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.
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?
Well, I did some digging myself. On page 161 of the grade 3 book, this is what you say about the Roman Empire:
Fair enough, it is only for 3rd graders, but sometimes you water down way too much. Look at page 163:
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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