Cartographer Sasha Trubetskoy didn’t set out to create a subway-style map of the Roman roads of Britain—not specifically. He had seen plenty of fantasy transit maps online and, he says, “I figured I could do better.” He just needed a subject, and he landed on ancient Rome, which no one had tackled before, despite its extensive network of roads across its vast empire.
His first fantasy transit map covered the whole empire. After he published it, fans clamored for another installment, specific to the network in Britain.
Roman roads in Britain have been a subject of fascination for hundreds of years. After the Romans invaded the Isles in the year 43, they set about building an extensive system to transport troops and goods across the newly conquered territory. Eventually, there were thousands of miles of roads criss-crossing Britain, but after the empire retreated in the 5th century, they were largely lost. Some were converted into more modern paths, while others disappeared.
In the past century or so, enthusiasts have dedicated themselves to finding these roads and mapping their full extent. It is often a passion project: As M.C. Bishop writes in The Secret History of the Roman Roads of Britain, “The study of the roads of Roman Britain has always been the province of amateur scholars, by and large.” Clues to the ancient routes might include a modern road’s design (Roman roads tend to be very straight), historical accounts, legal documents, medieval maps, and fieldwork that reveals actual remains. In more recent years, aerial photos and lidar maps have revealed new examples, too. But because of the hobbyist nature of the pursuit, “Some areas invariably get left out of the system,” writes Bishop. The most complete maps are “as much a record of archaeological endeavours as it is one of Roman strategic thinking or infrastructure planning.”
Trubetskoy’s map, though, didn’t need such detail. He sought the major routes, the superhighways of the Roman world. Using the websites Roman Britain and Pelagios (which is based on the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World) as guides, he picked out road locations and place names. On the scale he was working, he found that there is usually consensus about the routes. (If there was real ambiguity, he let design guide his choices, as when he extended Icknield Street from Danum [Doncaster] to Eboracum [York], when this route could also be considered part of Ermine Street.)
Ultimately, Trubetskoy was trying imagine the transit map Roman officials might have made, given the chance. “I tried to design the map from the perspective of the Roman government, even including official seals and writing everything in Latin,” he says. “I just think this mixture of new and old turns an ostensibly utilitarian map into something mysterious and exciting.”