ORBIS ~ Definitely Worth a Look (and Continued Use)

The ORBIS project was getting a lot of attention on social media last week, and sadly scrolled down beyond my visual level in my mailbox … happily, however, the fine  folks at Stanford just put out a nice press release describing the project:

Imagine you’re in Rome, it’s 205 CE, and you’ve got to figure out the quickest way to transport wheat to Virunum, in what’s now Austria. Your transportation choices are limited: ox cart, mule, ship or by foot, and your budget is tight. What do you do?

Enter ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World. With it, you can survey the options that would have been available to an ancient Roman in that very predicament with the ease of getting directions via GPS.

Type in your starting point, destination, the goods you need to move, and the time of year. Voila! You can quickly see the most cost-effective way to transport the grain.

By generating new information about the ancient Roman transport network, ORBIS demonstrates how, more than anything else, the expansion of the empire was a function of cost.

ORBIS reconstructs the time spent and financial expense associated with pre-modern travel. By simulating movement along the principal routes of the Roman road network, the main navigable rivers and hundreds of sea routes, the interactive route map recreates the infrastructure of the entire pre-modern Roman world in a way that has never been done before.

Classics Professor Walter Scheidel and Stanford Digital Humanities Specialist Elijah Meeks developed the highly detailed digital model over the last eight months. It was officially launched May 2.

“ORBIS is dynamic, not static, and functions both as a publication and as a tool for the creation of new information,” Scheidel said. By allowing users to experiment with a huge number of data combinations, “it lets users do things that could not be done on the printed page.”

Although historians have plotted the thousands of destinations and the land and sea routes that traversed the three continents of the Roman Empire, ORBIS integrates real-life scenarios that illustrate how the empire was held together through trade routes.

“Traditional maps fail to capture the severe environmental constraints that governed the flows of people, goods and information,” said Scheidel, whose research interests focus on ancient social and economic history.

In recreating an ancient journey, an ORBIS user can take into account seasonal conditions, 14 modes of road travel from camel caravan to military march, different types of ships and various speeds of travel. Together, these factors reveal how the Romans came to perceive time and distance.

Before ORBIS, no one, Scheidel said, had formally visualized or demonstrated this pre-modern system of globalization.

The transportation network is part of a comprehensive website that supports data-driven claims with historical and technical information – what Meeks called a “digital scholarly publication with embedded data-driven arguments.”
Building a digital empire

Scheidel was inspired by seeing an interactive map of the London Tube system that morphs to represent actual travel times rather than distance. He contacted Meeks, who works on digital humanities projects at the Stanford Libraries, and they began to collaborate.

Their primary source material was Emperor Diocletian’s price edict of 301 CE, which provided official declarations of the price of most goods in the Roman Empire. It is, as Scheidel described it, “the largest source of information for what things cost at the time.”

Using the same technology that allows for the Google Maps-like interface, Meeks then set about the work of building an interactive, multi-modal transportation network. His version, however, was designed to distort the Roman world to reflect cost and speed in what is known as a “dynamic distance cartogram.”

The network is organized around 751 sites. Most of them represent urban settlements of the Roman period, supplemented by a number of promontories and other landmarks that were significant for travel. Seaports represent 268 of the sites.

Meeks said ORBIS was built on the “shoulders of giants.” It incorporates existing latitude and longitude data for Roman sites from the Pleiades project (an online gazetteer of ancient places) and the road networks from the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World.

What did not yet exist was an accurate representation of sea travel in antiquity, likely due to the difficulty of creating such a model. Meeks and Scheidel needed a formula that would account for both sea surface and the speed at which the average ship would move across it. Scott Arcenas, one of Scheidel’s graduate students who has extensive sailing experience, helped create a mathematical algorithm that simulates a ship’s movement in different wind conditions.

With the inclusion of hundreds of sea routes in the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the coastal Atlantic, ORBIS users can produce the cost of a seemingly infinite number of itineraries. The resulting cost simulations can be used to both explore and explain the distribution of cities in the Roman Empire that clustered along coasts and major rivers.

Inland, the price-cost ratio increased much more rapidly than time cost: it was much easier for Romans to march to faraway places and conquer them than to move goods between different regions, unless they were on the coast.

