The world is depressing, so let’s all look at this tube map-style road map of the Roman Empire instead

Mmmm, history. Image: Alexandr Sasha Trubetskoy.

There have been many theories as to why the Western Roman Empire fell during the 5th century. Perhaps it was the pressure from barbarian invasions, as the tribes of central Asia moved west, spurred on by some unknown disaster. Perhaps it was over-expansion, or financial crisis. Perhaps, even, it was Christianity.

One theory that I don’t think has been given enough academic attention, however, is that the fall of the Western Empire Was caused by a dearth of high quality metro maps, possibly brought about by the complete absence of ancient Roman metros.

Click to expand, baby.

Oh, Harry Beck, where were you when Rome needed you?

Anyway. This map shows the principle settlements of the Roman Empire and the roads linking them, in the same style as a modern metro map. So if you find yourself in 2nd century Byzantium, and want a good overland route to Ravenna, you can now plan your route.

The map even shows some of the empire’s ambitions for expansion east into Parthian (that is, Persian) territory in dotted lines, like routes under construction. The empire reached its largest in 117AD, at the death of the emperor Trajan.

The map is the work of Alexandr Sasha Trubetskoy, an undergraduate economics student at the University of Chicago, who drew the data from a variety of soruces including  Stanford’s ORBIS model, the Antonine Itinerary, and The Pelagios Project (that was the Google-style map of the empire we wrote about in December 2015). Some of his road names are unofficial; and he admits he’s had to make a few guesses to plug the gaps in our historical knowledge. But as far as possible, he’s kept to the historical record.

Anyway, enough words, what you really want is the map, right? Let’s look at some details. Italy, as the heart of the empire, is obviously covered with roads and settlements:

What is now Portugal, Spain and France, doesn’t do badly either:

Africa gets one long road, stretching all the way from Egypt to what is now Morocco:

Click to expand.

But Britain is a bit of a backwater:

Some of the plans for the future look, 19 centuries on, to a bit ambitious, like those London Underground maps which show the proposed Northern Heights extensions.

In practice, many of these journeys wouldn’t have been made by road at all: travel by land was slower than travel by sea, almost until modern times. The real highway at the heart of the empire was the Mediterranean, something highlighted by the fact that here it’s labelled the Mare Internum – “internal sea”.

You can’t really make a tube-style map of sea roads though, so fair enough.


Anyway. You can check out the original, with its maker’s commentary, on Trubetskoy’s website. And while you’re here, why not listen to the Roman special of our podcast, Skylines?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.