Bored at work? Here’s a Google-style digital map of the Roman Empire to play with

The heartland of the Roman Empire. Image: Screenshot of the Digital Map of the Roman Empire.

If you're anything like me, you'll have spent many years fretting over a single vexed question: What's the best route from Camulodunum to Korinion? Should you take the direct route via Verlamium? Or the more southerly one, through Londinium? It's a tricky one.

Well worry no longer – for the Roman Empire has finally joined the 21st century. This map is a sort of Google Maps of antiquity. It’s fully searchable, and comes with multiple zoom levels.

You can see the entire sweep of the empire, with its provinces marked out (you can click to expand the map):

Or you can zoom right in to see its heartland, complete with cemeteries (the tomb stones), villas (semi-circles) and temples (stars):

You can even search for specific places:

Sadly, it doesn't go down to street map level – though that’s probably more a reflection of the limits of the data than the limits of the cartographer’s ambition.


The map is the work of Johan Åhlfeldt, a researcher at Sweden's Lund University, who built it using sources including the  Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World and the Pleides dataset. In all it has eight different zoom levels, with a ninth covering the regions (Italy, Greece and points east) where data is richest.

The Roman Empire, of course, was around for a while: there were emperors in the west for half a millennium, and the Roman Republic had been conquering territory well beyond Italy for a couple of centuries even before Augustus got his hands on power. Maps tend to change rather a lot over that many centuries.

But as Åhlfeldt explains here, his map doesn’t reflect a particular point in history:

“In a departure from the original Barrington Atlas and the Pleiades dataset, our digital map does not try to implement time periods when places are attested, nor does it speculate on the certainty (or otherwise) of locations: only precise locations from the Pleiades dataset can be rendered on the map. Nevertheless, since many places lacked precise coordinates and/or feature data, a good deal of effort has been made to improve the data.”

That said, the names and borders of Roman provices changed rather a lot of over time – best we can tell, the ones shown on Åhlfeldt's map date from the early 2nd century CE.

Oh, and my quandary about getting from Camulodunum (Colchester) to Korinion (Cirencester)?

It's a longer route if you head south, but the roads are better quality.

Next time you're in Roman Britain, you can thank me.

You can see the whole map here. Check it out.

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How the big freeze of 1962-3 killed off Britain’s canals

Little Venice, London. This was actually 2010, but you get the idea. Image: Getty.

The English are internationally renowned for banging on about the weather. When British drizzle is compared to the hurricanes of the Caribbean or the cold faced by more landlocked countries, our complaining seems wholly unjustified.

Still, our weather can have ruinous effects on whole industries. The particularly cold winter of 1962-63 was the final nail in the coffin of a centuries old water-borne trade.

At one time canals played an essential role in the UK’s economy. In the early days of the industrial revolution, canals snaked across the map, connecting the coal mines of the countryside to the factories of cities. They fuelled the furnaces and kept the hearth fires burning, allowing for cities to rapidly grow in the closing years of the 18th century.

A map of British and Irish waterways. The canal network is in orange. Image: Peter Eastern/Wikimedia Commons.

Economics is rarely sentimental, though, and when more effective modes of travel came along the canals began their slow demise. Whereas European canals widened to accommodate for ever larger boats, the thin British canals –bar the mighty Manchester ship canal – slowly gave in to the supremacy of those new-fangled trains.

The rise of railway also saw the odd canal being bought and shut down by railway companies. In most cases this was simply about eliminating the competition, but in some the straight canals proved a perfect place for new railway tracks – the fate of South London’s Croydon Canal.

Still, the bargepeoples tightened their belts, and the canal system limped on as a viable option for freight until the early ‘60s, when nature came in with the knockout blow. The Big Freeze of 1962-3 was, as the name suggests, uniquely cold for the UK. Records going back as far as 1659 only recorded two winters colder, and the canal system froze solid.

Somerset, January 1963. The snow stayed for so long it stretched phone wires out of shape. Image: Howard Dublin/Wikimedia Commons.

Facing months of no service by barges, industries that had been reliant on the canals switched to alternatives on the rail and road networks. When the ice finally thawed, and with grim memories of that winter on mind, few returned to using the canals for freight. Besides having dire consequences for that years football calendar, the winter mostly finished canals as a component of British industry.

Luckily many of the canals themselves survived to be repurposed, first for leisure and more recently for living. London’s canal system currently holds around 5000 boats, 60 per cent of them permanent homes. These liveaboards, driven there by the desire for the slow life or the rest of the city’s crippling property prices, are changing the face of London’s waterways.
The water dwellers, along with those drawn to these lateral parks for leisure, have brought business back to the city’s canals. Now books shops, grocers, coffee shops and even bakeries can be found floating on the waters.

So next time the trope of the weather obsessed Brit comes up, you can scoff at other countries hailstones the size of Chihuahuas, or sun you can cook an egg in. Tell them that the weather has shaped British history, too – and with huge climatic shifts on the horizon, it shows no sign of stopping any time soon.

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