University of Southampton OCS (beta), CAA 2012

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The Shape of the Ancient World Project
Jonathan Allan Weiland

Last modified: 2011-12-16


When we conceptualize a region as large as the Roman Empire, it is almost always the case that we visualize a modern overview map of the Mediterranean blanketed with a solid shape where Roman territory once existed. This modern view of the empire, as if from a satellite far above the earth, was not a perspective with which the people living in the empire were familiar. To be sure, the Romans were not completely ignorant as to the geographic shape of the lands they lived in, but the shape of the world for the Romans was not the top down view available to modern populations via satellite imagery. The Roman period view of empire was horizontal, defined by distance and cost. This view of the world is problematic to recreate; it changes according to location and means of travel. The disparity of ancient and modern views is what the Shape of the Ancient World project attempts to cope with. The participants in the SotAW project have built a model compatible with the realities of the Roman world, by creating a digital network engaging the three basic modes of travel in the Roman Empire: by road, river and sea. These three modes of travel across the entire extent of the Roman Empire were considered in terms of travel time, vehicle of travel, and variables such as currents, mountain ranges, and seasonal viability, by a team of twelve graduate students under the supervision of Professor Walter Scheidel at Stanford University with support from Stanford's digital humanities infrastructure in the form of modeling, analysis and project management.  Research was allotted to project participants according to geographic regions and mode of travel, then with the aid of resources such as the Barrington Atlas and Arnaud’s The Routes de la Navigation Antique, we developed a network of the Ancient Mediterranean world using ESRI ArcGIS and Gephi.

Developing the network model has produced several insights and the resulting digital network has several applications. Using digital technologies we are able to use the transportation network to reproject the shape of the Roman Empire based on the travel cost, and illustrate how the shape of the Roman Empire diverged significantly from standard geographical displays. By integrating the multiple means and modes of travel into one network we are also able to conclude with reasonable accuracy, the time commitment for moving across the vast extent of the Roman Empire in a way previous models, committed exclusive to a single mode of travel or a smaller geographic region, are not capable of. Such a network can provide valuable insights to the understanding of Roman period trade networks, large scale settlement patterns, and military deployments. Eventually it is the goal of the SotAW project to provide an online resource; to give access to the visualizations and a search engine capable of providing a point to point estimation of travel time from any two urban centers included in the SotAW model.



Travel, Cost, Roman Empire, Cost Distance Modeling, Environmental Modeling, Travel/ Trade Networks