In the Tracks of Alexander

[update 5/4/2017:  the apparent mistake of Alexander going to Bangladesh derives from an error in the Pleiades database. Malli is described as “An ancient Indian people that settled at the confluence of the rivers Hydaspes, Acesines, and Hydraotes.” These are indeed the folks Alexander terrorized in the Mallian Campaign. But the current location in Pleiades has them way off near the Padma. They should be much further west, in the Indus valley. I have alerted the good folks at Pleiades to this.]

I got a nice response on Twitter to a photograph of a composite of Google Earth maps made by my students of the expedition of Alexander the Great. (People were too kind to point out that some of the students thought Alexander made it all the way to the Padma river in what is now Bangladesh).

My students’ Google Earth maps of the expedition of Alexander, as seen from space.

A.M. Christensen (@AM_Christensen) asked me to post the assignment that generated these maps, and so here it is. I have done this for several years, and the reaction from students ranges from “Google Earth is infuriating” to “That was the best assignment we did–time consuming but really valuable.” I was on the point of cutting it out of the Ancient Worlds on Film class when a former student in that class convinced me to put it back in. 

As with most unorthodox assignments it requires careful preparation and explanation well in advance, and a willingness to be flexible when technical issues crop up. For me this works because it is in sync with my learning goals: learning about the ancient world on the basis of primary sources. To do well a student must summarize and tell the significance material based on the reading, and cite the sources–by no means easy tasks for the average non-classics major in a general education classical studies course.

I spent some class time demoing Google Earth and showing them the magic of Pleiades, which has readily downloadable .kml files of the places.  (Pro tip: “Tyre” is not findable on Pleiades. You have to know to search for Tyros.) One problem is that the dates of events are not always indicated in the books they are reading. So I pointed out the very full chronology available on Wikipedia. I have learned to be very, very clear about the necessity of having the entire folder highlighted before you save your .kmz. This is by far the most common problem. Second to that are Google Earth crashes, in which some students lose work. Make sure they save their stuff and back it up. I also pitch this as a way to take notes on the reading in Arrian. Pick a couple spots in every night’s reading, write down their significance, and making the map will be easier when the time comes.

Here is the whole 3-week timeline from start to finish:

4/10       Alexander (2004)  no reading                        

4/12       Watch Alexander: Director’s Cut

4/14       Youth; Aristotle; sack of Thebes   Romm, Alexander the Great, pp. 1–32; Plutarch, Life of Alexander, sections 11–14.

4/17       Granicus → Fall of Tyre    Romm, Alexander the Great, pp. 33–69. Plutarch, Life of Alexander, sections 15–17 and 21–23.

4/19       Egypt → Gaugamela; Death of Darius      Romm, Alexander the Great, pp. 70–93. Plutarch sections 27–28, 33–34, 36–40, and 42–43.

4/21       Central Asia; Roxane      Romm, Alexander the Great, pp. 94–113. Plutarch sections 45 and 47.

4/24       India; the Gedrosia desert    Romm, Alexander the Great, pp. 114–148. Plutarch, sections 64–67.

4/26       Susa weddings; death of Hephaestion      Romm, Alexander the Great, pp. 149–173. Quiz on Alexander.

4/28     Alexander Map assignment due

Ok, here is the assignment. The grading rubric follows.

In the Tracks of Alexander the Great

The intent of this assignment is to familiarize you with the geography and chronology of Alexander’s conquests through the making a Google Earth map of them. It will act as a kind of combined map and timeline. It is due by noon Friday, April 28, 2017, via Moodle.

You will need to download Google Earth to your computer. A tutorial by Google on how to create a map with place marks is here:

 . . . and see below for a step by step guide.

