Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
A subway-style diagram of the major Roman roads, based on the Empire ca. 125 AD (sashat.me)
752 points by curtis on June 8, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 101 comments

Tabula Peutingeriana is a road map of Europe which is a copy of a Roman original thought to have been based on a map prepared by Agrippa.


It also has a 'subway' feel, given that not much attention has been paid to getting the shapes correct.

Any idea what the small circular lake with the island in the middle, at bottom right might be? That's an interestingly precise shape.

(It's surrounded by labels for desert, but I can't make out the labels on the island itself.)

If you look at the map, you can see Samosata up north on the Euphrates, Ressaina between Euphrates and Tigris and Zeugma to the west. Tharrana is next to the circular lake with the island.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samosata is the modern city of Samsat https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhesaina is Ressaina (see http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:19...) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeugma,_Commagene Zeugma is near modern-day Gaziantep

The location of historic Tharrana is apparently not finally known. Harran, Turkey is one possibility mentioned at http://www.euratlas.net/cartogra/peutinger/10_mesopotamia/me....

Since all reference points are in Turkey or Syria, best guess is that the cirular lake with the island is Al Jaboul Lake, 36.024360"N, 37.610087"E. It used to be a tributary to the Euphrates but no source I could find states exactly when that changed.

Good guess!

Here's an alternate proposal: Raqqah. Check it out on the map:


It obviously isn't in a lake, but it looks like the the tributary coming down from Harran goes both west and east of Raqqah, making it an island of sorts. The shape made by the this "island" is reasonably close to circular. Finally, per the map, it's southeast of Zuegma and south of Harran.

Obviously hypothesising wildly, but this map is just way too much fun.

That map is just awsome in so many ways. Where is Denmark and Sweden though? Romans just didn't think there was anything up there? Nothing? Way too cold up there for people to live?

They didn't really get past the Germanic tribes and stopped expansion: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Teutoburg_Forest

Presumably also because there wasn't much there at the time that would've allowed them to collect taxes.

> They didn't really get past the Germanic tribes and stopped expansion They were unable to find a new natural border that was as easily defendable as the Rhine-Danube combination.

> Presumably also because there wasn't much there at the time that would've allowed them to collect taxes. The Romans liked to portray Germania as poor and inhospitable. Part of the reason for that could be cognitive dissonance for never having conquered it.

Or because it really was poor and inhospitable. Until the middle ages, when new agricultural tools were invented, Germanic territories projected very little power, and relied on periodic aggression to survive in typical nomadic way. This changed when they could actually grow stuff in more reliable ways, producing surpluses to trade and establishing stable kingdoms.

In other words: Germanic tribes were using the defensive strategy of not preparing wheat fields for invaders to harvest during campaigning season. Kind of equivalent to cyberdefense by pen and paper.

Half of Cesar's Gallic War seems to be more than half about grain logistics (huge efforts to start the campaigns jus a few weeks earlier) and ripeness of the local crops. And that is even while he was likely trying to downplay all the robbery.

Romans didn't just pillage, they also planted stuff like chestnut trees as they moved up and down Europe, so that they could use them in following years. Regardless, I find it difficult to believe that already-struggling tribes would further starve themselves just in case this or that opponent tried to invade. It's much more likely that they simply weren't able to grow much more in what was a hard soil, without the stronger plows that would be used later on to break such soil more effectively; especially when a lot of these people were still basically nomadic.

Production beyond the Rhine simply was not great even in times of peace, before the middle ages. Rome ended up controlling most of the German territory through client states anyway, even sending troops for punitive raids and propping up this or that friendly ruler, so they knew the economic potential of those lands pretty well; they just renounced full invasion because it was not worth the risk. At a time when they were already hitting what we could call scaling limits in their ability to mobilise troops over long distances, there was little appetite for going further North, where clearly there were no riches waiting for them. A similar assessment was done for Scotland, and rightly so.

> Regardless, I find it difficult to believe that already-struggling tribes would further starve themselves just in case this or that opponent tried to invade.

Allow me to apologize for my lack of precision, I never intend to imply that they deliberately avoided "invader-friendly" crops. Wheat just had not spread that far, due to climate (not yet sufficiently adapted by breeding?) and/or cultural reasons: nomadism (well, more effect than cause I guess) and the fact that large scale forest clearances are the type of project that can only happen in presence of big organizations that are stable enough to enable such long term investments. Many German settlements still carry the name of the medieval nobleman who commissioned the original clearance (names ending in -rode, -roda, -reuth and probably some more regional variations), which implies that before the clearance, there was only wilderness.

