Play Caesar: Travel Ancient Rome with Stanford’s Interactive Map

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.

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