Google Maps for the Roman Empire

The last time I was in London, I was so tempted by all the ads for $30 flights to Rome — I could flit off for a weekend in Italy! I could also make a day trip by train to Edinburgh, which was a bit more expensive but a pleasant way to travel anyway. Let’s do a fantasy vacation and see what I could do. Here’s the Edinburgh trip:

What? The closest you can get me is to York, which the British manage to spell funny, and it’s going to take nine days? By donkey? British rail sure has gone downhill.

What about that weekend trip to Italy, instead? Cheapest route, please.

No direct flights available? I have to take a couple of sea cruises, another butt-busting ride on a donkey, and it’s going to take 37 days? I haven’t the slightest idea what the conversion rate for denarii is, so I’m not going to guess what it costs. Probably more than $30.

You’ve probably figured out that I wasn’t using Google Maps, but this cool webpage called Orbis, which uses a historical database to calculate routes and travel times to and from various destinations in 200CE. Apparently, there was no such thing as taking a three day vacation in a different country back then, when you either had to walk, ride a donkey, or pay a lot of money for a carriage.

I could see how fantasy novelists and fantasy gamers, as well as historians, could use this to get some perspective on how much work was required to move around in the ancient world.


  1. says

    I can picture an app that lets you mark where there are “freelance tax collectors” or plagues on the route.

    “This place has the best groats I’ve ever had. Fast service but rats and fleas everywhere.”

  2. submoron says

    I’m about 30 mins walk from the via Erminia and must admit that in our area parts of it are in dreadful condition. It’s a lot better further north and from Crux Roesia it’s pretty well all fine. I’m not sure how good LNER are nowadays.

  3. mordred says

    Somewhat smaller in scale than these tours, I’m living close to a once important trading route, dating back at least to the middle ages but might already have been used by the German Celts. I like to hike or bike along parts of that trail, which does not see much traffic these days, as it winds up and down the hills, following the highest ground in the area.
    The valleys where the more comfortable modern roads are used to be to swampy to be used for travelling all year round, so my ancestors had not only do without modern vehicles but also had to take a trail we would find unpleasant to tackle even when riding a bike or car.

  4. StevoR says

    Would be interesting to chart out here or on a later such historical travel estimator the travels of Marco Polo or Ibn Battuta ( ) or Juan Sebastián Elcano. Especially addingan odds of actually surviving the jurney and obstacles /people mostlikely tokill you en route.

    Elcano set out under Magellan’s command who left Spain with 5 ships and 270 people in 1519. Elcano commanded the only surviving vessel – the Victoria that the eponymous Aussie state was NOT named after – to complete that circumnavigation with its crew of 30 individuals in 1522.

    It would also be fascinating to follow & compare later historical expeditions such as Rene Caillié’s quest to be tehfirst European to enter Timbuktu ( ) or in, for me, more local journeys of “discovery” such as the doomed footsteps of Burke & Wills traversing Oz from South to North, the final Edmund Kennedy expedition into Cape York in 1848 and the last exploring trip of Ludwig Leichhardt also in 1848 with its 100% mortality rate and unknown fate albiet actually calculating that one would be a trifle on the tough side. ( See : )

  5. StevoR says

    Sigh. I should be fully asleep but am only about two thirds asleep currently so ..yeah.

    Anyhow typo fixes (?) :

    Especially adding an odds of actually surviving the journey and obstacles / people most likely to kill you en route* feature.

    .. such as Rene Caillié’s quest to be the first European to enter Timbuktu ..

    For those likely nyumerous unfamilar with “Aussie” explorers

    Kennedy’s last expedition :

    Burke & Wills expedition :

    & not someone who reached Oz :

    Bceause Europeans didn’t know about it then – probly? Jansz being the first certain Ëuropean “discoverer” in 1606 FWIW.

    As a kid I went through a phase of being extremely obsessed by those old explorers and what they did and where they went and what they “discovered.”. Still huge respect fro them for what they went through and endured although now tempered with a lot more critical thought so, anyhow.