Using Romm’s book Alexander the Great (which contains the writings of Arrian) and the account of Plutarch in his Life of Alexander, create a series of place marks and a route to guide you through Alexander’s expedition. For each place, create a place mark, name it, and then write annotations in the description field. Each annotation should contain:

  1. a Pleiades link
  2. a brief discussion of your view of the significance of the place, based on your reading in Arrian and Plutarch.
  3. specific source citations of Arrian (book and chapter) and/or Plutarch (chapter) from which you got your information, along with any other sources you used
  4. an image of any relevant landscape, archaeological remains, artifacts, or an artist’s reconstructions from this place, with a title and specific photo/artist credit.

There should be at least one or two placemarks from every major stage of the expedition, a minimum of 20 total. Observe that the notes in Romm, and your translation of Plutarch’s Life of Alexander (Greek Lives pp. 448 ff.) specify dates for many incidents. The actual look of the tour is up to you, and you should feel free to add whatever enhancements you like. When you have finished making your place marks, put them in a folder and save the folder (it will save as a file with the suffix .kmz).


  • Make sure when you save your work that the whole folder is highlighted, not just one place.
  • Give the folder a name that includes your own last name.

Submit the .kmz file via Moodle. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions at all.

STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE to creating and saving placemarks:

  1. Download Google Earth:
  2. Under the “Add” menu select Add Folder. Name the new folder with your name and Alexander’s Route or something similar. The folder you just created will now show up in the Temporary Places list at the left, and look something like this:
  3. Add a placemark: Either search in the search bar of Google Earth to find a place, or (more accurate) go to Pleiades and search for a place and download their ready-made placemark. On Pleiades, when you find the relevant site, scroll down to the list of “Alternate representations”:

Click on “KML.” (This stands for “Keyhole Markup Language,” the file type used by Google Earth.) Download and open that file and it will create a placemark for you in Google Earth at the precise location you want. (You may have to delete some extra placemarks included by Pleiades as associated places.) Make sure that your placemark is within the folder you created earlier.

1 placemarks must be included under the right folder or they will not be saved in the project when you save at the end.

  1. Edit the placemark: Right click on the placemark and select Properties.

You can change the name to whatever you want, add text, links, images, and change the look of the placemark itself by clicking on the small icon at the top right of the Edit placemark window.

Here is an example that has been edited to include an image, with information about that image, and some short annotations with source citations. Your annotations should be longer, several sentences.

  1. Create the Route. Click on the “Add Path” icon at the top of the screen

Name the path, and before closing that window, draw the path you want. Consult the maps in Romm’s book as you draw the paths. From the Properties window you can style the path, giving it any width you want.

  1. Save the file. Make sure that you have the whole folder highlighted, not just a single place within it, when you save. Go to File > Save > Save Place As and save the file on your computer as a .kmz. Submit that .kmz file via Moodle. You are done!


20+ Places accurately identified?  
Route accurately marked?  
Significance of the spots clearly explained?  
References to sources included?  
Every major stage included?  
Dates included?  
Pleides uri included?  
Images included?  


Making Map Animations with Google Earth

Dickinson alumna and DCC contributor Alice Ettling, who created the Caesar Gallic War map animations, kindly wrote up a how-to, in case you would like to try your hand at it. You will need Google Earth Pro and iMovie. Thanks, Alice!

I didn’t start out with one, but it will probably make your life easier to begin with a map overlay, provided you have a suitable map.  Google has a tutorial for this that explains it better than I could.

Ettling map how to pic 1

This is what mine for BG 1.1 looked like, once I’d gotten it into place. I kept the opacity low, since this is a geographically-based animation and I wanted people to be able to see the terrain below the map. Not all maps will work well for this, and it’s generally true that the larger the area a map covers, the harder it will be to align with Google Earth, since the projection of the map gets harder to align with the curved surface of the earth as its area increases.

Once you’ve got that, you can use it to find the borders and geographical features you want to define in your video.  Rivers or other physical features, obviously, can be found without a map overlay, but it’s much easier to draw in the borders of provinces or tribes with a guide like this. (NB:  There is a Water Body Outline layer built in to Google Earth, but I found that it wasn’t terribly accurate or comprehensive, so I preferred to define the rivers I needed myself.)

