A Review of the Orbis, the Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World

Orbis, the Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World. http://orbis.stanford.edu/ Stanford University, Created and Managed by Walter Scheidel, Elijah Meeks and Karl Grossner. Reviewed February 6, 2019.


Orbis, the Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World (http://orbis.stanford.edu/). Orbis is a website and online tool for illustrating the geographic constraints that governed the efficiency of Roman communications and transportation. By calculating the distances between various points of interest in the Roman world and applying typical principles of topography and meteorology, the Orbis series of maps can help viewers better understand the topographic and geographic conditions of the Roman Empire, and the ways in which people and goods were transported at the time.


The information presented on the website is conclusive historical data, so there is minimal room for misinterpretation of the raw data. However, when implementing different seasonal factors, there is no probability tool factored into the presentation. Therefore, the tool cannot account for specific weather conditions that were particular to individual years and instead relies on historical trends discovered through data analysis. This is a purely academic tool. As such, the interpretive point of view is that of a scholar, and uses appropriate language and a clean user interface to communicate this information.


The user interface and information architecture of Orbis are functional and easily recognizable. The website is barren of flair and complex design elements, and so comes across as very scholarly in nature. There is an easy to navigate top bar and side bar. The top bar is more of a luxury than a necessity. I imagine its primary purpose is to  give the button used to run a simulation a more prominent position on the page. Regardless, the structure of the site is easy to follow and uses common and simple language. All links are functioning and the site feels complete. The site is inaccessible to those who are vision impaired without a third party application, and the tool itself is only useful to those with vision and a comfortable understanding of English.


The project itself would be difficult to understand for someone who doesn’t have a good understanding of history and cartography, let alone geographic models. The Orbis model allows for scholars interested in the topic to apply a number of modifiers to traditional maps of the Roman world, and does so spectacularly. It is a very niche need for a very niche audience.

Digital Media

The technology behind the project isn’t exactly new, but it is used very effectively to convey information to the audience. The site and the contents themselves would be perfectly comfortable in the early 2000’s. The digital media itself is not featured on the websites landing page in a prominent

position, which was surprising to me. The project is unique in that it uses a very specific geographic tool to convey data that other mediums of conveying information would struggle to do. The written word, audio and video could all accomplish the same task as Orbis, but would require much more effort and be far less accessible to a layperson.


The Orbis project was created by a team of historians in collaboration. These historians were centered in Stanford University, and the two main developers of the project are Walter Scheidel and Elijah Meeks. Scheidel collected the raw geographic data and Meeks implemented the data into the GIS system that Orbis uses


Orbis is an incredibly useful tool for those who are studying the topography, meteorology and geography of the Roman Empire as well as scholars who are interested in visual ways of interpreting data. The academic nature of the site is an obstacle for those without experience in the aforementioned disciplines, so the intended audience is quite clear. The skills used to create Orbis would be of great use to public historians, and with language tailored to a more broad demographic, could be a very influential way of representing data to those of different academic and technical backgrounds.

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