All Roads Lead to Rome – On Networks and Power

“On a map, the Holy Roman Empire resembles something closer to a Jackson Pollock painting than an empire.” — The Economist.

Image property of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY.

Convergence, 1952 by Jackson Pollock. Image property of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY.

The rise and fall of the Holy Roman Empire is a central issue in history. The comparison of a map of the Roman Empire to a Pollock painting demonstrates how modern readers perceive the empire: it is chaotic to the point of inefficiency. Peter Wilson of Oxford University, however, argues that the empire is actually “a stable and unique entity” in his new book “The Holy Roman Empire: A Thousand Years of Europe’s History.”

Conventional wisdom holds that the empire’s decentralized structure leads to its decline. Instead, Wilson argues that decentralization is actually an advantage rather than a weakness because there is consensus achieved by distributing power. In the system are multiple strands of governing hierarchies, and each level is able to make its own decision while obeying the imperial institution. As a result, people living in the empire are loyal to the system because local identities and freedoms are respected, and citizenship is based on political allegiance rather than culture or creed. Shedding light on today’s Europe, Wilson also rejects the opinion that the empire is a blueprint for the European Union. It is because the empire treats its subjects and member-states hierarchically, while EU’s principles embodies democratic equality.

I found his arguments about the pros and cons of decentralized network really interesting. So I did some further research and discovered another exciting project based right here at Stanford: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World. Led by Professor Walter Sheidel from the Department of Classics, the ORBIS project could tell you the fastest route between any two major nodes of the Roman Empire. The online interactive map is just like Google Map that can tell you the routes, costs and travel time by a variety of a methods of travel within the ancient empire.


This figure displays coastal routes in green and overseas routes in blue.


When looking at these sample graphs created by the interactive map, I think of Wilson’s arguments again – Is it really the decentralized power structure that shapes the empire as it is? Or is it the fabulous yet imperfect network between cities within the empire that contributes to its decentralization and eventual fall?

Regardless of what the answer is, Professor Sheidel’s efforts demonstrate how useful network analysis can be, even in humanities.


This graph reveals how the absence of open sea routes increases travel time across the Mediterranean basin.


This graph shows how the discontinuity of the Roman road network in Morocco distorts the network.

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