and IT experts at Stanford University have collaborated to create a novel way to study Ancient Rome. ORBIS, a geospatial network model, allows visitors to experience the strategy behind travel in antiquity. (Find a handy tutorial for using the system on the Web and YouTube). The ORBIS map includes about 750 mostly urban settlements of the Roman period. Users of the model can select a point of origin and destination for a trip and then choose from a number of options to determine either the cheapest, fastest or shortest route. Select river or open sea transport for the cheapest route. Pick road travel by pack animal or wagon for the shortest, but most expensive, trip. In creating ORBIS, historians used ancient maps and records along with modern-day weather information and results from experiments sailing in ancient-style ships to calculate the travel conditions of 2,000 years ago.
Aside from the site’s interactivity, there’s enough discussion in ORBIS about ancient Roman transport to satisfy the biggest history buff but the real fun is in exploring how people and goods were moved across the empire. Cities on the edge of the empire, for example, were more expensive to transport to, even if they weren’t that far away. All trips vary in time and cost, however, depending upon the time of year and mode of travel. The fastest route to deliver wheat from Carthago (modern-day Tunisia) to Londinium (London) would take more than 27 days under the best travel conditions (during July). Cargo would move across the Mediterranean by open sea, across southwestern France by riverboat and along the coast to southeastern England. The cost? A little less than 8 dinarii per kilogram of wheat using a donkey for land transport. Compare that to other routes that eliminate the open sea during winter months, or road travel to save money, and you’re close to understanding why it was no picnic ruling the Roman Empire.