Rather than encounter history as a linear story, we see it as a world more like our own, one in which we're actors with sets of competing choices laid out before us.
Say you were thinking about taking a trip this summer to Italy, and were considering a drive northward from Rome to the ancient coastal city of Ravenna. How long would it take? How would you go about finding that out?
Most likely, you'd use Google Maps, which would tell you that by car you could take a variety of routes, all of which would get you to Ravenna in about four and a half hours.
Now say, just hypothetically, that you wanted to make the same trip except -- and it's kind of a big exception -- that the year is not 2012 but 200, you're not traveling by car but by ox cart, and, just for a little extra challenge, let's say it's February. How long would that journey take?
To answer that question there's ORBIS, a sort of "Google Maps for Ancient Rome," which will tell you that the fastest way for a third-century traveler to get to Ravenna will be to take your ox cart to the sea, board a ship, and sail around Sicily, around the southern coast of Italy, and northward to Ravenna. It will take you nearly 15 days and cost nearly 400 denarii. Over land, the trip will last a month.
ORBIS is the project of a team at Stanford led by classicist Walter Scheidel and digital-humanities specialist Elijah Meeks. It is a model of the ancient world, including more than 750 settlements, 4 million square miles of space, 50,000 miles of land routes, 20,000 miles of inland waterways (rivers and canals), and nearly 1,000 routes among sea ports. By playing with ORBIS's interactive map, you can grasp at how geography -- distance, really -- appeared to a person living nearly 2,000 years ago under the reach of the Roman empire. And if you want to think like a Roman, there's a lot to be gleaned from the richness of the dataset and the interactive little tool you can explore it with.
But ORBIS also tells us something that goes beyond the reach of Ancient Rome, right to us here in 2012. And what that is comes not from the content of ORBIS, but in the reaction to it, which has been, at least in technical terms, overwhelming, slowing the site down dramatically and requiring some updating just to deal with the traffic. Yes, you read that right: An academic site on the travel routes of Ancient Romans has been inundated with visitors since its launch three weeks ago, beginning with a not-too-shabby trickle of 1,200 visits on the first day, and ratcheting up to a total of 100,000 visitors in less than three weeks, with some days hitting 15,000 unique views. Why do so many people want to know how long it took to get from Rome to Ravenna 2,000 years ago?
It's not that that information is so interesting on its own merit, but that ORBIS has given us a way to look at a world -- the ancient one -- with an interface that is from our own time. The interactive trip planner acts as a translator for us, speaking our language but telling us about a foreign place. Moreover, as Ars Technica writer Curt Hopkins puts it, the site uses "technology to approach history as a system instead of a static collection of data." So rather than encounter history as one linear story, we encounter it as a world more like our own, one in which we are actors with sets of competing choices laid out before us.
It's this feeling -- something almost like being a player in a role-playing game of Ancient Rome -- that makes ORBIS a fun way to explore history and has brought so many people to the site. Further evidence: Another tool on the site -- in fact the tool that ORBIS was built around -- has garnered far less interest. That tool is the "dynamic distance cartogram" which morphs the geography around a single point, such that a distance between two points no longer represents miles but rather represents how long the journey would take or how much it would cost. Thus you could see all points within a 12-day journey from Constantinopolis, even though some will be much farther away by distance because they are quick to reach by sea.
This tool is in some ways more informative than the route planner. You can see at a glance all the points one major city is connected to by trade, rather than having to test a variety of points and see which take less time. But people aren't playing around with this tool very much at all. "A tech friend of mine was laughing at the metrics," Meeks told Hopkins. "It'll show 50,000 people looking at the maps but only 100 using the interactive distance cartogram." Perhaps this is because that tool is a little less intuitive and a little less centrally placed on the website. But even once you find it and play around with it, it just doesn't have the same charm as the trip planner. We don't see the world that way today, and it doesn't square with how we use information and make decisions.
There is a big audience out there for a site that enables your imagination to spin out a bit more freely over the terrain of the ancient world, and much of that audience is plugged into social sites such as Reddit where they can share a good find and turn out in droves. "This is why the internet is wonderful, " says Cyriaque Lamar of io9 of the ORBIS site. But it's not just ORBIS that makes the Internet wonderful, but the people who eat it up -- the curious explorers who may not be going to third-century Ravenna, but are certainly thinking through their route.