Tag Archives: Roman Empire

ORBIS: The Coolest Map of the Roman Empire Ever, thanks to Stanford University

Orbis

ORBIS view, courtesy of Stanford University

If all roads led to Rome, then how many roads must a man walk down to get to Rome…

or Athens…or Alexandria…or Jerusalem for that matter?

The folks at our west coast Ivy, Stanford University, came up with one of the most interesting solutions to this problem.

Meet ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Model of the Roman World.  In layman’s terms, meet the Google Maps of the Roman Empire.

ORBIS was designed by a team of historians, classicists and IT specialists.  Walter Scheidel, a Roman historian in the Classics and History departments, painstakingly mapped out roads, routes, sea lanes, settlements, obstacles, mountain passes, and anything else used for transportation in the Roman world.  His research further helped calculate distances, travel times, travel costs, adjustments for wind currents, altitude, population…just about anything you need to travel around 200 CE.

With IT experts Elijah Meeks, Karl Grossner and Naomi Alvarez, Scheidel and company created a model that calculates time and cost for various transportation routes  throughout the Empire.  According to their website, ORBIS uses about 751 sites (cities, towns and prominent landmarks), of which 268 are sea ports.  There are 84,631 kilometers (52,587 miles) of roads and desert tracks, 28,272 kilometers (17,567 miles) of navigable rivers and canals, as well as 900 sea routes which averages a total distance of 180,033 kilometers (111,864 miles).

Never mind all that.  I had loads of fun playing with the ORBIS mapping application.

One of the tabs is Mapping ORBIS, which allows someone to map a distance between Roman settlements using various forms of transportation.  For example, to travel from Rome to Londinium (today’s London) in January, on foot or on riverboat, would take about 41.8 days covering 2436 kilometers.  It also gives shipping and travel costs in denarii, or Roman currency, per kilogram of wheat by donkey (25.53), by wagon (31.46), or per passenger in a carriage (a whopping 1624.24).  ORBIS even provides the settlements where you stop along the way.

I cannot wait to use ORBIS in my class when the Ancient Rome unit gets around.  This application is an incredible tool for the classroom, especially for students that still cannot get around the complexities of travel in the ancient world.  ORBIS provides, using the most accurate research, a first-hand look at travel in the Third Century CE.

Please let me know how you’re doing with it…and make sure to tell them the Neighborhood sent you.  Enjoy.

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A Dear John Letter to my Textbooks

Dear NYC Social Studies Core Curriculum Textbooks published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,

This is a difficult letter for me to write…and an even more difficult letter for you to read, so I hope that you are sitting down.

Remember when we first met? I trembled in excitement upon hearing of a textbook option for New York City’s social studies curriculum. Once I had you (or the fourth grade version of you at the time), it was as if a great weight was lifted from me—finally, a concrete guide to instruction.

I was smitten just by looking at your spine…the glow off your glossy cover…the sharp color photos that littered almost every page.

Those first few months were incredible, weren’t they? Every day was something new, something exciting. We were so wild, so adventurous…we could take on the world. To be honest, we were into some really kinky shit, but that was all in the fun.

Each year, another book would await me, and my love affair renewed. The roller-coaster ride we shared made the mundane phone order to the central office in Tweed so—dare I say—exhilarating. The maps, the optional activities, the worksheets and games: at last, I thought, I found the one.

Yet, something changed.

At first, I thought it was just me. After a while, we settled into our routine. Occasionally, you provide a surprise to spice things up—a game on the Internet, or a music selection. That, however, was the exception to the rule. To be fair, that routine suited me fine…for a while.

Then, maybe it was my weakness…but I started to feel restless. The chapters and units weren’t doing it for me anymore. I felt trapped.

It was then that I met someone else…more like some other people, plural.

There were some websites on the Internet. I was leery, at first. But then, they lured me with their siren song of primary source documents, streaming video and interactive games. Once I saw the ever-changing and ever-expanding volumes of media, lesson plans, worksheets and graphic organizers, that old excitement, that feeling of adventure exploded over me again.

I had mentioned that I was attached, that I couldn’t turn my back on my beloved. They, in turn, mentioned some shocking things about you: that you don’t fact-check your information that well, that there are numerous mistakes in historical maps, that terminology and vocabulary are often misstated.

Worst of all, they said that by watering down the content for the sake of “readability”, you were holding me back—and even worse, holding my students hostage to shoddy literature.

I wouldn’t believe it. They were just jealous, after all, I thought. How could they appreciate the passion, the connection we have…besides, if there were flaws, you would have told me, right?

Right?

Well, I did some digging myself. On page 161 of the grade 3 book, this is what you say about the Roman Empire:

“The Roman Empire lasted about 500 years, but then broke apart. It had grown too large for its rulers to control. However, ancient Rome still affects the world with its ideas about government, architecture, and more.”

Fair enough, it is only for 3rd graders, but sometimes you water down way too much. Look at page 163:

“In the mid-1900s, World War II broke out. Many countries fought in this war, including Italy. Italy was on the side that lost.”

Umm, that’s it? No mention of the nightmare of a 21-year fascist dictatorship that preceded it? No mention of the other countries that bear more responsibility for losing—the ones that had more blood on their hands. Those kids can get that…why do you treat them like morons?

If that’s not bad enough, I found outright lies—lies that you should’ve told me about. Why did you keep it a secret that the leaders of the New Netherland colony were incorrectly called “governors” instead of the correct “directors-general”?

Why does a map of North America in the 18th century use flags from another century? I see an 1801 British flag, a 1793 French flag, and a 1981 Spanish flag.

I’m not even going into the problems in the 5th grade book.

Why? Why did you hold me back so many years? Why the lies? The deceit? The lack of clarity and depth of content?