As a result, Scheidel said, “imperial expansion was much easier to accomplish than economic integration. That helps explain why all pre-modern empires were brittle and easily fell apart, and could easily be reconfigured.”

Initial data surveys have already revealed how incredibly important the ocean was to the development and expansion of the Roman Empire.

“The Roman world was a product of the Mediterranean Sea and unthinkable without it,” said Scheidel. “In that respect it differed much from land empires like China, where communication had always been much costlier.”

Using ORBIS results, Scheidel was able to ascertain that freight charges set for 50 sailing routes were clearly “a direct function of sailing time, something that nobody had been able to establish before.”
A work in progress

ORBIS was launched not as a fixed object, but as an interactive platform that Scheidel and Meeks are making available to other scholars and the general public.

The site will be continually updated in response to user feedback. Scholarship that is made possible by the model will be posted on the site itself as open access digital publications.

By adding more data, users can extend the sea surface and apply the model anywhere on the globe, making the model “infinitely expandable,” said Scheidel.

Scheidel anticipates that users will formulate their own questions as they experiment with the site. His hope is that ORBIS will help “create a new approach to our understanding of connectivity in a pre-modern society.”

You can put Orbis through its paces here … there are plenty of handy little videos to get you started but the ‘mapping’ tab is where the business gets done. What I really like about this is that it takes into account things like time of year and whether the ship takes a deep sea or coastal route. There are other variables as well and clearly these are based on the latest scholarly research. It’s interesting, e.g., to note that in August it would only take 20 or so days for a fast sailing ship to get from Rome to Jerusalem, which probably has some implications for all the dating surrounding Philo’s visit to Caligula and all that statue-in-the-temple thing. This will definitely be a useful tool …

Brill Fonts

The folks over at the place that turns out incredibly expensive (it seems to me) books have come out with a realllllllllllllllllllly nice font package. Here’s a bit of their blurb:

After careful consideration, Brill has taken the initiative of designing a typeface. Named “the Brill”, it presents complete coverage of the Latin script with the full range of diacritics and linguistics (IPA) characters used to display any language from any period correctly, and Greek and Cyrillic are also covered. There are over 5,100 characters in all. This indispensable tool for scholars will become freely available later this year for non-commercial use. You will be able to download the font package after agreeing to the End User License Agreement. “The Brill” is available in roman, italic, bold, and bold italic, with all necessary punctuation marks and a wide assortment of symbols. It will be especially welcomed by humanities scholars quoting from texts in any language, ancient or modern. “The Brill” complies with all international standards, including Unicode. John Hudson of Tiro Typeworks, well-known for his multilingual fonts, is the Brill’s designer.

… for those of you wondering, it has macrons and near as I can tell it has ligatures and other sorts of things which Classicists would need in a font. Might be worth checking out (and it will be free, apparently):

CONF: Art in the Making: Approaches to the Carving of Stone)

Seen on the Classicists list:

‘Art in the Making: Approaches to the Carving of Stone’

The Art of Making in Antiquity is a two-year project funded by the Leverhulme Trust and based at the Departments of Classics and of Digital Humanities at King’s College London. The project develops an innovative approach to Roman sculpture by interpreting carving techniques through the lens of practical craft expertise. The project website can be found at www.artofmaking.ac.uk.

On Friday 22nd June 2012 The Art of Making in Antiquity project will host a one-day conference at King’s College London with the title ‘Art in the Making: Approaches to the Carving of Stone’. The programme for the day is pasted below. Those wishing to attend should register by e-mailing ben.russell AT kcl.ac.uk. The attendance fee is £10, which covers lunch and refreshments. Payment information will be provided on registration, the deadline for which is Wednesday 13th June.


0930-1000 Tea and Coffee

1000-1030 “The Art of Making in Antiquity: stoneworking in the Roman world” – Will Wootton and Ben Russell, King’s College London

1030-1115 “Spot the difference: identifying the work of sculptors at Persepolis and Nimrud” – Michael Roaf, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich

1115-1200 “A matter of vision? Asymmetries in the heads of Greek fifth-century sculptors” – Helle Hochscheid, University College Roosevelt Academy, Middelburg

1200-1245 “Carving for the catacombs: late Roman sarcophagi and loculus slabs in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford” – Susan Walker, The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