Not to mention the fact that by the third century, if a general controlled enough troops, they would (and did) overthrow the Emperor, so the Emperor tended to run around with one large army putting out fires, which was inefficient.

And many of those soldiers where mercenaries from the outside, who, by serving the empire, where put in the position to loot the empire's superior agriculture.

This went on for many generations, it's not a "last days before the ostrogoths" exception. Competing "emperor startups" in an empire representing pretty much the entire known civilized world, surrounded by mostly harmless outlaw wilderness. It must have felt as natural and "could the world even be not like this?" to the people populating that world as nation states, competing militarily, economically and in the Olympics seem natural to us.

Well, the reason that Germania (and Britain north of Hadrian's Wall, the available sources are better for Britain) was never conquered was that they were so inhospitable. When your army has to support itself off plunder there needs to be plunder to begin with. It just couldn't be done in such thinly populated areas.

Roman difficulties advancing into the Germanic areas are covered in https://www.volksliederarchiv.de/als-die-roemer-frech-geword...

An abbreviated version may be found in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eS5Asjvhx6I :)

Thule is marked on the map away past Ireland, and is apparently identified as Norway nowadays.


I love the Wall there on Britannia...

"There is no land beyond us and even the sea is no safe refuge when we are threatened by the Roman fleet....We are the last people on earth, and the last to be free: our very remoteness in a land known only to rumour has protected us up till this day...."

"the Greenbelt" amplifying the fact that civilization used to spread more in east-west direction then North-South

I find it interesting they put Albania into Persia, not between Dalmatia and Macedonia/Lepirum Novum.

Dear Sasha,

this is brilliant. I know the perfect person to give your map as a present and will buy the high-quality PDF no matter what. But let's try an experiment!

Can you name a price for setting the map free? By which I mean, releasing it and all source materials under a Creative Commons Share-Alike license of your choosing?

If so, then, dear Internet, let's crowdfund at https://etherpad.wikimedia.org/p/... (just based on the honor system, from both sides). If you love Sasha's subway-style diagram of the major Roman roads as much as I do, then consider pledging a certain amount at that Etherpad for setting the map free.

Cheers, Ingo

Update: Sasha replied to a private mail of mine in a very kind way. He won't set the map free right now. Please still consider supporting him if you like his work. :-)

Selling copies to people who want it is more efficient than the crowdfunding approach: the people get their maps right away, and the author gets money right away. There's less friction in this approach.

Of course, we don't get the source code, which is a loss to some people, but all that extra "friction" involved in the crowdfunding path is why simply selling stuff directly is an easier way to make money. It also requires less guesswork on the part of the author as to how much they may be able to extract from the work, in total.

It's strange there are so many coastal routes. Shipping virtually anything by sea has been cheaper than moving it over land for a long time, and that probably includes troops. I would have expected roads to connect coastal settlements inland, not along the coast.

Going off of much later European experience, this depended on the type of traffic.

Despite the speed and cost/weight advantages of sea travel, the Habsburg Spanish empire maintained a land route between their possessions in Italy and the Netherlands [1]. Road travel had the advantage of reliability - more resistant to both natural disasters and to enemy action in war. This was very important for moving military forces through a large empire, which was a very important consideration for a polity like Rome which was constantly moving troops around to fight some revolt, war of expansion, or war of defense. There were also civilian applications - for small, expensive, non-time-sensitive cargoes.

In general, see [2] if you're interested in the transportation network of ancient time - see what combinations of weather, transport preferences (passenger carriage vs. donkey, for example, or safer daylight-only sailing vs. more efficient all-day sailing) push traffic onto coastal roads.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Road

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

EDIT: For example, let's take the example of travel from Aelia Capitolina (Jerusalem) to Tyrus (Tyre/Sur). For a military application (travelling at military march speeds (60km/day) but restricting yourself to daylight sailing for fear of shipwrecks) relative travel speeds depend on weather - roads are better in winter, sea in summer. If you add in transfer time and cost (finding or rendezvousing with ships, cross-loading cargo, hiring porters) then the relative transfer times and costs change yet again.

In general, roads were better for: shorter trips, where transfer times and costs dominate; trips involving faster means of land travel, such as military forced marches, passenger travel by carriage, or in the extreme message passing by horse relay; and trips where protection from weather and enemy action (pirate or military) was paramount. Whereas bulk cargo of relatively low value, such as the massive grain shipments from Egypt to Rome, was only practical by sea.

The big other military advantage to roads is you may simply not have enough ships available to move the massive army you put together when you decide you've had just about enough of those pesky Gauls.

