Mapping the Transportation Network of the Roman World

Caitlin Dempsey


ORBIS ( is a mapping project developed by researchers at Stanford that reconstructs the financial and spatial challenges of transporting goods and people during Roman times about 200 CE.  

The mapping application is quite complex and provides functionality that allows the user to model travel through the extensive Roman Empire, covering three continents.  

 There are a multitude of land and water-based travel modes (e.g. ox cart, porter, fully loaded mule, foot traveler, army on the march, and horse relay) that affect the cost and speed of travel.

Each of the more than 750 sites have been networked and factors impeding travel such as distance, wind conditions (especially for ship-based travel), and time of year are accounted for.

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In addition to calculating point A to B routing conditions, users can also calculate flow maps of specific locations to see where the most popular designations to or from that point are.  

For example, this screenshot below shows a map of where travelers to Roma (Rome) are flowing from.  

The textual description in the lower bottom quantifies the regions where the highest levels of transportation activity is occurring.    

Flow mapping calculation of all travel to Roma (Rome) during the month of January, 200 CE.
Flow mapping calculation of all travel to Roma (Rome) during the month of January, 200 CE.

            Overall, ORBIS is an impressive example of a complex digital humanities project in action.  The use of mapping helps to illustrate the burden of transporting goods and people cross the vast empire during Roman times.  

While incorporating very complex modeling and data, the mapping application itself is fairly easy to use and helpful popups explain every option available in the route and network calculation window.  


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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.