    .* Should en route be italicised for foreign language (latin) or has it been sufficientkly englishised here?

  6. Artor says

    Remember to bring some company with you to break bread on the campaign, since we’re talking about shared roots.

  7. weekendeditor says

    A denarius was basically a day’s wage for a skilled worker. So, it was a considerable amount!

  8. tacitus says

    Game of Thrones (the show) was good at conveying the amount of travel time involved in getting around their world, at least until their teleportation system became fully operational in the last couple of seasons.

  9. opposablethumbs says

    Looks like you can get a little closer to Edinburgh in Orbis, PZ – try Coriospitum, Segedunum or Luguvalium a bit further West. Not into Scotland, but a bit closer to the Scottish border at least :-)

    And if you were rich enough (and had the stamina) to be able to travel on horseback without a break, hiring fresh horses at every relay, you could get almost all the way across the Empire in less than a month! Amazing! As long as you only travel in Summer, of course.

  10. KG says

    One of the historical might-have-beens I wonder about is why the Romans (or for that matter the Chinese) never developed a systematic rapid long-range communication system. Three possible pre-industrial approaches are signal-towers, with visual signals using flags, smoke or mirrored sunlight by day, fire by night, and some semaphore-like code; carrier pigeons; and instruments such as drums or trumpets (some West African groups used so-called “talking drums”, which made use of the tonal nature of their languages, and a lot of repetition and restatement). There was apparently some use of carrier pigeons in the ancient world, flags and trumpets were used in battle, and signal fires were occasionally used to convey a single pre-arranged message over long distances, but why was there never an “Imperial Signals Corps”? It would surely have been useful to the Emperor to know what was happening in distant provinces in hours (or perhaps a few days) rather than in the weeks necessary for a mounted messenger to arrive. Such a service would have needed considerable organisation and infrastructure, but those are things the Romans were notably good at.

  11. robro says

    Of course, some of us are in North America so we can’t start the journey at all as North America didn’t exist at that time. I’m sure North and South America were created by God sometime during the late Roman or Medieval period to confound future human explorers.

  12. calgor says

    Given that British Rail has been dead for 25 years, 9 days for London to Edinburgh would appear pretty good.

    Though… after my recent experience with the the Conservative replacement rail services (introduced 1997), my subjective observations conclude that 9 days for London to Edinburgh by rail today is very optimistic.

  13. opposablethumbs says

    @calgor #14 you also have to be a bit flush to be able to afford even thinking about it :-(
    The pricing of intercity public transport here in UKnia is about as un-green as they can make it 😡

  14. pilgham says

    Most of the trip you show from London to York is by sea, down the Thames, up the coast and up the Humber(?) Sounds very restful. The final bit could be by boat on the Ouze, but I can’t get the map zoomed in enough. Segedunum at Hadrian’s Wall is on the coast, up a little ways from the Humber.

  15. jenorafeuer says

    And, of course, the more people and supplies you have to carry with you, the longer it takes.

    As far as I can tell, army travel times was pretty much the primary reasons the original Roman Republic collapsed and Caesar’s military coup took over and made it an Empire instead. The Romans didn’t have a permanent military: armies were hired/conscripted on a year-by-year basis when needed by Senators who were given money and authority to do so. When a war needed to be fought, someone would go out with a few officers and trainers, usually just after Spring planting season had happened so the farmers would be less busy and more willing to send sons off to make cash in other ways, and they’d recruit people along the way as they marched off to the front, fought their battles, and then marched back again.

    The thing is, there are two times when farms need ‘all hands on deck’: spring planting and fall harvest. Back when the Republic was small enough that an army could march out to the frontier, fight, and get back home entirely between those two times, there wasn’t a problem. Sure, some people would die, but their families would be compensated. But the moment the frontier got far enough away that people going off to war would be guaranteed to not be back before the harvest season, or would have to leave before planting season… then the willingness to send people off to fight dropped rather significantly.

