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Mapping Cicero’s Letters: Digital Visualizations in the Liberal Arts Classroom

Micah Young Myers

Kenyon College

This poster presentation explores pedagogical applications of digital mapping technology. It reports on “Mapping Cicero’s Letters,” a project undertaken in an undergraduate Classics course in which students use the web application Carto to create visualizations from geo-spatial information in Cicero’s letters. This project exemplifies how digital visualization projects can teach important technical skills, while engaging students in detailed analyses of Roman mobility, geography, and history. We also consider some challenges of using evolving digital technologies in the college classroom. “Mapping Cicero’s Letters” is inspired by the many excellent research and pedagogical projects that apply GIS technology to the study of the ancient Mediterranean (especially Ancient World Mapping Center, Pleiades, and Pelagios). Our project is distinguished by its special focus on not just visualizing geographical coordinates, but also representing movement between places.

The “Mapping Cicero’s Letters” project approaches epistles as travel texts, in so far as they move from author to addressee and contain references to journeys that the letters’ correspondents undertake. The data for “Mapping Cicero’s Letters” was created in 2016 and 2018 by forty-six undergraduates enrolled in two iterations of a course on ancient travel and geography; the project will continue in future offerings of the course. The course expects no previous background in Classics or in technology. Participants range from first-year students who have never taken a Classics course to senior majors. The project is taught collaboratively by the course instructor, an instructional technologist, and a student-researcher. Students, working in pairs, create their own digital visualizations based on the geo-spatial information in twenty letters. In addition, they contribute to a collective dataset from which we create combined visualizations of hundreds of letters. 

To complete the project, students learn a variety of skills ranging from close reading of texts to SQL, a database management language. To make their visualizations, students read through their assigned letters in translation, identifying information about locations of the authors and addressees and making note of any references to travel. On the technical side, students learn: (1) to use Carto, a web-based mapping and location intelligence platform; (2) to find geographical coordinates using the Pleiades gazetteer; (3) to create properly formatted tabular data; and (4) to use SQL and the style sheet language CSS to manipulate their data and customize their visualizations. At the end of the project students write brief reports and give presentations of their work. 

The results of the project to this point are that all students have succeeded in creating visualizations despite facing challenges. In particular, students’ baseline experience with technology varies greatly. Further, Carto, like many applications, has bugs that occasionally present issues. Carto also 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 their teaching. We find, however, that these challenges encourage students and instructors alike to develop resiliency, troubleshoot problems, and refine work until visualizations function properly. 

The presentation offers three main conclusions. First, we emphasize that the project is being carried out successfully at a liberal arts college that does not have technological resources as extensive as some major universities. Therefore, our accomplishments with the project offer an example of how the “digital turn” can come to Classics classrooms in a variety of higher education contexts. Second, we discuss how employing student-researchers is critical to the project, allowing us to profit from the technological skills of select students and to encourage peer learning. Third, we demonstrate that data visualization technology offers novel ways for students to learn about the ancient Mediterranean. Our use of technology introduces students to new skills useful for their study of Classics and beyond. Using technology also has the potential to attract students who already have technical skills to enroll in the course and to view the discipline of Classics in a new manner.

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