John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
If the Roman Empire had managed build a continents-spanning transit system for its empire, it might have looked like this.
They say all roads lead to Rome, but they also lead outward to a number of intriguing places. There’s Antinoopolis in northern Africa, Londinium in what we now know as the U.K., and—should funding from the mighty Emperor Hadrian arrive—the yet-built Panticapaeum station along the Pontus Euxinus, or Black Sea.
Or so says this wonderfully thought-out fantasy transit map from Sasha Trubetskoy, showing the major thoroughfares of the Roman Empire circa 125 A.D. as dozens of stops along multicolored subway lines. Trubetskoy, who when not dabbling in history has explored the judgmental cartography of the Bay Area, started poking into the idea after noticing there was a dearth of good maps of Rome’s old road network, let alone train-themed ones. So he decided to go for it, pouring about 50 hours of research and design work into his sprawling “Roman Roads.”
“I enjoy reading about history, though I’m not a huge classics buff,” says Trubetskoy, a 20-year-old statistics major at the University of Chicago. “But there’s something alluring about Rome’s ability to carve out such a huge and advanced empire, with a legacy that lasts today.”
Trubetskoy’s primary points of historical reference were the Peutinger Table, sort of a gas-station highway map of Rome dating from ancient times, and the Antonine Itinerary, an atlas of thousands of places in the empire with estimated distances calculated among them. He also used Stanford University’s ORBIS tool and the Pelagios Project from Sweden’s Johan Åhlfeldt, which he describes as “kind of like Google Maps for Ancient Rome.”
Trubetskoy didn’t try to represent every single road and town in the empire, going instead for major routes and large-population cities to mark some “stations.” In certain cases he mapped routes with real titles—the famous Via Appia, for example, the first major road in Rome. When the historical name didn’t exist or was unknown, he chose creative nomenclatures like the Via Claudia for a road built under Emperor Claudius and the Via Sucinaria (or the Amber Road) to mark an old trade route running from Italy to northern Europe.
“I thought of myself as a Roman government official designing a map that people would actually be using—how do I make it effortless to look at?” he says. “I also had to make sure things were evenly spaced, colors were distinct, and the labels were unambiguous. I started from scratch at least five times before I arrived at the current design.”
So how’s it work? Well, if Emperor Aurelian wanted to send troops from Rome to the front during the Battle of Immae—a third-century conflict against rebels in the east led by Queen Zenobia—they’d have to get on the yellow Via Flaminia, two stops later transfer to the green Via Sucinaria, make additional transfers at Carnuntum, Sirmium, Singidunum, and then switch a whole hell of a lot more among orange/blue/purple lines until arriving at the Palmyra stop in modern-day Syria.
If that sounds exhausting and a nice way to cultivate a galaxy of blisters, it is—making such a journey on foot would take roughly 121 days covering 2,235 miles, according to Stanford’s distance calculator. Of course, back in the day travelers sliced a lot of mileage by using waterways—sailing through rivers and over seas. There was also a nifty Roman method for getting messages and property around quickly that relied on a network of horse-riding couriers. “They had a system called the cursus publicus, kind of like a mail service,” says Trubetskoy. “Forts and stations were spread at even intervals, each with stallions ready to go at a moment’s notice. It could relay messages from Rome to Constantinople in a handful of days, while normal travel would take nearly a month.”
Look closely and you’ll notice a few clever twists. Like most modern transit maps, dotted lines delineate routes planned for the future. ”I stuck to the spirit of the subway map and made them look like ‘proposed lines/stations,’” he says. “These were areas like Crimea, Mesopotamia, Armenia, and Nubia that Rome had conquered at some point, but didn’t hang onto for very long or didn't exercise full control over them.”
To truly complete the effect, Trubetskoy also created snappy-looking modern logos for the ancient empire, like a stylized SPQR emblem of the Roman Republic (it stands for Senatus Populus Que Romanus or the “Senate and the People of Rome”). In the middle there’s a wreath of laurels, a Roman symbol of power, and Quattuoviri Viarum Curandarum, a reference to an infrastructure-strengthening organization formed under Augustus. “It’s sort of like a Roman DOT,” Trubetskoy says. “Literally the name means, ‘Four officials who care for the roads,’ although it grew to more than four officials.”
The text in that last box is an inside joke for Latin-speaking cartographers: “The final one is an inscription that says, ‘The Emperor, Caesar Augustus, Supreme Bridge Builder, created this map with a computer program,’” Trubetskoy says. “The meaning is silly, but it echoes plaques that were found all around Roman roads.”