    By Caesar’s time where armies would be spending well over a year in the field and miss two or more critical seasons… well, Caesar was a personable sort, willing to dine with his disaffected farmboys and listen to their complaints. It shouldn’t be a surprise that by the end of the tour Caesar’s men were more loyal to him than to Rome… which was exactly the situation that the ‘no standing armies’ rule had been created to avoid.

    So, yeah, travel times caused the political downfall of the Roman Republic. Even faster signalling systems wouldn’t have helped much.

  16. F.O. says

    TBH, given the mess that is trains in EU, I wasn’t too surprised by your initial day estimates.

    If I want to travel from Goteborg, where I live, to Milano, where my family is, either I take a flight and am done in 5 hours, either I take 3 days of train and spend five times the cost of the flight. >_<

  17. F.O. says

    I should specify, trains across EU countries.
    Within the same country, trains are usually fine.

  18. Tethys says

    A far faster route from Londinium to Rome would involve crossing the Channel, boating up the Rhine, hiking over the alpine pass, taking another boat ride down the Rhône, and then you could have an option of traveling by sea or Roman road that leads to Rome.

    Trier aka Augusta Treverorum was there long before Rome arrived.
    wiki says~
    Founded by the Celts in the late 4th century BC as Treuorum and conquered 300 years later by the Romans, who renamed it Augusta Treverorum in 16 CE (“The City of Augustus among the Treveri”), Trier is considered Germany’s oldest city. It was a spa town destination for Romans.

  19. ajbjasus says


    I just travelled from Leeds to London first class for £ 90 return.

    Included a nice bacon sandwich and hot drinks.

    One train every 30 mins, 200 miles in 2.15 hours.

    Sadly had to
    walk across London as there was a tube strike.

  20. John Morales says

    Apparently, there was no such thing as taking a three day vacation in a different country back then, when you either had to walk, ride a donkey, or pay a lot of money for a carriage.

    Depends. If one lived less than a mile from the border, travelling one mile towards the border would put them in a different country.

  21. kingoftown says

    If you asked nicely in Pictish (and what the Romans said about Druids engaging in human sacrifice isn’t true) I’m sure you’d get a warm welcome over the border.

  22. StevoR says

    @ robro :

    Of course, some of us are in North America so we can’t start the journey at all as North America didn’t exist at that time. I’m sure North and South America were created by God sometime during the late Roman or Medieval period to confound future human explorers.

    Oz too along with Aotearoa (NZ), Papua New Guinea & other Pacific & Indian ocean islands. Of course, in reality, these places had their own remarkable people and journeys and empires. Be interesting to see a global one here and compare say Incans and Mayans and even Australian Indigenous peoples to the Romans and their empire.

  23. John Morales says

    North America didn’t exist at that time

    Oz too along with Aotearoa (NZ), Papua New Guinea & other Pacific & Indian ocean islands

    Heh. I know precisely what both those comments are trying to communicate, and I also know what it is that’s actually being said.

    You know what also did not exist? “Human Rights” as we know them.

    (Aah, those were the days)

  24. chrislawson says

    It wasn’t the Britons who spelt York funny! God knows what the true original Celtic name was — modern Irish spells it Eabhrac and in Welsh it’s Efrog — but it was Latinised to Eboracum, then after the Romans left, the invading Angles retrofitted a folk etymology to make it Eoforīc (wild boar town). Then when the Vikings took over and called it Jórvík (wild boar bay).

    “York” is the result of several waves of invaders plus simplification over time. The original Britonnic tribes were squeezed up in the west half of England well away from York when all those changes happened. (It’s good to recall the many, many waves of invasion next time some English tosser goes on about racial purity.)

  25. efogoto says

    A friend of mine and I were talking about advances in transportation over the last couple of centuries, which reminded him of a claim he’d heard: George Washington never traveled faster than Julius Caesar ever had.

  26. Pierce R. Butler says

    KG @ # 12: … why was there never an “Imperial Signals Corps”?