I’m sorry, but our relationship has really run its course. It’s over.

Please, no tears…it’s not entirely your fault. I was too stupid to realize how badly written you were. I didn’t see your limited vision and lack of depth.

Basically, we’ve really grown apart these past few years. I expanded my base of knowledge and resources through the internet, seminars, grants and lectures.

You just can’t grow past your binding.

You were suffocating me, and screwing my students in the process. There’s nowhere else for this to go.

Believe me, it’s better for both of us.

Goodbye, and good luck. Perhaps we’ll see each other again… that odd day that I need to waste a period with busywork in June.

Just don’t wait up for my call. Sorry, babe.

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The Jesus Problem: How to teach about “you-know-who”

“Religion is a great force: the only real motive force in the world; but what you fellows don’t understand is that you must get at a man through his own religion and not through yours.” – George Bernard Shaw

I was discussing with another teacher about the projects her students were doing.  For their exit project, her students were doing biographies of people that were a force for changing history–an admirable topic, to be sure.  Many chose typical but important people, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi and the like.  Some were less than serious.  I’m still at a loss as to how Chris Brown was a shaper of history–he certainly re-shaped Rihanna’s face, the bum.

Yet one girl strived to outdo all the others, picking the one guy that everyone can either love or hate, the one dude that probably caused both the most joy and the most misery in the Western world.  Yeshua Bin-Yusuf, or to us non-Aramaic speakers, Jesus of Nazareth.  Yeah, that guy.

This girl had recently been taking catechism classes for her confirmation, so I can understand her enthusiasm for Jesus.  The miracles, the stories he told, his way with crowds–how can you not love the guy.  Then came the following: “Did you know that Jesus had a wife?”  Apparently, either Dan Brown was teaching her catechism class or she caught a late viewing of The DaVinci Code on her TV.  In fact, it was a Discovery Channel special that piqued her interest.

She then became confused when she cross-referenced some of the particulars of our cultural tradition with the Bible.  Where do they mention Christmas?  Why is there no date?  What about Easter?  How come it doesn’t say to not eat meat on a Friday?  Granted, this was an 11 year old girl, so she had every right to be confused…and excited.  She couldn’t wait to get started.

I have deep reservations about this.  I don’t want to crush her enthusiasm, but Jesus is a complex guy to cover in a public school.  The line between reporting and prostyletizing is razor thin.  Plus, there’s that pesky First Amendment to worry about…oh, this would all be much easier if we were all Puritans feeling guilty about whistling on the Sabbath.  There are a number of non-Christians in the school, and their parents would be none too pleased about Big J crashing the secular party.

On top of all that, Jesus is both “too big” a topic with “too small” a base of source material.  Can anyone really describe Jesus’ impact on our world in one book, let alone a sheet of paper?  His teachings formed the basis, both good and bad, of Western civilization as we know it.  More people died in his name than anyone else.  His followers number in the billions, and even they can’t agree on who gets the big guy’s seal of approval–the Catholics were first on the block, but the Lutherans and Calvinists thought the Papists “got soft” and claimed they were his true representatives.  This has morphed into denominations too varied and numerous to count.  Even the Mormons claim the guy, although I wonder if they got their dogma from the Bible or from Joseph Smith smoking too many bricks of opium in his hookah.

If we were to study Jesus as a historical figure, which he is, there is a grand total of one, count ‘em, one secular research source that is even close to Jesus’ time period. The author wasn’t exactly unbiased, either.  Yosef Ben-Matityahu was a military leader in the Jewish Revolt of 66-70 AD against the Roman Empire.  He was cornered in a cave, and convinced his fellow rebels they should draw lots to kill each other since suicide was a Jewish no-no.  Somehow, he was the last one standing (surprise, surprise) and nonchalantly bargained for his life with his Roman conquerors, who then took him to Rome and gave him the Emperor’s Package (and not the Ceasers Palace kind, either).  Now re-christened Flavius Josephus, he proceeded to write two of the most important historical texts of the period: The Jewish War (75 AD) and The Antiquities of the Jews (94).  Jesus is mentioned in the first work, as well as his early followers.  However, remember that this is a guy that went to war with the Romans, was captured by the Romans, had his life spared, and was granted Roman citizenship with a pension.  Josephus was not going to crap where he ate, so don’t count on a completely fair view of Jesus (“And so he was crucified, but he probably had it coming.  A guy like that is just asking for it.”)

Historical research in education, particularly for students, has centered more and more on the use of primary source materials.  This is great for U.S. history, for World War II and the civil rights movement, but ancient history is a lot trickier.  The Bible is no help; most of it was written well after the fact, and all the Evangelists had an agenda: some wanted to tell the straight story, some wanted to brown-nose the Man Upstairs (Apostle John, I’m looking in your direction).  Roman records only have a notation that someone named Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem somewhere between 26-33 AD.  And we see how Josephus has his problems.  Furthermore, with the texts of Jesus’ life heavily censored by church authorities to show him in all his awesomeness, the bits about his “failings” (if any…did the thunderbolt come down yet?) were safely discarded.  Nobody needed to know that at the wedding at Cana, Jesus could only create white Zinfandel, which most Jews found pedestrian at the time.  Nor was it helpful to have the eyewitness accounts of the Romans who attended to his death (“He just wouldn’t stop squirming.”).

Finally, I think I would recommend that my student should choose a more modern person with a more limited scope of greatness.  Jesus taught the world that all human beings had value.  It’s a gigantic concept, one that an adult has trouble understanding, let alone an 11 year old.  For all her enthusiasm and drive, I think its best to leave Jesus to the biblical scholars and archaeologists.  Instead, maybe she should pick a person that will incur Jesus’ wrath.  Like Hitler, Stalin, or Bernie Madoff.  That way, at least she’s clear about his message.

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