Herodotus Earth: the ancient world in google

We live in exciting times. Digital technology is fast revolutionising the ways in which we are communicating with each other and how we are seeing the world – often quite literally. With the internet easily available on your Blackberry or iphone, including GIS web-mapping features, we seem now to have the whole world at our fingertips. But these applications aren’t restricted to the modern world: they can have a role too in bringing the ancient world to life.

HESTIA—the Herodotus Encoded Space-Text-Imaging Archive (sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council)—is a project that, using the latest ICT, extracts all the places that Herodotus mentions in his Histories, represents them in graphic form, and explores their connections to each other—all with a view to bringing Herodotus’ world into everyone’s home.

Born sometime during the fifth-century BC in Halicarnassus (modern-day Bodrum), a city with a mixed Greek, Carian and Persian population, Herodotus writes the history of the Persian invasion of Greece. In his effort to record the wonders of mankind and to ascertain just why the Greeks and Persians had come into conflict with each other in 480-478 BC, his ‘enquiry’ (Greek: historiê, whence we get the term history) takes him all over the Mediterranean and beyond. The view of the world that emerges from his Histories is often represented in the form of the map given in figure 1, kindly supplied by wikipedia:

As you can see, this map doesn’t really do Herodotus any favours with its glaringly inaccurate and naive representation of space: with the sophisticated satellite technology at our disposal we are pretty sure that the world doesn’t bear much resemblance to this! One thing that HESTIA does is to deploy the latest satellite imaging freely available from NASA to re-present Herodotus’ world, which, if nothing else, at least allows us to depict that world in a more eye-catching and realistic fashion. (See figures 2-3 below.) And yet, for all of its problems, the non-realistic map of Herodotus does raise several important issues relating to the conception of space in Herodotus, most notably the division of the world into three separate units, Europe, Asia and Libya, the presence of rivers as boundary markers, and the close connection of geography to ideology, which in a way underlies all mapmaking. And yet..., still there is something not quite right with this picture. For one thing, figure 1 captures only a static picture of the world of Herodotus; it is a map without contours, gradation or mobility. Another of HESTIA’s aims, then, is to be more sensitive to where a particular location occurs in the text; in other words, to tie Herodotus’ naming of a place to its narrative context. This allows us to draw a series of maps that depict a world in flux, as well as to provide a sense of space as a lived experience, not something abstractly conceived. For another thing, HESTIA explores the links between places that occur in the text. These so-called ‘networks’ demonstrate not so much the topographical connections between places, which appears to us all too obviously from our satellite imaging, but their topological connections—the connections that Herodotus himself or his historical agents within the text draw. In this way, not only can we represent Herodotus’ world in a visually striking way, but also a mental picture emerges of that world as conceived of by those who lived it.

The basis of all the maps that HESTIA produces is a spatial database that has extracted from the text all the place-names, or toponyms, mentioned by Herodotus over the course of his Histories. That spatial data has been organised according to three general categories: settlement (polis, city, cult site, etc); region (deme, region, country, continent); and physical feature (river, mountain, sea, etc). Each location is assigned a unique identifier, as is each of its occurrences over the course of the narrative. In this way the database can be queried in a variety of ways, such as by individual place, by one of the general categories, or by narrative location.

The most basic maps that are generated simply represent a ‘flat’ image of the spatial data: that is to say, they mark all the places that Herodotus mentions over the course of his work with a single point, thereby providing a snapshot of the huge scope of his enquiry. But, given the fact that each location is also tied to the narrative, mapping can take a more complex form. Thus it is possible to represent the spatial data according to each of the three categories (settlement, region and physical feature—see fig. 2) and by book (see fig. 3), or even to ‘count’ the number of references each place is attributed and rank them according to their popularity (see fig. 4). (The so-called ‘hot-spots’, depicted by the large purple circles, of Herodotus’ world are Athens, Sparta, Delphi, Miletus and Sardis.)

But these are not the only maps that HESTIA will be able to produce. One very useful feature of our database is that it runs on software that is compatible with other commonly used applications, the most popular of which is probably Google Earth: basically we can ‘give’ Google Earth our data, so that anyone with this application on their computer will be able to see at a glance all the places that Herodotus mentions. And that is not all. Using this ‘Herodotus Earth’ you’ll be able to construct ‘mashups’ of visual and textual data. (‘Mashups’ are computer-speak for the bringing together of different digital files, often of different forms, in this case visual and textual data.) So, for example, since all places are linked to entries in the database, when you pass your browser over a particular location, you will be able to bring up a dialog box containing Herodotus’ text (in both English and Greek) for that particular location for every occasion when it is mentioned in the narrative (see figure 5). Furthermore, as the Ancient Rome Google project (http://earth.google.com/rome/) has shown, it is also possible to take a tour of various sites. Imagine the possibilities of exploring Xerxes’ passage into Greece from a ‘down-to-earth’ perspective, as if you were actually there among Xerxes’ many troops!


Lastly, the HESTIA database allows us to identify connections between places mentioned by Herodotus in the same breath, represent those connections in various graphic forms, and consider the significance of this network culture. Indeed, using HESTIA we can compare the links which Herodotus draws between places with the geography (as represented by Google) or, indeed, the actual situation ‘on the ground’—the historical reality as it were (as reconstructed by archaeologists and historians). By undertaking this process HESTIA hopes to bring to light the ways in which the Histories articulate an understanding of space different from the topographically-based two-dimensional map that has dominated western cartography for centuries. Instead, HESTIA approaches geographical relationships through the lens of ‘topological’ connections between places—those links that the human agent draws; in other words, a mental image (or, better, images) of the world, not any so-called ‘objective’ representation. In fact it may well be the case that these network maps will bear a closer resemblance to the stylised visualization of, say, the London Underground than to the ‘more realistic’ satellite maps which we can now access thanks to NASA. But to find out whether that is the case, or simply to learn more about our project and to participate in its findings, you’ll just have to go to our website: http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/hestia/index.html. Happy networking!



Elton Barker, The Open University

Chris Pelling, Christ Church, Oxford

Stefan Bouzarovski, University of Birmingham

Leif Isaksen, University of Southampton