Settlements tended to concentrate along the cost and other water edges, for reasons of food availability, soil fertility, and access to the water base transport you mention. Existing local routes between them would have been used and upgraded as needed rather than building new links except where the time+capital expenditure made it worth while.

Settlements concentrated along the coast were mostly colonies of former naval powers, like Greek states, Phoenicians, and Carthage. These liked to settle close to shore but weren't connected by roads due to political reasons until submission to Rome.

It took hundreds of years for sea voyages at scale across the med to become a thing, as technology improved. The reach of the empire in this diagram is mostly due to Roman sea supremacy, but it was still difficult, expensive and prone to piracy/uppity city states.

If you're interested I highly recommend this book: https://www.amazon.co.uk/d/cka/Sea-Civilization-Maritime-His...

Romans were notoriously poor sailors. Even when they acquired total domination over all sides of the Med (through sheer stubbornness and massive production of naval units, so that they could move enough land troops to the other side rather than trying to win naval battles), they couldn't completely eradicate piracy; this means sea routes were cheaper but not necessarily safer.

Also, I believe coastal routes were mostly connecting town to town in organic ways. An inland route was usually planned explicitly, and hence named for the consul or emperor who approved it, whereas it looks to me like the coastal routes took more topographical names (adriatica etc) or ended up as extensions of original inland routes (aurelia).

they couldn't completely eradicate piracy

I understand that fighting piracy was a political problem. Pirates were mobile, and while any commander could suppress piracy in any area those not caught would move elsewhere and return when the commander's imperium was over and he had to return to Rome to give account.

It was feared that an admiral who was given an imperium for the whole of the Mediterranean would have such power that he would use it for political ands and upturn the system. So piracy grew with Roman hegemony, and when the seas had become so unsafe that the security of the grain supply was a political issue something had to be done. It turned out that the fears were well-founded, Pompeius was given his imperium maius over all the Mediterranean and 50 miles inland, he squashed piracy, and the First Triumvirate followed.

He said he made up some of the names, so I wouldn't try to make any sense of it without great care.

I'm not that sure it has been such a long time. People used galleys at this time which weren't that good to transport merchandise on sea.

I'm off the impression that the Romans didn't travel by sea often, based on accounts of the cruising of the English channel; they seemed terrified of the sea. Not exactly sure why they didn't do this more often; maybe their strategy was to move by land and secure a spot channel as they went?

Sailing on the Mediterranean, which is very nearly an inland sea and has almost negligible tides, is an entirely different proposition from sailing on the Channel, which acts as a funnel for storms barrelling through from the Atlantic to the North Sea and vice versa. For an extreme example, see the Great Storm of 1987 [0], where winds reached hurricane force.

The Royal Yachting Association (UK governing body for all sailing sports) used to, and for all I know still does, regard the Med as inland waters, at least inasmuch as a dinghy-sailing instructor's certificate gained on the Med would not bear the coastal endorsement it would have had it been gained on the UK coast.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Storm_of_1987

I don't know much about the Roman history, but a thought: There's a difference between crossing a sea and traveling on the sea skirting the coast (keeping the coastline always in sight).

Shipping large amounts of grain from Egypt was vital for the livelihood of the populace of Rome the city, so there was some maritime know-how in the empire.

Except in this case, you can see Britain from France.


Perhaps it's a matter of scale? What if not everyone could afford the upfront cost of owning a boat?

Shipping was very much a commercial activity in the Roman Empire - you paid a ship owner for a spot. There were, however, pretty considerations pushing traffic to coastal roads - see my sibling comment.

Here is a github-hosted copy that isn't subject to the hosting rate-limits until we sort out what to do:


Edit: I am not the author, I'm too old for this :)

It's really lovely. Thanks for doing this. I contributed and look forward to hanging it up once I figure out printing.

How long did it take?

See also Orbis: http://orbis.stanford.edu/

Unfortunately, they've decided that Firefox 53 is an "older browser." There needs to be some ECMAScript versioning, some isFeatureAvailable() so that we can stop having this problem.

The older version of the map reminds me of Civ 1.

It gets worse. Per comments on https://github.com/webcompat/web-bugs/issues/172 if you just spoof the Chrome or Safari UA string the site works fine...

Very happily my hometown of Cambodunum is there, feeling strangishly proud. Sadly in 125AD we we're no longer a capital of Raetia, lost that to Augusta Vindelicorum.

I feel strangely proud as well. My city never appears on HN, but Poetovio appears on here and it has only 20K people nowadays. In the Roman times, it had an estimated 40k population and it was a military camp IIRC.

My hometown of Curia is there as well.

Although, doesn't make me especially proud, it has been an uninterrupted population history that starts way before the Romans. :-)

Not much of Roman ruins to see nowadays unfortunately.