1245-1345 Lunch

1345-1430 “Marble portraits and technique in the fourth and fifth centuries AD” – Julia Lenaghan, Oxford Centre for Late Antiquity, University of Oxford

1430-1515 “Rock-cut temples and Indian granite carving” – Peter Rockwell

1515-1545 Tea and Coffee

1545-1630 “Carving stone sculptures in Medieval China” – Lukas Nickel, SOAS, University of London

1630-1715 “Local stone for local people: macigno in fifteenth century Florence” – Jim Harris, The Courtauld, London

1715-1800 “The Carrara Academy of Arts and its influence on modern methods and scholarship” – Amanda Claridge, Royal Holloway, University of London

1800- Reception

CONF: In Memory of Alan Rodger: A Conference on Legal History and Roman Law

Seen on the Classicists list:

In Memory of Alan Rodger: A Conference on Legal History and Roman Law

Conference site


Friends and colleagues of Alan Rodger will meet in his memory at the
University of Glasgow, on 7-8 September 2012, for a conference on legal
history and Roman law.

Alan Rodger, Lord Rodger of Earlsferry, wrote on legal history and Roman law
for more than forty years. He was a student of David Daube at the University
of Oxford, and remained an active and engaged scholar even as he pursued a
career as an advocate and in government, eventually serving as a Justice of
the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.

There will be presentations on the Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, as
well as a reception and dinner on the Friday evening. The conference is
being organised by Ernest Metzger, Douglas Professor of Civil Law in the
University of Glasgow, and David Johnston QC, Axiom Advocates, Edinburgh.

Please send a note to rodgermemorial AT iuscivile.com if you are considering
attending. We will then keep you informed of arrangements. In due course
those who wish to attend the conference, with or without the reception and
dinner, will be able to register from the conference site (address above).

The speakers will include:

Tiziana J. Chiusi (Professor of Civil Law, Roman Law and Comparative Law,
University of Saarland); Michael Crawford FBA (Emeritus Professor, History,
University College London); Robin Evans-Jones (Professor of Jurisprudence,
University of Aberdeen); Joshua S. Getzler (Professor of Law and Legal
History, University of Oxford); Kenneth Reid CBE, FBA, FRSE (Professor of
Scots Law, University of Edinburgh); John Richardson FRSE (Emeritus
Professor of Classics, University of Edinburgh); Boudewijn Sirks (Regius
Professor of Civil Law, University of Oxford).

A list of tributes to Alan Rodger, with a bibliography of his works, may be
found at: http://www.iuscivile.com/people/earlsferry/

CONF: Imperial Greek Epic day

Seen on the Classicists list:

A reminder about this event in June. Details also at http://www.ccc.ox.ac.uk/Forthcoming-Events/

16 June 2012: Imperial Greek Epic day

Please join us on 16 June 2012 in the Seminar Room, Corpus Christi College, for a day devoted to the wonderful world of imperial Greek epic.

The event is designed to be an exploratory workshop rather than a formal conference. There will be three short papers of a general nature (what is imperial Greek epic? Does it make sense as a unity? How do we read it? How do we place it, culturally and historically?) There will also be 5 text sessions (marked with an asterisk below), devoted to working through passages that will be circulated to those who signal their interest in advance.

Cost: £10, or £15 with lunch included. If you are interested, please email Tim Whitmarsh (tim.whitmarsh AT ccc.ox.ac.uk)

9:45 – 10:30 Tim Whitmarsh (Oxford), ‘The genres of imperial Greek epic’
10:30 – 11.15 *Amin Benaissa (Oxford), ‘Dionysius, Bassarica’
11.15 – 11.45 BREAK
11.45-12:30 *Calum Maciver (Leeds), ‘Quintus of Smyrna, Posthomerica’
12:30-1:15 Laura Miguélez Cavero (Salamanca/Oxford), ‘On poets, critics and ivory towers; or the temptations of reading epic in isolation’
1:15 – 2:00 LUNCH
2:00 – 2:45 *Anna Lefteratou (Göttingen), ‘Nonnus, Paraphrase’
2:45 – 3:30 *Rob Shorrock (Eton College), ‘Nonnus, Dionysiaca’
3:30 – 4:00 BREAK
4:00 – 4:45 Emily Kneebone (Cambridge) ‘Epic encounters: literary strategies in imperial Greek epic’
4:45 – 5.30 Closing discussion