Moovel Mash-up

A little over a year ago, the remarkable Roads to Rome map of Europe was published by researchers at Germany-based Moovel Labs. It's an algorithm-generated grey-and-white diagram which assembles the shortest land routes from every point in Europe (including Turkey and European Russia) to Rome.
The map (which you can zoom into and explore on an interactive viewer) won global interest because of its dendritic simplicity. It has a soothing balance about it, calling to mind blood vessels in a living organism or the veins in an outlandishly shaped leaf. And yet it is quite packed with data. You can see at a glance where any two Europeans' paths will meet up if they both set out for Rome.

Somewhere, either on your local roads, or speeding long-distance towards Italy by motorway, your two ways will merge, and the fat trunk lines mark the routes where the great throng will pour towards Rome's Seven Hills.

It turned out I was not alone in wondering if this was somehow long ago foreshadowed by the Tabula Peutingeriana, a 12th-century parchment copy of a late-antique visualization of travel itineraries of the Roman and Persian worlds where Rome is depicted as the very middle of a spider-like web.

Moovel Labs' spokesman told me others had mused about this too. It seems however I was the only person who took that question so seriously as to eventually overlay Moovel's Roads-to-Rome data on the Peutinger with a view to publishing the outcome.

The principal obstacle, it turned out, was a practical one: no compact, high-resolution digital surrogate of the Peutinger Diagram yet existed. The current standard mapping, Richard Talbert's Peutinger Map A, was only available in a server-side viewer.

The work to create a better surrogate was detailed in an earlier blog post. I have now marked by hand on this surrogate the roads picked out by the Moovel algorithm. This overlay is a 370-KB SVG file that should open in most browsers. The trunk route northwards out of Rome to Florence has been widened to 28 pixels and there is a descending hierarchy of ramifying routes down to the smallest breadth, 2 pixels, where you can clearly see each Peutinger chicane, or zigzag marking a rest stop.

None of the beauty of the Moovel diagram carries over to the elongated Peutinger layout, which looks like nothing so much as a tangle of utility cables in a muddy trench. The adaptation is in no way limpid, which underlines how the design of any diagram is not a neutral thing, but closely bound to its purpose. The Peutinger designer had very different intentions from the Moovel team's purpose.

Despite this, three informative conclusions can be drawn from the exercise.

First of all, the Peutinger Diagram ostentatiously shows 12 roads that terminate at Rome, but this spider's-web presentation is a conceit. Most of these roads peter out in central Italy. The Moovel map emphasizes just one northbound (leftwards) and one southbound (rightwards) route, and a moment of reflection recalls to us that even mighty Rome itself is really no more than a stop along a peninsular trunk road.

Secondly, there may be no motorways on the Peutinger Diagram, but roads then and now follow the same lie of the land and connect the same main population centres, so many of the ancient routes live on as multi-lane highways and can be easily found among the Moovel trunk and branches. However many lesser shortcuts and even some main ancient roads were evidently unknown to the Peutinger designer.

A road north from Florence over the Apennines to Bologna seems from Pelagios to have existed then, and is followed today by Italy's trunk autostrada, yet the Peutinger designer simply ignores its existence as an irrelevance. Throughout the pre-medieval era, northbound travellers from Rome mostly preferred another, longer route, the Via Flaminia, then the Via Aemilia, as Tønnes Bekker-Nielsen very accessibly explained some years ago.

All these missing routes are denoted in my mash-up by dotted lines. Also missing is the route from Bologna to the Venice shore (Altino) and on to Aquileia.

The Moovel map guides traffic through the claustrophobic Fréjus, Mont Blanc and St Gotthard road tunnels under the Alps, ignoring old busy routes like the Via Francigena. Back in the day, the traveller had to huff and puff through the thin air of the Montgenèvre, Little St Bernard, Great St Bernard and Spluegen Passes over the Alps (named in the Peutinger "In Alpe Cottia," "In Alpe Graia," "In Summo Pennino" and "Cunuaureu": see René Voorburg's magnificent Omnes Viae to find these). Only the Brenner Pass crossing shown on the Peutinger Diagram remains a main road today.

Thirdly, the Peutinger Diagram is entirely unknowing about northern Europe. Three of the Moovel's fat trunk routes to the far north thus fall off the top edge of the Peutinger Diagram, which finishes at the Netherlands and southern Germany and has no cognizance of the Baltic countries or Russia. However latitudinally, the scope of these two diagrams is very similar, stretching from Britain to eastern Turkey.

Overlaying the Moovel data on the Peutinger emphasizes how cramped (and unmaplike) the late antique project is. Where the roads fan out on the Moovel chart, the Peutinger Diagram crams them together like stiff fingers on an arthritic hand, in effect classifying the routes into regional blocks as sets of local itineraries.

My experiments with the Peutinger Diagram will continue. Don't forget to check my project page on ResearchGate to monitor progress. Collaborators and followers are very welcome to announce themselves.

Bekker-Nielsen, Tønnes. ‘Terra Incognita: The Subjective Geography of the Roman Empire’. In Studies in Ancient History and Numismatics: Eds Aksel Amsgaard-Madsen, Erik Christiansen and Erik Hallager, 148–61. Aarhus: Aarhus UP, 1988. Online.
Talbert, Richard J. A. Rome’s World: The Peutinger Map Reconsidered. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010.

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