To actually define regions, use either the polygon or the line tool, depending on which you need.  Both are in the top bar, towards the right. If you are referring to any cities or other specific points, you can use the Placemark button to set pins into particular locations.

Ettling 1.1



The first button in this row is the placemark tool; the second and third are the polygon and line tools, respectively. When you click on them, a window will open so that you can name the region and set its color/opacity. While this window is open, you can set the points that will define it; these can be edited later, so it’s hardly the end of the world if you misplace a point.

Ettling map how to 2

When defining regions, it’s important, if you’re going to be zooming in on them at all, to space your points fairly close together, so that the line running between them is smooth and follows the path you actually want.

Ettling Map how to pic 3

(Here you can see the difference between closely-spaced points and ones that are farther apart; this border is supposed to be following the river.)

All of these regions display in a sidebar: if the box is checked, they will be visible, and if you click on a name, Google Earth will zoom onto that region.

Ettling Map how to pic 4

Here, the map overlay (which, in this respect, acts like any other region) and the Belgae are checked, so they are visible, but all of the other regions, which are not checked, are not visible.

Once you have defined all the regions you will need for your video, you will need to set up “tours” that will actually move between the regions you have set up. Here is where my method gets sketchier; there may well be a better way to do this, but this is the solution I have found. To make recording a tour easier, set up your regions in the sidebar in the order you’ll be using them, and thoroughly plan just how you want the video to go.

When you click the “Record Tour” button (at the right end of the row with the buttons mentioned previously), a small bar will appear at the bottom of the window. The button with the red dot will both start and end recording.

Ettling Map how to pic 5



Position the view in the angle/zoom level you want it, and then click the button to start recording. If you want the camera to move during your video, just click on the names of places you want to focus on, and check their boxes when you want them to appear. Because I’m not terribly adept at clicking only the things I want to, I think it’s helpful to divide what will eventually be your animation into several segments to be stitched back together later, so that you don’t ruin your whole work with one misplaced click. Don’t worry too much about timing your video to sync with the audio; that will be taken care of in iMovie.

When you have your tour segments all recorded, you’ll need to export them as movie files. Everything else in this tutorial can be done with the free version of Google Earth (which is where I’ve been taking most of my screengrabs), but this step requires Google Earth Pro. Under the Tools menu is the option Movie Maker. With this option, you can convert the tours into files that can be opened in iMovie (or any other video editing program; iMovie is what I’m familiar with, though). The Movie Maker option won’t be usable, though, if any polygons, lines, or filters are highlighted.

Ettling Map how to pic 6


It’s a good idea to export these files with a reasonably high frame rate; you will likely be slowing them down to sync with your audio later, and this will keep them from looking too jerky.

Once they’ve been exported, open them in iMovie with the Import Movies option.

Ettling pic 6

Your files will appear in the bottom frame of the program; select and drag them up to the top middle frame to edit them.

You can add audio here by using the Music and Sound Effects button in the middle right. All of my audio was recorded ahead of time, so all I had to do was import it from iTunes.

Ettling pic 7

Drag this to the same frame you dragged the video to, and iMovie will combine the two; now all that’s left is to sync them up.

To do that, select individual pieces of your video (starting with the time from the start of the tour to your first cued action—in the case of my video for BG 1.1, this was the word “Belgae,” which should be keyed to the appearance of the corresponding region) and use the Split Clip command to separate them from the rest of the tour.

Ettling 8

Now you can edit the speed of this clip separately from the rest of the video. To do so, click on the gear wheel that appears on top of the clip and go into Clip Adjustments.

Ettling 9

Here, you can adjust the speed of the video; if it needs to take up more time relative to the audio, slow it down, and if it needs to take up less, speed it up. This involves a lot of finagling and listening to the same couple seconds of audio over and over again: be strong.

Once you’ve gotten that section of the movie synced properly, move on to the next and adjust its speed in the same way. Once you’ve gotten everything perfect, use the Export Movie button under the Share menu to save it in the format and quality you desire.

Ettling 10