Ancient road trip! If the Romans had Google Maps
In 20 BC. BC, Emperor Augustus had a giant golden spike installed next to the Temple of Saturn in the Forum Romanum. It was the Golden Mileor Golden Milestone, from which distances to cities throughout the empire were measured – and the true subject of the saying: omnes viae Romam ducunt (” All roads lead to Rome “).
It was a boast with more than a little truth. The vast network of well-designed and preferably straight roads of the Roman Empire was one of its main unifying characteristics, a fact of which Augustus himself was well aware. He devotes considerable efforts to his reform of the administration of the roads, makes build several roads of his pocket and creates a service of courier to optimize the utility of the network. Not for nothing did his litany of honorary titles include the title Curator Viarium (“Road steward”).
Rome’s roads truly bound the empire
At its height, Rome publicus curriculum (“public road network”) consisted of about 380 interconnected roads, totaling about 50,000 miles (about 80,000 km). Relays and milestones facilitated the movement of traders and soldiers. In other words, they were the vectors for the extension of Rome’s wealth and power. And they really bound the empire together. Find yourself anywhere on the network, from the frozen stretches of northern Brittany to the shores of the Persian Gulf, and you can easily find your way back to Rome.
Easily perhaps, but not necessarily quickly. Lacking motorized transport, the Romans could only travel as fast as their legs could carry them – their own or, if they could afford it, those of their horses. Unfortunately, Ancient Rome also lacked a decent internet connection, otherwise travelers could have researched the route and duration of their journey on OmnesViae.com, the online route planner the Romans never knew they needed. .
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OmnesViae relies heavily on Table of Peutingerianathe closest thing we have to a real itinerary (“road map”) of the Roman Empire. Ancient Rome certainly had maps, but none from that era have survived. Peutinger’s map, a 13th century scroll of parchment, is a copy of a much older map, which is only two “possibles” from the intendant of the roads himself: it may date from the 4th or 5th century, and this version may be a copy of a map prepared for Augustus around AD 1.
An argument for the Augustan connection: the map includes ancient Pompeii, destroyed by an eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 and never rebuilt, indicating an earlier origin. (Modern Pompeii was not founded until 1891.) Yet it also includes Constantinople and highlights Ravenna, suggesting that the map copied by this anonymous 13th-century monk was an updated 4th-century version. (earliest), or more likely the 5th, as it splashes the name France (France)—after the newly arrived Germanic tribe of the Franks—through what until then had been known exclusively as the Gallia (Gaul).
Roman maps were like… subway maps?
Regardless of its ultimate age, the shape of the Tabula – about a foot high and 22 feet long (33 cm by 6.75 m) – tells us that it cannot be topographically accurate. Instead, it focuses on presenting road corridors and connectors, with a few branches branching off through Persia to India. By sacrificing topographical accuracy for network connectivity, Peutinger’s map is eerily reminiscent (or should it be “predictive”) of the London Underground map and other modern underground maps.
Geolocating thousands of points from Peutinger, OmnesViae reformats the routes and destinations on scroll on a more familiar landscaped map. The shortest route between two (ancient) points is calculated using distances traveled on Roman roads rather than modern ones, also taking into account the rivers and mountains the network has to cross.
The Peutinger, despite all its historical value, is not complete: it lacks Great Britain and Spain. The roads of these Roman provinces have been reconstructed from other sources, including the Antonini Routea record (rather than a map) of Roman roads, way stations, and distances, possibly based on an empire-wide survey made in the time of Augustus.
Farewell, sacks of flour!
So what’s the longest distance you could travel on Roman roads? From Blatobulgium to Volocesia must be quite close.
Blatobulgium was a Roman fort in what is now Dumfriesshire, Scotland, at the northern terminus of Route 2 in the Antonine Route (also known as Watling Street). The name of the fort, of Breton origin, can mean something like “Flour Sacks” – a reference to the granaries of the place. It was occupied for about a century after AD 79.
Volocesia, placed by OmnesViae near the Kuwaiti island of Bubiyan, is sometimes identified with a modern place called Abu Halafiya, on the banks of the Tigris River in southern Iraq. According to OmnesViae, the distance between the two is MMMDCCLI (3,751) Roman miles (about 4,100 modern miles, or just over 5,600 km). This trip would take you CCLI (251) days.
This is not a road trip to be taken casually, but a life-changing (and possibly life-ending) journey. Come to think of it, the same could very well be said today of a walk (or even a horseback ride) from Scotland to Kuwait — and that is with Google Maps.
Strange Cards #1150
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