Planning your journey Roman style!

Did you know that, in the Roman Period, it would take you roughly eight and half days to travel from Jerusalem to Damascus in the summer time (July) or that if you traveled from Antioch to Thessalonica during the winter it would have taken you only eleven days, which is four and a half days quicker than the same journey in summer? What if your journey from Jerusalem to Damascus entailed a lot of luggage? Travelling by oxcart would take you twenty-one and a half days and set you back nine denarii per kg  (based on transporting wheat)!

Welcome to Orbis: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World produced by Walter Scheidel and Elijah Meeks.

Screenshot from Orbis Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World showing the journey from Jerusalem to Damascus

This is a really wonderful tool and a joy to use – be warned, many hours can be lost once you get hooked! Mapping the extensive system of roads, as well as river networks and seaports, it is possible to plan an itinerary (and cost it), allowing for time and weather conditions, anywhere in the Roman Empire.

ORBIS allows us to express Roman communication costs in terms of both time and expense. By simulating movement along the principal routes of the Roman road network, the main navigable rivers, and hundreds of sea routes in the Mediterranean, Black Sea and coastal Atlantic, this interactive model reconstructs the duration and financial cost of travel in antiquity.

Image showing the network of roads and rivers featured on Orbis. Image from:

I have the feeling that Paul and the other early church missionaries would have loved this tool! Likewise those studying their journeys and wanting to gain a clearer picture of what it was like to travel at this time will also get a lot out of it. Orbis is attractive and extremely easy to use which makes it ideal for even those with just a passing interest. It certainly helps to emphasise in a very graphic way the complexity and opportunity of movement within the Roman Empire and show that travel was not simply possible for the wealthy- for this alone, it is worth recommending to students (theology and history).

However, don’t be fooled. This is an extremely sophisticated tool.

The model allows for fourteen different modes of road travel (ox cart, porter, fully loaded mule, foot traveler, army on the march, pack animal with moderate loads, mule cart, camel caravan, rapid military march without baggage, horse with rider on routine travel, routine and accelerated private travel, fast carriage, and horse relay) that generate nine discrete outcomes in terms of speed and three in terms of expense for each road segment. Road travel is subject to restrictions of movement across mountainous terrain in the winter and travel speed is adjusted for substantial grade.

Furthermore, flow diagrams calculate the most efficient routes from (or to) a selected location according to season, cost and modes of transport.

Screenshot of flow diagram of the most efficient (fastest) springtime routes emanating from Corinth

Students of Paul’s journeys are therefore offered a clearer insight to the probable routes he would have taken.

Distance between different locations is not only marked by geographical proximity (miles or kilometres). Terrain (and other factors) has just as great an influence as mileage. The Cartogram facility distorts the map to display locations that are closest by travel time (rather than distance) or even travel costs (in denarii).

Orbis also helps us to form a picture not simply of human transport (civil and military), but also the all important movement of goods.

Image of transport costs per kilogram of grain from Rome

Orbis even provides a number of video tutorials to help you get the most out of this fun (and useful) resource.

Full list here: Elijah Meeks – Orbis Demos

One final thought: Had Paul wanted to visit London, he could have walked it in just over a month and a half (with just a couple of short boat trips)! Going by sea would have cut that down to a mere thirty-five days.

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