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June 7, 2017

The world is depressing, so let’s all look at this tube map-style road map of the Roman Empire instead

By Jonn Elledge

There have been many theories as to why the Western Roman Empire fell during the 5th century. Perhaps it was the pressure from barbarian invasions, as the tribes of central Asia moved west, spurred on by some unknown disaster. Perhaps it was over-expansion, or financial crisis. Perhaps, even, it was Christianity.

One theory that I don’t think has been given enough academic attention, however, is that the fall of the Western Empire Was caused by a dearth of high quality metro maps, possibly brought about by the complete absence of ancient Roman metros.

Click to expand, baby.

Oh, Harry Beck, where were you when Rome needed you?

Anyway. This map shows the principle settlements of the Roman Empire and the roads linking them, in the same style as a modern metro map. So if you find yourself in 2nd century Byzantium, and want a good overland route to Ravenna, you can now plan your route.

The map even shows some of the empire’s ambitions for expansion east into Parthian (that is, Persian) territory in dotted lines, like routes under construction. The empire reached its largest in 117AD, at the death of the emperor Trajan.

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The map is the work of Alexandr Sasha Trubetskoy, an undergraduate economics student at the University of Chicago, who drew the data from a variety of soruces including  Stanford’s ORBIS model, the Antonine Itinerary, and The Pelagios Project (that was the Google-style map of the empire we wrote about in December 2015). Some of his road names are unofficial; and he admits he’s had to make a few guesses to plug the gaps in our historical knowledge. But as far as possible, he’s kept to the historical record.

Anyway, enough words, what you really want is the map, right? Let’s look at some details. Italy, as the heart of the empire, is obviously covered with roads and settlements:

What is now Portugal, Spain and France, doesn’t do badly either:

Africa gets one long road, stretching all the way from Egypt to what is now Morocco:

Click to expand.

But Britain is a bit of a backwater:

Some of the plans for the future look, 19 centuries on, to a bit ambitious, like those London Underground maps which show the proposed Northern Heights extensions.

In practice, many of these journeys wouldn’t have been made by road at all: travel by land was slower than travel by sea, almost until modern times. The real highway at the heart of the empire was the Mediterranean, something highlighted by the fact that here it’s labelled the Mare Internum – “internal sea”.

You can’t really make a tube-style map of sea roads though, so fair enough.

Anyway. You can check out the original, with its maker’s commentary, on Trubetskoy’s website. And while you’re here, why not listen to the Roman special of our podcast, Skylines?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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