    The Persian Empire had an extensive semaphor-tower system which worked pretty well. Perhaps the Romans didn’t emulate it because the Persians cultivated pretty boys and used a lot of perfume; or Rome had more revolts and coup attempts that would make the system more vulnerable; or just plain Not-Invented-Here Syndrome.

    efogoto @ # 27: George Washington never traveled faster than Julius Caesar ever had.

    I dunno: both rode in sailing ships, and 18 centuries of refinement of design and technique probably made the smooth stretches of GW’s one visit to the Carib more rapid than JC’s jaunts across the Med and the Channel.

  27. John Morales says

    Pierce responding to efogoto:

    I dunno: both rode in sailing ships […]

    Heh. Exactly. That’s the very point!

  28. Tethys says

    A quick survey on the speed of sailing ships confirms that the top speed of Roman and early colonial vessels was 4-8 knots. By contrast Viking ships averaged 8 -11 and could reach 15 in favorable winds. I’m sure smaller craft could be faster but they would lack ocean going capacity.

  29. Silentbob says

    @ 22 John Morales

    If one lived less than a mile from the border, travelling one mile towards the border would put them in a different country.

    And once again, commenters are left in utter awe at the brilliance and astuteness of Morales.

    (But seriously – how has this idiotic troll not been banned yet?)

  30. John Morales says

    Heh. An actual gadfly actually bites. This one just buzzes.

    Hey, Bob the not Silent, did you know ‘mile’ comes from the Roman mille passus, that is, one thousand paces?

  31. Pierce R. Butler says

    Tethys @ # 30: … the top speed of Roman and early colonial vessels was 4-8 knots.

    So no real ship progress for circa 1800 years?!? I guess they concentrated on making ’em larger and more seaworthy.

    KG @ # 31: … a good reference?

    That depends on your estimation of Tom Holland. From his Persian Fire, pp 172-173:

    … the true scale of the Great King’s empire and the demands upon his attention were utterly beyond the comprehension of most Greeks. Cleomenes, informed during the course of his abortive interview with Aristagoras that Susa lay more than three months’ march beyond the sea, had leapt up in startled disbelief; and yet, east of Susa, the Great King’s dominions took a further three months to cross in turn. …

    Staggering as the distances within his dominion were, so was the ingenuity with which his servants worked to shrink them. No one could fail to be dazzled by the speed of the Persians’ communications. Fire beacons, flaring from lookout to lookout, might keep the Great King abreast of an incident almost as it brewed. In the more mountainous regions of the empire, and particularly within Persia itself, where the valleys offered excellent acoustics, more detailed information might be brought by aural relay. The Persians, schooled “in the arts of breath control, and the effective use of their lungs,” were well known to have the loudest voices in the world; many a message echoing from cliffs and ravines, had been brought within the day over terrain that a man on foot would have struggled to cover within a month.

    So I misremembered about the purported “semaphore towers” as such; prob’ly confused ’em with Discworld’s Lord Vetinari’s clacks network…

  32. Pierce R. Butler says

    John Morales @ # 33: … ‘mile’ comes from the Roman mille passus, that is, one thousand paces…

    A single pace spanned 5.28 feet? No wonder the legions conquered so much real estate!

  33. John Morales says

    Pierce, from Wikipedia: “[…] a thousand paces as measured by every other step—as in the total distance of the left foot hitting the ground 1,000 times.”

    (For them, it was 5,000 feet)

  34. KG says

    Pierce R. Butler@34,
    Thanks! I’ve got that book, so I’ll check Holland’s source. I’m not wholly confident of his historical accuracy!

  35. Pierce R. Butler says

    KG @ # 37: I’m not wholly confident of his historical accuracy!

    Can’t blame ya there: Holland is a novelist-writing-history, not a credentialed historian.

    My main unanswered question from that book: why did the messenger sent from Athens to Sparta asking for reinforcements run all the way? Did nobody in the greater metropolitan Athens area have a horse?