Writing Assignment #2

ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World

by Sarah Scalet

London to Rome in 200 CE

A Stanford University team of historians and IT experts developed ORBIS, giving it the tagline: “Start Exploring the Roman World.” It’s basically MapQuest for the ancient Roman Empire. Using data from 200 CE, the program allows users to calculate travel logistics between cities in the Roman world. For example, I chose to travel from London (Londinium) to Rome (Roma). The program requires that the user input a start and end location, a departure month or season, travel priorities (cheap/fast/short), and network modes (road/river/etc.). Then, the user selects “Calculate Route.” Using ORBIS, I learned that in summer, it’s cheapest to travel by boat from London to Rome and the journey would take 63.5 days. Because ORBIS allows users to calculate time and expense estimates for travel between two locations using a variety of constraints, the model offers more than 363,000 discrete outcomes.[1]

The tremendous project is an example of geospatial digital humanities. In our readings, we learned about the value of geospatial projects for historical research. Geography and history go hand-in-hand because history must occur somewhere. GIS, geographic information system, offers an advanced method of digitally mapping spatial data. Although the program can be widely used amongst a variety of disciplines, it readily lends itself to the study of history. Bodenhamer writes, “Historical GIS offers an alternate view of history through the dynamic representation of time and place within culture.”[2] Because time and place are basic tenets for the study of history, GIS provides a fresh, innovative, and highly interactive method of historical study.

ORBIS was developed through GIS, among other mechanisms. Judging from descriptions of the tool’s construction, it’s safe to assume that ORBIS’s back-end is complex. In addition to many other factors, the building process included algorithms, scatter plots, Stanford information technology specialists, and support from external organizations.[3] More impressively, the site’s front-end is extremely user-friendly. A different digital humanities site, a Hurricane Katrina memory bank, noticed few photo contributions because its website was less efficient than Flickr and Shutterfly. In a review, the project’s digital historians noted: “whatever contribution interface you design, it should be at least be as easy to use and efficient as those available elsewhere online.”[4] Although ORBIS does not solicit user contributions, it does require active user participation. As a result, ORBIS is most impressive because it appears just as user-friendly as MapQuest. Thanks to its deceptively straightforward design, anyone who accesses the website will readily recognize the project’s intent. ORBIS condenses enormous amounts of historical and scientific records into a single program. In a user-friendly format, ORBIS provides a new and innovative perspective into the study of ancient times. In fact, the interactive digital mapping project provides insight into the old phrase: “all roads lead to Rome.”


[1] http://orbis.stanford.edu/

[2] Bodenhamer, David. “History and GIS: Implications for the Discipline.”

[3] http://orbis.stanford.edu/

[4] Brenna, Sheila and T. Mills Kelly. “Why Collecting History Online is Web 1.5.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *