Digitizing the Roman Imperial road network

I originally posted this on the UrbNet blog.

The Romans built an expansive road network. Thousands of kilometres of very well-designed roads connected regions as far apart as present-day Britain, Morocco, Egypt and Turkey. This network shaped and structured European transport systems in ways that are clearly visible today. In the centuries that followed the Roman Empire, people and goods still very much followed Roman routes, and subsequent kingdoms and empires gradually elaborated and modified the Roman core of the transport system. But even today, many of the key transport routes throughout Europe still follow the ancient Roman transport system.

Many research topics in Roman Studies are dependent on a good knowledge of the Roman road system. How did the Roman military march from one frontier to another, and how were they supplied with the necessary subsistence goods? What routes did inland distribution of grain and oil follow to supply for the needs of urban populations? A good understanding of the Roman road system is even crucial for studies of movements of people and goods in later periods, because this system was so foundational for European infrastructure.

So Roman roads are important. Sadly, this importance is not reflected in the available resources needed for exploring these research topics. To be clear, Roman roads have received vast amounts of research attention, their tracks are very well documented for most parts of the Empire, as are associated objects like Roman milestones and waystations. The issue lies in the aggregation of this evidence and research. Detailed information derived from excavations of parts of Roman roads is often not systematically used to update regional road maps, if such regional aggregations even exist. This has led to a very patchy overall picture: for some regions which have seen a lot of research attention we have a pretty good and detailed picture of the Roman road system, such as Italy, France or Britain; but for other regions there has been very little aggregation of Roman road evidence. Few of these regional aggregations have been digitised and even fewer are openly accessible online.

A highly detailed digital version of the entire Empire that aggregates all known evidence of Roman roads simply does not exist. I find this incredible, given the importance of such a resource for Roman Studies and the sheer amount of attention Roman roads have received.

A few digital models for the entire empire do exist, but these are nowhere near representative of what we actually already know about Roman roads (nor do they claim to be). The roads of the Iberian Peninsula in figure 1 offer a striking example for comparing existing digital models. At the top of figure 1 we have theORBIS model, a very useful network representation of the Roman transport system. It was purposefully kept very abstract and low detail because it serves as a tool to study the overall shape of movement through the Roman world. In the middle of figure 1 we can see the much more detailed spatial tracks of Roman roads captured in the Empire-wide road network available from the Ancient World Mapping Centre. This is currently the most detailed empire-wide digital representation of Roman roads. These are digitisations of the canonical atlas of the ancient world (the Barrington Atlas), which maps the roads throughout the entire empire in what seems like very high detail. However, the discrepancy between this source and the amount of detail we get when aggregating published evidence of roads becomes clear from the bottom of figure 1. Not only do we see far more roads (most of them are minor roads), but we also notice that the actual spatial tracks of these roads are far more detailed.

Figure 1 © Tom Brughmans: two empire-wide digital models of Roman roads (top © ORBIS; middle © Ancient World Mapping Centre), but a highly detailed model representative of current knowledge is missing (bottom © MERCATOR-e)

This example at the bottom of figure 1 is the result Dr Pau de Soto’s work in his project MERCATOR-E, where he aggregated available evidence for the Iberian Peninsula. But this kind of work is possible for the entire Roman Empire. The challenge is not to perform the foundational research, it is to digitise and aggregate what is already known.

To support this process, Pau de Soto and I teamed up to develop project Itiner-e (supported by a grant from Pelagios). This is the first gazetteer of ancient roads: a framework where parts of roads can be digitally documented in full detail and uniquely cited, such that this data can be linked with other linked open data.

The work of developing a highly detailed model for the entire empire is underway. In the meantime, we can already road-test some of our research questions with the useful resources from ORBIS or the Ancient World Mapping Centre. For example: it is often said all roads lead to Rome, but which roads get you there faster?

In figure 2, I have used the ORBIS model to explore this question. Every dot is a city in the Roman Empire, and the lines indicate the ability to move from one city to another over Roman transport links. Grey lines are roads, green lines are navigable rivers, and red lines are sea connections.

The size and colour of the dots represents how close each city is to Rome over the transport system; the larger and darker, the further away from Rome. This is achieved by calculating the fastest route over this network from every city to Rome: a GPS or Google Maps function for the Roman route map.

This geographical representation of the transport network reveals some interesting features. We can see an obvious general trend that the closeness to Rome decreases with as-the-crow-flies distance, even though we used network distance to calculate these results. We notice that much of present-day Tunisia, the region of ancient Carthage, is relatively close to Rome thanks to efficient maritime links. We can also see that the farthest western cities on the British Isles are still closer in network distance than the farthest cities along the Nile, the Black Sea and in Mesopotamia.

Figure 2 © Tom Brughmans: Geographical representation of ORBIS transport model (© ORBIS). Node size and colour represent increasing physical distance over the network away from Rome. Edge colours represent edge type: red = sea, green = river, grey = road. Background © Openstreetmap.

Figure 3 represents this same network in a different way: we have thrown away all geographical locations and the map, and just positioned each dot based on how it is connected to all other dots (a so-called network topological layout). This alternative visualisation highlights different things. Notice how almost all lines at the centre of the picture are sea routes: this network representation reveals that the maritime connections draw all regions’ road networks together, and that they facilitate fast movement throughout the entire transport system.

This is just an abstract example, which highlights the kinds of general insights about Roman transport we can gain thanks to an Empire-wide model such as ORBIS. A more detailed model would allow us not only to derive such results with more accuracy, but also to better understand the role of particular regions’ road structures in giving rise to the Empire-wide patterns. Creating such a high-detail digital model involves a lot of work aggregating existing sources, but it is an entirely doable task. And clearly, such a valuable resource is worth pursuing, which I aim to do over the coming years at UrbNet.

Figure 3 © Tom Brughmans: Topological representation of ORBIS transport model (© ORBIS). See figure 2 for legend.

Relevant references:

Carreras, C. & P. De Soto. 2013. The roman transport network: A precedent for the integration of the European mobility Historical Methods 46: 117–33.

Scheidel, W. 2014. The Shape of the Roman World: modelling imperial connectivity Journal of Roman Archaeology 27: 7–32. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2242325.

Talbert, R.J.A. 2000. Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Open access resources and papers to keep you busy in quarantine

Everyone in the world is facing changes in their lives due to the current pandemic.  Modifying the way we work is but a small aspect of this.

In academia, some of us are perhaps able to continue research from home in some way or other. But one issue I hear over and over again is the limited access to scholarly literature now that libraries are closed. Some researchers are dependent on rare or non-digitised publications and catalogues. For other disciplines that rely almost exclusively on online content we face a different challenge: the pay wall. It is of course a massive shame much of our digitised academic literature is only available to those who pay expensive licenses.

But this post is not a rant about the pay wall (we can do that in the pub once those open up again). Instead, I would like to highlight a few open access online resources I make use of a lot in my research. These do not allow me to proceed with all of my research, but they definitely enable some of them and also offer a wealth of information to conjure up new research projects.

At the end of this post I will also add a list of 12 of my own publications which are published open access. Have fun reading them all 😀 Over the coming quarantine period, I hope to blog about some of those open access papers, and feel free to share your thoughts about them with me.

Here is a list of some online resources I use a lot. Because of what I do, most of them are related to classical antiquity, or archaeology (you can also find a pretty big list of open Roman data on my Project MERCURY website).

iDai.world: everything. publications, objects, archives, tutorials, datasets…

The archaeology data service: a huge number of great archaeological datasets, mostly from Britain

Pleiades: a gazetteer of ancient place names

Pelagios: gazetteers and linked open data

The digital atlas of Roman and Medieval civilisations: loads of Roman and Medieval data sets.

The ancient world mapping centre

Arachne: a vast collection of pictures and objects

Perseus: original and translated classics texts

Diogenes: original Classical texts

Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum: scans of the classics books cataloguing Latin epigraphy

Attalus: a bit old school, but I find the list of events for the Greek and Roman world per year very useful.

Livius: a useful encyclopaedia for the ancient world

And here is a list of my own open access publications, in case you’re into that sort of thing. Enjoy 🙂

  1. BRUGHMANS, T., Hanson, J. W., Mandich, M. J., Romanowska, I., Rubio-Campillo, X., Carrignon, S., Collins-Elliott, S., Crawford, K., Daems, D., Fulminante, F., Haas, T. de, Kelly, P., Moreno Escobar, M., Paliou, E., Ritondale, M. (2019). Formal modelling approaches to complexity science in Roman Studies: a manifesto. Theoretical Roman Archaeology Journal, 2, 1–19. https://doi.org/10.16995/traj.367
  2. BRUGHMANS, T., van Garderen, M., Gillings, M., (2018). Introducing visual neighbourhood configurations for total viewsheds. Journal of Archaeological Science 96, 14–25. https://doi.org/doi:10.1016/j.jas.2018.05.006
  3. BRUGHMANS, T., Waal, M. S. de, Hofman, C. L., & Brandes, U. (2018). Exploring transformations in Caribbean indigenous social networks through visibility studies: the case of late pre-colonial landscapes in East-Guadeloupe (French West Indies). Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 25(2), 475–519. https://doi.org/doi.org/10.1007/s10816-017-9344-0
  4. BRUGHMANS, T., & Brandes, U. (2017). Visibility network patterns and methods for studying visual relational phenomena in archaeology. Frontiers in Digital Humanities: Digital Archaeology, 4(17). https://doi.org/10.3389/fdigh.2017.00017
  5. BRUGHMANS, T., & Peeples, M. A. (2017). Trends in archaeological network research: a bibliometric analysis. Journal of Historical Network Research, 1.  https://doi.org/10.25517/jhnr.v1i1.10
  6. Marwick, B., J. d’Alpoim Guedes., C.M. Barton., L.A. Bates., M. Baxter., A. Beavan., E.A. Bollwerk., R.K. Bocinsky., T. BRUGHMANS., A.K. Carter., C. Conrad., D.A. Contreras., S. Costa., E.R. Crema., A. Daggett., B. Davies., B.L. Drake., T.S. Dye., P. France., R. Fullager., D. Giusti., S. Graham., M.D. Harris., J. Hawks., S. Heath., D. Huffer., E.C. Kansa., S.W. Kansa., M.E. Madsen., J. Melcher., J. Negre., F.D. Neiman., R. Opitz., D.C. Orton., P. Przystupa., M. Raviele., J. Riel-Salvatore., P. Riris., I. Romanowska., J. Smith., N. Strupler., I.I. Ullah., H.G. Van Vlack., N. VanValkenberg., E.C. Watrall., C. Webster., J. Wells., J. Winters. & C.D. Wren. 2017. Open Science in Archaeology SAA Archaeological Record 17: 8–14.
  7. Lozano, S., BRUGHMANS, T., Fulminante, F., & Prignano, L. (2017). Network Science Approaches for the Study of Past Long-Term Social Processes. A special edited research topic in Frontiers in Digital Humanities – Digital Archaeology.
  8. BRUGHMANS, T., & Poblome, J. (2016). MERCURY: an agent-based model of tableware trade in the Roman East. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation 19(1), 3 http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/19/1/3.html.
  9. Leidwanger, J., Knappett, C., Arnaud, P., Arthur, P., Blake, E., Broodbank, C., BRUGHMANS, T., Evans, T., Graham, S., Greene, E.S., Kowalzig, B., Mills, B., Rivers, R., Tartaron, T.F., Noort, R. Van De. (2014). A manifesto for the study of ancient Mediterranean maritime networks. Antiquity+.
  10. Verhagen, P., Brughmans, T., Nuninger, L., & Bertoncello, F. (2013). The long and winding road: combining least cost paths and network analysis techniques for settlement location analysis and predictive modelling. Proceedings of Computer Applications and Quantitative Techniques in Archaeology Conference 2012, Southampton, 357–366.
  11. Harris, L., Earl, G., Beale, N., Phethean, C., and BRUGHMANS, T. (2012). Building Personal Learning Networks through Event- Based Social Media: a Case Study of the SMiLE Project The Growth of the “Backchannel”. In PLE Conference Proceedings, Personal Learning Environment Conference 2012.
  12. BRUGHMANS, T., Isaksen, L., & Earl, G. (2012). Connecting the dots: an introduction to critical approaches in archaeological network analysis. In M. Zhou, I. Romanowska, Z. Wu, P. Xu, & P. Verhagen (Eds.), Proceedings of Computer Applications and Quantitative Techniques in Archaeology conference 2011, Beijing (pp. 359–369). Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Funded PhD, Lausanne, document analysis and digital humanities/classics

A really interesting job on the boundary between classics and digital humanities. Deadline April 30 2020.

via Matteo Romanello:

The DHLAB at EPFL in association with the Institut d’archéologie et des
sciences de l’antiquité (Lausanne) invites applications for full-time,
fully-funded PhD position within the EPFL PhD program in Digital


working at the intersection between Computer Science and Classics.

The successful candidate will develop their own research project around the
following topics: semantic information extraction by combining text-based
and image-based methods; alignment and document analysis of scholarly
publications (19c – 21c) characterised by complex layouts and rich visual
grammars; and the development of a representation model for texts with a
complex textual tradition.

The PhD thesis will be part of the research project “How does a classical
hero die in the digital age? Using Sophocles’ Ajax to create a commentary
on commentaries” (https://mromanello.github.io/ajax-multi-commentary/),
funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and led by Matteo
Romanello (University of Lausanne).


– Applicants should hold a master’s degree in Computer Science or
Digital Humanities.
– Experience with natural language processing/information extraction
(including machine learning approaches to it) is mandatory. Some
familiarity with textual criticism is desirable. PhD candidates will
further develop their analytical and methodological skills by
attending the EDDH doctoral school
– Fluent English; French and/or Ancient Greek/Latin is an asset. The
dissertation can be written in English or French.
– Interest in working in a collaborative, interdisciplinary and
international environment.
– Candidates of all nationalities are invited to apply; applications
from women are especially welcome.

What we offer:

– workplace: EPFL/UNIL campus

Starting date: 1st October 2020
Duration: 4 years
Supervisors: Matteo Romanello (UNIL) and Frederic Kaplan (EPFL)
Terms of employment: Fixed-term at 100% work rate. EPFL offers
internationally competitive salaries and generous research support.
Deadline for applications: April 30, 2020

Contact: For questions and/or expressions of interest, contact Matteo
Romanello matteo.romanello@epfl.ch

How to apply: via EPFL doctoral school online application
(https://isa.epfl.ch/imoniteur_ISAP/!farforms.htm?x=edoc) (please note that
only completed applications will be reviewed). For further information
about applying for a PhD at EPFL see PhD admission criteria & application

[Online at https://go.epfl.ch/phd-dhlab-ambizione]

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