In many ways I’m not much of a geek. Unfamiliar machines and electronics perplex me. But tools that combine history and maps in intricate detail have always entranced me. Shepherd’s Historical Atlas (ninth edition, 1964) is still a favorite on my bookshelf, alongside atlases of diasporas, Russian history, Jewish history, and half a dozen others.
Children (and I) love pressing the buttons in the Wisconsin Historical Museum to light a display showing how far a settler could go from Milwaukee in a day by foot, wagon, boat, or train. Historical sea travel times prove more complicated. In “Speed under Sail of Ancient Ships,” Lionel Casson writes that “the ‘average speeds’ are worthless. How could they be otherwise? They ignore the fundamental fact that the speed of a sailing ship depends first and foremost on the direction of the wind.” Happily for my writing needs, Casson lists the duration of numerous specific voyages recorded by Pliny and others.
My new love is ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World. Ancient and modern meet in this fabulous GPS system to plan your trip of two thousand years ago. Plug in your starting point and destination and a host of other options to map the fastest, cheapest, and shortest routes with their costs in denarii. I generalize to any period predating the advent of steam. ORBIS suggests an oxcart from Marseilles took most of two weeks to reach Toulouse. Travelers who arrived in Rhodes at the end of March, having crossed the Continent on horseback, must have left London about February 20. I could do this all day. Ecstasy!
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.