Social Science: The Roman Frontier

There’s a big focus in academic humanities these days on ‘digital humanities’.  This can include a lot of vaguely silly stuff, like doing word counts in great works of literature in attempts to make literary analysis more sophisticated.  However, there’s also much more interesting work going on, particularly in economic history.  A traditional problem for application of social science methods to historical question is the scarcity of data, because hard data in an easy-to-digest format is pretty rare.  However, determined researchers can apply some new tools and some hard thinking in order to find out quite a lot.

ORBIS is one of the coolest projects I’ve seen in the “digital humanities” world.  It’s a reconstruction of the travel network across the Roman world.  The researchers, Walter Schiedel and Elijah Meeks, have gone to great lengths to reconstruct the methods of travel across the empire.  The topographic map is just the starting point – they’ve included information on highways, travel modes, and even seasonal weather and wind conditions for information on seasonal changes in travel times.  They’ve even incorporated historical records on Roman-era prices so that you can see the inflation-adjusted cost of various travel options, selecting for the fastest or the cheapest trip. 

This could be a great resource for social scientists or for historians looking to apply social science methods to historical problems.  If you’re interested in systematically studying the effects of, say, Roman administrative quality on local economic outcomes this data set is invaluable.  This data would allow the use of what’s called an “instrumental variable” study, which is a method for studying effects that can’t be easily untangled from causes.  Local administrative quality and economic productivity are a good example; neither is really exogenous to the other. However, you can get around this by using a third variable, an “instrument”, that is exogenous to both but only affects the treatment.  Travel time from Rome is perfect for this – it definitely has an effect on local administrative quality, but doesn’t have an obvious impact on local productivity.  This allows you to back out the effect of administrative quality on local productivity, which is a question that’s otherwise very difficult to answer.

Of course, that relies on similarly high-quality data on all three variables of interest.  That could be difficult to come by, which just goes to show the difficulty of doing empirical social science on historical topics.  However, ORBIS is an incredible step in the right direction.  It’s very cool what these researchers have done, and I hope to see more work like this in the future!


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