I just recently visited ruins of Tanais (most north-east town on this map) and it was also nice to find it here :) Feeling all that historical connection...

That's some coincidence. I'm from about 20 min south of there (Im.). I was surprised to see KE on there.

20 minutes by foot or horse?

Meeting on HN :-) Hi! I once had a girlfriend in Sonthofen.

Mirror of image https://imgur.com/a/VPtUV

I want to play MiniMetro on this map with Roman chariots instead of subway cars.

Great to see the "major" city of Aventicum indirectly mentioned on HN :-) We can still enjoy the amphitheatre for open air concerts and opera.

ASK HN: what's the service you use, ideally over the web, where you send a high-quality picture file and they return beautifully printed, large format, frameable prints?

Just contributed and need to send this files somewhere for printing and then find a framer. Thoughts?

I've used Canvas Press several times with good results. http://www.canvaspress.com/

RedBubble is where I buy hi quality artists' prints

I believe Level Frames will both print and frame.

Thanks, @pier25 @jdhawk!

Tangential: George Dow[0] and Harry Beck[1] created the 'Tube map'.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Dow [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Beck

Do you find subway-style to be a good method of conveying information? People seem to have agreed that the use of distinct colors is good, but are there more efficient ways of conveying the same info, for a given size? For example London tube map doesn't waste space to show actual distance and I am looking for other ideas on how to compress this.

The designer suggests it was done for aesthetic reasons. More importantly it held my interest a lot longer than a typical map might have, and thus I now know more about Ancient Roman roads!

I can't stand these subway maps. I carry a copy of the geographic tube map on my phone. I want to relate the locations to reality, and these subway maps fail to do that. I could possibly go along with a geographic map that changed scale toward the outside, as long as it included contour lines to indicate the reducing scale.

What exactly is the benefit of a subway diagram over a normal map? I suppose the only benefit is that it abstracts away geometry and relative distances, so it basically discards information. This could be useful, to make smaller distances more readable in a crowded subway.

But in this case ... what is the use of such a map?

ordered! Super awesome work, love it! Question: Did you build this programmatically querying Orbis or just drew it by hand?

As for the layout I'd guess hand-drawing. It's not that large a graph to begin with and subway-style layout algorithms tend to be horribly slow.

Sadly I've found when developing tube maps that you need to tweak them to get them to look right.

This is really neat. It'd be awesome to see famous people's hometown and traveling routes on top of this.

Copied the one in my cache to https://imgur.com/a/VPtUV

Unfortunately that seems to be missing the main bit one would care about, the actual map!

Outside of the cached version, the map image itself seems to be accessible: https://sashat.me/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Rome_III-01-1.p...

I uploaded it to imgur just in case: https://i.imgur.com/4Ozk1tF.png

Also dead:

> The web service to this account has been limited temporarily!

This is the link you are looking for:


Maybe it's time when automatic archive links are added in HN. Maybe just below the posted link?

Being hosted on #HN has killed it

I've started to see more and more of these "Tube map" style maps, and I've started to think about how one would go about making one pragmatically. Any thoughts or suggestions?

Vienna seems very off?

It is - on the map it refers to the modern-day Vienne, near Lyon (Lugdunum): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vienne,_Is%C3%A8re

Back then present-day Vienna was called Vindobona, a small fort next to Carnuntum ;)

Many places in Gallia are off: Vienna is one; Augustodunum is certainly not at the same latitude as Lutetia; Genava is most certainly not south of Lugdunum; etc. Cool map otherwise !

Anyone else see the basis for a really cool game here?

Might help to add present-day names as well? I found it hard to research some of these on Wikipedia...

Do the colors represent anything? It feels like they could have continued on in many places.

Different color means different road. The angles are not based on reality, so you can't really say that the roads 'continue' based on this image, they are merely starting/ending in the same city.

mirror: https://sashatrubetskoy.github.io/romanmap/ (mods: can you update the link?)

Should do this for the planets in Star Trek Federation.

It's more like a Highspeed Railway System Map. ;-)

Any mirrors? The site appears to be down.

The commute is just brutal.

florentia is where its at.

truly brilliant.


"The web service to this account has been limited temporarily!"

HN hug of death strikes again?

I'm on vacation in Lutetia right now!

Why is Jerusalem not marked? Was the city not big enough at the time?

It is marked, as Aelia Capitolina. It was renamed after the emperor Hadrian razed the city and expelled its Jewish population in the aftermath of a revolt.

> The way we travel on roads is very different from rail, which is a slight flaw in the concept of the map

You said it, author!

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact