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Visualizing Time in Ancient Roman History

Published onJun 11, 2020
Visualizing Time in Ancient Roman History

Authors & Project Roles


Elizabeth A. Pollard, Professor of History and Senate Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence, San Diego State University

Pamella R. Lach, Digital Humanities Librarian, Digital Humanities Center Director, San Diego State University Digital Humanities Initiative Co-Director


Elizabeth Pollard, in her role as Roman historian, was the instructor of record for HIST 503 (Roman History). She engaged students with the content of Roman history, familiarized them with research methods in the field, designed the course using backwards design principles and scaffolding of both content and skills (together with Dr. Lach), gave formative feedback on students’ in-progress work, and assessed students’ final projects for a grade.

Pamella Lach, in her role as Digital Humanities Librarian, provided in-class digital literacy and technical instruction, developed asynchronous tutorials, and assisted Dr. Pollard in designing the assignments and assessment. She provided consultations to support students in the completion of their digital projects. She assisted with technical assessment of group projects and assisted in data analysis of pre- and post self-evaluations and final reflections.

Assignment URLs

Project website and blog (includes assignments):

Instructions for the collaborative timeline assignment:

Instructions for the final individual project:

Learning Objectives

What did you want students to be able to do by completing this assignment?

  • EXPERIENCE creating a media-rich digital humanities artifact that make a time- or space-related argument about Roman History;

  • DEMONSTRATE (once completed) how the developments traced in your DH project impact your understanding of Roman History… with a Timeline, cause & effect, antecedent & consequence, continuity and change over time, and periodization models (chronological thinking) OR with a StoryMap, how a development plays out across space or how place influences a historical development/event (geographical/spatial thinking);

  • ARGUE, based on sources (ancient) and scholarship (modern), some issue in Roman History;

  • RECOGNIZE the promise & possibilities of media-rich DH ways of sharing --- then subsequently engaging and hypothesizing about --- that Roman History content.

Technology-Dependent Learning Outcomes

Was there anything this assignment taught students that you felt they wouldn't have been able to learn through other types of class assignments?

Rendering a research-based temporal argument on a timeline encouraged students to think more carefully about their historical argument--how it played out over time and what points in time needed to be examined to trace that development--than they might in the traditional 15-page final paper. Because the assignment required students to support each point on their timeline with links to sources, articles, and other multimedia materials, students also were more aware of their need for strong evidence to support their argumentation and the likelihood that an engaged reader might actually follow-up on their research by clicking those links. Essentially, students knew their evidence and footnotes needed to bring value. Finally, because the projects (both collaborative and individual) were public-facing, students had a better sense of the work that their peers were doing (and felt challenged by that) and they worked harder than they might otherwise, knowing that others would see what they had done.

The completed collaborative group timeline, warts and all, enabled students to engage with critical temporal historical thinking skills (such as periodization, cause and effect, continuity and change over time) and to troubleshoot their comfort- and skill-level with rendering temporal arguments via digital humanities media.

Skill Level

What is the course title and level?

HIST 503 (Roman History - Monarchy to “Fall” of Rome) is an upper-division History course taken primarily by History majors (also by students in Classics, Humanities, and a scattering of other non-related majors). The course tends to enroll around 50 students each Spring semester, nearly double the number of students in most other upper-division History courses at SDSU.

What kinds of prior knowledge is necessary to complete this assignment? How do students gain this knowledge?

No previous background knowledge in Roman history was required. Given that HIST 503 is an upper-division history course, taken primarily by juniors and seniors (most of whom are History majors), the assignment relies on students’ persuasive argumentation skills, their research skills, as well as their understanding of citation methods (both the need for attribution and how to do so properly). The scaffolded mini-assignments were designed to reveal any lacunae in temporal/spatial thinking and argumentation, research training, and citation proficiency so that Dr. Pollard could help students hone those skills through in-class discussions and individual feedback/intervention.

No previous technical experience or skills were required to complete the assignments. Technical skill building, including basic HTML, was carefully scaffolded into the class through a combination of in-class workshops and tutorials, group mini-assignments, and opportunities for reflection.

Assignment Description

Micro-scaffolded work, conducted and assessed in groups using TimelineJS and StoryMapJS, prepared students to complete a visualized argumentation of a temporal or spatial topic in Roman History (509 BCE - 476 CE). Initial prompts asked students to develop bibliographies, with each entry coded in HTML (using the italics and url elements). Each bibliography focused on a different type of source (e.g. primary and ancient secondary, modern scholarship, museum holdings, and digital media) and prepared students to develop their HTML coded entries for the collaborative timeline. Following this series of prompts, which were designed to cultivate students’ research and digital capacities, students worked in groups to contribute to a collaborative timeline of Roman history.

For their final individual digital project, students opted to create a timeline or map, building on the skills gained in earlier group work. Students who created a timeline showcased their historical research and temporal argumentation skills while demonstrating how the tool they had selected enabled them to better communicate their time-related theses and the evidence to support them.

The full instructions for the collaborative timeline assignment are available here and the full instructions for the final individual project are available here.

Time Needed

How much time did you allot to this project?

The temporal visualization activities took place across the entire arc of the 15-week semester, beginning with the third and fourth class sessions. To emphasize that Digital Humanities (DH) was integral to the course from the start, students engaged in an HTML assignment and a short google-doc micro-research activity (Session 3, in Week 2) as well as additional HTML training and a discussion of how timelines advance an argument (Session 4, in Week 3). To prepare students for developing content for the collaborative Timeline, a second micro-research assignment --- primarily completed outside of class, but with some class time devoted to coordination and answering questions --- was due in the seventh class session (in Week 5). Students’ group contributions to the collaborative timeline were due in the ninth class session (in Week 6). To reinforce those research and coding skills, StoryMap activities followed a similar arc over the next few weeks of the course. Class discussion just before Spring Break (Session 19, in Week 10) gave students a chance to compare and contrast the kinds of arguments possible with the different platforms and the affordances of each. At that point, students identified a final topic, selected the appropriate digital tool, and then had the remaining five weeks of the term to develop their research and argument, share-out with the class in a two-day digital poster session (in Week 14), and finalize their submission (in Week 15).

Support & Training

What kinds of support or training did you provide to help students learn to use new techniques or specialized tools?

The Digital Humanities Librarian provided in-class workshops and online tutorials to prepare students for digital history work. She began with basic HTML literacy as the building block for working with the timeline and mapping tools. Each 75-minute in-class workshop was timed with a group micro-assignment in which students applied what they learned in low-stakes ways. Group office hours and one-on-one consultations in the Digital Humanities Center, located in the San Diego State University (SDSU) Library, supplemented in-class learning. Thus, we seamlessly scaffolded the digital training with the research methods. Spring 2019 tutorials can be accessed on our website:


Did you need any specialized equipment, tools, or human resources to make this assignment feasible? If so, please describe.

We selected free-to-use tools (TimelineJS and StoryMapJS) with low barriers of entry for the class so that the digital work would advance the methodological learning about the scales of time and place required for making sense of the vast temporal and spatial scale of Roman History. These tools can be accessed on students’ laptops and tablets (or campus computer labs). The DH librarian developed her own tutorials, supplementing from existing open content from W3Schools. The Digital Humanities Center in SDSU Library proved to be an invaluable resource for student learning in formal and informal ways, including in-class instruction, office hours, group work, and a project showcase. In addition to the faculty member’s technical know-how, the DH librarian provided the bulk of the technical training that made this assignment feasible. She was embedded in the class, attending at least six sessions. Moreover, the assignments and assessments were developed in conversation between the instructor and librarian.


How did you assess or grade this project?

The final assignment was assessed via a rubric and students received feedback at multiple stages throughout the process. In-class discussion and group feedback was provided by the instructor after each mini-research assignment (Week 3 and Week 5). Similarly, groups received instructor feedback on their contributions to the collaborative timeline (in-class discussion in Week 10). Students got feedback from peers, instructor, and DH librarian at the digital poster session in Week 14 (across two 75-minute class sessions). In each of these two sessions, 12 large screens that were arranged in a large circle in the Digital Humanities Center enabled the 48 students (in four 30-minute sessions of 12 students each) to showcase their work while the other 36 students circulated and commented on the projects (360-degree timelapse video of the event). Finally, a rubric that both highlighted the various skills (use of media, historical argumentation, written content, incorporation of ancient sources and modern scholarship, site organization and effective choice of digital platform) and included performance-level descriptors allowed students to gauge what was possible and how their final work was evaluated. The rubric is available here and examples of student work, with student permission, are available here.

Challenges & Opportunities

If you assigned this project again, would you change anything? If so, what?

Content: The Timeline project in 2019 was itself a second iteration of the undertaking (the first in Spring 2018). Reflections on the changes undertaken from 2018 to 2019 are chronicled in our Spring 2019 blog. If we were to undertake this project again with HIST 503 (or even with some other History course), the instructor would continue to find ways to: 1) build students’ research capacities (likely through devoting more in-class time to working with library databases and other materials available on the internet), 2) refine students’ temporal thinking skills and the impact of that thinking on modes of argumentation such as periodization, cause and effect, and change over time (through more explicit and intentional in-class conversation), and 3) hone students’ use of the keyword feature of TimelineJS to track multiple themes that influence how developments play out over time (through an even more focused topic for the collaborative TimelineJS, rather than allowing the timeline to take shape organically guided by student interest). As the instructor reflected in her final blog-post for the Spring 2019 semester, she would like “to formulate a strategy to maximize the pay-off in terms of what happens when more events associated with a non-elite, non-male, more-than-purely-political perspective are emphasized (as compared with the traditional male political narrative).” In sum, encouraging a digital manifestation of students’ research and temporal thinking has made it all the easier to pinpoint where student learning of history-focused skills can be improved. No more hiding in the pages of a traditional 15-page research paper.

Training: After the first iteration of the class (Spring 2018) we determined that students needed more training in baseline digital literacy (especially HTML). As a result, we introduced a three-part HTML training at the beginning of the class. After each in-class tutorial, students would complete an annotated bibliography coded in basic HTML (the elements they would need to know to create their timelines and maps). The goal was to get students comfortable enough with HTML to be able to write and modify it in order to develop digital projects that could communicate arguments and evidence effectively. Students in Spring 2019 performed better with the HTML, and overall required less technical support when completing their final projects. But we were concerned by the amount of class time required for this work. For the next iteration of the course, the DH Librarian plans to film short HTML tutorials that can be embedded in the learning management system so that students can learn HTML on their own, thereby making more effective use of class time. This will enable us to condense the in-class HTML sessions into a single class period.

Describe any trouble spots or complications someone else might want to be aware of before trying a similar assignment in a course of their own.

Professors should not assume students have any familiarity with digital project work. While students may be comfortable with digital devices and social media, these sorts of assignments work best when they are properly scaffolded to build digital literacy. So it’s important to slow things down, give yourself the time to cover the basics (including defining digital terms).

A digital project works best when it is thoughtfully integrated into the course. Unless the digital is a learning outcome of its own, it’s important to think about how a particular digital approach or platform helps achieve a specific history-focused student learning outcome—otherwise it’s easy to go down the proverbial rabbit hole and lose sight of the disciplinary purpose for the digital assignment. The digital project, in short, is a tool for achieving broader disciplinary learning outcomes. Be able to articulate the relationships between the digital platform and course content and between the work that is going into learning/using the tool and how manifesting the work on that platform is inextricably related to the disciplinary goal.


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