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Data mapping for the ancient world

Dr. David Kilcullen makes really useful maps.

He and his team have worked with communities around the world, using Google Maps to help improve lives. One map made by a group of Libyan schoolgirls pinpointed local sniper positions to help their classmates navigate a route to school.

Last week’s Fast Company article about Kilcullen really intrigued me.

At its core it’s about how simple, free, online tools can be used to bring disparate data sets together and make them available for everyone to access. And it’s about making that data visual, enabling us to see patterns that are hard to see when looking at a list or a block of text.

These core ideas can be applied to any subject matter.

So last night I made the map at the start of this post – a map showing the birthplaces of the Later Roman emperors from Diocletian (r.284-305) to Valentinian III (r.424-455).

Google Maps launched in February 2005, while I was studying for my Masters in Ancient History. I wish I had realised its potential back then!

Maps like this would have been incredibly helpful – this one shows very clearly that there was a concentration of emperors’ births in the central European provinces, especially in the region that is now Serbia. That’s largely because in this period most emperors were either raised up by the army or came from military families, and this region was home to some of the strongest army units of the age.

And note that only one emperor in that entire period was born in Rome.

There’s a cool Roman mapping project called Orbis, which calculates how fast and at what cost one could travel around the Roman Empire. Example: travelling from Verulamium (now St Albans, my home town) to Rome in July in c.200AD would take 51 days and cost 1,553 denarii per passenger.

And I can think of about 20 other maps that would be super-useful for Roman history students of today, and for which the data is available on Wikipedia:

  • Roman provincial capitals
  • Emperors’ accession places
  • Emperors’ death places
  • Emperors’ burial places
  • Empresses’ birth / death / burial places
  • The borders of the Empire
  • Imperial mints
  • Roman aqueducts
  • Imperially-named cities
  • Provinces, dioceses, praetorian prefectures
  • Finds of Chinese / Russian / etc coinage within the Empire
  • Battles
  • Triumphal arches
  • Ancient monuments in Rome / Constantinople / etc
  • Roman villas in England / etc
  • Public baths
  • Canals
  • Dams and reservoirs
  • Victory monuments
  • Domes

Some of these maps exist in paper form, but they cost an awful lot to produce and are usually buried in books that are either expensive, inaccessible, or both. I think Wikipedia has shown that there’s no need for basic knowledge like this to be hidden, and that collaboration can open up arcane information. And data visualisation is revealing patterns that would otherwise not be apparent.

Using tools like Google Maps to solve these problems would be helpful, close to free, and (if created collaboratively) should improve over time + stay up to date with the latest finds.

Nor is any of this restricted to Roman history. Exactly the same approach would work for other historical periods, in other places – all you need is the data and people willing to make the maps.

You could also make particularly good use of the annotation functions in Google Maps – each pin can be tagged with links to relevant info and links to articles / photos / video / other maps.

I’m thinking of putting together a simple site for a handful of Roman maps, in order to gauge the level of interest. This could be a fun project. Give me a shout (details on the About page) if you want to get involved.



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