Documentation for Mapping Cicero’s Letters Project

“Mapping Cicero’s Letters” is a project for the Kenyon College course “The Ends of the Earth in the Ancient Imagination.” In 2016, 2018, and 2020, students enrolled in the course analyzed selections of Cicero’s letters for geo-spatial information. They learned to create original tabular data and how to format it for visualization in Carto. They also learned to apply SQL statements to manipulate their data, and to use CSS to customize the resulting maps. Here are some examples of their work. We intend to continue the project in future iterations of the course.

We are making our documentation available along with instructional screencasts for anyone who would like to recreate or adapt the project.

We recommend starting with our quick introduction to Carto. This video will teach you how to make a simple digital map:

The videos below explain the ten steps that students went through to create their visualizations in Carto. You will find documentation and template files after the videos.

1. Introduction to the assignment

2. Accessing the letters in Loeb Classical Library Online (access to LCL requires a subscription)

3. Reading and analyzing the letters

4. Introduction to Excel points file

5. Consulting Pleiades

6. Introduction to Excel journey segment file

7. Uploading to Carto

8. Scattering points in Carto

9. Drawing lines in Carto

These videos were originally created when this course was taught remotely in spring 2020.

Documentation and templates:

  1. Assignment and Workflow
  2. Points Template
  3. Journey Segments Template
  4. Start Point IDs Template
  5. End Point IDs Template
  6. Instructions for Scattering Points in Carto
  7. Instructions for Drawing Lines from Scattered Points in Carto

Students also consulted D.R. Schackleton Bailey’s commentaries on Cicero’s letters for help locating the author and recipient of the letters.

Mapping Ancient Texts: Recent Presentations

Micah Myers delivered a talk on MAT at the University of Pittsburgh (Nov. 2019): https://www.classics.pitt.edu/event/micah-myers-mapping-ancient-texts-digital-visualizations-classics-teaching-and-research

He also presented on the Mapping Cicero’s Letters project at the SCS Annual Meeting (Jan. 2020): https://classicalstudies.org/annual-meeting/2020/151/preliminary-program-2020-annual-meeting

And at a Zoom Conference, Teaching Classics in the Digital Age (June 2020): https://www.ancientcities.eu/teaching-classics-congress

A video of the most recent presentation is available here: https://cloud.rz.uni-kiel.de/index.php/s/2jBoYTc39qm7PxW

Mapping Hannibal

Mapping Hannibal

“Mapping Hannibal” represents a new type of digital visualization for the Mapping Ancient Texts project (MAT). MAT student-researcher Daniel Olivieri (Kenyon ‘19) won a 2018 Kenyon Summer Digital Scholarship award to develop the project. “Mapping Hannibal” is a geo-referenced digital visualization about the major events in the life of Hannibal Barca, with a particular focus on the Second Punic War. The final product maps Hannibal’s movements during his lifetime, following him from his childhood in Carthage to his years of leadership in Spain, through his momentous victories in Italy, and finishing with his defeat at the battle of Zama and eventual exile from Carthage.

Visualizing this sort of geo-referenced narrative presented new and exciting challenges for MAT. After researching Hannibal and the Second Punic War, Daniel used Leaflet to create info-boxes that are geo-referenced on a Carto map layer. The info-boxes contain a summary of the relevant events that occurred in a given location (e.g., a battle), as well as links to primary and secondary sources. Presented with the challenge of narrating a long and complex story succinctly, Daniel added a glossary that allows readers to learn more about different historical figures and events without leaving the website. The resulting glossary, made using modal boxes, features over twenty entries covering important individuals, groups, and major battles. The latter are visualized with GIFs created by Daniel that animate reconstructions of the conflicts.

Daniel used the Semantic UI library to establish an attractive and consistent style throughout the site. He used JSON objects to hold the data for each point and for each entry in the glossary. In order to show the approximate extent of Roman and Carthaginian territory, he used Carto’s polygon feature. Through a progress bar at the bottom of the map, the site gives users a sense of how far along they are in the narrative.

In its completed form, “Mapping Hannibal” makes a famous event in Roman history available in a novel way through a digital medium. “Mapping Hannibal” emphasizes space and place; incorporates maps as well as other types of visualization, especially GIFs; and relates the narrative in a manner that is approachable, but that also provides links to primary sources, such as Polybius and Livy, and fundamental secondary sources, like the Oxford Classical Dictionary. We hope that Mapping Hannibal will be of interest to students and enthusiasts at all levels as well as to others working on digital mapping and data visualization.

MAT Presentation, Nov. 3 2018

Micah Myers presented a paper co-authored with Joseph M. Murphy, titled “Teaching Roman Mobility: Digital Visualization in the Classroom and in Undergraduate Research” at the conference “Digital Cartography: New Maps, Ancient History” co-sponsored by the Ancient World Mapping Center, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Duke University’s Departments of Classical Studies and of Art, Art History & Visual Studies. Below is an abstract for the paper.

Teaching Roman Mobility:
Digital Visualization in the Classroom and in Undergraduate Research
Micah Myers & Joseph M. Murphy  (Kenyon College)


This paper looks at pedagogical applications of our web-based digital visualization project, Mapping Ancient Texts (MAT). We discuss: (1) a course in which students use the web application Carto to create visualizations from geo-spatial information in Cicero’s Letters; and (2) a student-researcher developing a digital visualization of Hannibal’s movements during the Second Punic War. This paper explores how these projects teach important technical skills and engage students in detailed analysis of Roman mobility and history. We also discuss the challenges of using evolving technologies in the liberal arts setting.

The “Mapping Cicero’s Letters” project approaches epistles as travel texts, in so far as they move from author to addressee and frequently make reference to the journeys that Cicero and his correspondents undertook. The data for “Mapping Cicero’s Letters” was created by Kenyon students enrolled in “The Ends of the Earth in the Ancient Imagination” in 2016 and 2018. The project was taught collaboratively by Assistant Professor of Classics, Micah Myers; director of the Kenyon College Center for Innovative Pedagogy, Joseph M. Murphy; and, in 2016, a student-researcher. Students, working in pairs, created their own digital visualizations as well as contributing to a collective dataset. To make visualizations, students learned to use the web application Carto, to analyze Cicero’s letters for information related to travel and geography, to find geographical coordinates using the Pleiades gazetteer, to create properly formatted tabular data, and to use SQL and CSS to manipulate their data and style their visualization. Students also wrote brief reports and gave presentations of their work.

All the groups succeeded in creating visualizations, although they faced challenges. In particular, students’ baseline experience with technology varied greatly, and Carto, like many apps, has bugs that occasionally present issues. Moreover, Carto released a new version of its application between the first and second iterations of the project, which required the instructors to learn new methods and adapt instruction. These challenges, however, encouraged students and instructors alike to develop resiliency, troubleshoot problems, and refine their work until the visualizations were completed.

In addition to bringing digital visualizations into the classroom, Myers also is advising a student, already contributing to the research side of MAT, as he develops his own related project, “Mapping Hannibal”, a geo-spatial narrative based on the Second Punic War, funded by a Kenyon Digital Summer Scholarship. “Mapping Hannibal” uses Carto, Leaflet, JSON Objects, and GIFs to visualize Hannibal’s movements around the Mediterranean. It employs digital technology to make Hannibal accessible in a new medium to college and advanced high school students. The project is an example of the exciting innovations that an engaged student with technical skills can bring to digital visualization. It also demonstrates some of the challenges of undergraduate research that involves proficiency in both classics and technology.


The paper concludes by discussing possible future pedagogical applications of digital visualization in the classics classroom.

Dynamic Filtering

Thanks to the efforts of Daniel Olivieri, the MAT Interface now offers dynamic filtering. This feature allows the user to filter the visualization within and across the menu categories. For instance, one can sort the visualization of our Cassiope travel narratives to show only travel by sea in texts categorized under the genres “letter” and “biography”. A full-screen version of the dynamic filtering version of the interface can be accessed here: cassiope28March.

Mapping Cicero’s Letters to Atticus

The “Mapping Cicero’s Letters to Atticus” project approaches epistles as travel texts, in so far as they moved from author to addressee. The data for “Mapping Cicero’s Letters to Atticus” was created by Kenyon students enrolled in CLAS 225: The Ends of the Earth in the Ancient Imagination in spring 2016. The students, working in teams of two, not only created their own data, but also visualized the data in Carto. Collectively, the students created a data set that represents Letters to Atticus 20-114 and 118-132 (Shackleton Bailey). This data set covers nearly all of the Letters to Atticus from May 60 – December 50 BCE. 

Whereas MAT’s prototype visualized travel narratives that described journeys which passed through Cassiope, Mapping Cicero’s Letters to Atticus visualizes the journeys that the letters themselves may have taken when they were sent from Cicero to Atticus. The visualizations rely on information in the headers to Cicero’s Letters as well as evidence from the texts themselves. As such the visualizations may best be understood as reflecting travel represented by the the manuscripts through which the letters were transmitted rather than the actual movement from author to addressee.

This project yielded a variety of visualizations. Below are some examples

The first visualization shows all the letters in the data set. Information about each letter may be accessed by hovering and clicking over points and arcs.

The second visualization demonstrates the frequency that a place name is mentioned in the data set using Carto’s cluster layer wizard.

A third visualization uses Carto’s torque feature to visualize where Cicero was when he each letter during the 50s BCE.

Each student group was tasked with creating data and a visualization for a smaller set of letters. Below are two examples. In the first one Ashley Zillian and Jackson Todd have experimented with labels and colors to visualize Letters 100-114. N.B. The caption to the legend (404-429) refers to location IDs assigned to each place in the data set.

A second example, by Sean Deryck and Kate Zibas, uses color coded points to represent the locations of Cicero (blue points) and Atticus (red points). In addition, color coded arcs represent the place from which the letter was sent.

MAT Presentation at Mapping the Past Conference

In April 2016, Micah Myers gave a talk on Mapping Ancient Texts and the Cassiope visualization prototype at the conference Mapping the Past: GIS Approaches to Ancient History hosted by the Ancient World Mapping Center at the University of North Carolina.

All of the talks from the conference are available on YouTube. Number six on the playlist is Myers’ Mapping Ancient Texts presentation.