The Roman Empire, just after the Punic Wars, rested on three continents... but this line is insufficient to convey the vast differences in season, geography, and costs from one part of the empire to another. Enter ORBIS.

(The following is awesome enough without an ominous lead-in paragraph.)

Meet ORBIS. It’s an interactive, historically almost-accurate map of the Roman Empire circa 200 BC or, as Stanford likes to call it, a ‘Geospatial Network of the Roman World’. It was put together by Walter Scheidel, Elijah Meeks and Jonathan Weiland at Stanford University with the help of a group of IT specialists, some students, and a Digital Humanities Grant.

Its breathtaking detail and customizability make for one exhilarating experience as your navigate from city to city, to promontories, through mountain passes, atop camels, aboard boats, astride horses, and make your way from Luguvalium in the north-west to Singara in the south-east… Granted, it won’t be anything like making this journey for real through Europe, but what reality can’t bring you are pages of history, layered on top of another, none of it obfuscated by the encroachment of the years, as you plot the arduous journey planned by Hasdrubal, executed by Hannibal.

For instance, the “first leg” of Hannibal’s alpine invasion, from Carthago Nova (now Cartagena) to just off Massilia (Marseilles), according to ORBIS, would have taken 18.9 days in late spring (April-May) in 200 BC, with the route spanning 1,134 km, if a rapid military march were adopted. Of course, this doesn’t take into consideration the tough terrains Hannibal must have negotiated off Barcino at the foot of the Pyrenees. It also must have taken him longer as the hill-tribes were to be handled with.


(Click here for the full-sized screenshot)

And, of course, by 200 BC, the Battle of Zama and the Second Punic War (203-201 BC) were over, and Carthage was left with peace but much less power and the defeat of Hannibal after the betrayal of Masinissa; what this really means in ORBIS’ context is that it’s actually depicting travel in Roman-friendly conditions whereas Hannibal was the new condition Rome was facing in Europe. Such exactitudes are hard to approximate in terms of numbers, but the map does do a very good job in painting a resourceful picture of what it must have been like to have invaded Rome from the north!

The focus right now seems to be on the transportation options and travel in a Rome of antiquity (In fact, the builders have announced that an API will be in the offing soon). The choice is justified because the Roman Empire took interest and care in the laying of roads and the setting up of sea-ports between, and in facilitating trade to supply and restock, different regions of the realm, obviously justified as it was because of the realm’s stretched geospatial characteristic that necessitated a quick movement of troops to quench most likely a distant kerfuffle.

What this also brings to the fore is the cost of communication in ancient Rome, as movement is simulated through the roads, rivers, and sea routes of the empire, set up in the simulation after comparative analysis of the data available from over the years. In other words, the shorter the route being plotted, the less likely is ORBIS to simulate reality.

In the words of Scheidel, Meeks and Weiland in their May 2012 paper: “Taking account of seasonal variation and accommodating a wide range of modes and means of transport, ORBIS reveals the true shape of the Roman world and provides a unique resource for our understanding of premodern history.” So, go ahead, dive right into it! (If you’re on the site and don’t know where the map is, click on “Mapping ORBIS” instead of “Using ORBIS”.)